How We Can Achieve American Social Democracy

Image by Gayatri Malhotra.

¿El Sueño Español?

Why we might need to learn to be more culturally European if we want to achieve American social democracy

The trope of the American who goes abroad and falls in love with Europe, sometimes with tragic consequences, has a long history, from the lives of Henry James and T.S. Eliot, both of whom quit the US and moved to England; to James Baldwin’s excellent books Giovanni’s Room and Another Country and their tragic denouements; to the recent TV phenomenon Emily in Paris, where the titular, brashly American ingenue becomes infatuated with la belle France despite her initial resistance to French ways and her frequent irritation at various quirks of Gallic life.

Until relatively recently, though, largely as a function of World War II and the subsequent Cold War, the US has held the upper hand in its relationship with Europe. Europeans’ attention was often directed towards the US mainly with the aim of critiquing American failings, it’s true. Yet America generally set the terms of debate and Europe was obliged to respond—and much to its detriment, as when Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, François Mitterrand, Gerard Schröder, Silvio Berlusconi, and other European neoliberals set about importing Reaganism with a vengeance; or when the Bush administration’s dogged insistence on prosecuting its “war on terror” dragged American allies into forever wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and much of northern and eastern Africa.

Trump’s threats to dissolve NATO and withdraw US military support from the EU may have underscored the extent to which Europe remains reliant upon the United States for its self-defense, but Trump’s election and tenure as president also seemed to mark the beginning of American cultural hegemony’s downfall. The US’ status as a decaying empire, particularly vis-à-vis a rising China, became increasingly difficult to deny. Its severe political dysfunction, previously papered over by Obama’s telegenicity and abundant rhetorical gifts, was now prominently on display each time its megalomaniac leader cozied up to Putin, Orbán, Kim, Xi, or whichever dictator du jour was the object of his effusive affection. Surveys of the European public confirm this impression: a January 2021 poll conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations found that “Europeans’ attitudes towards the United States have undergone a massive change. Majorities in key member states now think the US political system is broken, and that Europe cannot just rely on the US to defend it. They evaluate the EU and/or their own countries’ systems much more positively than that of the US – and look to Berlin rather than Washington as the most important partner.”

Economic inequality has been a persistent, ever-worsening problem since the 1970s, and the US’ lack of universal healthcare, affordable college education, and guaranteed vacation time and maternity leave has plagued us for the same period. But only beginning with the 2016 presidential election did it seem that Americans’ habit of regarding their country as exceptional, inherently superior to other nations, was starting to crack. Bernie Sanders enjoined us to look to Denmark and other Scandinavian countries to enlarge our vision of what life in a civilized democracy might look like. At the time, Hillary Clinton pooh-poohed Bernie’s appeal, smarmily declaring, “We are not Denmark…we are the United States of America,” as if this was a sufficient answer to the charge that the US was severely underperforming Denmark on most metrics of social and economic welfare.

Given that Americans have been traveling to Europe since the postwar years, over a span of seventy years or so, it might seem puzzling that only now are people beginning to wonder whether we might not measure up to the European standard. One reason for this curious lack of self-reflection might be the way that the postwar economic boom and the New Deal’s quasi-social democracy obscured the US’ fundamental divergence from European social democracies where healthcare and education were considered universal, basic human rights and the Second Bill of Rights which FDR proposed in 1944 for the US had become a reality.

Another aspect is a hangover from the long ideological campaign to discredit socialism in the US despite its storied American history. A third reason may be a general lack of awareness among the American public about what life in European social democracies is like. We don’t generally learn about European social democracy in school, leaving travel or media consumption as the main ways of learning about life in Europe. But according to a December 2023 Pew Research Center survey, 23% of Americans—about 76 million people—have never traveled internationally. Meanwhile, those who have and who are frequent travelers tend to be highly educated and rich: 43% of lower-income Americans have never traveled abroad, and 39% of people with a high school education or lower have never left the US.

