The Magazine

Europe Is No Model

The genius of American politics.

May 17, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 33 • By JEFFREY BERGNER
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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. 

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