An article published last Friday, January 16, 2004, resumed our lengthy series on US Exceptionalism for good or bad . . . always viewed in comparative perspective, especially with the EU industrial democratic countries, though once in a while, recall, with a smaller group of English-speaking ones that draw on historical British legacies: Britain itself, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the US. That article elicited a query from a legal specialist on voluntary associations and volunteer work in America as compared with the more statist countries in the EU. That legal specialist, I should have added, spent a couple of internships for a year working in the German parliament and knows Germany and Austria especially well.
Earlier today, a second visitor, Richard Heddleson, sent some stimulating comments in reply to the exchange with the legal theorist. They set the buggy mind to thinking, and so you'll find two things here:
- A fairly brief series of replies to Richard's helpful commentary.
- An observation that urges you to re-read that previous article, which is fleshed out in a variety of empirical and theoretical ways.
A heartfelt thanks to Richard and the legal specialist for their stimulus to some deeper thinking here.
From Richard Heddleson
A lot of your remarks about voluntarism seem to deal with the question of how political authority and power in a society are organized: from-the-top-down or the bottom-up. France seems to be a classic top-down country, heavily statist and bureaucratized, while the U. S. is a classic bottom-up country. It is hard to imagine 75,000 people (the number proportionate to the number who died in France last summer) being allowed to die from the heat in the U. S. and poorly organized social services. Too many people would do something for those near and in need without waiting for direction from a central authority in a statist bureaucracy or ministry. And if direction did come from a central authority, many would ignore it if it didn't make sense in their specific circumstances. The French seemed to have an "It's the government's responsibility" attitude about the disaster.
Voluntarism is a natural manifestation of your buggy points about Limited Welfare State, Cultural Values and Mistrust of Big Government. These derive from an axiomatic position on Responsibility. In the U. S. it lies with the individual, in France with the State. History seems clear which position is more durable. Would Weber be surprised?
THE BUGGY REPLY:
Thank you Richard: these are stimulating comments. They set me to thinking, always a danger for the buggy prof.
In the upshot, I fleshed out the previous article's argument with several added paragraphs . . . starting with the views of Tocqueville about American voluntary associations, which he found to be unique in those days. Later on, a section was added that compared crime rates in the EU and the US. How did this fit into the wider argument about voluntary associations and bottom-up authority as opposed to statist top-down societies? Simply said, the US deals with crime differently from the EU, Britain included: for good or bad, to be blunt, we rely on self-help and community voluntarism, plus of course good policing, something always essential, as opposed to a reliance on the police and government in statist societies. Note that the issue of crime and crime rates in the US and Europe (or elsewhere) is complex, full of ramifications and controversy. Some future articles in this mini-series on American exceptionalism will delve at length into that issue and the related controversies. A promise. Among other things, we'd like to know whether it's desirable or undesirable
- that the US permits extensive gun ownership, the EU and Japan don't;
- or that we are the only country that elects all district attorneys and judges, directly at the local and state-levels, indirectly for federal posts;
- or that we have a death penalty in most states;
- or why it is that Americans, of all the industrial peoples surveyed every four years by the UN, show the most confidence in our police and the least worries about going out into public spaces.
As a final fleshing-out touch, some anecdotal observations about French life were added to the last article and put in theoretical perspective. For that latter purpose, the stimulating work of a French sociologist trained at the University of Chicago --- on its faculty for decades before he returned to France: Michel Crozier --- turned out to be highly relevant.
The French Health Catastrophe Last August
Oops, almost forgot to add, Richard: not only is your supposition about American social and medical services compared to the French sound, the French deuxieme chaine
--- the television network beamed internationally every day --- specifically interviewed American authorities in New York and reported that a catastrophe on that level would be unthinkable here.
It's unusual, believe me, to find the French reporting anything might actually be better in the US, but this was in late August --- when Chirac was disporting himself in Canada amid the health catastrophe and most of the French government was elsewhere in the mountains or on the Riviera --- so the censors were probably off on vacation too.