If you’ve never visited a country which has universal healthcare and where medicines cost less than half what they do in the US, if you’ve never experienced the ease of being in a country where a high-speed bullet train covering 400 miles in around three hours can cost around $70 round-trip or where a substantial meal can set you back only five to ten dollars, or where most people take a month of vacation in August, it’s easy to assume that life as most Americans currently live it is the only way of organizing society, especially if you’ve been brought up with the myth of American superiority.

But once you’ve visited Europe, it’s hard to go back. It’s hard to content yourself with la vida Americana after learning that in every country in the European Union at least 20 days of paid vacation are mandated by law, or that Portugal and France protect workers’ right to rest by forbidding emails outside of work time; or that many European countries offer university degrees for free or a nominal fee; or that all EU countries guarantee a minimum of four months of parental leave, at least two of which are paid, and at least 14 months’ maternity leave; or that in OECD countries, tax revenues and social security cover 75% of healthcare spending versus only 50% in the US, resulting in much higher premiums for Americans; or that US cell phone service is among the most expensive in the world and that Europeans pay far less for their data; or that EU countries, most notably Spain, have invested billions of euros in constructing state-of-the-art high-speed railroad systems, even as American passenger train lines languish; or that thousands of toxins and chemicals are en route to being banned in Europe while being perfectly legal in the US. It’s all too easy to multiply these policy choices ad nauseam.

On average, Europeans seem to have heightened joie de vivre, a greater capacity to appreciate the small things (les petits plaisirs) in life, to prioritize quality over quantity, to uphold the claims of the local and traditional as opposed to the multinational and mass-marketed, particularly when it comes to food and drink. Europe also distinguishes itself from the US vis-à-vis its culture of sociability and appreciation for the pleasures of leisure (whether that appreciation goes by savoir vivre, la dolce vita, or la buena vida). Most European countries are endowed with a well-developed café culture. Cafés feature ample seating and an expectation that people will linger, and plazas where people can gather, sit, eat, drink, and people-watch are practically ubiquitous. Public transportation systems and pedestrianized zones in major cities like Barcelona and Madrid make it easier to have a relatively spontaneous aperitif with friends. The Spanish tendency to spend hours with family and friends after a meal, remaining at the dining table, is so common it’s been christened la sobremesa.

In contrast to Americans, who are so brutally overworked that even Thanksgiving isn’t exempted from the encroachment of work, Europeans have more time to relax and socialize because their leisure is enshrined into law—and, as many economists would be quick to add, because higher taxation rates on income in Europe render work less appealing. As a result of this, European countries enjoy a sense of solidarity and unity that the United States, a young country without a thick civic culture and the anchor of traditions to unite people in a common collective project, can only envy.

Which comes first, the policy divergences or the cultural differences? It’s hard to pinpoint precisely. The traditional Marxist answer, which is probably broadly correct, would be that they mutually condition each other. There is a dialectical relationship between culture and political economy: a society’s culture influences its political economy, which in turns influences its culture. At the end of the day, as with most chicken-and-egg questions, the answer likely doesn’t much matter. I’ve visited Spain numerous times over the past four years, spending probably at least three months there in total. And while the tourist experience is by no means equivalent to living in a place, most of these differences between Europe and the US are readily apparent.

It would be easy to romanticize European culture to excess. And indeed, I’ve befriended several Spaniards who have moved to the United States and prefer the dynamism and economic opportunities here. One of these friends said that he has the impression that Spain and most European countries are superannuated: that their cultures have plateaued and reached a steady state which is the enemy of progress, that they have become enervated and complacent, that they aren’t good places to live as a young person, that they underfund scientific research. It’s true that Spain, Italy, France, and Greece have acute problems with mass youth unemployment and that the EU average youth unemployment rate is substantially higher than in the US. It’s also true that Europe suffers from a history of bloody colonialism and imperialism, that virulent racism and vicious xenophobia are aspects of daily life in much of Europe, and that anti-Semitism has proven to have deep roots despite the memory of the Holocaust. Thus far, the Iberian peninsula appears to be one of the only places in Europe that has proven relatively resistant to the neofascist resurgence which has swept Hungary and Italy and which presently menaces Germany and France.

