"Why him again?" This headline in the German weekly Die Zeit seems to get the post US election mood in Europe just about right. George Bush's re-election seems to have left the European center-left perplexed and bewildered. How could this happen? Who's responsible? Who's to blame?
The obvious answer is: the American voter, that's who. "How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?" the British leftwing tabloid Daily Mirror screamed the day after John Kerry finally conceded. The Belgian state broadcasting corporation VRT devoted an hour of its precious time to a discussion of this very question. One of the members of the discussion panel made an interesting anthropological observation: It seems the further inland you go, the more primitive America becomes. In the heartlands, America is still for all intents and purposes a Stone Age culture: "On the one hand you have an incredibly developed society, cosmopolitan, on the forefront of technological development. On the other, you have a large number of Americans who live very rurally, who still live off agriculture, whose gaze is turned inwards and for whom the outside world hardly exists."
These Stone Age Americans, who are forced to live without the comforts of the New York Times or CNN, know only one reality: "Their commander in chief who wages war and attacks Afghanistan and Iraq as a reprisal for 9-11. That's the image the average American has of the world. Reality is somewhat more nuanced, of course." Thus spake the authentic voice of Belgian foreign policy, the new Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht (a worthy successor, it seems, to the diplomatically challenged Louis Michel).
Anyone who reads these remarks by de Gucht will agree that stupidity is indeed an ugly thing. Equally ugly is the other explanatory factor often cited for the American voters' misguided faith in George Bush. According to this theory, Americans aren't necessarily stupid; it's just that they've just been brainwashed by the American axis of evil: Baptist churches, talk radio and, of course, Fox News. Every day, proponents of this theory argue, Americans are made to swallow a dose of theocratic rightwing propaganda. The end result of all this brainwashing is the rise of a fundamentalist electorate that enthusiastically - sorry, make that: fanatically - supports the crazy Christian in the White House. A journalist working for the Dutch Christian Broadcasting Corporation named Chris Kijne observed that on November 2, America "experienced a fundamentalist coming-out." In secular European circles, reading the Bible and professing one's faith are condemned as dangerous activities. And not just in secular circles. Just last year, the secretary general of the German council of evangelical churches, Manfred Kock, accused Bush of being a "religious fundamentalist" (which raises the question of what it is that German evangelicals stand for: irreligious relativism perhaps?).
All this ridiculous postulating about the supposed stupidity of the American voter is basically an attempt by Europe's progressivist elite to convince itself that "it could never happen over here." Oddly enough, that also seems to be the conclusion of the much more rigorous analysis of last week's results by the Economist journalists Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait. In an echo of the arguments put forward in their book The Right Nation, they present Bush's victory as a logical consequence of the long conservative march through the institutions. Voters prefer Republican candidates over Democrats because they are convinced Republicans now best embody the typically American values of self-reliance, love of God, family and country, and liberty under the law.
Unlike most of their European colleagues, Wooldridge and Micklethwait are quite willing to accept a vote for Bush as a rational choice. But - and unfortunately there is a but - it seems they only regard this choice as rational in an American context. Hence the subtitle of their book: "Why America is different." In other words: they too accept the European mantra that "it could never happen over here."
This emphasis on American exceptionalism could be interpreted in two different ways. It could, of course, be that the authors are simply restating the old European position in a more sophisticated way. There is certainly evidence in the book of a misguided sense of European moral superiority, at least towards some Americans. For example, the authors make little effort to disguise their contempt for America's Christian communities, whom they routinely refer to as "absolutists" (read: fundamentalists). This contempt for the Christian right seems to have inspired one of the few truly bizarre passages in the book. In it, they accuse Evangelicals of trying to push American foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction on the basis of an "Evangelical belief that the Second Coming will take place in Israel - and that it will be preceded by the conversion of the Jews to Christianity." This sort of conspiracy theory is worthy of Karel de Gucht, not of serious journalists writing for one of the world's most respected news outlets.
The second interpretation argues the exact opposite of the first one. In this version, the fact that "it could never happen over here" is actually really a bad thing. After all, if America is the "Right Nation," where does that leave Europe? The Wrong Nation, with the wrong ideas and the wrong policies, doomed for ever to wander the road to serfdom? It is the flip-side of the moral superiority argument. European intellectuals like to wallow in a sense of tragic destiny. They think of themselves as the Greeks to the new Romans in America: a powerless wise counselor to the all-powerful but ignorant new emperor. Unable to believe in anything else, they have embraced imperfection and relativism as their new Godheads. A complicated solution that offers a half-answer is much preferred by them to a simple answer that actually solves the problem. Their dislike of Christianity is, at its core, a rejection of the Christian message of hope. They are Schopenhauer's spiritual grandchildren, convinced that there is no hope, not for themselves, nor for their fellow men, nor even for their countries. The best we can do is muddle through.
There is no reason for right-thinking Europeans to embrace this nihilistic view of life. Europeans aren't Aristotle's natural slaves. Just like their American cousins, they are capable of dreaming great dreams, fuelled by a passion for liberty. They have always been full of entrepreneurial zest and a spirit of adventure. There is no reason to assume that, once unleashed, their energy and creativity couldn't help to fuel another European economic and cultural Renaissance.
The main difference between Europe and America is that Europeans are still forced to put up with a political class that refuses to face the political and social facts. Europe isn't the wrong nation; it just doesn't have the right kind of politicians - yet. In that respect, Europeans can take courage from America's recent past. Until 1980, even America itself was heading for a dead end, with a political class that had reconciled itself to a storyline of American decline. Then along came Ronald Reagan, a completely different kind of politician: optimistic, capable of embracing simple solutions if they were the right ones, and willing to put his faith in the American people as the ultimate problem solvers. We all know the end results of the Reagan Revolution. Reagan's children have changed America from a country in decline to a Right Nation.
What Europe needs is a generation of politicians in the Reagan mould. Reagan's European grandchildren are already in positions of power and influence in many European countries. It is up to them now to help Europe shake off the shackles of defeatism.