How Both Parties Borrow from Europe

Wegmann, Ludwig / Wikipedia Commons

Europe: Home of silly hats and serious ideas.

Conservative politicians are fond of warning against European influence in American life. Throughout his campaign for the presidency, for example, Mitt Romney would make declarations like this one: “What we have to do in America is not to make us more like Europe, but to make America more like America.” Likewise, according to right-wing wunderkind Paul Ryan, “we will turn out just like Europe if we stick with European policies,” by which he means modest attempts to bolster and pay for the welfare state.

But it isn’t just politicians; conservative intellectuals are fond of this rhetoric as well. Here’s Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield in an interview with The Wall Street Journal:

“We have now an American political party and a European one. Not all Americans who vote for the European party want to become Europeans. But it doesn’t matter because that’s what they’re voting for. They’re voting for dependency, for lack of ambition, and for insolvency.”

The problem with this is that both Democrats and Republicans are open to European ideas on public policy. It’s obvious that Democrats—or at least, liberals—look to Western and Northern Europe for inspiration on health-care reform, child care, and other elements of the welfare state. Liberals aren’t pushing for anything as robust and pervasive as what Europeans have, but there are clear connections.

Likewise, Republicans want the United States to adopt a European approach to immigration, abortion, and church-state relations. European countries admit far fewer immigrants and take a much more draconian approach to the ones they allow. They have stricter abortion laws—generally speaking, abortion is permitted during the first trimester and regulated (or outlawed) afterward—and much weaker separation between church and state (the Church of England still exists, for instance).

If Democratic public-policy preferences are “European,” then that’s also true of Republican ones as well; it’s nonsense to pretend otherwise. With that said, it might behoove the GOP to go a bit further in its embrace of European ideas.

For the last decade, the GOP has pushed a blend of right-wing social policy and hyper-capitalist ideology that has managed to alienate young people (who aren’t hostile toward gay people), nonwhites (who aren’t thrilled about white identity politics), and middle-income Americans, who aren’t convinced the Republican Party has anything to offer them.

If conservatives can moderate their zeal for free markets—and accept redistribution as a policy aim—then there’s a well-worn path out of the wilderness they could follow. Josh Barro, a center-right columnist for Bloomberg, explains:

If conservatives made peace with the need for more redistributive economic policy, they could fight to make sure it is pro-growth. For example, they could focus on minimizing poverty traps created by means-tested entitlements, and making sure the tax base is broad so progressivity can be achieved with relatively low tax rates.

Roughly, this is what right-of-center political parties in Europe do.

For as much as conservatives like to denounce Europe as a wretched hive of scum and villainy, it might behoove them to take a few lessons from the European right, which—so far—has had a bit more political success than its American counterpart.