As Europe is rocked by the Greek financial crisis, which seems likely to spread to additional European states, it may be worth asking why anyone would see in European politics a model for the United States. Yet this is exactly the position of America’s political left, which looks approvingly at Europe’s health care systems offering universal coverage. Now that Obamacare has been enacted, moreover, some progressive voices are already calling for a European-style Value Added Tax (VAT) to pay for it and the other ballooning entitlement programs run by Washington. The left continues to press America to look ever more like a European centrally administered social welfare state.

Most Americans—not just conservatives—are uneasy with the European model. This is not just a matter of national pride or misplaced chauvinism. There is something about the European model that most Americans distrust, though it is less easy to say exactly what that is. The reasons reach far back in the American story.

American Exceptionalism

American colonists retained much from their European countries of origin. Their languages, customs, manners, arts and architecture, and the philosophical concepts of toleration and liberty were all imported from Europe. There was scarcely a department of life that did not owe much to European sources. Except one: politics. America was founded to be different from Europe. The earliest settlers came to America to escape European political persecution and to realize ambitions that were not possible in Europe. Even when perpetuating European customs in their legislatures and townships, colonists never did so slavishly but always with a distinctly American slant. And when the Framers wrote the Constitution to give form to the newly independent country, they aimed deliberately to produce a political system that was decidedly non-European. Americans achieved a distinctive political system and saw European politics as more to be pitied than envied. So deep was this strain that it would not occur to any serious American for a full century afterward to borrow from Europe’s politics.

What did the Constitution’s Framers find so objectionable about European politics? What were they trying to avoid in creating their “experiment” in governance? Their first major innovation—which impelled the Constitutional Convention—was the creation of an American union. The Framers argued that sovereign European states’ living side by side with one another was the cause of frequent wars. The Framers’ remedy—the solution to the frequent temptation to war among rival sovereign states—was a union of states. Through the innovation of union, the Framers aimed to minimize the danger of war between the states. They further argued that union would prevent European nations from fostering rivalries between the American states (a view whose truth would be confirmed by England’s assistance to the Confederacy during the Civil War). Several decades later, when the United States became stronger, it expanded its opposition to the importation of European politics to the entire Western Hemisphere. The Monroe Doctrine made good on Alexander Hamilton’s vow to “teach that assuming brother moderation.”

Union, however, was not an end in itself, but a means to achieve a second and deeper American objective: the protection of individual liberties over and against the government. Europe knew well enough how governments could control the people; as Madison observed of government, the Framers’ task was to “oblige it to control itself.” The constant possibility of war led European regimes to create standing armies and centralize political power. Such centralized power was destructive of the very liberties the Framers believed government should protect. England’s insularity gave it space within which a partial system of liberty could survive. It was the purpose of the Framers to extend this protection so as to permit a far wider space within which liberty might thrive. Within this space, a very non-European practice—indeed, an anti-European practice, the separation of central government powers—was devised in order to oblige the government to control itself.

Alexis de Tocqueville spoke clearly to the priority of liberty in the American case:

In America it is freedom that is old, and equality is comparatively new. The opposite obtains in Europe, where equality introduced by the absolute power of the kings and under their eyes had already penetrated into the habits of the people long before the idea of liberty had entered their thoughts.

How can he say this? Weren’t European nations and principalities everywhere characterized by royalty and aristocracy, producing a stratified class system? Was it not these very social distinctions that the Framers aimed to prevent, explicitly prohibiting titles of nobility in Article One of the Constitution?

There is no doubt that equality was much on the minds of the Framers, though they were not of one opinion about it. Charles Pinckney, for example, argued that Americans enjoyed an “equality of condition” that was absent in Europe. Hamilton disagreed, arguing that inequality existed in America, that it was bound to increase, and that its growth was not problematical. Madison, as was often the case, offered the deepest answer, which contained within it the third major innovation of American politics: the importance of diversity. Yes, Madison said, there existed a kind of equality in America—not, however, of sameness, but of diversity. It was this very diversity that would protect the union and would in turn be protected by the union. It was diversity that would help to guarantee limits to the majority’s ability to diminish the liberty of minorities. Madison argued, in effect, that the equality of Americans lay essentially in their equal freedom, not in their social characteristics. In this way, the American innovations of union, liberty, and diversity would all work to reinforce one another in a new political system embodied in a government with limited powers.

