Euroscepticism, Public opinion

How Bad is the EU’s “Communitarian Deficit” Compared to the US’s Shared Identity?

Caspar van den Berg

Whenever the European Union does not function the way we would hope a political community would function, there is a temptation turn to the absence of a shared European culture or identity as an explanation. If only Europeans would have a stronger sense of an European-wide “imagined community” (Anderson, 1991; 2006), there would be more popular support for the EU’s political system, there would be a greater economic and financial solidarity across member states, and an EU systems of taxation and defense would be less sensitive and problematic. Amitai Ezioni recently phrased the argument as follows: “[t]he insufficient sharing of values and bonds – not the poor representative mechanism – is a major cause of alienation from ‘Brussels’ and limits the normative commitment to make sacrifices for the common good” (Etzioni, 2013: 312).

In this discussion, the comparison is often made with the US, the only other political community that roughly resembles the EU in terms of population and territorial size and liberal-democratic principles. The US is often thought of as a polity with a strong sense of “imagined community” that is internally coherent and externally unique, and one which newcomers relatively easily buy into (Wright, 2011). That shared cultural identity is all the more admirable given that America’s ethnic and religious diversity is arguably larger than the EU’s is.

The stronger internal solidarity and implicit support for the political system in the US is for instance illustrated by the fact that wealth transfers through the federal tax system and spending programs take place on a large scale from the North to the South and Midwest, but they are seldom cited as problematic, let alone protested (The Economist, 2011). These wealth transfers are rarely mentioned as troubling, let alone protested (Etzioni, 2013: 314.).

By contrast, much smaller transfers within the EU, for instance from Northern countries to Southern ones and to Ireland, are currently rousing storms of protest and work towards the advantage of the anti-EU parties in the national arena’s of the member states and probably also in the European election of next year (see Mueller, 2013). Whereas these wealth transfers are seen as relatively normal in the US, in the EU they raise questions about the legitimacy of the polity as such. Apparently, the US, despite its polarization along partisan lines and despite its generally greater popular anti-government culture, succeeds in mobilizing greater internal solidarity and greater diffuse support for federal-level governing institutions than does the EU.

In this contribution, we explore how different or alike the US and the EU are in terms of their sense of “imagined community”, i.e. a “socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group” (Anderson, 1991: 224). How strong should such a community be in order to sustain either a federal union in the case of the US, or an economically integrated polity in the case of the EU? Is an insufficient sense of imagined community the cause of the EU’s lack of popular support and effectiveness in certain policy areas? Is worrying about the EU’s democratic deficit therefore pointless if not first the “communitarian deficit”, as Etzioni puts it, is addressed?

In order to answer these questions, some conceptual grounding is helpful. Firstly, it is generally accepted that a well-functioning political system needs to be underpinned by the diffuse support of the population over which it exerts authority (Easton, 1965; Moravcsik, 2002). Diffuse support is distinguished from specific support for any given policy, and understood as “allegiance, attachment or loyalty to governing institutions” (Gabel, 1998: 17). That diffuse support is to a considerable extent, but not exclusively[1], driven by the sense among the population that they together form a community (Hooghe and Marks, 2004), and are “engaged in a shared enterprise” (Mitchell, 2013: 2). For political systems of continental scale and which demand large transfers of wealth from one part of the territory to another, there is an additional complication: the functioning of the system depends on a substantial degree of internal solidarity. That internal solidarity is in turn strongly dependent on the degree to which the population feels they together form a community engaged in a shared enterprise (Fligstein, 2008).

Secondly, when we talk about imagined communities, the opposing analytical constructs of “Diversity within Unity” and “Unity in Diversity” are useful. Both constructs reflect a view on cultural and political community, where the former places greater stress on unity and the latter more on diversity. “Diversity within Unity” signifies that there is a collective baseline of respect for and adherence to basic values and institutions that are considered part of the shared framework of society. At the same time, every group in society is free to main its distinct subculture – those values, traditions, habits, and institutions that do not conflict with the shared core. In short, the unifying set core values must always trump the particular cultures of the sub-groupings in order for the community to be thick and robust, but beyond that, diversity is generously accepted. (Ignatieff, 1993; Geddes, 1996).

