The European Bogeyman

Hendrick Hertzberg has a great item in the latest New Yorker that touches on many points, including the right-wing’s new habit of issuing constant dire warnings that we’re about to plunge into the sort of social democratic dystopia pictured below:

After the Senate passed the stimulus, which Sean Hannity, on Fox News, denounced as “the European Socialist Act of 2009,” Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, pronounced it “a dramatic move in the direction of indeed turning America into Western Europe.” Whether or not greater income equality, better health, and fewer prisons would really be a dystopian nightmare, McConnell’s vision of “the Europeanization of America” has already come true in a way that bears directly on the question of “bipartisanship”: what might be called America’s parliamentary parties have come to resemble their disciplined European counterparts. As recently as the nineteen-sixties, for reasons of history and origins, the Democrats were a stapled-together collection of Southern reactionaries, big-city hacks, and urban and agrarian liberals; the Republicans were a jumble of troglodyte conservatives, Yankee moderates, and the odd progressive. Ideological incoherence made bipartisanship feasible. The post-civil-rights, post-Vietnam realignment, along with the gerrymandered creation of safe districts, has given us — on Capitol Hill, at least — an almost uniformly rightist G.O.P. and a somewhat less uniformly progressive array of Democrats.

In a followup item on his blog, Rick says “[t]he problem is, too many Americans have actually been to Western Europe, and it didn’t scare them.”

I’m not sure this is right. I suspect that only a distinct minority of Americans have been to Europe. What’s more, the minority of Americans who’ve been to Europe are disproportionately drawn from the upper-echelons of the U.S. income distribution. And rich people have it pretty good here in the land of the free. By contrast, take a look at a “bad” neighborhood in Helsinki and compare it to a “transitional” neighborhood in DC — to say nothing of a genuinely down-and-out American ghetto — and it’s almost laughable. But the beneficiaries of something like that aren’t going to Europe. Among what you might call America’s “traveling class,” the European alternative is going to look good to city-loving cosmopolitans (i.e., me and Rick Hertzberg) but pretty bad to your typical businessman. In other words, it just replicates the cultural divide that already exists among the American elite. The people who would be the main beneficiaries of a more social democratic policy dynamic — a couple of non-college parents who could really use some free child care and and guaranteed health care and pension, for example — are relatively unlikely to have personal experience that cuts one way or the other regards to how terrifying Europe is.