Coming from the UK, I find the American political scene particularly interesting. It offers a level of theater, hilarity, depression, and confusion that no other country can match. I have been an American for almost three years, and I have spent over half my life here. I love the U.S., yet there are some aspects of the country I know I will never be able to understand or fully comprehend. This feeling is exemplified during election cycles. Given that in the coming months foreign media will continue to cover the presidential race, I thought it worth listing the top five issues that most set America apart from Europe culturally and politically, and explain why they will continue to define the differences between Americans and European nations for years to come.
1. Religion. Anyone from Europe who has traveled to the U.S. cannot help be struck at the religiosity of America. Not only do more Americans claim to be part of a religion or believe in a God per capita than those in Europe, but religion plays a huge part in American life. Debates over the teaching of evolution, same sex marriage, and school prayer that take place in the U.S. are almost completely alien to other countries in the Europe.
2. Death Penalty. The United States is the only Western nation that retains the death penalty. In Europe, this is an issue that is the source of much anger towards the U.S. Capital punishment in most of the West outside of the U.S. is widely considered barbaric. The U.S. was one of nine countries that have executed criminals who committed the capital offense when they were juveniles. Despite the fact that all of America’s closest allies have abolished the death penalty, it continues to enjoy broad popular support in America.
3. Guns. Most people in Europe cannot understand the almost religious connection Americans have to firearms. It is viewed as absurd that the number of shootings in America is not met with more restrictive gun laws. Attitudes such as these do not necessarily come from an anti-gun prejudice, Switzerland, Finland, and Sweden all have high rates of gun ownership. It is the relative ease with which one can buy a gun and the range of weapons available that causes the most confusion abroad.
4. Reverence of the military. The United States has a special relationship with its military, unlike any other country. Military uniforms are worn in public, and members of the armed forces receive discounts for a wide range of public services. Immigrants to the U.S. who have green cards can have their citizenship applications fast-tracked if they serve in the military. While Europeans do have respect for their respective militaries, it is not as obvious or as institutionalized. This might be because of the number of wars the U.S. has been involved in since World War II.
5. Abortion. While abortion remains controversial in some parts of Europe, America is unique in regards to the amount of political capital placed on the issue. Whole lobby groups and think-tanks are dedicated to both the pro-life and pro-choice cause, and on the campaign trail, a candidate’s position on abortion can be a deal breaker for voters.
None of these issues looks likely to go away. In the U.S., conservatism remains the dominant ideology, and issues such as guns, the death penalty, abortion, and religion are entrenched not only in culture, but also to a large extent in politics, with the Constitution and the distribution of power amongst the states a barrier to serious reforms on these issues.
While America might be different to Europe in some important areas, it is important for Europeans in particular to not forget that the similarities do outnumber the differences.
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