Politics & Policy

Liberal Views, Belgian Brains

The political aim of liberalism for a century has been to move us in a European direction.

In the 1950s, liberals insisted that right-wingers were paranoid because they feared a Soviet takeover. Today, pro-Obama intellectuals are desperate to make the case that 21st-century nutcases believe Obama is leading a French takeover.

You would think liberals would be congratulating the Right for not going overboard. For example, in a major address to the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Charles Murray said of Obama’s effort to emulate the European model: “There’s nothing sinister about that.” Obama and his advisors “share an intellectually respectable view that Europe’s regulatory and social welfare systems are more progressive than America’s and advocate reforms that would make the American system more like the European system.”

Murray adds that such views are not only “intellectually respectable,” but that “the European model has worked in many ways. . . . [Europeans] don’t seem to be groaning under the yoke of an evil system.”

#ad#Alas, such concessions don’t account for much among Obama’s defenders.

Though interestingly, this is not a standard left-right fight. For instance, David Brooks, the New York Times’s center-right columnist, writes: “The United States will never be Europe. It was born as a commercial republic. It’s addicted to the pace of commercial enterprise.”

Meanwhile, the left-wing Nation has launched a four-part series, “Reinventing Capitalism, Reimagining Socialism.” Newsweek, which has transformed from a news magazine to a liberal opinion magazine before our eyes, recently ran a cover story, “We Are All Socialists Now,” noting how America and Europe are converging. And my National Review colleague Mark Steyn recently seconded that argument in a cover story, “Prime Minister Obama: Will European statism supplant the American Way?”

The pro-Obama but putatively right-leaning British magazine The Economist titters at all of this. “For all Europe’s Obamamania Mr. Obama is, in fact, one of the least European-minded of American presidents.” The magazine’s U.S. columnist continues: “JFK studied at the London School of Economics with Harold Laski, a leading British socialist. Bill Clinton went to Oxford University and surrounded himself with Rhodes scholars who liked to discuss the German educational model. John Kerry was famously not just French-speaking but also ‘French-looking.’”

The Economist’s grasp on American history is a bit spotty. JFK never studied under Laski (that was his brother Joe), and John Kerry, thank the Lord, was never actually, you know, president.

Also, one needn’t visit Europe to have a European mindset. The Pew Research Center, among others, has found time and again that the attitudes of American liberals and the attitudes of Europeans are converging on a wide spectrum of issues, from the role of government and charity to the value of religion and patriotism. In short, the more liberal your views, the more Belgian your brain. Maybe all of these millions of Americans studied in Europe and have Kerry-esque hair, but I doubt it.

More important, liberalism has openly yearned to “Europeanize” American social policy for decades. Liberals point to European health-care systems, union rules, tax policies, industrial policy, foreign policy, and even sexual mores, and say: “We need to be more like them.”

This is a very old story. The founders of modern liberalism, led by Woodrow Wilson and the two Roosevelts, were quite open about their effort to adopt a more European approach to political economy. The progressive leader William Allen White said in 1911: “We were parts, one of another, in the United States and Europe. Something was welding us into one social and economic whole with local political variations. It was Stubbs in Kansas, Jaures in Paris, the Social Democrats in Germany, the Socialists in Belgium, and I should say the whole people in Holland, fighting a common cause.”

But it was FDR’s New Deal that truly aimed to “assimilate the American into the ‘European’ political experience,” according to historian Daniel Boorstin.

But suddenly, when the most unapologetically liberal president ever actually starts to make good on this long-term liberal agenda — including, perhaps, a “new New Deal” — Obama’s new New Dealers guffaw at the parochial paranoia of it all. David Brooks is surely right that the American “commercial republic” is admirably resilient to statism, but resilience isn’t immunity — as public-opinion data and Obama’s 2008 victory demonstrate.

Obama’s defenders are right that American culture is different than Europe’s. But what they seem to forget is Patrick Moynihan’s famous observation: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” The political aim of liberalism for a century has been to move us in a European direction.

It’s hardly crazy that conservatives would complain about Obama’s great leap “forward.”

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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