As a foreigner I recently watched the first debate between the Democratic Party candidates for US President. In my decadent, effete, infected-by-socialism European way I was genuinely shocked to learn during the course of this that Americans have no right to paid maternity leave. In a country where one of the major parties of State ostensibly opposes abortion I found this absence particularly baffling. It is not my purpose here to criticise this or any other policy which the Americans in their wisdom choose to follow. What I propose to do is to examine why it is the fact that despite many superficial similarities the United States and Western Europe are fundamentally different types of society.
US citizens might point to the “American Dream” as being a basic point of difference. To the extent that this “log cabin to the White House” idea is all about social mobility, that anyone who works hard and abides by the rules can succeed whatever their background, then it is an inadequate explanation. Frankly a lot of this “only in America” stuff is nonsense on stilts. The French elected, in Nicholas Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian refugee and a Greek Jew to the office of President. The British elected, in Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of a grocer to the office of Prime Minister. There are no end of examples of little people making good in Europe and conversely of Americans being massively benefited or dis-benefited by their family background.
All of this notwithstanding there is an important clue buried within the idea of the American Dream. At the time when it first developed, in the eighteenth and especially the nineteenth century, Europe still retained not only the informal restraints upon social mobility which all societies have but actual legal restrictions. Certain positions in the State were reserved for members of the nobility, some professions excluded people who belonged to the ‘wrong’ religious denomination or faith and so on. The principle of morganatic marriage, whereby nobles who married commoners disbarred their children from inheritance, still operated even into the twentieth century. And, perhaps most importantly, much of the land was owned by the aristocracy ancien or otherwise.
All of this was alien to the American mind. While formal restrictions applied to women and slaves they did not exist for free men so that from the beginning post-colonial America was a more free society than Europe (though still unfree by comparison with the early twenty-first century.) The abundance of land which was easy for settlers to acquire (at the cost of a little ethnic cleansing) also meant that where any free white man found their situation to be intolerable they could relocate much more easily than their European counterparts.
Such differences are not mere historical curiosities they help explain why the two continents developed in such divergent ways. For Europeans the struggle to achieve equality of access to power, the professions and the land was necessarily a collective effort. Only organised groups, particularly socio-economic classes, could have the clout to overturn the entrenched power of the possessing classes. Moreover, the State could be seen not only as a mechanism which could be used against the disempowered but as an instrument which they could seize and use against their oppressors or, indeed, which they could share with them and use to incrementally effect change without revolution.
Americans who did not have this inherited structure to overthrow did not, therefore, have the same need to see things in collective terms. Access, at least in legal theory, to power, the professions and the land was a given (for free white men) and did not need to be fought for. The challenge was to make the best use of them and that was an individual not a collective enterprise. The State, then, would be seen as an exterior force which was at best a necessary evil (for the preservation of order) and at worse as an oppressive agent which was ever seeking to curtail the freedom of action of the citizen. Given that free white men acted as opinion formers then their perspectives became normative for American society.
Which, I suppose, brings us back to paid maternity leave. Europeans would see a mother and baby primarily as members of a society which has obligations towards them. Americans would see motherhood as a private choice which, given the universal availability of contraception and abortion, is voluntarily entered into. That society benefits from the bonding of mothers with their babies is, for most Europeans, a moral certainty. That society is harmed by creating a dependency on the State as an alternative to independence is a moral certainty to many Americans. The needs of new mothers rarely impinged upon the minds of the free white men who forged the American Way. It might be argued that the fierce Culture Wars and bitter partisanship which currently characterise the US political scene is at least partly due to the emergence as an active factor in society of those elements, black, latino, indigenous and female, who played no part in formulating that Way in the first place. One path for America to follow was showcased at the Democrats debate, which is to make the USA more like Europe. Another path would be for Americans to find a way to make the American Dream work equally for all in ways which it has not as yet done. For that possibility to become a reality the Republicans will have to show a good deal more imagination than they have yet. Either way it will be a long time, if ever, before the ocean separating our two continents narrows appreciably.
My other blog is Catholic Scot
The picture shows the Statue of Liberty being constructed in Paris, France.