The European Experience

Tocqueville was of course well aware that aristocracy and social stratification continued to exist in Europe in the early 19th century. But he argued that the intellectual and social battle for the future had already been won and that the ideal of equality was the victor. In this, as always, he was prescient. He argued that Europeans were accustomed to being controlled by their governments and had been for centuries. As the ideal of equality drove out monarchies and aristocracies, one type of centralized control was substituted for another. Monarchies and principalities gave way to the centrally administered state.

The ideal of equality had never been tempered by the experience of liberty in Europe, as it had in America. Control by the political center seemed natural to Europeans, who transferred their condition from one type of centralized management to another. Kings and dukes were out, prime ministers and chancellors were in. And thus Europeans saw no reason whatever, as did the American Framers, to saddle their modern governments with complex systems of separation of powers and checks and balances. Europe inclined quite naturally to parliamentary systems, in which the governing party possesses at once both the legislative and executive powers and can secure its agenda in practice.

Centralized government power in Europe, as the American Framers understood, was reinforced by the existence of sovereign nations living side by side. Considered as a whole, Europe was marked by diversity; but each European state was relatively homogeneous within its borders, and the homogeneity of each state pitted it against the -others. The result was predictable. While the American union was tested once in a bloody civil war—and reaffirmed decisively—European states continued to war with one another. To highlight only some of the conflicts, Europe was at war with itself in 1796-1814, 1821, 1823, 1830, 1848, 1866, 1870, 1875-1878, 1914-1918, and 1939-1945. And if dominant American leadership, which had grown weary of being drawn into these struggles, had not insisted on steps toward European unity, Europe might well still be at war with itself today.

Europe handled the issue of diversity very differently from America. Relatively homogeneous nation states managed their affairs by relying on centralized administrative power. But the problem of diversity between nation states was never resolved, leading to frequent warfare. The interlocking themes of union, liberty and equality, and diversity were thus treated in fundamentally different ways in Europe and America. In considering these great differences, there seemed to Americans little worth borrowing from Europe. Whatever else the American republic borrowed from Europe during its first century, the political system was something it rejected.

Today’s Europe as a Model?

Why then should today’s Europe be a model for American politics? On the matter of political union, Europe is finally, albeit slowly, changing. It is in the process of trying to solve the problem of union, which the American Framers solved in 1787. The political steps Europe has taken since 1946 make it far less likely that the still relatively homogeneous nation states of Europe will go to war with one another. As a result, and just as the American Framers might have predicted, European standing armies have dwindled.

Many easy steps toward European union have been taken. Fewer but more difficult steps remain. How much power should be ceded to the European center? Will the citizens of the larger, more successful states be required to support the poorer ones? European nations today are in the throes of this dilemma: In a word, must Germany bail out Greece? Given the common European currency, there are strong pressures to do so. But at bottom this is still a German decision. Does Germany wish to be part of a European union in which Greeks and other non-Germans, not the government in Berlin, make these decisions?

So, too, on defense issues. Will European nations be pleased to contribute their military forces to support decisions made by a European foreign minister or president, rather than by their own national governments? Here is one measure of today’s European hesitance on this score: When the United States chose its first president, it chose in George Washington its strongest, most highly respected leader; as Europe edges toward a centralized government, it seems to be searching for the blandest, least impressive candidate it can find.

Today’s Europe is trying to reduce the genuine political issues surrounding union to administrative questions. This is Europe’s way; this is what it knows how to do. That the next steps toward union are tougher than those taken thus far is testament to the fact that Europe is encountering genuine political issues, not mere administrative niceties. There may indeed be a “democratic deficit” in Europe, but it is not newly emerging from the attempt to form a union. It has been there all along, in the centralized administrative capitals of Europe. As it advances toward union, Europe is confronting its diversity, and the slowness of the process suggests how very difficult this is. Europe has been unable to create a union by administrative fiat because it still has not resolved the foundational political choices implicit in union, much less had its union seriously tested. In all of this, what is there for the United States to emulate? Indeed, perhaps America is the better model.

Second, the predominance of equality over liberty in Europe has led to another predictable result: European central governments are not agents for preserving liberty, but for doing the bidding of their peoples. The European government’s role is not to preserve liberty by checking its own powers, but to serve as an enforcer of equality. The European administrative state is unencumbered by the kinds of limits that restrain the American government. There are no sectors of life into which it should not intrude; there is no need for its actions to be “slowed down” by the restraints of precedent or complicated rules and procedures; there is no need for it to be checked by slavish adherence to a pseudo-sacred document written in the distant past; and there is no reason not to try to impose fundamental equality by administrative rules, as opposed to full political debate.

