Europeans tend to think America defines modernity. Hollywood. New York. Silicon Valley. And it does. Of the world’s 100 most valuable tech companies ranked by market capitalization, 70 are based in the United States. Yet, the United States has an inherent political dichotomy – it’s the most modern country in the world still governed by 18th-century rules.
The U.S. is, in short, the past. It’s increasingly a divided, punitive society doomed to expend blood and treasure fighting over vague nuances in the ossified United States Constitution and arguing about who loves Jesus the most.
And then, of course, came January 6 and the insurrection.
Meanwhile, the “old continent” of Europe is busy creating the future.
The cryptic language of 18th-century white men
Last week, in the Dobbs Decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled there’s nothing in the constitution that guarantees women the right to an abortion. I read the constitution in college and they’re right. There isn’t. That’s because it’s a document written by white men in the 18th century, an intentionally inscrutable and ambiguous document because the author – James Madison – feared the agrarian, slavery-dependent Southern would block ratification. And let’s face it … Jimmy Madison was mortal and couldn’t see around corners any better than the rest of us.
The U.S. Constitution is a brilliant roadmap to safeguarding the liberties of citizens, a radical idea in 1788. Madison was hugely influenced by the thinkers of Europe’s Enlightenment, as were all of the Founding Fathers. Two hundred and thirty four years later, American “conservatives” on the far right have co-opted the constitution to, as William F. Buckley, Jr., once put it, “stand athwart history and yell ‘Stop!’ “, Buckley’s reaction to the civil rights struggle of black Americans.
Conservatives argue that, like the Christian Bible, the U.S. Constitution is inerrant and must be interpreted based on the original understanding “at the time it was adopted.” Which was a time when it was perfectly legal for a white man to murder his slave and beat his wife. Both were legally his chattel.
There’s even a movement called “Originalism” that argues the meaning of each provision of the United States Constitution was fixed at the time of its enactment and that can only change on a state-by-state basis. That means the Bill of Rights and other amendments are unconstitutional and that women do not have the right to vote and that slavery should never have been abolished.
What goes unsaid is that many at the 1787 Constitutional Convention walked out because the document didn’t abolish slavery, which led to the American Civil War. The Constitution might very well lead to a second civil war as America divides up between coastal liberal Blue States such as New York and California, and Red States in the South and Midwest.
So, how in the world does my yawn-inducing history lesson pertain to expats? Well, this never-to-be-resolved constitutional crisis likely will inspire – as we said in the past – American talent to consider new options in countries that aren’t plunging into anarchy. A new Gallup Poll finds that only 38 percentage of respondents are “extremely proud” to be Americans, the lowest figure since 2001.
The anger that sets neighbor against neighbor has infiltrated every American institution, including school boards, aldermanic chambers, state governments and even sports. As political commentator Greg Sargent wrote in the Washington Post, efforts to reframe the Jan. 6 insurrection as just normal folks exercising their constitutional rights “represent an effort to minimize the possibility that we’re sliding headlong into a protracted era of chronic instability and rising political violence.”
For business, instability is bad.
Why Europe wins
• Unlike America, Europe got shoved into the 20th century, a stem-to-stern reset after World War II, thanks to the victorious allies dismantling fascism, then imposing new secular governments focused on the contemporary issues, not archaic constructs. For example, the current constitution of the Netherlands got a complete revision in 1983.
After the defeat of the Nazis, the Americans created the Marshall Plan to rebuild European industry and thwart the Soviet Union. Those billions included funding centrist governments largely run by Christian Democrat parties. That funding also included encouraging the integration of Europe, which lead to the European Union, while keeping nationalists and extremists mostly at bay.
For business, stability is good.
• In the U.S., where a new breed of reactionary politicians oppose everything including the taxes necessary to run governments, resentment carries the day. In Europe, national unity of purpose and the greater good still prevail, even in unpredictable countries such as Italy, and politicians still have to demonstrate efficacy and competency, not fealty to Donald Trump.
• Aside from guns, the prime force in America’s drift toward authoritarianism is religious extremism. Unlike in Europe, where few people identify as religious and cathedrals are filled with tourists, America’s fundamentalist movement feeds the desire for authoritarianism. Religion is about revealed knowledge, God-appointed leaders and divine intervention, not the messy democratic process. The media are reporting evangelical preachers advocating death for gay people, burning books, participating in armed insurrection and antisemitism.
Christian nationalism is rapidly gaining momentum.
Europe’s many challenge
As I’ve written many times, it’s not going to be all rainbows and unicorns. American talent and investors are imposing American 24/7 work expectations to Europe even now. Should American tech talent start to arrive in significant numbers, it would be great for tech companies, but strain cities such as Berlin, Amsterdam and Stockholm, where housing already is tight.
Those are the obvious issues.
Not so obvious would be how European leaders – not particularly known for being unified – deal with issues of suzerainty, national competitions and the centralization of power as Brussels, London, Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam start to replace America in the global power vacuum. To compete with Beijing, Europe will need a capital.
Is Brussels really up to the task?
How would an ascendent Europe deal with Putin without American military might behind it? Most Europeans have forgotten that U.S. European Command has dozens of military bases across Europe to make sure everyone behaves. What would happen if they went away?
Europe must also replace American capital, which has kept the global economy growing really since the 1980s and the emergence of American tech companies and VCs that shape global innovation.
I could be wrong, but I’m not
The Dobbs ruling is just the beginning. In his concurring Dobbs opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the court should review rulings pertaining to gay rights and contraceptives. The United States is, of course, not that united … essentially 50 countries. States such as Texas have relatively liberal cities such as Dallas, Houston and Austin ruled by the tumbleweed backcountry countries because of this thing called gerrymandering. Gerrymandering, which started in America in the early 1800s as a way to manipulate elections, allows radical Republicans to dominate Red State legislatures.
So, moderates and liberals are unlikely to return to power in our lifetimes.
A majority of Americans don’t support fascism, don’t own guns and don’t oppose women’s reproductive rights.
It doesn’t matter.
Red States with far right governors and legislatures – despite smaller populations – have the same clout in national elections because of the Electoral College, yet another remnant of colonial times and the effort to avoid a civil war over slavery.
So many modern demographic trends and societal shifts are feeding the destabilization of the U.S. The Founding Fathers could never have foreseen the evolution of long rifles into assault rifles, population shifts and demographic trends. But the real catalyst is Donald Trump, who destroyed all semblances of bipartisanship and presidential decorum, then tried to stop the transfer of power after he lost the presidency. Now, as more evidence of an organized plot emerges, U.S. officials will have to decide whether Trump will be tried for sedition.
If he isn’t, it will set a precedent – the president can overthrown election results with impunity. If he is, it could send his supporters into the streets.
The world is not ready for what’s coming, and that includes Europe.
Happy Fourth of July.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.