In the late 1970s, Bernard Nossiter wrote a book called Britain: A Future That Works. Nossiter, I believe, had been a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post. His thesis, in essence, was that British Socialism had created a contented society that successfully traded off hard work for leisure time and social security. Events quickly proved that the British felt neither successful nor content. The Thatcher revolution followed.
Today, we’re hearing that Europe has got the future figured out. Jeremy Rifkin has written The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream, the title of which he seems to support through a combination of triumphalist statements about the power of the EU and Nossiter’s old leisure theory. In addition, and apparently much to the same effect, another Washington Post veteran, T.R. Reid, has written The United States Of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy.
Rifkin and Reid know far more about the new Europe than I do. But consider me skeptical about any claim that a “superstate” founded on tight government regulation of the economy, and dedicated to its citizenry’s desire for leisure time, represents a serious long-term threat to American supremacy. As to the “American dream,” I’m not certain how one dream “eclipses” another. It may be that Americans and Europeans simply have different dreams reflecting different national characters (assuming there is a European national character). Even so, consider me skeptical about whether the EU can deliver on the dream Rifkin posits and whether that dream is what most Europeans really want.
In any case, these two books about European superiority appear at an interesting time. Though written prior to our election, they hit the bookstores just as Americans were rejecting a Euro-centric candidate and, in a sense, reaffirming this country’s sense of its exceptionalism. Liberals, of course, are pretty steamed about this result. So I expect them to seize on the well-researched, well-articulated claims of Rifkin and Reid. In a way, they seem already to be doing so, as evidenced by recent alarmist discussions about the strength of the Euro vs. the dollar, which I discussed here in connection with a piece by Fred Kaplan in the New York Times. This “declinist” theme fits seamlessly with the notion, advanced with vigor by Democrats since shortly after election day, that ordinary Americans vote against their economic interests when they vote Republican. Thomas Frank pushes this claim in his pre-election book What’s The Matter With Kansas . Amazon tells us that customers buying Reid’s book are also purchasing Frank’s.
Is it good politics for liberals to press the notion that America is declining compared to Europe because Europeans have a better grasp on reality and/or a better dream? I shouldn’t think so. But liberal indignation and sense of superiority frequently get the better of liberal political calculation.
The two can work in harmony, but only in the context of a perceived economic downturn. The first President Bush ran at a time of plausible claims that Japan was eclipsing the U.S. (That Bush became ill and vomited during a state dinner on his visit to Japan didn’t help). Of course, in bad economic times the incumbent will do poorly without the need for assertions that foreigners are getting it right. The value of these assertions lies in creating a head of steam for adopting the foreigners’ policies. When the foreigners in question are European statists, and the party out of power here is liberal, that value is considerable.
UPDATE: James Bennett in the National Interest has a detailed critique of Rifkin’s book. He also reviews several other new books about Europe. (Via reader James McCormick).
Meanwhile, reader reader Stephen Paul King writes:
This fellow, Rifkin, has been leading the charge against any kind of technological revolution, such as genetic modified foods, and now he shows himself as a cheerleader for the EU. Nice consistency. I wonder if he even knows of the growing problems that the EU faces with its Islamic population.
Reader Kenneth Anderson, a law professor at American University, has the answer to Mr. King’s query — Rifkin seems oblivious to Europe’s Muslim problem. According to Professor Anderson, Rivkin “spends perhaps three, maybe five, pages on Muslims in Europe, and that entirely in the context of a minor question of immigation.”