Florida is a bizarre state. Not only is it different in extreme from the rest of the country; different parts of Florida are different in the extreme from each other. It just should not work. But somehow it does. Every so often somebody idly proposes splitting the state, but it’s never gone anywhere. Ditto secession. Despite the enthusiasm with which non-Americans jump on news of secession movements in California, Texas, Hawaii and Vermont, none of them show even the slightest sign of going anywhere.
Why then is the European Union in trouble or the United Kingdom under threat? It isn’t political oppression, despite what the people in England (regards Europe) or Scotland (regards England) might tell you. Both polities are acceptably democratic, no matter what objections you might have to the constitutional particulars. Is it language? Obviously not in the case of the United Kingdom, and almost-certainly not in the case of the people demanding Brexit, since the European Union has done nothing to weaken English. (Nor any other language; quite the reverse, by demanding full translations from everything into everything.)
So what is it? Why is the U.K. under strain and why is the E.U. under strain? The obvious answer is that the cultural splits in Europe are much bigger than their equivalents in the United States.
Alberto Alesina (Harvard), Guido Tabellini (Bocconi), and Francesco Trebbi (U. of British Columbia) decided to answer that question. What did they find? Well, simply put, cultural differences within Europe are less than within the United States. You got that? Texans and New Yorkers differ more in their beliefs about family, religion, trust, sexuality and the state than do Castillians and Dutch or Greeks and Germans. Moreover, cultural differences within European states are bigger than the differences between European states.
(Amusingly, you can use their methodology to compute the most European part of Europe. You get Germany and Austria. But you also get the Belgium, the Netherlands, and oddly enough big chunks of Spain and Portugal. So much for stereotypes.)
A comparison between the E.U. and the U.S. suggests that fundamental cultural differences among Americans are not bigger than that amongst Europeans. Along this dimension, if Americans can share a well functioning federal union, so could Europeans. Needless to say, the United States had 250 years of nation building and 150 years have gone by from the Civil War. Europe has had a much shorter common history and only 70 years have gone by since the last inter-European war. Americans share a common language and geographic mobility in the U.S. has been much higher than within Europe, or even within individual European countries. Mobility helped creating a melting pot and thus a common identity, but apparently did not dampen cultural heterogeneity.
In other words, you are left with nationalism as a defining force by itself. Which leaves you with two possible implications:
- It might be easier to build a European polity than the current troubles imply;
- Building any multinational polity is impossible. Two political communities can be identical in every respect, but as long as they define themselves as nations then it will be very hard to create a shared polity;
- We are reading too much into all this. The stability of the United States and the problems of the United Kingdom are both contingent. Give the U.S. a few bad breaks or give the U.K. better politicos and none of this would be happening.
Thoughts? It certainly seems as if nationalism has a mysterious strength of its own. But maybe not! Maybe it is all on (3): political communities grow and disintegrate in hinky contingent ways; nationalism follows (or doesn’t.) Frex, you can’t get the near-identical West Indies to unite but you have no problem holding the unbelievably diverse United States together.