That said, all fair-thinking Americans would most likely agree that our own health system is in something of a mess: costs keep rising in double-digit figures, 40 million Americans lack effective medical insurance (even if they can't be excluded from public-supported clinics and hospitals), and tens of millions of others worry about health insurance costs.
A KINDER, GENTLER FRANCE?
Actually, a caveat to the last observation about French TV-coverage of the US just popped to mind. For the last two weeks or so, something very strange is going on at the deuxieme chaine
, almost Alice-in-Wonderland-ish. Not only did it start reporting a lot more news from the US, but in ways relatively favorable --- a striking contrast with the past. The reason? It appears to have been inadvertently referred to in another story about the US recently: in particular, worried about the negative fall-out in the US media, political life, and at the grass-roots from France's efforts last winter and spring to organize a blocking-coalition against the US and UK over Iraq, the French embassy in Washington was shown hiring an American PR-consultant with ties to Congress as a way of improving the French image. More generally, that effort also seems to require in Chirac-thought the need to tone down the systematic anti-Americanism rife throughout the French political and media elites, nothing equivalent to it anywhere else in Europe, let alone a systematic anti-French phobia in American life until . . . well, until last winter and spring.
If you ask what the motive is, we're reduced to speculation.
Still, on a purely speculative level, it probably reflects the fear of Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin --- his aristocratic Foreign Secretary who has a fawning admiration of the dicator Napoleon, who plunged Europe into two years of systematic warfare on a vast scales ("glory or death" Villepin told the New York Times
was Napoleon's and his motto alike) --- that France is ending up isolated, essentially, in its counter-blocking efforts aimed at the US.
Its blocking partner Germany is bandwagoning noticeably to the US, along with almost all the European governments; the continued support of tiny Belgium and even tinier Luxembourg isn't much of a compensation. [As Mark Steyn, the Canadian wit living in New Hampshire noted about the lack of crime in his small town --- he doesn't even bother to lock his doors when he goes out and leaves his key in the ignition --- there's more fire-power in that town than in many of the EU militaries.] The support of Belgium and Luxembourg might seem even less gratifying, come to that, when American policymakers in Washington have essentially decided to cold-shoulder France and treat it as a non-allied country, inclined toward potentially hostile actions when its leaders think it will be in their interests again. See the very interesting two-part series on this by John Vincour of the International Herald Tribune
All these currents in French life --- not least its systematic elite anti-Americanism (not necessarily found on the mass level) and the policymaking elites no matter of what political stripe out to leverage French power and influence through counter-blocking campaigns aimed at the US, plus the inevitability of France over-reaching and then ending up isolated --- were set out in several earlier buggy articles over the last year. See buggy February
, buggy March
, and buggy September.
THE MORE GENERAL PROBLEM: EU WEAKNESS AND THE CONFRONTATION BETWEEN PRETENSIONS AND REALITY
What is happening in France is on display almost everywhere else in the EU, especially on the Continent . . . as one government after another seeks to puncture the illusions created by either themselves or their media and almost all political discourse about the realities of West European political and economic life today. Those realities consist, essentially, of a series of unwelcome, externally imposed changes in European economics and society, together with internally generated conflicts and backlashes:
- The need to drastically streamline the extensive welfare and regulatory-state that has emerged since 1945, with its ever growing social expenditures, high taxes, rigidities on economic vitality and competitiveness, and the resulting growth of an underground economy double the size of the US's even in Scandinavia, not to mention much higher in Latin Europe.
- The need to make all the national economies of the EU far more internationally competitive as economic dynamism and technological innovation shift elsewhere to the EU's disadvantage save in a handful of small cohesive countries and Britain . . . the latter about half-way through its economic reconstruction since Margaret Thatcher's attack on the welfare state.
- The growing social conflicts this retrenchment is already causing, including the revival of political terrorism in Italy and France and its appearance in Holland and Sweden and for that matter including letter bombs sent to the three most important EU officials earlier this month.
