If anyone is failing to “get” America these days, it’s Americans themselves. They don’t see that their country is rapidly becoming “normal,” unable to rely on infinite, widely shared economic growth and splendid geopolitical isolation. “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one,” the American historian Richard Hofstadter once said.
In comparing themselves with Europe, Americans prided themselves on the fact that “It can’t happen here” — namely, European socialism and European fascism. It viewed itself as immune to the pathologies of democracy: Crowds can go crazy in any other place in the world, but not in America, the land of common sense. But after the last years of extreme polarization and dysfunctional governance, are Americans still convinced that their democracy cannot be upended?
Now, when the “normalization” of America unfolds before our eyes, I have the feeling that many Europeans are getting nostalgic for the America we never really understood. This is the America that keeps so many of its young black people in prison, but that elects a black man president. An America that may still countenance the death penalty, but also protects the rights of immigrants. An America that doesn’t simply try to order the world, but that was once passionate to change it. An America with its blemishes, but also its promises. An America that was more ambitious, and less ambivalent. We are already missing it.