We see today the unsurprising outcome. Majorities will provide for themselves an ever-expanding menu of entitlements. What reason could exist to oppose them? In the absence of the tempering effect of liberty, which teaches governments prudence about what they should and should not attempt, massive entitlement spending only increases. Majorities demanding entitlements do not much trouble themselves about who will pay the bill. Democratic majorities—as opposed to freedom-loving citizens—are self-entitled. When money for these entitlements run out, as they inevitably will, there is only one way to find new funds: by borrowing from the next generation, for whom it cares little.

Europe is further down the course of self-created entitlements than the United States (though we have gained ground in the last 18 months). As ever new entitlements are provided, ever more taxes are levied; ever more taxes diminish the productivity and creativity of the people; the goals and ends of the populace become ever narrower, until finally even rearing a replacement generation is too great a burden, threatening people’s comfort; and ever more money is borrowed from ever fewer lenders. This is unsustainable, and the fact that it has not yet come to its unhappy conclusion is no reason to emulate it. European politics is a slow engine of self-destruction. The question is not whether, but when, it will collapse. And when it does, the result is likely to be a more rigid and meaner despotism than the soft despotism of today.

Tocqueville describes this problem eloquently:

Only perceptive and clear-sighted men see the dangers with which equality threatens us, and they generally avoid pointing them out. They see that the troubles they fear are distant and console themselves that they will only fall on future generations, for which the present generation hardly cares. .  .  . The good things that freedom brings are seen only as time passes, and it is always easy to mistake the cause that brought them about. The advantages of equality are felt immediately, and it is daily apparent where they come from.

The only corrective to a too great love of equality is a tempering dose of liberty, that is, a degree of prudence about what the central government should and should not do. The only corrective to bankruptcy short of centrally mandated rationing is restraint of the role of government. In all of this, America still seems a better model for Europe than vice versa.

Consider, finally, how Europe treats the political question of diversity. Native European populations may be declining, but the Islamic population, which has migrated to Europe largely over the last four or five decades, is not. And it will not. How does Europe address the many issues arising from this relatively new strand of diversity in Europe? So far, it seems, largely by denial.

Broadly speaking, and granting the egregious exceptions of slavery and the Indians, it has been America’s approach to provide liberty, or political space, within which diversity can be expressed. In the early United States, by and large, different Christian sects practiced their religions seriously and openly. Jews also enjoyed the free exercise of religion, as did most other sects and, in recent decades, a relatively small but growing Muslim population. The American political order established a political space in which religious diversity can flourish.

Europe has handled religious diversity far differently; it has sought in its predictable way to subordinate religious denominations to the central political authority. Today, a variety of denominations exist, but few flourish. They are tolerated because they are controlled and leveled under government registration, affiliation, support, and power. Europe has little experience with truly free religious expression apart from and unauthorized by the central government; Europe reconciles religious freedom and equality by subordinating religion to the state.

This will not be so easy with Islam. Europe has marginalized its growing Muslim communities, who feel limited political allegiance to the countries to which they emigrated and which they have little incentive to leave. It is a fair question whether any nation has had a positive experience over the long term integrating large Muslim and Christian populations on an equal footing. It is also a fair question whether there are bounds to how much diversity a political order can successfully accommodate. But nothing Europe has done on this front is encouraging. European freethinkers in the 17th and 18th centuries mocked Islam because it was too dangerous to mock Christianity in the political culture of their day. Now Europeans mock Islam at their personal peril. The prospect of a broad, serious, and diverse religious landscape, including Islam, in Europe seems slim. Europe knows how to tolerate religious expression only by subordinating it, not by protecting its free expression. The French government’s response to Muslim headscarves is indicative: It forbids all conspicuous religious attire or symbols in public schools. This approach is inconceivable in the United States. Europe’s tendency to address ethnic and religious diversity by subordination is precipitating a serious crisis that will not be long in coming. Here, too, perhaps America has lessons to teach.

American Exceptionalism Redux

Europe has solved none of the fundamental political concerns that have animated American politics since the founding: union; limited government as the expression of a balance between equality and liberty; and diversity. It would be folly for the United States to emulate Europe’s political model. If, as seems likely, no serious U.S. statesman would trade America’s problems for Europe’s, why then emulate its politics?