- The even greater social conflicts, full of potential violence, resulting from increasingly alienated and assertive Muslim communities, inclined more and more to fundamentalist messages and symbols and more and more resistance to integration.
The list isn't over, far from it. Consider some other unwelcome challenges to European illusions and pretensions that are easy to document, and have been in earlier buggy articles:
- Growing, anxiety-engendering violent crime everywhere . . . generally much worse than in the US, with more and more Europeans fearful of not just going out into public spaces but of having their homes invaded by armed thugs.
- The backlashes on the extreme right being caused by these waves of crime and social strife, reflected in the growing support for Le Pen's National Front in France --- where only 43% of the population now resist its overall policy positions according to recent surveys --- and more generally anti-Semitism and Jew-baiting everywhere in the EU media.
- An aging, ever-cautious EU population, increasingly risk-averse and living longer and for the most part on state-pensions that have to be financed out of taxes on an ever shrinking work force.
These are what could be called the domestic generated problems and conflicts, however much they are part of a wider globalizing world, itself full of turbulence and flux. Shift your attention now to a couple of more on the regional and global levels:
- A growing recognition in EU elite and media circles that West Europe's pretensions to have some sort of elixir for a troubled violent world, full of new dangers --- most of them more likely to erupt in Europe than in the US, given the proximity of Europe to the bursting population numbers and economic and political troubles of Muslim North Africa and the Middle East, including terrorist networks all over the Continent --- are so much cloud-chasing, little else.
- The promised elixir is some sort of formula for endless conferences and hot-air rhetoric about a new world if only the US weren't such a reckless force, along with Jewish aggressivity in the US and Israel. The reality is European weakness, save for Britain. The weakness is in lack of national pride and solidarity, and a willingness to create, finance, and support a vigorous military role for dealing with the dangers Europeans and Americans alike happen to face.
- On paper, for instance, the EU committed itself to a vigorous, 60,000-man Rapid Reaction Force in 2000, capable of intervening anywhere on the globe for two months on its own. The reality? Years later, the RRF exists only as one more hot-air pontification. NATO, by contrast --- under the US lead --- has organized a 20,000 man RRF, mainly European in nature, that can act globally.
- Another reality that collides with the magical formula is the nature of the UN, an organization that is dominated in the General Assembly by corrupt, non-democratic despotisms and dictatorships, that has the Baathist fascist-state of Syria chairing the Security Council, Colonel Khadaffi's brutal dictatorship chairing the Human Rights Commission, and --- were it not for the war last spring --- would have Saddamite Iraq chairing its Disarmament Agency.
- Once in a while, the illusions surrounding all this penetrate into even French and German diplomacy, such as in the spring of 1999, when the US withdrew its resolution at the UN Security Council that dealt with the brutalities of the demagogic, warmongering Milosevik regime in Yugoslavia and all of NATO then declared war against that regime. The resolution was withdrawn because two permanent members of the Security Council with a veto --- Russia and China --- were strenuously opposed to it
- Did Paris and Berlin then balk, evoking the magical elixir of endless multilateral negotiations with those two countries? No, they went to war with the rest of NATO. The same German government headed by Gerhard Schroeder that explicitly said last year it wouldn't support a war to topple Saddam Hussein's regime --- in blatant violation of 16 UN Security Council Resolutions --- no matter what the Security Council itself decided . . . that same government four years earlier sent German troops into battle for the first time since 1945.
One more current trend in the EU needs to be underscored: the mood of the publics all over the EU. As the previous buggy miniseries on European anti-Semitism
showed --- a topic, by the way, that we'll return to in a moment with new evidence --- the widespread mental dislocations in European life, captured in survey data, help explain the constant quest in the EU media and most intellectual and political discourse to blame and scapegoat some hidden, high-potent cabal for the growing disarray in European life. Specifically, all the frazzled, foregoing trends, are unrolling together . . .
- . . . at a time when Eurobarometer opinion polls show that most Europeans live now in a climate of pessimism and gloom about the future. Less than half now think the EU is a good idea on balance.
