Democratic Cultures in the United States and Europe

Educate the next generation so as to cope intellectually, morally, and politically with the messiness and complexity of the world.

            Yehuda Elkana

The United States played a major role in rebuilding Europe after World War II and in securing peace and prosperity on the continent. For almost half a century it then helped provide Western Europe with security against the threat of Soviet communism. Over that time, however, a very real divergence of values has taken place.       

In his book The European Dream, Jeremy Rifkin has described the differing values that shape American and European societies[1]. For most Americans, Rifkin writes, freedom chiefly means freedom from interference by others. Such freedom requires the means to be self-sufficient, which in effect means having wealth and property. Americans also tend to believe that the diligent and talented succeed, while the lazy and untalented fail. This conviction influences how Americans expect their government to behave. If the rich are rich because they are smart and hard-working, and the poor are poor because they are lazy and good for nothing, then there is nothing the government can, or should, do. Any government that tries to reduce inequality risks being seen as robbing the hard-working and talented of their just rewards in order to subsidise the lazy and talentless. Rather than urging their government to take action to reduce inequality, most Americans put their faith in market forces to reward effort appropriately.

On both these issues, Europeans tend to believe exactly the opposite. Freedom for most Europeans does not consist of being left alone to pursue their dreams, free of all constraints. Influenced by their history, most Europeans believe that peace and security can only be maintained when inequalities are reduced and everyone’s rights are acknowledged. For Europeans, freedom depends on balancing individual liberty with mutual interdependence.

Europeans also believe that market forces, if left to themselves, will worsen inequality – and not in a way that necessarily rewards the deserving. Most Europeans believe that it is forces largely beyond an individual’s control, not individual talent and diligence that determine success[2].

These opposing attitudes translate into stark differences in government policies on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Europeans expect their governments to act to reduce inequality and protect against social unrest through wealth redistribution and welfare provision. In the United States attempts to strengthen the welfare system have repeatedly been met with concerted opposition from a sizable proportion of the population. As a result America’s social security provisions are minimal compared with those in place across the European Union.

These policy differences result in stark differences in poverty and inequality. A study by UNICEF in 2007 showed that the proportion of children living in poverty in the United States was the highest of all twenty-four developed nations studied[5]. Relatively high levels of poverty are compounded by a concentration of wealth among the highest earners. In the US the wealthiest 1 per cent takes home over 17 per cent of total income. By comparison, in the Netherlands the richest 1 per cent takes home less than 6 per cent of total income[6]. The US now has a wider gap between rich and poor than all eighteen of the most developed countries in Europe[7]. It was the marked differences between rich and poor in America that prompted investor Warren Buffet to remark, ‘There’s been class warfare going on for the past twenty years and my class has won.[8]

Higher levels of poverty and inequality in the United States translate into higher levels of violence and crime. The number of young people dying daily as a result of violence, per head of population, is almost fourteen times higher in the US than in Germany[9]. As a proportion of its total population, the US imprisons nine times more people than Germany and five times more than Britain[10]. And the widespread gun ownership in the US, elevated to the status of the ‘right to bear arms’, is seen by many Europeans as evidence that American citizens have little confidence that their government can protect them from violent crime – one of the core functions of democratic government.

The differences between Europe and the United States also extend to foreign policy. European nations have been engaged for over half a century in a process of forging ever closer cooperation by ceding aspects of national sovereignty to enhance mutual security. America, by contrast, remains a deeply nationalistic country wedded to the idea that national sovereignty trumps all else.

The US has amassed the largest military in history. Its military spending is now higher than the next fifteen largest national defence budgets combined[11]. It refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol to reduce global warming and refused to support the International Criminal Court which seeks to prosecute those guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. Under George W. Bush the US launched an invasion of Iraq without United Nations sanction, developed a policy of pre-emptive defensive action in direct contradiction of the UN Charter (which makes it illegal for one country to attack another unless it is first attacked), and used torture and extraordinary rendition in direct contravention of international human rights law. These actions have led many around the world to see the US as pursuing its own interests whatever the cost to the majority of humanity.

A culture of narcissism has also infected the US political system and is resulting in a sharp decline in the effectiveness of government. Veteran Senators and current Members of Congress both describe the level of dysfunction and paralysis affecting the US political system as unprecedented. In the past Washington functioned largely because members of the two main political parties were willing to work together and compromise to reach agreement. That is no longer the case. Mickey Edwards, a former Republican Congressman, has described the current system as one ‘that makes cooperation almost impossible and incivility nearly inevitable[12].’

Edwards has written, ‘In a democracy that is open to intelligent and civil debate about competing ideas rather than programmed for automatic opposition to another party’s proposals, we might find ourselves able to manage the task of self-government.[13]’ People with dangerous personality disorders are psychologically programmed for automatic opposition, and are pathologically hostile to open, intelligent and civil debate. Such individuals will think nothing of bringing the entire government system to a standstill as a means of getting their own way. They will rise to power by vilifying their opponents, and will raise their ideology to the level of dogma so that they can damn anyone who dares transgress.

The current dysfunction of the US political system begs the questions as to how many people with dangerous personality disorders are now in positions of power.


[1] Jeremy Rifkin, The European Dream: How Europe’s vision of the future is quietly eclipsing the American dream, Polity Press. 2005

[2] ‘Views of a Changing World’, The Pew Global Attitudes Project, June, 2003:8,108

[3] Timothy Smeeding, ‘Poor People in Rich Nations’: The United States in Comparative Perspective, 2006

[4] ‘From Poverty to Prosperity: A national strategy to cut poverty in half’, Report and Recommendations of the Centre for American Progress Task Force on Poverty, 2007:11

[5] ‘Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Nations’, UNICEF, Innocenti Report Card 7, 2007

[6] Quoted in Martin Wolf, ‘America’s inequality need not determine the future of Britain’, Financial Times, 23 December 2011

[7] Luxembourg Income Study, available at

[8] Quoted in Martin Wolf, ‘America’s inequality need not determine the future of Britain’, Financial Times, 23 December 2011

[9] Global Report on Human Settlements 2007:Enhancing urban safety and security, UN-HABITAT, Earthscan, 2007:65

[10] ‘Too many laws, too many prisoners’, The Economist, July 24-30, 2010

[11] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2010,

[12] Mickey Edwards, ‘How to turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans’, The Atlantic, July/August 2011

[13] Ibid


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