Last week the current American debate over the role of the federal government echoed in Europe.
The United Kingdom negotiated a deal allowing it to vote on remaining a member of the European Union (EU).
The EU is a voluntary group of states, like the U.S., but it is not a fully federal. In Europe, no country is forced to join, but, unlike this country, members may secede. Countries can quit the group and go it alone, if they don’t like EU policies.
The European situation recalls the pre-Civil War southern effort to allow individual states the right of “nullification,” blocking the effect of federal laws within their borders. Nullification was rejected, because upon joining the Union, a state had to accept the Constitution as it stood and the laws made under it.
In Europe, states entering the EU negotiate special terms for themselves. For example, even before its new deal, Britain kept its own currency while other members either use or are expected to adopt the euro as their currency.
The difference between the systems on the two sides of the Atlantic may be narrowing. As the power of the U.S. federal government is reduced, more control could be left in the hands of state governments.
If that process is pursued, it could produce much the same result as nullification. For example, some conservatives hope for a situation in which some states could ban same-sex marriage or abortions, while others did not.
Conservatives are the driving force behind the moves to weaken both the EU and the U.S. federal government. They stress national (Europe) or states’ (U.S.) rights over the benefits of common action on a wide range of issues.
In Europe, nationalistic movements are growing in many countries, including France, Poland and Hungary. British Conservatives, the ruling party, are split between pro-Europeans and an element sensitive to the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party. One might almost find their motto to be, “Make Britain Great Again.”
In the U.S., one writer recently suggested, “the nation has become Southernized just as much as the South has become nationalized. Political conservatism, the traditional creed of the white South, went from being presumed dead in 1964 to being a powerful force in national politics.”
The growth in anti-government conservatism, probably fueled somewhat by the election of an African-American president, has paved the way for at least one presidential candidate who is openly anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant. He is positioned so far from the center that, without embarrassment, he can support torture as an instrument of national policy.
Europe cannot come to grips with the problems of worker migration and a flood of refugees, people who have different ethnic or cultural backgrounds. Britain wants to offer fewer benefits to such people. Right-wing parties in many European countries gain support by opposing immigrants.
Similarly, the U.S. cannot resolve the question of undocumented or illegal immigrants who seek a better life and contribute to the economy, but are believed to be seeking welfare benefits or causing crime.
Perhaps more than any other, these problems fuel nationalism, causing people who feel threatened by government to turn against the authorities that allow immigration. This concern has probably become one of the major wedge issues in American politics.
The main question is whether people insist so strongly on their individual or national rights that they are willing to sacrifice benefits they obtain from central governments providing them services that are otherwise impossible or uneconomic.
The question is not easily answered. Both the EU and the U.S. federal government have sometimes gone far in extending their power. Many EU regulations go well beyond what is done federally in the U.S. The Commerce Clause in the U.S. Constitution has been greatly extended. These moves have made people uneasy.
As the 2004 book called “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” showed, many people vote against their own interests when they support conservatives who want to reduce the role of government. These voters believe their taxes are too high and government either is deadlocked or flat wrong on social issues.
European nationalists and many American conservatives share a rejection of strong central government but they do not offer alternatives that would produce the same results for people. Still, even if government action would improve matters, some people rally to the anti-government cause.
This year, the British referendum and the U.S. elections might send a message. On both sides of the Atlantic, voters are making a choice between government, which has greatly disappointed them, and the unknown.