How did “Europe” became a dirty word?


Watching the Republican primaries from this distance is probably the safest way of coping with the mix of toxicity and stupidity that is the hallmark of the race, but one aspect that seems to be increasingly prevalent is the casual use of “Europe” as a broad pejorative, a lazy symbol for dysfunctional “socialism” that evidently rings some bells for Republican heartland voters. It has become so common to hear Mitt Romney and his erstwhile rivals to casually invoke the phantom menace of European social democracy that it has almost ceased to surprise – it is just another cheap jibe that draws supportive hollers from the crowd.

But where the hell did this come from? How did Europe come to signify the worst form of social order? Since when did European political and social priorities become not just something suspicious for US conservatives, but something to boo?

Kevin Drum discussed the syndrome last week

To listen to America’s politicians, you’d think that we live in the only country in the world where you can listen to whatever music you want, work in whatever job you want, eat whatever food you want, go to a hospital whenever you get sick, root for any sports team you want to, and elect the nitwit of your choice to high office. What really gets me, though, is how often this isn’t just a mindless trope, but based instead on the apparent belief that Western Europe is some kind of impoverished, dystopian hellhole filled with sallow-faced drones who live lives of misery and angst.

Like most pet peeves, this one is basically innocuous, just a lazy way of demonstrating that you think America is great. No harm done, really. But it does grate now and then.

This pretty much nails it in describing the phenomenon, but I disagree with Drum that there’s “no harm done” or that it’s “basically innocuous”.

This trope only has any currency because of the widespread ignorance of the rest of the world that is so pervasive among US voters, particularly Republican voters. By pandering to that ignorance, exploiting it even, the Republican political establishment is ensuring that the ignorance not only thrives, but becomes of systemic importance to their electoral success. Republican policies are already orthogonal to European social democracy in many respects, and the success their leaders have in equating the provision of public services with some erroneous vision of a “communist Europe” will have potentially grave implications for the US. When public policy is shaped by myths instead of facts, you’re asking for trouble.

Now that I’m living in continental Europe and get to witness functioning social democracy first-hand, I’m more convinced than ever of its merits. Which makes the demonisation of “Europe” that now goes virtually unchallenged in the US so very worrying.

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