In the third item of his Friday column, Andrew Sullivan offers a pretty strong explainer on the psychological politics of Brexit, to help Americans understand it by analogy. He says that it’s frustrating to read about Brexit in the US media, because they never seem to explain to Americans why Brexit happened in the first place. They simply assume that it’s foolish and bad. Well, says Sullivan — who says he would have voted against Brexit — consider what it would have meant in American terms with this thought experiment:
The U.S. negotiated with Canada and Mexico to create a free trade zone called NAFTA, just as the U.K. negotiated entry to what was then a free trade zone called the “European Economic Community” in 1973. Now imagine further that NAFTA required complete freedom of movement for people across all three countries. Any Mexican or Canadian citizen would have the automatic right to live and work in the U.S., including access to public assistance, and every American could live and work in Mexico and Canada on the same grounds. This three-country grouping then establishes its own Supreme Court, which has a veto over the U.S. Supreme Court. And then there’s a new currency to replace the dollar, governed by a new central bank, located in Ottawa.
How many Americans would support this? How many votes would a candidate for president get if he or she proposed it? The questions answer themselves. It would be unimaginable for the U.S. to allow itself to be governed by an entity more authoritative than its own government. It would signify the end of the American experiment, because it would effectively be the end of the American nation-state. But this is precisely the position the U.K. has been in for most of my lifetime. The U.K. has no control over immigration from 27 other countries in Europe, and its less regulated economy has attracted hundreds of thousands of foreigners to work in the country, transforming its culture and stressing its hospitals, schools and transportation system. Its courts ultimately have to answer to the European Court. Most aspects of its economy are governed by rules set in Brussels. It cannot independently negotiate any aspect of its own trade agreements. I think the cost-benefit analysis still favors being a member of the E.U. But it is not crazy to come to the opposite conclusion.
Well, if you put it that way, Brexit is a no-brainer, at least to me. I cannot imagine non-elite Americans accepting such a loss of sovereignty.
I get the same feeling reading US media coverage of the politics of European populism, both in western and central Europe. So much of the coverage takes for granted that the only reasons anybody votes for populist parties is racism or nativism. When you actually go there and talk to ordinary people — at least this has been my experience, in both western and central Europe — the picture gets a lot more complicated.
Earlier this week in Vienna, I met some Austrians in a cafe, and fell into a conversation about Hungarian PM Viktor Orban’s relationship with media in his own country. I told my Austrian interlocutor that I found the Hungarian government’s approach to media (for example) pretty troubling. He said yes, he understands, but what Americans usually don’t understand is how completely left-wing European media are.
You think this is true in America, he said, and it is, but not nearly to the extent that it is in Europe. Most countries have some form of state media, and its directors are political appointees. They are uniformly leftist. Even right-of-center governments typically don’t even bother trying to put their own people into politically appointed positions, because there are almost no conservative journalists in Europe, period. The Austrian explained that media culture there is not only dominated by the Left, but is wholly leftist.
The Austrian told me he wasn’t defending what the Orban government does, but only trying to help me understand why it’s not as alarming to many Europeans as Americans think it should be. If you are on the political or cultural right in Europe, he said, you know that you have next to no hope that your side will receive accurate and balanced coverage, in part because the European media don’t understand how uniformly leftist they are. In other words, they think that they are nonpartisan truth tellers, but right-of-center Europeans will tell you otherwise.
I had not thought about it from that point of view. To be clear, it doesn’t make what the illiberal ruling party in Hungary is doing right — from what I’ve been able to discern, its Fidesz-supported media law really is pretty awful — but it does make one realize that the story is more complicated than we in the US are likely to realize. (As a matter of fact, the first, and longest, item in Sullivan’s column is about how The New York Times has traded in old-fashioned liberalism for militant progressive activism.)
If you are any kind of religious or social conservative, you know well that you have little chance of being covered fairly, or at all, by the American media, given its liberal convictions. I think we have much more to worry about from the state restricting the media than we do from media bias, but to borrow a line from Sullivan, it’s not crazy to come to the opposite conclusion.
I would like to ask conservative European readers — Hungarians and otherwise — to come up with a Sullivan-like analogy to help us Americans understand what the media environment is like where you live.