By contrast, the model of “Unity in Diversity” signifies a type of integration in which diversity is taken as the collective’s starting point and which assumes that in creating a shared identity, diversity is not the problem but rather the solution. A shared commitment to preserving the subgroupings’ cultural heritages is considered to be enough to constitute a new community. In this cosmopolitan view, “Europe must be understood as plural – as societies, it must be understood in additive, or, at best, comparative terms” (Beck, 2005: 109).  European unity should not be sought in an idea of a European nation. Rather, this view contends that the persistence of the member states’ nations is the condition of a cosmopolitan Europe; and that “the more secure and confirmed Europeans feel in their national dignity, the less they will shut themselves off in their nation-states” (Beck, 2005: 116).

At face value, the United States seems to be built on a sufficiently strong internal solidarity to sustain large scale interregional transfers of wealth. But to what extent do Americans of different parts of the country perceive themselves really as part of the same community, engaged in a shared enterprise? Recent research suggests that regional variety in terms of political and social values is stark to the extent that the US should in political and cultural terms not be seen as one nation, but as a conglomerate of 11 distinct nations (Woodard, 2012).

The idea that there has never been an America, but rather several Americas is relatively old (Philips, 1969; Garreau, 1982; Hacket Fisher, 1989; Shorto, 2005). Yet Woodard’s book shows that when looking at a set of relevant variables at the county level – rather than the state level – including the distribution of linguistic dialects, the spread of cultural artifacts, the prevalence of different religious denominations, and the breakdown of voting in virtually very hotly contested presidential race in the history of the US, the borders of eleven American nations become clearly visible. That is not to say that each region has one exclusive culture, but that each region has a dominant culture, which embeds its residents within a cultural framework of deep-seated preferences and attitudes. The lasting cultural cleavages can be explained based on historical settlement patterns. [2] According to Woodard, the 11 nations are Yankeedom, New Netherland, the Midlands, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, Deep South, El Norte, the Left Coast, the Far West and New France. They will be described in key phrases below, taken from Woodard’s work.[3]

picture A

Source: Tufts Magazine

Yankeedom was founded by radical Calvinists as a new Zion, and has cultural traits related to perfecting earthly civilization through social engineering, denial of self for the common good, assimilation of outsiders, and a greater tolerance of government regulation and public sector social projects that many of the other nations. New Netherland was established by the Dutch and has cultural straits related to a global commerce: materialistic, with profound tolerance for ethnic and religious diversity, a center of publishing, trade and finance, a magnet for immigrants and a refuge for those persecuted by other regional cultures.

The Midlands was founded by English Quakers, and has cultural traits related to humans’ inherent goodness, welcoming people of many nations and creeds to their utopian colonies. Pluralistic and organized around the middle class, the Midlands spawned the culture of Middle America and the Heartland, where ethnic and ideological purity have never been a priority, government has been seen as an unwelcome intrusion, and political opinion has been moderate. Tidewater was built by the younger sons of southern English gentry and has cultural traits related to semi-feudal society of the countryside they had left behind. Tidewater places a high value on respect for authority and tradition, and very little on equality or public participation in politics.

Greater Appalachia was founded in the early eighteenth century by wave upon wave of settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of Northern Ireland, northern England, and the Scottish lowlands. It transplanted a culture formed in a state of near constant danger and upheaval, characterized by a warrior ethic and a commitment to personal sovereignty and individual liberty. Intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers alike, Greater Appalachia has shifted alliances depending on who appeared to be the greatest threat to their freedom. The Deep South was established by English slave lords from Barbados, and meant as a West Indies–style slave society, where democracy was the privilege of the few and enslavement the natural lot of the many. Its caste systems smashed by outside intervention, it continues to fight against expanded federal powers, taxes on capital and the wealthy, and environmental, labor, and consumer regulations.

El Norte is the oldest of the American nations, and consists of the borderlands of the Spanish American empire. Hispanic language, culture, and societal norms dominate. Norteños have a reputation for being exceptionally independent, self-sufficient, adaptable, and focused on work. The Left Coast culture is a hybrid of Yankee utopianism and Appalachian self-expression and exploration—traits recognizable in its cultural production, from the Summer of Love to the iPad. The Far West’s people are often resentful of their dependent status, feeling that they have been exploited as an internal colony for the benefit of the seaboard nations. Of late, Far Westerners have focused their anger on the federal government, rather than their corporate masters.

New France blends the folkways of ancien régime northern French peasantry with the traditions and values of the aboriginal people they encountered in northeastern North America. Its people have emerged as down-to-earth, egalitarian, and consensus driven, among the most liberal on the continent, with unusually tolerant attitudes toward gays and people of all races and a ready acceptance of government involvement in the economy. First Nation is populated by native American groups that generally never gave up their land by treaty and have largely retained cultural practices and knowledge that allow them to survive in this hostile region on their own terms.

