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Why a Transatlantic Chasm?

Why do myths about a “transatlantic gap” persist, despite little supporting evidence?

February 3, 2010

Why do myths about a "transatlantic gap" persist, despite little supporting evidence?

Many have written about European anti-Americanism and its wide appeal. Clearly, the Bush Administration and its unpopular foreign policy played a role.

Domestic political needs within the EU have also been a factor. The truism that nothing unites like a common enemy has helped bind together an EU that has less in common perhaps than the mandarins of Brussels would like.

But let us look instead at an issue that is inherently embedded in the material presented here, what one might call the problem of disproportion. How does one compare a continent with any one part of another continent?

The divergences and spans within a nation the size of the United States will inevitably be larger than those within a dollhouse country like Norway or even the Netherlands.

Conversely, the range within the entire Western European continent is as great as that within the United States, and often greater. The range of median incomes, for example, in the United States is 3:1 between the richest congressional district (the Upper East Side of Manhattan) and the poorest (Fresno, California). In comparison, the range of disposable income between central London and the Ionian islands of Greece is almost 4:1.

It would make more sense therefore to compare not the United States and individual European nations, but rather the various U.S. states with European countries.

If we do, the results are often surprising — and in any case do not bear out the idea of stark polarities across the Atlantic.

Look, for example, at life expectancies. A poor state like Mississippi does worse than even Portugal, the European bottom rung. But states like North Dakota and New Hampshire have results like Iceland and Norway.

And states like California and Wisconsin are like Austria and the Netherlands. States like New York and Florida are like the United Kingdom and Germany.

Similar results hold if we look at inequality, measured as the ratio between the richest and poorest quintile. Wisconsin is more equal than France, and Utah is more equal than Spain.

That is perhaps not surprising. But that Ohio is more equal than Italy and that Alabama is more equal than the United Kingdom — that seems to be news worth reporting.

The disproportion of the comparison between a continent-sized nation on the one hand and a group of nations that each are only small parts of a continent on the other hand is part of the difficulty.

No one is arguing that America is Sweden. But nor is Italy Sweden, nor even is France, and certainly not the UK. And since when is Sweden Europe — at least any more than Vermont is America?

Europe is not just its northern regions. Europe is larger and more multifarious than that. And, of course, it has just become a great deal more so, with the entrance of all the new EU nations.

The new entrants are not just poorer than old Europe. These new arrivals are often religious, they are skeptical of a strong state, they are unenthusiastic about voting, and they are allergic to high taxes. In other words, from the vantage of old Europe, they are more like Americans.

I have argued here that the differences across the Atlantic, even when looking just at Western Europe, have been exaggerated. As Europe expands, this claim will become irrefutable.

A grain of truth

Finally, there is a grain of truth to the Atlantic divide. If there is anything that most separates U.S. society from Europe, it is the continuing presence of an ethnically distinct underclass.

Even as other outsiders have successfully assimilated, the tragic legacy of slavery continues to resonate in America's black urban ghettos. If we were to consider all U.S. citizens except poor African-Americans, the United States would be entirely indistinguishable from Europe in a statistical sense.

Child poverty rates, which are high in the United States, fall to below British, Italian and Spanish levels if we look at the figures for whites only. A similar effect holds true if we look at educational scores.

Results for science literacy in the PISA tests for U.S. whites in 2006 rank above those of every European nation other than Finland and the Netherlands, rather than in the bottom half as is otherwise the case.

Take out the black underclass from the crime statistics, and the U.S. murder rate falls to European levels, below those in Switzerland and Finland, and even squeaking in under Sweden.

This is not in any sense to excuse the atrocious negligence with which the problems of racism have been dealt. It is, however, to point out how much of the divergence between the United States and Europe can be pinpointed as the outcome of specific and changeable causes.

It is not some grand opposition of worldviews or ideologies that separates the United States and Europe. It is the still-unresolved legacy of slavery and its modern consequence of a ghettoized and racially identifiable underclass that distinguishes — to the extent anything does — the United States from Europe.

And of course that should interest Europeans since they are in the process of importing their own ethnically and religiously identifiable underclass and beginning to feel the consequences.


The divergences and spans within a nation the size of the United States will inevitably be larger than those within a dollhouse country like Norway or even the Netherlands.

It is the still-unresolved legacy of slavery that distinguishes the United States from Europe.

The range within the entire Western European continent is as great as that within the United States — and often greater.