Recently, I was reading an article by a columnist in the Wiener Kronenzeitung, a Viennese tabloid. In it, the author claimed that President Obama was a progressive moderniser who had taken the reigns of a country with the intention of initiating a top-down reorganisation along broadly social democratic lines. However, the author argued, it was sadly too late for Obama to make a difference: over the past decade, the (fifty-one) star(s) of the US has dimmed, its politics drifting towards the right. More recently, the New Statesman published a feature on who the real players of the American left are, as they dolefully lamented that it clearly isn’t the President.
Whilst I fully sympathise with the sentiment, Europeans have completely unrealistic expectations of the US, based on a misunderstanding of both history and culture. Indeed, the perspective of these articles were completely coloured by the social democratic credentials of both Austrian and British society, historical credentials which continue to exist in spite of the continent’s forced transition into a period of conservatism.
So why should Europeans not expect social democracy in the US, at least not any time soon? The reason is that left-wing politics has never had fertile American ground to grow on until perhaps now.Arguably, the founding of the United States predates the emergence of leftist movements by over half a century; proto-socialist thinking was itself a seed that was only sown during the French Revolution.
With the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the US officially separated itself from the social injustice and oppression exercised by the European imperial powers and, prior to that, the Catholic Church. The founding fathers had created a state based on the Enlightenment ideal, socially just in-itself. Self-evident was the truth that, “all men are created equal” and possess “unalienable rights” which include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. That was (and remains) the theory, even if it has since been proven to exclude the indigenous population, blacks, Hispanics, those barely hovering above the poverty line and other minorities.
It was a revolution, a sudden break from the ruling powers. Social justice in Europe, however, evolved over time, and fought a century-long battle for its existence. Leftist politics gradually grew out of this, following on relatively comfortably from the rationalism of Enlightenment philosophy, and found an intellectual mouthpiece in thinkers ranging from Hegel, to the utopian socialists, to the early communists, to Bakunin, to Marx, to Marxists, to social democrats. Revolutions, uprisings and turmoil ensued as part of its development, but ultimately social justice was instigated on a relative basis through political reform. Indeed, as an overriding concept, ‘social justice’ is a fairly new phenomenon in Europe.
Thus the founding of the US and the evolution of European social democracy are similar in that they were both distinct responses to the political oppression of the ‘old order’. Since the US is a state which is by definition just, it was never an immediate historical inevitability that left-wing movements would develop there. The powerful notions of individual liberty and equality; the vast expanses of land and resources 1; the political system that is in principle stringently democratic – these are not a historical inheritance with which Europeans are familiar. Rather, a reliance on the state apparatus to serve the masses generally and protect the weak specifically – a legacy reinforced by centuries of invasion, two particularly savage wars and a number of totalitarian systems – is the inheritance of modern European thought.
By way of history, it’s not a glove which fits the US comfortably. Indeed, there’s a good cause for assuming that US politics is perhaps inclined to veer towards the centre-right by default, on account of its libertarian credentials. European expectations of President Obama were unrealistic: if ‘social democracy’ develops in the US it won’t resemble the traditional European model, just as democracy in the Middle East won’t necessarily mirror the US standard. Criticism of the US is far from unjustified, but grand expectations and sweeping criticisms fail to pick out the wood from the trees, and are no different from far-right declarations that the EU is a failed socialist super state.