The Myth of the Values Gap

“A shallow, arrogant, abortion-hating, Christian-fundamentalist buffoon.” So frequently have I heard and read this phrase—a description of the European caricature of George W. Bush—quoted over the past few days, that I am no longer absolutely certain of its true origins. I believe it appeared first somewhere in the American press, attributed to an anonymous member of the administration. It was then quoted at Bush by one of the European reporters who conducted a joint interview with the president before his trip to Europe (he laughed); as such it reappeared in the Daily Telegraph, among other places. But because I have just now heard it deployed, rather gleefully, on both CNN and BBC World television, I think it deserves further examination.

I should start by saying that “shallow, arrogant, abortion-hating, Christian-fundamentalist buffoon” is not a wholly inaccurate reflection of what a certain slice of the European political elite, and particularly a certain slice of the European media, think of George W. Bush and of the values he embodies. I wrote this myself a few weeks ago, using slightly milder language: “The European Left doesn’t like the death penalty, they don’t like American social conservatism, and they don’t understand born-again Christianity, all of which they associate with Bush.” Indeed, I don’t doubt that there is a deep and probably insurmountable gap between the American president and his social-democratic counterparts in England, France, and Germany, as well as huge differences between the causes espoused by his administration and those promulgated by the European press.

And yet—into this crescendo of anxiety about the differences between America and Europe, it may now be necessary to insert a note of caution. Bush certainly projects a different image than Clinton. But should the fact that the (usually left-wing) European media and a handful of (openly left-wing) European politicians dislike President Bush be cause for an onslaught of articles bemoaning a much larger and more significant “values gap” between the people of Europe and the people of the United States? I’ve spotted numerous examples of this argument everywhere from the New York Times to the Chicago Tribune  to the Miami Herald, all of which cite trans-Atlantic differences on the death penalty, taxes, guns, and socialized medicine. And the mood has caught on. Everyone reporting Bush’s European trip appears to be looking for evidence of widespread dislike, not only of the American president but of the United States. Both the Associated Press and the Washington Post dwelled at length on the presence, Tuesday, of a few hundred demonstrators protesting Bush’s visit to Madrid—numbers which were, as far as I can gather, far lower than what had been expected.

In fact, there is something peculiar about this values gap: The longer you look at it, the harder it is too see. Take the death penalty, which is indeed on the front pages of the European press this week, thanks to the McVeigh execution. True, the death penalty is illegal in Europe. True, the Council of Europe, an organization devoted to promoting human rights in Europe, has made the abolition of the death penalty a prerequisite for membership. True, American diplomats have lately pointed out how hard it is to explain the death penalty to their European colleagues. At the same time—as Anthony Blinken points out in a superb article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs—one should take what politicians say on this issue with a grain of salt: Ordinary Europeans are far more supportive of capital punishment than their elites would have us believe. Fifty percent of Italians, 50 percent of the French, and between two-thirds and three-quarters of the British actually favor the death penalty. Since, at the same time, support for the death penalty in the United States is dropping—the numbers who oppose it have risen in the past four years from 25 percent to 40 percent—popular views on this subject are actually converging, not growing apart.

The same is true of the supposed gap between European and American politics and economics. Generally speaking, it is true that Europeans have, in recent years, been happier to pay higher taxes. They have also expected their government to organize more services in return, including some form of state or state-regulated medical care, something which still seems unthinkable in the United States. Yet the larger story of European economics over the past decade has been one of privatization and deregulation, of the shrinking of the role of the state. The era of big European state companies is over; the European Union itself has urged its members to adopt more flexible labor markets in order to promote entrepreneurship. The British taxpayers’ revolt, which underlay Thatcherism—and nearly two decades of Tory government—has had its echo elsewhere on the continent. At one point, German industrialists publicly threatened to move their factories out of the country if the tax burdens are not lightened. The Italians now hate their overbureaucratic, overregulated, overtaxed system so much that they have just elected Silvio Berlusconi—a man whose business empire has deeply suspect and possibly criminal origins—merely because he promised, convincingly, to reform it. At the same time, the percentage of the American national budget dedicated to social spending has grown from 42 percent to 50 percent over the past decade and is projected to reach 60 percent. Are we growing apart—or converging?

Finally, walk through the streets of any European capital, and what you see there will force you to ask yourself the same question. However nastily their elite newspapers may sneer, Europeans like American culture. McDonald’s, as Blinken points out, “did not expand from 17 to 800 outlets in France since 1984 via the tip of a sword.” Equally, nobody forces the French, or the British or the Germans, to go to the Hollywood movies that their intellectuals detest. Microsoft products (this is not an advertisement, just a fact) are absolutely standard across the continent, from Ireland to Russia. At the same time, my next book is due to be published in three countries, the United States included, by companies that have been purchased by a German multinational, Bertelsmann.

Given the real differences, it’s hard to see how President Bush is ever going to be popular among his European social-democratic counterparts. I suspect he knows this: It isn’t an accident that Bush chose, on this first trip to Europe, to make bilateral visits only to Spain and Poland, both currently ruled by two of the continent’s very few center-right governments. On the other hand, it’s hard to see how these political differences mirror a trans-Atlantic “values gap” which is allegedly growing deeper, given that popular culture—food, movies, music, books, Web sites—is growing ever more similar, and the companies who purvey it are growing ever more trans-Atlantic. Don’t bet on European dislike for shallow, arrogant, abortion-hating, Christian-fundamentalist Americans running very deep.