Friday, September 15, 2006

Median Anti-Americanism

A couple of European politicians who want to lead their governments are currently saying strange things. David Cameron, the leader of the opposition Conservatives in the UK, gave a speech (on September 11, of all dates) in which he decisively distanced himself from Tony Blair’s alliance with the tactics, although he assured us, not the goals of the US government in its response to Islamist terrorism. The section of the speech that has gotten the most attention, which Americans might find a little blunt for their tastes, is:

Britain does not need to establish her identity by recklessly poking the United States in the eye, as some like to do.

But we will serve neither our own, nor America's, nor the world's interests if we are seen as America's unconditional associate in every endeavour.

Our duty is to our own citizens, and to our own conception of what is right for the world.

We should be solid but not slavish in our friendship with America.

(The full text of the speech is here.)

Tony Blair has been destroyed by his standing with George Bush on Iraq. What Mr. Cameron's speech suggests is what is already widely known, that this sentiment is shared, not just within Mr. Blair’s Labor Party but throughout British society. (The third major British political party, the Liberal Democrats, has opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. The British would say "have opposed," but I don't want to get into that.) The development of this sentiment in the Conservative Party, and the willingness of conservative leaders to say it so publicly, is new.

Meanwhile, a French aspiring president, Nikolas Sarkozy, completed a tour of the US in which he says some very un-French things. Most prominently, that “I am not a coward. I am proud of this [American] friendship, and say it gladly.” (The story of his trip can be found in
The International Herald Tribune.) He praised, as he has in France, American entrepreneurial drive and social flexibility, something not typically heard from ambitious French politicians.

The politician' s problem of trying to select an optimal position on an issue to maximize his chances of reelection shares some similarities with the chain-store company's problem of how far apart to space its stores. Place them too close together, and they cannibalize each other’s sales; place them too far apart, and some customers roughly equidistant between them will refuse to go to either. But if the question is where companies are competing firms place their stores, the fact that transportation is costly may mean that competition tends to force the stores to cluster together.

If there are only two political parties, the politician who takes the leftmost position gets all of the voters to the left of that position, and all the voters at the halfway point between his position and that of his opponent. The converse is true for a politician of the right. If the distribution of voter preferences looks like a normal bell curve, each party is irresistibly pressured toward the middle. (If you’re not sure, draw a bell curve, plot two political stances on the horizontal axis, see who currently gets the most votes, and then think about the best response of the trailing politician.) In other words, a politician knows that if his position is to extreme, he loses a lot of votes in the center, and the center is where most of the votes are.

This is not exactly news to political consultants, but thinking about it formally in this way allows us to think about the current state of politics in Europe (if we think about “Europe” as a single political population, which is admittedly debatable). In particular, median anti-Americanism lies roughly halfway between what David Cameron is saying and what Nikolas Sarkozy is saying. While we have to be aware that in some countries (Belgium comes immediately to mind) anti-Americanism is far worse, this suggests that overall anti-Americanism in Europe is not as bad as is often asserted.


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