November 14, 2003,
In one of the greatest moments in Simpsons history, two giant, slimy, space aliens Kang and Kodos take the forms of Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, rival candidates in the 1996 presidential election, as a prelude to taking over the planet.
Newcomers to American politics, needless to say, the aliens are less polished then your typical pol.
But the body snatcher Dole is a fast learner. At a debate he takes the stand and booms in a rich baritone: "Abortions for all!" The crowd boos.
"Very well," he responds, "no abortions for anyone." The crowd boos again.
Kang-Dole ponders for a moment: "Hmmm...abortions for some, miniature American flags for others!" The crowd goes wild with glee.
This is how many Europeans see American politics: bitterly divided by a hodgepodge of "wedge issues" and endlessly quarrelling over symbols, American politicians are drenched in metaphorical gore from a never-ending culture war. Our capacity to divide over prayer in school, flag burning, abortion, homosexual rights, and gun control make even our European friends think Uncle Sam is schizophrenic. For Europeans who dislike America, the most charitable description they can offer is of an archipelago of enlightened college campuses, movie studios, and clever shopping outlets sprinkled across a sea of knuckle-draggers who eat nachos drenched in cheese.
And it's true. America does have a tremendous capacity to get bogged down on issues European nations skip merrily past. This was probably why Adlai Stevenson said America could choke on a gnat but swallow tigers whole.
But this is coming to an end. As Europe continues to integrate into a United States of Europe, it will in all likelihood become a United States of Europe. One of the chief reasons America's politics have become so bizarre is precisely because America has been undergoing its own unification. What we call federalism the loosening of central government control over the various states, as opposed to the European meaning of centralization has been under siege. The tightening of this control is why America looks like a place where "abortions for some, miniature American flags for others" sounds like a pretty good slogan.
The problem in America is that we have a vast, multicultural nation in which certain people want to live one way and other people who live thousands of miles away want to live another way. But we have a central government that increasingly believes its way is the only way.
This development came on the back of a legitimate moral good: the widening of civil rights for minorities and women. But the legal and political logic which made it possible to topple Jim Crow also made it inevitable for the national government mostly through the courts to topple a host of traditional arrangements governing how people lived in their own communities. If Kansas wants school prayer, for example, why should people in Florida care?
Even abortion was on the verge of being sorted out by 50 state legislatures when the Supreme Court forced a one-size-fits-all policy across the country. This radicalized abortion opponents and proponents alike, so the country remains polarized 30 years later.
Real federalism may be a profoundly dull topic, but it also happens to be the greatest system conceived for maximizing the most happiness for the most people.
Pure democracy, for example, says that 51 percent of the people can pee in the cornflakes of 49 percent of the people. But under federalism, national minorities can still live like majorities in their own communities. Almost all left-right arguments get settled by pushing democracy to the lowest level possible. But no one is much interested in doing that. So America is poised for political Gotterdammerung over gay marriage precisely because conservatives and liberals alike insist gays must be free to marry everywhere, or nowhere, even though few gays would want to settle down in rural Mississippi or few Southern Baptists are keen on moving to the Castro District in San Francisco.
Well, that is what the future holds for Europe but worse. At least in America we are all, well, Americans. Sure, right now many Europeans believe their cultural differences are small. But what happens when an Olympian court or politician in Brussels starts unraveling the social fabric of faraway countries? So do not be surprised when you start hearing European politicians promising "abortions for some, miniature EU flags for others!"
This first appeared in the Times of London.