Why are we fraught by violent clashes over subjects of relative insignificance while the Europeans seem spared such bouts of ideological self-flagellation? Abortion, creationism, gay marriage, gun rights: all violently polarize American politics while the Europeans bask in sunny consensus.
Why? Common wisdom has it that American politics have degenerated into a polarized stalemate, with the Tea Party tail wagging the Republican dog, permitting no cooperation with Obama's Democrats. Meanwhile, European politics have reached what is taken to be an amiable consensus -- exemplified by the Tweedledum and -dee of the Clegg-Cameron continuum -- comfortably to the left of the American political center of gravity, in agreement on a leading role for the state in most aspects of life, on a secularized indifference to religion and a belief that efficiency, productivity and work are means, not ends in themselves. From that vantage, the debate over health reform in the US, and politicians like Sarah Palin, must rightly seem slightly surreal.
How true is this? We should not, for one, underestimate the polarization of European politics. Yes, debates over health care are there a thing of the past. But what about other sensitive points on the European body politic, like immigration? In the US, the crowds are in the streets protesting against an Arizona law that would do only what is already standard operating procedure everywhere in Europe (outside the UK at least), namely require foreigners to carry identification. Conversely, in many European nations political parties whose main plank is to limit and possibly even reverse immigration, mandate assimilation, restrict particular sartorial habits, and in other respects make life miserable for foreigners win double-digit electoral support and sometimes prop up governments. In other words, European polarization over one of the main issues of modern politics without compare in the US.
And let us not forget that Europe remains a continent which, though increasingly secularized, continues to battle over religion. People still die in Northern Ireland in the winding-down phase of the sixteenth century Wars of Religion. Minarets and burkas are banned, while crucifixes remain on classroom walls. Europeans may be post-religious but they are not yet post-Christian. This is a continent where terrorists kill state officials in the name of local independence, where countries go without governments for months because their political system is too fractured, where riots have claimed lives and property within the last few years in capital cities (Paris, Copenhagen, Athens).
But even if the Europeans too have their own culture wars and the contrast across the Atlantic has been exaggerated, what explains our own battles? Much of our polarization stems from the sheer size of the nation. We are big and our internal boundaries permeable. Cultural and socio-economic extremes are found within the whole US that do not exist in any single European nation, just as each of our states and regions are more homogeneous and less polarized than the whole.
Take abortion. The reason usually offered in Europe for the vehemence of American debates is that religious fundamentalists are fighting a theological battle, while Europeans take a more secular approach. But in fact abortion remains an ongoing issue in the US because of a tension between liberal national legislation and more conservative local habits. US abortion law is significantly more expansive than what is found in most of Europe outside the Scandinavian fringe. If the US had a restrictive law, like Germany, it would provoke less controversy because there would be less to fight about.
But imagine that Scandinavian-style abortion practices became EU law, applicable even in the Mediterranean, not to mention Ireland, and ponder the outrage that would follow. This past March anti-abortion activists held mass protests in Spain because the government dared propose reforms to a system that currently allows abortion only in cases of rape, if a fetus is damaged or the mother's health endangered -- in other words a system that essentially does not permit elective abortion. The European consensus, if that is what it is, on abortion is achieved only by allowing each nation to legislate according to its own ethical preferences. It is a consensus made possible by avoiding a European-wide debate altogether, which is much the same situation as held in the US before Roe v Wade in 1973.
The dirty little secret of comparisons across the Atlantic is that they juxtapose a continent-sized behemoth with a series of small nations, some of which are downright dollhouse in magnitude. Naturally each of the smaller ones will seem more homogeneous, equal and unstratified than the large one. Conversely, if you compare the EU as a whole (especially now with the new entrants) with the US, Europe is in many respects more diverse than America. The difference across the Atlantic is not so much topographical or demographic as political. Our various ideological cultures, springing from the different politomes of a large nation, do battle in Washington. In Europe, the only place where the extremes of the continent meet are in Brussels. That is why Brussels is set up precisely to isolate, disarm and squelch serious debate.
Anyone who thinks Sarah Palin is a uniquely nutty American phenomenon has not had the pleasure of listening to Nigel Farage, the truly obstreperous Member of the European Parliament from Britain's extreme Eurosceptic UK Independence Party. The vehemence of his attacks on the EU leadership have no compare in the US Congress. But few have ever heard of him outside of Belgium because the point of Brussels is to smother this sort of dissent. Palin, in contrast, and all the other extremes of the American political circus, get a platform with full visibility and their views are discussed in earnest. That is one of the burdens of being a large, continent-sized democracy: the lunatic fringes are kookier, their clashes more heated and their forum that of the nation as a whole. Hence our culture wars. If Brussels ever becomes Washington, the Europeans will actually fight the culture wars now lurking out in their provinces.
Peter Baldwin is Professor of History at UCLA and author, most recently, of The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe are Alike