- The gloom and pessimism will likely get worse, not better, as time goes on. That's hardly a risky prediction.
- For one thing, the EU countries save for Britain and Ireland --- which began to confront the realities of an overregulated, over-burdening welfare state in the 1980s --- are just beginning their strung-out, divisive efforts to overhaul their economies and make them more competitive in a world of relentless technological change and shifting economic dynamism. And even Britain hasn't come to terms with its growing crime, violence, and increasingly assertive and alienated Muslim minority.
- For another thing, even if, as the previous observation made clear, the resulting social and economic conflicts will vary in eruptive manner across the existing 15 EU countries, all of the changes everywhere are crackling already with politically charged shock-force --- including a spate of political assassination or attempts in Holland, Sweden, Italy, and against the most prominent leaders of the EU --- and they will increase in hyperkinetic ways, it's a safe bet, the more all 15 governments are obliged under external pressure and internal backlashes to come to terms with their illusions, the realities of economic dynamism and globalizing forces, and their own general disagreements
- These disagreements run deep and wide, just as the illusions surrounding them have until recently: in particular, how the 15 existing EU members will organize their relations 1) with the US; 2) with one another; 3) with 10 new members of the EU joining this year, at a time when the existing 15 governments couldn't reach agreement on a new Consitutional structure; 4) with Turkey in another decade, a fellow-member of NATO and a democratic country to boot; and 5) with the Muslim world in general. The latter includes the more jolting question of how 6) to deal with the rapidly growing, increasingly alienated Muslim minorities in their midst.
- On all these pressing issues, which can no longer be finessed or evaded, jarring divisions, raw, angry social strife, and demagogic backlashes from the extreme left and extreme right all over the EU have to be expected, including more violence . . . very likely, a great deal .
The Eurobarometer survey results that find gloom and pessimism in the EU are set out in detail at the end here. Contrasts with US public opinion are also set out.]
ARE WE EXAGGERATING?
The question was asked explicitly at the end of the recent buggy three-part series
on the EU's new rife anti-Semitism mixed in with anti-Americanism. Our answer here is the same as there: no, alas it isn't. Almost all the evidence points in the directions set out here.
As a stimulating series in the International Herald Tribune
the last two days shows, some Europeans have been obliged the last year or so to see through the veils of rhetoric, illusions, and pretensions and to confront these realities head-on. What they see isn't something they like.
"Bernard Kouchner, the French Socialist who polls show remains the most popular opposition figure in his country in spite of his criticism of the government's position on Iraq, said of the French, "We've turned Bush into the great enemy as if that could cement together a scared and hesitant country."
Worse, Kouchner goes on,
"Yes, the French are anti-American, and something new, anti-Semitic and racist," Kouchner told a French reporter.
A former British Minister for Europe puts it bluntly in different terms:
"Something's gone wrong in France's head." Denis MacShane, Britain's minister for Europe, said at the end of the 1990's, "We awakened with an enfeebled Europe in every sphere. Maybe not socially or culturally, but our general attractiveness was zilch. We had also lived through the humiliation of Bosnia and Kosovo."
Well, the current Portuguese Prime Minister, Dur„o Barros --- "a rare European leader in the sense that he has actually lived and worked in the United States outside of any official capacity" --- has an equally good handle on what's going on in Europe. He is critical, as MacShane is, of the Bush style and some policies. He's even more critical of EU illusions, fostered by their media and the Chirac government in France and the Schroeder one in Germany:
"Estrangement?" Well, yes, the Portuguese PM, , said in an interview,
" America's more pragmatic culture grates. But a certain kind of pragmatism, he felt, would serve Europe well in relation to the United States. "In some European capitals there's the idea that we'll be more integrated if we're a counterweight to America. My position on building Europe is that you should think of it as a counterpart. A European defense identity, yes. But a counterweight? Constructing America as an adversary? What's strategically intelligent in building an identity against the United States?"
