ESSAY by CHRISTOPHER COOK
European 'Conservatives' stand on left
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
News | Current Issue | Back
Issues | Essays | Links
About the Progressive Populist | How
to Subscribe | How to Contact Us
Copyright © 1995-1996 The Progressive Populist