How political ideology found a new world

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Even if economic issues are more central to politics than ever before, argument today is less about the nature of economic systems than about the relative abilities of different politicians to administer a system on whose basic structure all are in agreement.

Recently, I came across essays I wrote when a student, more than 30 years ago. One title was on why ideologies played a much larger role in politics in Europe than in the US. It was almost the last moment in history at which it made sense for a professor to set the topic.

Today European political parties seek office by emphasising their competence rather than their beliefs. In the largest European countries the principal parties resemble each other more than they resemble ostensible counterparts in other states. They are more French, German or British than they are left or right. Britain’s Labour government is more admiring of free markets and globalisation than France’s conservative president and his ministers.

The politics of the US is more aggressively, even destructively, partisan. The electorate is more divided on issues, and voting follows party lines more strictly than at almost any time in the 20th century. The rise of Sarah Palin is incomprehensible to most Europeans, not just because they cannot imagine why anyone would vote for her, but because no political figure could arouse that kind of response in Europe. The one exception proves the rule: it is Barack Obama, the American who has won the hearts and minds of Europeans. The president of the US is the most electric political figure of his generation, while the president of Europe is Herman van Rompuy.

My essay, in explaining the past, might have predicted the future – but did not. I attributed the difference between the two continents to the role of socialism in defining political identities. For 100 years socialism dominated the political attitudes not just of those who espoused it but also those who opposed it. European politics was polarised between active socialist movements and broad coalitions formed to resist them. Often these opposing groups had little else in common and included economic liberals, conservatives, the landed aristocracy and the churches.

In America, by contrast, there was no significant socialist movement. The two big parties held a common position in defence of capitalism. To a European eye, therefore, the familiar party differences simply did not exist in the US. American exceptionalism was further determined by the race issue. The Civil War had left the Democratic party composed of a strange coalition in which northern liberals and trade unionists were united with conservative southern Democrats.

Or so I argued then. But that Democrat alliance was already breaking down when I wrote my essay. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he observed that he was losing the South for his party. His prediction was right.

The collapse of socialism as an important political and intellectual force came later, in the 1980s. While in Europe that collapse removed the main issue that divided the political parties, in America, it removed the main issue that united them. That is why European politics was more ideological than US politics then, and US politics is more ideological than European politics now.

Even if economic issues are more central to politics than ever before, argument today is less about the nature of economic systems than about the relative abilities of different politicians to administer a system on whose basic structure all are in agreement. In both Europe and the US, party identities are not now principally defined by economic differences but by questions that always crossed class lines and economic interests – nationalism and cultural identity, social liberalism versus social authoritarianism, and religious affiliation – a list to which we might now add environmental awareness. In the US, more individualist than consensual Europe, these issues arouse passions of an intensity hardly experienced on this side of the Atlantic.

Another essay on my pile explored the thesis that the capacity of governments to manage the economy was now so well developed that it would be difficult for an opposition ever to defeat an incumbent party. Where that argument went wrong is a subject for another day.

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