Woodrow Wilson, 19th century congressional scholar and 20th century U.S. president, envied the efficiency of the British system of cabinet government. Upon the centennial anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1876, he made an astonishing diary entry: “How much happier she would be if she had England’s form of government instead of this miserable delusion of a republic.” She, America, has done quite well so far, despite her “miserable delusion” of self-government. And, notwithstanding all problems on both sides of the Atlantic, the normative foundations of “the West” such as the rule-of-law, human rights and democracy – the ideas of 1776 and 1789 – are well and alive.
However, there is a certain transatlantic “communication rift”. Europeans often express amazement over America’s unique political culture and its understanding of individual freedom. From health care to gun control to social inequality: American individualism, especially articulated by conservatives, is viewed with disconcertment across the Atlantic. On the other hand, Europe is often described as a socialist hell on earth by conservative commentators in the U.S., who accuse American liberals of wanting to make “America more like Europe.” The question is: How do we tackle these transatlantic misperceptions? In order to win public support for the transatlantic relationship, decision-makers themselves should engage in an exchange of ideas.
The connection between the U.S. and Europe on a civil society level is well established through student exchange programs, economic cooperation, the influence of pop culture and the transatlantic flow of tourists in both directions. Yet, there is still potential for improvements on a political level. Contacts between the U.S. Congress and the German Bundestag are mainly organized through parliamentary friendship groups and exchange programs for young people. These programs are of indispensible value for the transatlantic friendship. However, in order to create an even firmer connection, we need to deepen these existing bonds through new levels of cooperation: transatlantic legislative working groups. These groups of parliamentarians would do two things:
- Find policy solutions to common transatlantic problems
- Foster mutual understanding across ideological boundaries
What does that mean? First, parliamentarians are an indispensible target group for a transatlantic renewal. Their ability to foster public debate, to hold the executive branch accountable and to shape policies is a key asset in order to promote mutual understanding across the Atlantic. They can influence their constituents’ views and therefore multiply the benefits created by transatlantic cooperation. Americans get ideas from their Europeans colleagues and vice versa. Those working groups, or committees, would therefore be either created ad-hoc, aimed at current political issues (single issues such as TTIP), or be permanent institutionalized (focused on policy areas such as trade or security cooperation). For instance, committees of similar jurisdictions in Congress and the Bundestag could form a working group consisting of an equal number of parliamentarians from both chambers, including all political parties. Such a transatlantic committee would meet two or three times a year (alternating between Washington and Berlin) to find common – and democratically legitimized – solutions to transatlantic policy issues. Preferably, lawmakers would form bonds across the Atlantic and across the aisle.
Second, a cross-Atlantic connection bridging ideological boundaries seems especially important. While Europe is a natural political role model for American progressives due to its more equal distribution of wealth (just take their praise of the Nordic countries), there is a wide ideological gap between conservatives, foremost represented by the Republican Party, and European political culture. The fact that the Republican Party has moved substantially to the right since the days of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan certainly contributed to this development. But there is a “natural” difference between Europe and America as well: The clash of ideas between equality and freedom is usually won by equality in Europe and by freedom in America, shaping political culture on both sides of the Atlantic.
Whereas European coalition building in parliamentary systems with proportional representation is an integral part of its political culture, the American two-party-system is now intensely polarized, often unable to find bipartisan compromise. What has that to do with legislative working groups? For conservatives, an intellectual transatlantic discourse among center-right political parties about conservatism in the 21st century can lead to new insights on how to find policy solutions that promote economic prosperity, individual freedom, traditional values and small government without pandering to right-wing extremists and populists. Where a responsible, big-tent conservative party succeeds, right-wing extremists lose. To foster a common understanding of conservatism across the Atlantic is therefore imperative in order to find ways to resist the populist temptation. Those working groups can advance such an exchange of political philosophies.
On the other hand, liberals from both sides of the Atlantic need to acknowledge the ideological diversity within the Republican Party: moderates, libertarians, social conservatives and foreign policy hawks stand for diverse ideas. A wholesale dismissal of right-of-center voters by liberals will only increase the conservative commitment to radical ideas and prevent any meaningful debate. To paint political opponents as “the enemy” is not just democratically doubtful (democracy depends on the exchange of different ideas), but also politically short-sighted (long-lasting policy solutions are bipartisan solutions). A transatlantic dialogue fostered through new forums such as legislative working groups can boost bipartisan reforms on issues such as criminal justice reform, tax reform, infrastructure spending or foreign policy, and encourage mutual trust across the aisle. And it will lead European decision-makers to understand why their partners across the Atlantic act how they act.
To keep the ideas of 1776 and 1789 fit for the 21st century and to modernize the transatlantic narrative, deeper cross-cultural as well as cross-ideological links are indispensible. Let us start now, so that Edmund Burke’s verdict from 1790 that in certain times “[…] Moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards; and compromise as the prudence of traitors” does not become reality on both sides of the Atlantic.