I remember when Nicholas Sarkozy got elected President of France and a number of American commentators started suddenly and strangely crowing about how “even France” was recognizing the virtues of Americanism and American-style capitalism. Since taking office, of course, Sarkozy has done exactly what an informed person would expect him to do—governed like the Gaullist he is, just as the majority of presidents of post-war France have been. And French policy has continued to be dominated by French nationalism and statist economics. Now along comes Anne Applebaum with a continent-wide version of this fallacy, proclaiming a win by the center-right European People’s Party bloc in a low-turnout European Parliament election to be a verdict on socialism in which “capitalism triumphed.”
It seems to me that if you want to read these elections as an ideological triumph for anyone, though, you should view it as a triumph for the ideologies that actually won the election. The EPP is an amalgamation of Christian Democratic parties with French Gaullists. Nobody in the United States would recognize their agenda as constituting “capitalism” except in the broad sense that Europe’s Social Democratic parties also believe in capitalism. The European parliament actually does contain a bloc of liberal parties—the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe—which includes capitalism-oriented parties. It’s the third-largest bloc, treaded water in the elections, and has always been the third-largest bloc, reflecting the fact that neoliberal economics is not very popular in Europe.
Underlying the entirety of these kind of analyses seems to me to be a misunderstanding of why Europe tends to have a more elaborate welfare state and a more regulated labor market. The presumption behind columns like Applebaums seems to be that Socialist, Social Democrat, or Labor parties are constantly winning elections. In reality, most countries have mostly been governed by center-right coalitions. But the parties of the European right are quite different from their American counterparts. The Tories in the UK are probably the most similar, but even they don’t dare admit to any qualms about government-run health care. Sarkozy does things like call for “a better-regulated form of capitalism with a greater sense of morality and solidarity,” and I’m guessing it’ll be a very long time before Barack Obama makes “solidarity” one of the cornerstones of his agenda. Angela Merkel pushes for major cuts in carbon emissions. It’s like they live on a whole different continent or something.