Many Europeans are reflexively and cheaply anti-American—when I was doing my master’s at Cambridge, in the aftermath of Trump’s election, I endured numerous unpleasant conversations with sneering Englishmen who mocked Americans’ idiocy as if Brexit didn’t place their polity in equal ignominy. Some European cultures, especially those of peoples like the French who hold themselves in high regard, do suffer a certain parochialism, a snobbish lack of curiosity about other cultures which masquerades as tolerant cosmopolitanism. As an example, many Europeans bizarrely assume that Americans innately crave work. It doesn’t occur to them that the main reason for American workaholism is that our vacation and salary laws are uncivilized, and the inhumanity of our juridico-economic regime is often the explanation for the unusual brevity of American vacationers’ trips. And it is perhaps true that, in cities like New York, the romanticized notion of the American “melting pot” achieves a reality which would be hard to replicate in most European cities, many of which are simply far smaller and less international. For instance, I was shocked to realize at some point in my Spanish sojourns that Mexican food, despite the cultural connection between Spain and Mexico, is far less widespread than in the US.

While the average European is just as productive as the average American worker, if not more so, it’s psychologically plausible to me that a surfeit of sociability might detract from the quality of one’s work, if not its quantity. It also seems credible that life in a society which has many centuries of history might induce a certain claustrophobia, a cultural suffocation, a stifling closeness of the type that Nietzsche bemoaned over a century ago and which the United States, a future-oriented country with only about 250 years of European history, tends to lack.

American conservatives deploy cultural arguments to stave off calls for European-style social democracy. They cynically enlist envy and resentment, portraying Europeans as lazy, entitled, and complacent; arguing that their hard-won way of life is an unjustifiable luxury; and claiming that the social democratic ideology which underpins the European welfare state is aristocratic. When the French revolted against Emmanuel Macron’s recent, indecent neoliberal proposals to raise the retirement age and curtail social benefits, sneering articles about how the fainéant French should suck it up blanketed the American mainstream press. Yet few articles interrogated why it was that a growing number of Americans are forced by the appalling lack of state support to work well into their seventies and eighties.

The traditional defense of the American Dream is that striving and hard work are necessary to achieve greatness, that adversity and conflict are essential elements of economic advancement, and that the human sacrifice which we regularly render the juggernaut of American capitalism, depicted so beautifully in The Grapes of Wrath or Death of a Salesman or Nickel and Dimed or Evicted, is requisite to maintain our competitive edge. Such claims seem unfounded. But even if they were true, that would mean that, societally, we need to make our peace with mediocrity, because human happiness (not to mention the biosphere’s sustainability) is too high a price to pay for incremental increases in innovation or maximum GDP. At least officially, the Chinese—whom American elites view as our main rival—have no such hangups. One of Xi Jinping’s “Four Comprehensives,” values which form part of the CCP’s official ideology, is 小康 (xiaokang), which translates as “moderate prosperity.”

In his widely renowned work Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the French economic wunderkind Thomas Piketty argues that we are on track to return to the economic distribution and mode of organization characteristic of the aristocratic “patrimonial capitalism” last seen during the Victorian era. From the days of Athens and Rome millennia ago through the Victorian era, leisure was the freedom from work which only came from owning land and collecting rents, receiving an annual income from familial wealth, or exploiting the labor of slaves or serfs or the household labor of women. In many ways, the beauty and irony of social democracy is that it is a means of democratizing the leisure which used to be the private property of aristocrats exclusively. In the Soul of Man Under Socialism, the Victorian luminary Oscar Wilde writes prophetically that

Under proper conditions, machinery will serve man. There is no doubt at all that this is the future of machinery, and just as trees grow while the country gentleman is asleep, so while Humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure – which, and not labour, is the aim of man – or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work. The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.

Today, in our brave new world of artificial intelligence and billionaires who own more wealth than entire countries, we’d do well to heed Wilde’s admonition. Perhaps then, once we’ve harnessed “mechanical slavery” in a liberatory fashion, we can retire the American dream and begin dreaming el sueño español.

Scott Remer has published in venues such as In These Times, Africa Is a Country, Common Dreams, OpenDemocracy, Philosophy Now, Philosophical Salon, and International Affairs.