American exceptionalism may be coming to an end, in the worst possible way—with the parties of the European center-left toppling before those of an insurgent nativist right; with the divisions of race and faith sundering those nations’ commitment to the solidaristic perspective of the left.
Undermining American exceptionalism, after all, needn’t entail our becoming more like other industrial democracies, located chiefly in Europe. What’s going on, in fact, is that Europe is becoming more like us.
To understand the relationship between the rise of the Euro-Right and America’s dwindling exceptionalism, we need to recall to what, exactly, our national exceptionalism refers. The term first appeared in a debate within the Communist movement in the late 1920s, with some arguing that class conflict in the United States was different in significant ways from that in the rest of the industrialized world. Over time, the term came to refer to the fact that the U.S., unlike any other industrialized democracy, had failed to generate a socialist or social democratic party or movement of any size or consequence.
Historians have adduced a range of reasons for this anomaly, but the most plausible has been that the American working class has from the start been profoundly divided by race, ethnicity, and religion, unlike the much more homogenous working-class populations of European nations. And because our working-class movement was more riven by race than that of its European counterparts, and because our sense of national solidarity was also cleft by race and racism, our social programs were less universal, our welfare state less generous and more exclusionary. Thus were occupations heavily populated by African Americans excluded from coverage in the original laws creating a minimum wage or granting collective-bargaining rights. And thus were programs that were universal on the other side of the Atlantic—health insurance most prominently—never enacted here.
Conversely, the nations that created the most universal programs and that favored all workers’ rights to collective bargaining were the most racially and culturally homogenous: Scandinavia, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and France, most particularly. During the years that these nations created their versions of social democracy—chiefly, the first three-quarters of the 20th century—they experienced little immigration that would have diversified their populations. The United States, by contrast, was a nation of immigrants from the get-go. As historian Lizabeth Cohen has demonstrated in Making A New Deal, efforts in the U.S. to unify industrial workers in unions or as a distinct political force failed until the 1930s, as immigrants from a range of countries and cultures, speaking different languages, proved unable to overcome their differences. After Congress passed a de facto ban on immigration from anywhere but Northern Europe in 1924, however, the steady stream of newcomers, of cultural “others,” ground to a halt, and workers were able to create just enough solidarity to build industrial unions and win the establishment of a semi-demi welfare state.
On the one hand, 2016 has been a year when an increasingly liberal Democratic Party has been moving more toward the kind of universal programs that Europe enjoys, with Bernie Sanders repeatedly citing the example of the Scandinavian nations as a model for the U.S. to follow. The widespread support he has won for his avowedly social democratic policies points to a desire among the young and the growing number of liberals to embrace more of the European model. (Of course, the widespread support in Republican ranks for the racist and nativist appeals of Donald Trump reveals quite the opposite.)
But even as American liberals are moving left, the European center-left looks to be crumbling under the very same pressures that long kept an American left from forming: the racial, ethnic, and religious diversity, and anxiety, that comes from mass immigration. The politically toxic combination of prolonged economic stagnation and an unprecedented flood of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, many of them Muslim, has unmoored much of Europe’s working class from its historic home in the continent’s socialist and social democratic parties.
In France, socialist President Francois Hollande is trailing the anti-immigrant National Front’s Marine Le Pen in the polls; in Germany, the Social Democrats are floundering as the nationalist Alternative for Germany party is rising. In Austria this week, the Social Democratic chancellor stepped down after his party’s candidate came fourth in the presidential election, while the candidate of the right-wing, immigrant-hating Freedom Party ran first (though he still has to stand for a run-off). In Denmark—that onetime model of social democracy—a law now requires the government to confiscate the valuables of newly arrived refugees. So much for the universal solidarity in which Europe once took pride.
The undoing of the European model may reflect the same problems of diversity uncovered by an extensive survey of Americans conducted several years ago under the supervision of Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam. The more diverse a community was, the survey found, “the less likely its residents are to trust other people”—not only people of different races, ethnicities, religions, and classes, but even “people of their own ethnic group.” Under these conditions, the report continued, both political participation and cross-class connections declined.
The current political and social condition of America’s cities may confirm—and to a lesser degree, confound—this analysis. There are likely few contacts between the millennials flocking to urban centers and the working-class, largely minority residents they’re effectively displacing, as well as between those millennials and the immigrants from the developing world also coming to the cities. On the other hand, as all these groups favor progressive policies, they’ve turned cities into America’s most liberal bastions. A similar dynamic may have played out in London this month with the election of a Muslim mayor from the Labour Party.
London, alas, is not the continent. It’s not even Britain. There, as elsewhere across Northern Europe, the bonds of solidarity that produced universal welfare states have frayed to the breaking point. And how exceptional will we continue to be if Europe becomes fissured by the same divisions of race, faith, and ethnicity that have long bedeviled us?