European 'Conservatives' stand on left

Paris, France
The mass media in the United States seem obsessed with the notion that Europeans, after several decades of bumbling confusion, are throwing off the chains of socialism and embracing American-style capitalism. It's a nifty headline. But it ain't so, Joe.

Actually, the media propaganda (you gotta call it what it is) is one of the biggest frauds to come along since the prediction that modern technology would provide Americans with more leisure time than they would know how to use. As it turns out, unemployment is not leisure time.

And in Europe, political conservatism is not the same as free-for-all capitalism.

It is true that a year ago the French refused to put the socialists back in power, keeping the conservatives instead, in the form of President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Alan Juppe. And it is true that conservatives are running the governments in England and Germany (the other two European powerhouses). It is true, as well, that the conservatives won a narrow victory in Spain earlier this month, replacing the socialists after 14 years. But that still doesn't mean what the mass media in the U.S. say it means.

First, let's have a very brief lesson in civics and economics: Democracy is not the same as free-market capitalism. This is a basic fact and one that almost every European I've ever met grasped when he was an infant. Well, maybe not an infant. But a child, at any rate. Yet the average American adult, even the university-educated, still can't figure it out. The most apt comment on that is that the propaganda machine in the United States is very, very good.

As illustrations of this basic lesson, let's consider Denmark and Singapore. The Danes have a democratic political system and a socialist economic system. Singapore, on the other hand, has a free-market economy and only the Lord knows what kind of political system. But whatever kind of system it is, people go along; in a country where they still beat offenders with sticks in public, people do tend to cooperate. But the point is, you can have democracy without capitalism, and you can have capitalism without democracy. End of lesson.

However, here are a couple of additional, more subtle points for those interested in answering bonus questions on tests. First, the European socialists actually advocate what they call "mixed market systems," which means the economy is a mixture of socialism and capitalism, with the former controlling the most important aspects of a civilized economy. Second, it's curious that socialists are willing to politically identify themselves by name (Socialist Party) with their economic views, while conservatives hide behind "social morality." That is, why don't pro-capitalist conservatives belong to a Capitalist Party?

In any case, the political conservatives in power in Europe - all democratically elected, even in Italy where election to office means the end of your political career - certainly know the difference between democracy and free-market capitalism. Just ask Chirac and Juppe in France. When they tried to cut government spending late last year by curtailing social services, the whole country shut down for a month. Now they've bitten the bullet by cutting government spending where every modern chest-thumping politician most dislikes to do it - military spending. When they substantially cut that budget, no one squawked. Even the French know there's enough guns in the world to shoot everyone several times (and too many knuckleheads willing to try).

The fact is that economic socialism -- that is, some public provision and funding of the basic necessities of life, including medical care, education, and cultural programs (yes, the arts, of all things!) -- is alive and well in Europe, and it's not about to go away. That would be a mighty bitter pill for a conservative politician to swallow if the conservative politician was Bob Dole or Lamar Alexander. But that's where the comparison between Europe and the United States gets interesting...
Because, folks, the conservative politicians now in power in European nations are somewhere to the left of Bill Clinton on the political spectrum.

That takes us to our second lesson in civics. Or perhaps it's a lesson in semantics. At any rate, the point is that left and right are relative directions. Des Moines is to the left of Concord but it's to the right of Seattle (unless you stand in Antarctica, in which case you believe Pat Buchanan is a rational man). And Jacques Chirac, the French president, as conservative a president as this nation has seen since De Gaulle, would give an eye tooth if permitted to move as far to the right on the political spectrum as the liberal Bill Clinton stands. But he can't. The citizens of France won't let him. And that is the case in nation after nation in Europe, where voters simply won't sacrifice the strong social safety nets they've carefully constructed during the decades since World War II. By and large, the conservative politicians aren't even seriously trying to disassemble socialism. Basically, they're just trying to privatize a few government activities, cut back some on social spending, and remove some regulations from the corporate sector. Bill Clinton does that in his sleep.

There is another area where the conservative agenda as it exists in the United States doesn't much apply in Europe. That area is social policy. When Americans literally shoot one another over issues like abortion, prayer in school, equal rights for gays, and affirmative action, Europeans raise eyebrows and shrug, as if to say, "What do you expect from a nation of psychological adolescents with a penchant for guns?" It's true that Europeans often disagree on social policy, but after the debate an agreement is reached and people tend to abide by the agreement. Maybe they mistakenly believe the mature object of life is to live it, not to forever argue over its terms.

Essentially, political conservatism in Europe might best be defined as a position just to the right of economic socialism. It's something like, "We conservatives believe in less socialism than the socialists do." That obviously is not the same as saying, as Americans do, that conservatism is a position to the right of the Democratic Party (which, incidentally, has become in recent years a darling of the conservative, no-holds-barred corporate sector).

The misperception that the "move to the right" in Europe is a validation of all that the United States stands for - that is, a political system where positions are bought and sold within the framework of free-market capitalism - has unfortunate consequences. The obvious one is that American politicians already teetering on the right edge of the planet presume they've heard an overseas order to take one more step to the right, all together in goose-stepping formation. The phenomenon may be natural and reflexive, much like empathetic retching. But the result is fairly awful to watch, and I suspect even the conservative politicians of Europe cringe when they see it.

The latter image brings us back to the beginning-- that is, to the mass media. The best explanation I can think of for the poor behavior of the mass media in this affair is that they simply aren't capable of discerning between a good story and the truth.

A good story is that Europe is aping America, and that conservatism is sweeping the world. The truth is that last night I attended the opera and our conservative Prime Minister Juppe was there, as well. Meanwhile, his socialist opponent, Lionel Jospin, was across Paris at the Olympia Theater listening to Woody Allen's jazz band. I'm not sure what that means, but it's the truth, and a pretty good story, too.

Christopher Cook, a native of Texas, is a former journalist for several U.S. daily newspapers, all of them conservative. He now lives in Paris, France, where even the conservative newspapers are quite liberal.

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