"That's stupid, he said. Silly, he went on. Nonsense"
APPENDIX: EU PESSIMISM AND GLOOM VS. US OPTIMISM. WHAT THE SURVEY DATA SHOW
The EU Outlook For 2004
In the preface to Eurobarometer 60: Public Opinion in the EU
, published in December 2003, public opinion in Europe is said to be evolving in a gloomy climate, marked by a lack of confidence regarding institutions [both EU and national]. It then goes on to note the following results:
- Citizens' expectations are going down a path that is marked by pessimism which increases rather than decreases with time Confidence indicators for the year 2004 continue to decline in a marked fashion in the public domain but in a more moderate way in the private sphere.
- The number of people who believe that the new year will be worse in terms of employment in their country continue to grow. 42% of them shared this view in autumn 2001, 44% in autumn 2002, and now 47% of them think so. The countries where this lack of confidence as regards employment prospects manifests itself most strongly are: Denmark (+24), Belgium (+20), and Sweden (+12). The new German Lšnder belong to this same group, with an increase of 13 points for pessimistic predictions. As far as the proportion of optimists goes, this remains stable (16%, =), and the proportion of persons for whom 2004 will not bring any change in the employment market has gone down by three points (29%).
- The same scenario holds true concerning the economic situation in different countries. From autumn 2001 to autumn 2003 the citizens who predict a decline have increased from 39% to 46% of the total while the number of those who expect things to stay the same has fallen by 5 points (36% to 31%) The optimists remain limited to 16%. Expectations for a deterioration in the national economic situation have grown most strongly in Belgium (+16), then in France (+11) and in Germany1 (+8).
- As in the past, pessimistic predictions seem to affect the private sphere less. The most marked reduction can be seen in the area of family finances. In fact, one-fifth of opinions foresee a deterioration in this area (+4 compared with 2002, +9 compared with 2001), 53% no change (-2, -6), and 23% an improvement (-1, -2). German and Dutch predictions are the most affected by the general gloom (+12, 'worse').
- As far as the professional situation of those questioned goes, 9% think that things are going to get worse (+1, +3), 60% that their situation will remain exactly the same (-1, -2), and 21% that it is going to improve (-2, -2).
For those who prefer charts, the same information shows up graphically in that format:
source: Eurobarometer 60, p. 5.
As for institutions, less than 50% of the EU populations now believe that the EU is itself a good thing --- the results varying markedly across countries. More to the point, the declining confidence of the EU citizenry in their political institutions and economic prospects --- which are connected, as we've argued, with the search for scapegoats onto which these and personal troubles can be externalized --- are brought out in this section of the Eurobarometer report:
source: Eurobarometer 60, p.5.
American Public Opinion: Robust Optimism
American opinion, according to a variety of polls, is a marked contrast with EU pessimism and gloom. Last year, for instance --- even with worries about unemployment and jobs at a height, given the slow recovery from the 2001 recession --- a survey run by Gallup and two other polling groups found that
"eight in 10 Americans say they are optimistic about the future of this country and even more are optimistic about their own futures. More than eight in 10 said it was essential to spend time with their families, up from six in 10 who felt that way two years ago. Seven in 10 said they were "extremely proud" to be Americans; just over half said that in January 2001."
Similar surveys have found more or less the same things, particularly about American confidence in our institutions and country generally. What has changed since the original poll was first the decline in George Bush's standing after the war with Saddamite Iraq finished and the troubles on the ground began, followed by further reductions in public opinion regarding his handling of the economy. That has changed again. [Remember, public opinion polls capture fluctuating attitudes and sentiments that change with events . . . though deeper beliefs like patriotism and confidence in our institutions have been tracked for decades, with marked improvement since the early 1980s after the divisions in American politics caused by the Vietnam war, Watergate, the New Left radical surge culminating in the McGovern campaign of 1972, and President Carter's mishandling of our economy.]
