Why the US is becoming more European

‘Seven in 10 American millennials would vote for a “socialist”, by which most probably mean a social-democratic Nordic type’

Simon Kuper, Financial Times, 20th May 2021

For decades, influential Americans looking at other countries used to ask, “When will they become like us?” When would the Japanese grow up and realise they had to open their economy? When would south-east Asians ditch crony capitalism? When would the French cut down on holidays? An unspoken idea behind post-1945 “modernisation theory” was that the ultimate society was the US. Some foreign leaders bought into the notion: Margaret Thatcher did her utmost to Americanise the UK.

That ideal died some time ago, and now something unexpected is happening: rather than other countries becoming like the US, the US is becoming more like other countries. Much of American society is Europeanising. Joe Biden is taking baby steps towards turning the US into something like a European social democracy. Far from growing apart, as many Europeans assumed, the two sides of the Atlantic are growing together.

Others before me have noted the gradual Europeanisation of American life. With birth rates and immigration falling towards European levels, US population growth is the slowest it has been since the 1930s, according to new census data. Many Americans are following Europeans in abandoning religion, moving home less often and some are even forsaking driving.

A big transatlantic differentiator was always the superior American level of violence, both at home and abroad. The political thinker Robert Kagan captured this nearly 20 years ago with his observation, “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.” But now Americans are abandoning the god of war. Their rates of violent crime dropped for nearly 30 years before spiking during the pandemic; the death penalty is falling into disuse; the incarceration rate hit its lowest point since 1995 even before Covid-19 prompted prisoner releases; and with American antiwar feeling reaching European heights, Biden is withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Seven in 10 American millennials now say they would vote for a “socialist”, by which most probably mean a social-democratic Nordic type rather than a Venezuelan expropriator. Biden has heard them. He is pushing for affordable childcare, paid medical leave, two years of free community college and child tax credits, funded partly by European-style taxes on the rich. No wonder, because today’s Democratic party is in thrall to European economists such as Keynes, Thomas Piketty and Gabriel Zucman.

Almost nothing of what’s happening in the US now is conscious emulation of Europe. Rather, it proceeds from a generalised disillusion with American exceptionalism. If you’re the only person driving down the motorway into oncoming traffic, you can either assume that you are exceptional and everyone else is wrong, or you can eventually conclude that you need to change.

It’s true that the Republican party opposes this shift, though many of its voters like social-democratic policies. But even the Republicans are partly Europeanising, transforming from a uniquely US trickle-up-economics, militarist party into a European-style nativist movement, albeit with American characteristics such as billionaire worship. The US political matchup has shifted from liberal versus conservative to a more European social democratic versus nativist.

In the US as in Europe, nativist anti-immigrant parties struggle to win elections. Moreover, demographics are against the Republicans. “Those espousing the political agenda of the millennials and Zoomers will be living for a very long time,” writes Amit Gupta of the Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama. In 2065, he notes, Democratic stars of today such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Pete Buttigieg might still be active, whereas Donald Trump would be 119 and Senator Lindsey Graham 110 (and Biden, admittedly, 123).

The Republican solution is to pass state laws aimed at disenfranchising Democratic voters. The US of the future can have Trumpist Republican rule or it can have a democracy, but it probably can’t have both.

Some people object that a more European US would cease to be innovative. They argue that you can either have French-style taxes, and subsidies for inertia, or you can have Silicon Valley. There may be something in that: since the industrial revolution, British and then American innovators have invented continental Europe’s future. On the other hand, the US in its previous social-democratic phase from about 1933 to 1980 remained innovative: it became the world’s first motorised society, built the atomic bomb and landed men on the moon. In any case, it’s doubtful whether recent American innovations such as Facebook and Amazon increase the sum of human happiness.

One prediction is more certain: even if a more social-democratic US feels almost European, it won’t want to expend blood and treasure defending Europe. Social democracies prioritise improving their own people’s lives. Both Barack Obama and Trump pushed Europeans, with little success, to raise their defence spending towards American levels. Instead, over the past decade, the reverse has happened: US defence spending is falling as a share of GDP towards European levels. The US and Europe are turning into the values community they always claimed to be.