The U.S. has more in common with South America than Europe

The U.S. isn't exceptional. It's American.

(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

If you move in upper middle class circles, you know the conversation: A friend or relative comes back from sojourn in Europe with endless critiques of American life. The food in Italy, the trains in Germany, the architecture in Czechia — everything American pales in comparison.

Some of these comparisons are merely annoying, like the enthusiasm for soccer that's become a paradoxical mark of cultural sophistication (in Europe, soccer is traditionally a working-class game). But deference to European models also has a distorting influence on U.S. politics. On the left, admiration of Scandinavian countries funds pursuit of higher minimum wages and more generous social benefits. On the right, Hungary and Poland serve as models of family policy and immigration restriction. Why can't we be more like our peers?

Perhaps the better question is: Why do we think these countries are our peers?

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U.S. history, geography, and demography have little in common with the smaller, older, more homogeneous nations of Europe. European-inspired policies may be worth trying, but we generally have different policies and institutions because we have different experiences, resources, and expectations.

That doesn't mean that the U.S. is peerless. In an intriguing tweet, political scientist Paul Musgrave observed that many of our "exceptional" features seem pretty normal if you look closer to home. While it's not much like European nation-states, the U.S. has plenty of similarities to other post-colonial, pluralistic societies in North and South America.

Take religiosity. Despite trends toward non-affiliation, Americans' largely favorable attitudes toward religion contrast sharply with most European countries' secularism. That quality isn't specific to the U.S., though. In fact, we rank around the middle of North and South American religiosity, similar to Mexico but lower than Brazil and most Central American countries. The continental outlier isn't the U.S. but Canada, which reports the lowest religiosity in the Western hemisphere. Yet even there, 27 percent report religion is very important in their lives, more than double the rate in comparably rich parts of Europe.

Murder rates are another good illustration. Here too, the U.S. resembles our neighbors more than our European cousins. Our national murder rate of around five homicides per 100,000 inhabitants is about four times that of the United Kingdom, France, Germany. But it's lower than every country in the Americas except Chile, Martinique, Aruba, and Canada. (Even Greenland has a higher murder rate than we do.)

Those numbers are undoubtedly influenced by overlapping histories of conquest and imperial rule, including tense and often oppressive relations between natives, enslaved populations, initial European settlers, and subsequent immigrants. But the same history helps explain a practice many U.S. citizens regard fondly (if incorrectly) as a unique feature of our constitutional tradition: birthright citizenship. Most countries around the world base citizenship at least partly on descent, but birthright citizenship is offered by every country in North and South America, save Colombia.

Diverse populations, a blend of colonial and revolutionary institutions, and openness to immigration make national identities more elastic in the Americas than in much of Europe. In his classic Imagined Communities, social theorist Benedict Anderson points out that the very term "America" had a vague, contested quality that didn't map neatly onto borders of any particular state. It wasn't until the late 19th century that citizens of the United States could assume that references to "Americans" referred exclusively to us, and that presumption is still contested by our Spanish-speaking southern neighbors, who prefer the more accurate norteamericanos.

These distinctives are a challenge for leftish admiration of the secular, peaceable welfare states of Northern Europe. Relatively self-enclosed linguistic cultures, more homogeneous populations shaped by emigration, and reliance on the centralized state in the wake of World War II generated high levels of social solidarity and institutional trust. Even if those qualities could be reproduced here, they have implications the U.S. left prefers to ignore. On immigration, the European center left is often closer to U.S. populists than to our progressive Democrats.

Comparing U.S. history to more appropriate peers also poses a obstacle to progressive moralizing. Much of the controversy about the 1619 Project at The New York Times has been characterized by a sort of intellectual isolationism, as if what became the United States was the only place in the world that practiced racialized slavery. In fact, the African slave trade was not only a translantic phenomenon but also a hemispheric one. And contrary to suggestions of an alliance between enslaved blacks and British authorities, the Caribbean sugar colonies, which depended on huge slave populations, remained loyal to the empire both during and after the War of Independence.

But the Americanness of America is also a problem for elements of the U.S. right. Defending a different version of American exceptionalism, many conservatives argue the United States is defined by an "Anglo-Protestant" culture derived from early British settlers. University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax provoked a controversy in 2019 when she suggested immigration policy should aim to preserve that culture. More recently, Reps. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) were linked to (but later disavowed) a proposed America First Caucus that asserted "America is a nation with a border, and a culture, strengthened by a common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions."

There's a grain of truth in that claim, where our political traditions are concerned. In the founding period and for a longer time after, many American patriots were inspired by Whig interpretations of the English constitution as a pre-Norman inheritance of limited government. But, as a series of historians extending back to David Hume has argued, those interpretations are also largely mythical. The more important issue is that the transplanted European culture many conservatives admire has been in retreat for at least the previous century and in some ways since the early republic.

Like it or not, America was transformed by territorial expansion, waves of mass migration, and the recognition of African-American contributions. Today, on religion, guns, and even trivial matters like food or music, immediate neighbors like West Indians and Mexicans are closer to U.S. norms than the French, Norwegians, or the English themselves. An immigration policy based on affinity for existing American culture would be more likely to exclude Europeans than to admit them.

We could draw pessimistic conclusions about U.S. similarities to our hemispheric counterparts. In sociology, "Brazilianization" has become a catchword for ethnic polarization, economic stratification, and institutional decay. The term isn't entirely fair, because similar trends can be seen elsewhere, including in the United States. Still, you don't need to be a paleoconservative like Patrick Buchanan to worry those trends lead nowhere good.

At the same time, solutions borrowed from textbook European nation-states are unlikely to serve us well. We won't become Hungary. For some of the same reasons, however, we'll never be Denmark, either. Instead, we need to make the best of the very different habits, expectations, and culture that have emerged on this continent, in this hemisphere, after several centuries of independence.

When you look at it that way, maybe American history is just beginning.

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