Thursday, October 23, 2014
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Liberal America

Barack Obama’s decisive reelection is significant in many, many ways. Even if he adds no more legislative achievements to his legacy over the next four years – and, surely, he will add some – it means that the most significant reforms of the last years are now sure to be implemented. Near-universal health care will come into effect. Millions of young, undocumented immigrants are sure to receive their promised reprieve from deportation. That, in itself, is momentous.

Tonight, though, I would like to focus on a rather different point. Across Europe, the media all too often depicts average Americans as zealous religious extremists or delusional cranks. It’s obvious enough why, especially during election season, European journalists are so tempted by that good, old, comfortingly familiar storyline. After all, there really are some very loud, and sadly very influential, members of the Republican Party who are both zealous and delusional. A depressing number of them just got reelected to the House of Representatives.

But today’s election results also show that, though these cranks and zealots may represent a very visible minority of the population, the majority decisively rejects their views. There is, of course, the plain fact (something that was so momentous four years ago, and has by now come to seem so remarkably unremarkable) that America has elected – and, today, reelected – a black man who goes by the middle name of Hussein and has roots in Hawaii, Indonesia and Kenya to the Presidency of the United States. And then there’s the fact that the people of Wisconsin have today elected Tammy Baldwin, an openly lesbian woman, to the Senate. There’s the fact that Mazie Hirono, another new member of the Senate, is Buddhist. There’s the fact that the congressional delegation of the state of New Hampshire is now made up entirely of women.

The liberal successes of the day go well beyond the astonishing candidates who were elected into office. They are also reflected in a stunning range of referendums held across the country. The people of Colorado and Washington have voted to legalize the recreational use of pot; Massachusetts voted to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Even more stunningly, in Washington, Maryland, Maine and even Minnesota, majorities of the population voted for full marriage equality for homosexual couples – something that, unlike mere civil unions, exists in very few European countries so far. The list could go on. And on.

All of this suggests that Europe's habitual view of America as deeply conservative is as wrong as it is superficial. To be sure, the most conservative parts of America are more conservative than the most conservative parts of Europe. But, by the same token, the most liberal parts are probably more liberal. As for the elusive middle, that’s a close call. But – much to the consternation of Europe’s bien-pensants – it would, at least today, hardly be outlandish to suggest that America might have the edge.

Now, it may seem that I am trying to dismantle the smugness of the European media for the mere, smug pleasure of it. But there’s a very serious takeaway to all of this. Throughout the Cold War, obvious geopolitical facts assured Europe of America’s lasting attention and cooperation. But now, as economic, demographic and security considerations are increasingly making Asia the center of America’s attention, there is a very real danger of a lasting rift between the old transatlantic partners. That rift would be disastrous for both sides. And it is made that much more likely by Europe’s dismissiveness of an America it falsely imagines to be deeply conservative, and America’s dismissiveness of a European public that – not entirely without reason – it considers to be increasingly prejudiced against the United States.

Would it be naive to hope that, among all the more important things it will accomplish, Obama's resounding reelection may serve to remind European elites how much they have in common with average Americans?

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  1. CommentedMichael Zanette

    Very interesting piece Yascha. I find that us Canadians also often have a smug and generalized view of the United States. However it seems most of the regressive policy (from a liberal perspective) is often amplified up here by the media. We do not favour people like Anne Coulter and other right-wing zealots. But at the same time I would wager that many Canadians feel their identity falling somewhere in-between those of America's and Europe's--most likely due to historical and geographical accident.

    I have a feeling that most liberal democracies shed layers of conservatism as the decades pass. Little by little, conservative attitudes become so far detached from reality and the often more progressive attitudes of younger generations. They are either destroyed in the process of democratic dialogue or they barricade themselves in isolated sects--hiding behind legislation, money, and political power.

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