There remains a very deep strain of America’s political culture that is fiercely independent. Our politics should continue to allow its expression. In many quarters there remains a rough and ready “Don’t tread on me” attitude. This is nothing to be ashamed of, or read out of our politics; it is to be defended, even gloried in. It is the very source of America’s ability to temper the powerful forces pushing toward government-mandated equality of condition. It is the basis for America’s long history of prudence in not asking the central government to do too much. And it is therefore also the basis on which we have preserved—at least up until the present moment—a degree of fiscal sanity.

So, too, with our celebration of diversity. The most rough-hewn American with a gun rack on his truck—and the congressman he sends to Washington—are more genuinely independent-minded than the most outré performer on Europe’s weirdest stage. When Europe encounters genuine ethnic, religious, or cultural diversity—the Turk in Germany, the Algerian Muslim in France, the Pakistani in London—it stumbles because it does not know how to permit diversity to flourish. It is in these encounters that Europe reverts to form and seeks to level differences under the power of the state. Where that fails, only marginalization is possible.

The political left in the United States seizes on one thread out of the complex American political fabric—equality—and emphasizes it to the exclusion of all else. The left displays scant concern about using the federal government to force equality of condition; it displays even less concern for prudence in what it asks the government to do; and of late it displays virtually no concern at all for fiscal responsibility and the welfare of future generations. It chafes under constitutional and procedural restrictions on its ability to advance its agenda. And it seeks to stifle the free expression of religious and dissenting views in the public square.

The American left has turned its back on the incomparably rich and sophisticated political tradition that has been bequeathed to us. The narrative of the left has this great tactical virtue: It is simple, even simple-minded, in its conception, lacking the slightest nuance. Perhaps this accounts for the left’s singularly empty rhetoric; beneath its ad hominem attacks, faux emoting, and tactical calculation, its intellectual architecture could not support a feather.

America owns a finer political tradition. Restoring it requires new and better policies through which to express the equality Tocqueville calls the “chief passion which stirs men.” Our policies cannot and should not oppose equality, but must find ways to express equality consistent with the love of liberty and respect for diversity that we have inherited. It is difficult to advance such policies at a time when majorities of both houses of Congress, the president, and the mainstream media are all in love with the European administrative social welfare state. But the political balance is likely to tip again, as Americans instinctively react to the too narrow vision of the left. The question is: When power does tip back, will Republican leaders be equipped with the tools to restore our better tradition?

The political left will not disappear. If the real hopes and dissatisfactions of the American people are not met with policies consistent with our deeper tradition, the left will again address them in its narrow egalitarian way. This happened with health care reform. Had Republicans addressed the relatively solvable problems of competition, portability, and preexisting conditions in a way consistent with liberty and equality, President Obama could not have made stick his claim that the entire American health care system was “broken.” Here is a lesson applicable to other issues of concern to Americans, whether illegal immigration, energy independence, entitlements, or above all astronomical federal deficits. Let Republicans propose sensible policies that speak to these concerns in a manner consistent with our deepest traditions. If they do not, the field will lie open for the left to argue once more that only a larger federal role can address these “crises.”

If, for example, we do not reduce federal spending deeply, and quickly, from the levels to which it has only recently soared, we will soon be staring in the face a European-style VAT to pay for a permanently expanded federal share of the economy. We have witnessed astonishing extralegal and extra-constitutional acts (such as the federal takeover of the automobile industry) that grew out of the recent financial crisis. The left relies on crises, real or contrived, for its purposes. As Tocqueville said, “Fear of disorder and love of well-being unconsciously lead democracies to increase the functions of the central government.” To avert the misuse of crises, real or perceived, thoughtful leaders must be prepared with sensible plans to address the actual concerns of the American people.

American exceptionalism is not, as the left caricatures it, some preemptive right to run the world. To the contrary, it is the practice of a politics that addresses fundamental problems in a specific way, namely, a way consistent with union, with a balance between liberty and equality expressed through limited government, and with a decent respect for diversity. If there is another nation that approaches the fundamental choices of politics in this rich way—as opposed to simple, majoritarian egalitarianism—I am unaware of it. President Obama expressed his true contempt for American exceptionalism when he said, “I believe in American exceptionalism—just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” A more shallow, cynical misunderstanding of American exceptionalism is hard to imagine.

American exceptionalism, rightly explained, can be the source of powerful policies that are consistent with America’s best traditions. Such policies can, and must, be developed so as to gain popular support if they are to be successful. Developing these policies is the pressing task before our most thoughtful leaders.

Jeff Bergner has served as staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, assistant secretary of state, and professor of government.

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