The improved situation in Iraq since Saddam's death, plus the more offensive military operations in that country starting in late November that have reduced daily attacks by half (with US casualties reduced by 2/3 compared to all of that month), have raised Bush's standing again. More to the point, the booming economy has restored most Americans' confidence in his economic programs. Whereas only 46% of the country approved of Bush's handling of the economy in early November, 55% were found this week in a new AP poll to express confidence in it. And 59% of Americans overall have a favorable opinion of his overall behavior as President.
The Gallup Annual Survey, The Mood of the Country
Can we probe US opinion further as a comparison with the EU population's sentiments, especially in matters of optimism and confidence in national institutions --- in the EU, the European Union's institutions too --- and in economic prospects? Yes, but a confession has to be set out here. The best source would be the annual Gallup Poll, which surveys the general mood of Americans at the end of each year. To my surprise, the Gallup Poll organization has decided for the time being to limit access to the poll's results to its subscribers, and as it happens, a subscription is close to a $100. So --- unless one of you does subscribe and would be kind enough to send the results (or a link) --- we'll have to wait until I can find a way to get out to the university and access their data bases. Almost certainly, they'll contain the Gallup Poll's surveys, one and all.
Even so, some of the results of the latest Gallup mood-survey were reported in detail, though, on some online sites . . . the best one, believe it or not, British.
. It showed that Americans were at an all-time high in their levels of happiness. 55% of respondents said they were "very happy" with things; 95% say they are "fairly happy". The results by party identification are set out in this table, taken from the site just linked to:
A Trio of Clarifying Remarks
|Happiness by Political Party ID |
| ||Republicans ||Independents ||Democrats |
| ||% ||% ||% |
|Very happy ||62 ||49 ||50 |
|Fairly happy ||35 ||47 ||41 |
|Not happy ||3 ||4 ||7 |
(i.) The same site shows the results of an annual Harris Poll on American political alienation, which was strongly on the rise from the mid-1960s until the mid-1990s . . . a trend that reflected the divisions over the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, the rise of the New Left, Watergate, and the dislocations that the US economy --- powerfully buffeted by the turmoil of technological change, globalizing forces, and trade competition, plus shifts in income distribution that have hit the bottom 20-40% of the work force despite a rise of income in all categories, but very slowly in the two bottom quintiles. The bottom quintile actually regressed absolutely in income between the early 1970s and the late 1990s, at which point the booming full-employment economy was actually raising their rate of income-advance faster than that of the top quintile of income-earners . . . at any rate, until the 2001 recession. [A Sidebar Note:
later articles in this buggy series will deal in detail with the trends toward income inequality in the US, which has its parallels in the EU and other advanced industrial countries. Interestingly, the best research indicates that if you factor out the surging immigration of the last 35 years or so in American life --- 38 million legal immigrants, another 8-12 illegal --- all
the trends toward inequality in the US disappear.]
(ii.) Since 1995, the trend in alienation has been reversed. How the results of the Harris Poll can be reconciled with the results of the Gallup Poll's "General Mood of the Country" is something that can't be easily explained, if at all.
Observe that another recent Gallup Poll --- this one on the public's views of George Bush's overall performance in the White House, including both domestic and foreign policies ---
is generally high for the 4th year in any administration: 59%. It's actually higher for foreign policy, at least over Iraq. Another sign: last February, 2003 --- almost 18 months after the official end of the 2001 recession, but with job losses actually rising (they would reach a peak of 6.3% in May, and have fallen back to 5.7% since then) --- consumer confidence was at an unusual low, 61.5% Since then, it has risen to an 18 month high of 100.1.
(iii.) Remember: as with all poll data, these divergent results underscore some points mentioned in this article and even more in previous articles. Survey data capture, at best, dominant attitudes that can change over time, and sometimes swiftly, in reaction to concrete events. Few ever actually get at deep underlying beliefs, though careful longitudinal studies over time give a better snapshot of what the overall public mood is like, including any analytical breakdown into various group categories: rich, poor; black, white; Republicans or Democrats; and so on. They are still better indicators, for all these difficulties, than subjective impressions of this journalist or that one.