During the first half of 2017, it became blatantly clear that the US and most European countries seem to drift in different directions. The great divide is visible to even the most inattentive observer. But most experts aren’t surprised. The tectonic shift began earlier. If we take a close look at the eight years before, during the presidency of Barrack Obama we can see that the US shifted their focus from Europe towards the Pacific. And in the eight years before that, during George W. Bush’s presidency, many European countries tried to distance themselves from the US.
The “great divide,” as I would call it, goes back into the mid-90s and grew over time. Only now it has become so obvious that it became a topic of public interest.
Most Europeans don´t understand Americans, and most Americans don’t understand Europeans.
Why is that?
Well, mostly because the majority of people live in their own bubbles or echo chambers. And those who don’t, those few transatlantic experts on both sides of the pond, they don´t reach their fellow countrymen efficiently enough to make a dent.
I´m talking about us. We (and whomever reads this certainly belongs to the group I´m talking about) are forming our own bubble, our own echo chamber – and we are suffering from exactly the same symptoms, first and foremost: We can´t see it!
We think we know each other because we’ve traveled extensively in the US or Germany, because we have friends in New York, Berlin, Los Angeles, Paris, Chicago, London, Washington DC, Rome and Miami. Our networks are strong in all major cities on both continents. Nevertheless are we surprised that the American people voted Donald Trump as president and that the British voted for Brexit.
We are astonished that there are people who doubt climate change, who oppose same sex marriage, who are opposed to mass immigration and who dislike the concept of open borders. Interestingly, these people exist on both sides of the Atlantic. And even more interestingly, these are the people we tend to blame for the growing gap between the US and European countries.
I know my thesis might not be popular in our circle: Maybe it´s not them, maybe it´s us?
Maybe we are to blame for the developing rift in transatlantic relations. Because we live and work in big coastal cities, in ultra-progressive urban areas, our way of thinking has adapted. We have become the pioneers of improved transatlantic relations by incorporating topics like gender equality, multiculturalism and environmentalism. By doing so we have disenfranchised large chunks of the population who don’t like that kind of thinking and alienated them also from the idea of closer transatlantic relations.
We have to ask ourselves: Do we want to promote progressive thinking or do we want to promote transatlantic friendship. Both at the same time might not work – as the past few decades have proven over and over again.
It is my opinion that we might get better results if we start talking to the people in rural areas and listening to their concerns. Let´s ask farmers in Kansas and the Bourgogne, let´s talk to coal miners in West Virginia and South Wales, let’s listen to assembly line workers in Youngstown and Rüsselsheim.
Their stories, their questions and their view of life might be very different from what we know from our friends in Silver Lake-Los Angeles, Berlin-Friedrichshain, Williamsburg-New York or Canal St. Martin in Paris.
Instead of making fun of the suspected mental retardation of hillbillies who live in the “fly over states,” we should engage them in conversation, try to find some common ground and pave the way for bridging the gap.
But in order to do so we have to rethink the way we recruit “experts” of transatlantic relations. We have to look outside Ivy League schools, outside established think tanks and outside NGOs who are fighting for gender equality, multiculturalism and environmentalism. That´s a tough one, because it requires us to leave our comfort zone, to leave the beaten paths and to question our way of thinking and our past decisions.
There is hope – but we have to change our way of thinking.