As Europe Devolves, America Centralizes

One of the certainties of European history is the alternation of unification and dissolution. At the deepest level, this reflects the ever-fluent question of government purview, whether in geographical extent or granular penetration. Even without knowing it, those hostile to nationality are partisans of anarchy, empire, or simply nations on a more intimate scale. There never will be an ideal size or reach of government, but only continual adjustment as the result of necessity, accident, providence, or force.

The European Continent and for a time even the British Isles have been partially unified—by the Romans, Charlemagne, Spain, Austria, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler, and the European Union. Even if they didn’t get very far, the Mongols, Muslims, and Turks gave it the college try. And then there was the papacy. The Romans were champions of endurance, but Napoleon’s stint was as short as he was, the empire of the Thousand-Year Reich didn’t make it by 995½ years, and the Soviets got only halfway across.

As it evolved from the European Coal and Steel Community into the European Economic Community, and then the Schengenized “E.U. plus,” bureaucracy’s pacific conquest of Europe was different, its weapons the ballot box, rubber stamp, and pen. Furthermore, other than in one civil war, the U.S. had shown that 50 states could unite to great advantage.

Why is it, then, with Jean Monnet’s body hardly cool, that Britain will leave the E.U., Scotland and Wales lust to devolve, Belgium and Italy each strain to break in two, Spain in three, Yugoslavia has shattered, Hungary may either quit or be expelled, Greece is like one’s child who ends up a heroin addict in jail, extremist political movements are partying like it’s 1936, and Marine Le Pen wants France out? Not even fully consummated, the European Union shows sign after sign of impending divorce.

One need not be hostile to the idea of this union to know the essential flaw in its conception, namely the statist assumption that bureaucratic conceit will prevail over geography, history, tradition, and individual attachments, preferences, and loyalties. Greek profligacy and German prudence cannot sleep in the same bed. Good luck to the Frenchman who tells an Englishman how much sugar to put in his tea. Rivers, alpine ranges, marshes, and seas have carved into the landscape physical barriers that for millennia have shaped the economics, histories, and cultures of these disparate nations. Unlike the United States—at its founding English in culture and language, with a pressure-relieving wilderness to the west—Europe as it united was a densely populated, grudge-filled continent with scores of major languages and their dialects. Its peoples had been governed in a hundred different ways, fought countless wars, and inherited dozens of philosophical traditions.

This concoction has always settled into a natural angle of repose only to be periodically disturbed by grand designs. But here is the problem with such grand designs. If government is a machine applied to everything, then everything becomes a machine—“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” This is where the Left’s dream of addressing human needs via a universal mechanism always fails, for it takes no account of the soul, the existence of which it denies as it fights a losing war against the untidiness of human nature.

Knowledge of this and more was present at the creation of the E.E.C., but the enormity of the two world wars elevated hope over experience. Nor is the union dead. But, still, the strength and depth of Europe’s long established cultures with their naturally diverging outlooks and interests cannot and should not be subsumed in a universal governance ill-equipped to understand, let alone guide them. To continue subjecting them to a coterie of second stringers in Brussels and Strasbourg is an exercise in imperial sado-masochism.

What can the United States learn from this? Progressive opposition to the embedded separation of powers in tripartite government and the structure of the electoral college, the Senate, and the states themselves, has as its best ally the homogenization of America by mass media, commercial standardization, and headlong administrative expansion. That to forge a ruling coalition progressives are engaged in fractionalizing the population into as many aggrieved groups as possible does not contradict their urge to centralize. For unlike the states, the elements of such a coalition have no enumerated or constitutional powers, and are raised or dismissed at will in the winds of propaganda.

Paradoxically, in the days when an American commonly identified as a Virginian, a New Yorker, a Californian, etc., the national interest was paramount. Now, when the national interest is lost in a sea of identity politics and contrition, attachment to one’s state (pace Texas) has almost vanished. As are all constitutional manifestations of the separation of powers, the states are becoming less and less a brake upon the dangerous ideal of democratic centralism, and as a result we may end up in a sadder condition than even a disintegrating Europe.

Our federalism is always in flux due to changing conditions that favor different levels of governance. Never was it intended to be entirely static, but with its oscillations dampened by a deliberate balance of powers, stresses upon it have been successfully contained. Now—with federal encroachment upon every province of life, overt ideological hostility to American nationhood, and the Balkanization of the population into as many manipulable identities as will (until no longer needed) serve the progressive agenda—the balance of levels of governance, and our felicitous constitutional structure will be so subject to stress and attack that, ironically, the wonderful example partisans of a united Europe sought to imitate may evolve into the kind of bureaucratic tyranny Europe now finds difficult to endure.

Originally published in The Claremont Review of Books, Fall 2016.