As the presidential election counts down to (despite recent tightening in the polls) a likely Obama victory, even moderate Republicans despair that America is going the way of "social democratic" Western Europe, with a smaller private sector, more power in the hands of political and technocratic elites, and unlimited government. For their part, liberals cheer that America will finally catch up with the more "advanced" lands across the Atlantic.
The fears of the right and hopes of the left reflect popular misconceptions about European realities. The first author of this article has spent decades studying U.S. government, while the second spent his formative years in Belgium before pursuing an academic career in the United States and never looking back.
To us, both liberals and conservatives miss at least three key things about Europe that make it far less "liberal" than Americans think.
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•The welfare state. Americans from both right and left caricature the European welfare states as offering a Big Rock Candy Mountain of goodies. For liberals, everyone is protected. For conservatives, that very protection saps initiative and encourages sloth. Yet that welfare state is not as generous as Americans think — and is becoming increasingly less so. Take health care and elder care. Basic health benefits are provided to virtually all but are skimpier than in America, excluding or rationing procedures Americans take for granted. Public elder care entitles you to a bed and a chair in a shared room. Anything beyond that requires significant out-of-pocket expense. Many European governments think welfare starts with families, to the point that German authorities pressure even Germans who have emigrated to contribute to their aged parents' upkeep. In Europe, if the doctor fails to provide decent care, good luck on that lawsuit. In the generous European welfare state, you get what you get, and you don't get upset.
•The schools. European schools don't offer breakfast, dinner, or, in many nations, even lunch. Like that noted socialist Rush Limbaugh, Europeans think parents should feed their children and arrange their own school transportation. European schools and universities don't offer sports programs beyond basic physical education. Schools are for learning, and only very bright university graduates with (often advanced) degrees in their subject field are allowed to teach, which may explain why teachers are respected and students do better on standardized tests. Many European nations also offer parents a choice of competing schools and school types. This sort of competitive education and teacher selection is unthinkable for Europe-loving American Democrats, but the data show it works.
•Social Issues. Unlike Americans of the right and the left, Western Europeans have moved toward compromise on complex values issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. In eight countries, same-sex marriage is now firmly in place and, in 13 more, registered domestic partnerships are beyond challenge. The prime minister of Belgium can go to a gay club without fuss. Still, private religious schools can teach their values and retain state support. Those nations that have tried to restrict public cigarette smoking, such as The Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, have had to backtrack in response to serious public noncompliance and opposition. Europeans also have no problem with consumption of fatty foods, a practice increasingly regulated in the "freedom loving" U.S. (Soon, Taco Bell might thrive in Brussels but be banned in Boston.)
Yet in one very negative way, America is becoming more European. Back in the 1980s, when the second author of this piece arrived here, Americans were an optimistic lot who believed their nation to be special. A secure pride made America a hospitable place for a young man who wanted to build a future. That optimistic America was open to immigrants, so long as they learned the English language and American customs. As a result of negative navel-gazing from both leftist intelligentsia and the tea party right, we no longer see that level of optimism, acceptance and focus on building a better future.
Both Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama had fathers born overseas, but the optimism deficit may be something the business-trained Mr. Romney understands better than the law professor Mr. Obama. But for better or worse, the professor-in-chief still seems likely to be what we will get.
Robert Maranto (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Baltimore native, is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, where Dirk C. van Raemdonck is the graduate coordinator.