These historically ingrained regional-national differences play out in values and attitudes towards issues including violence, capital punishment, taxation, regulations, social services, marriage equality, federal powers and general government intervention in social and economic life. Woodard sees the cultural gulf between Appalachia and Yankeedom, Deep South and New Netherland as too large and divisive to reach consensus on these issues. Yet apparently, none of this stands in the way of a shared civic-nationalist identity and sense of imagined community holding up the federal state.

What do we see when we project this onto the European continent? While the stakes and the content of the differences and rivalries between the nations are markedly different in Europe compared to the US, at a constellation-level the analogy is quite striking: Woodard’s study and others suggest that the US is, much more than one nation, “a patchwork of separate nations, each with its own origins and prevailing values”. That already sounds reasonably similar to what the EU is.

But a deeper discussion of the political implications of the politically and culturally separate US nations reveals that the various regions find each other in changing coalitions and alliances vis-à-vis different political topics. “Among the eleven regional cultures, there are two superpowers, nations with the identity, mission and number to shape continental debate: Yankeedom and Deep South” (Woodard, 2012). It goes further in discerning Yankee-led bloc that includes New Netherland and the Left Coast in opposition to a bloc that contains the Deep South, Greater Appalachia, Tidewater and the Far West. A European analogy would probably talk about the two superpowers as Germany and France, with a Germany-led bloc that also included the Benelux and the Scandinavian countries in opposition to a Southern bloc including the countries formerly referred to as the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain).

So, it seems that the US and the EU are both patchworks of separate nations with markedly different values and political viewpoints across its regions. Then the question remains why the Americans find enough that binds them together to maintain a reasonably uncontested political community and to accept large interregional fiscal transfers, while the Europeans do not.

While the American melting pot model in its ideal form seems to conform to the “Diversity within Unity” model, Woodard’s research shows that in reality the core of cultural and political values, to which all Americans adhere may be smaller than the doctrine would like us to believe. But without this shared sense of imagined community the US would probably not be a country. So notwithstanding the regionally defined national cultures of the US, there is another layer of cultural identity that unites all 11 nations, and which guarantees the functioning of the Union. Woodard focusses on the differences, and underemphasizes the commonalities, let alone the multi-layered nature of cultural identity. Woodard sees 11 distinct national cultures, whereas it would probably be more accurate to talk about 11 distinct subnational cultures or 11 distinct national subcultures. In other words, the construct of “Diversity within Unity” does seem a justified way to typify the US reality.

This reality is nicely illustrated by the culinary choices during the holiday of Thanksgiving this weekend. While the basic dishes and ingredients are the same from East to West en from North to South, tastes differ as to how they are prepared (Economist, 2013).

picture B

Source: The Economist,[4]

Where does this leave Europe? Certainly the US-type “Diversity within Unity” does not apply to Europe. The latest Eurobarometer results show that only 62 percent of the population of the EU feel they are a citizens of the EU, and 38 percent of the population of the EU still identify exclusively as the nationality of their member state. Moreover, 60 percent of the Europeans “tend to not trust” the European Union. In addition, large cross-national differences persist when asked about the values which are the most important for them (Eurobarometer79, 2013: 48-51).  Other indicators of a sense of European community point to a similarly low degree: Less than half of Europeans have socialized with people from another EU country during the twelve months preceding the survey, the proportion of Europeans who have visited another EU country during the last twelve months is 39 percent and the 22 percent of Europeans have used the Internet to buy a product or service in another EU country in the past year. Based on these figures, it is perhaps even doubtful whether “Unity in Diversity” applies, the phrase that nominally is the EU’s motto. While the “Unity in Diversity” model claims to be able to combine the call for the recognition of differences and the call for integration of divergencies, whether the latter is happening at the moment is up for debate.

So, while it seems fair to suggest that both the US and the EU are a patchwork of nations under an overarching political system, the threads and seams that hold the patches together are of a quite different nature. The American models resembles the “Diversity within Unity” model more closely if not as closely as the national doctrine would suggest, in the sense that over and above the national-regional cultures, there is a sense of shared civic citizenship, based on adherence to legal norms and a minimum of shared moral values and affective ties. The European model is more grounded in persistent high levels of diversity.

This discussion has shown that the US political system would unlikely be able to stand on diversity alone. Especially if some parts of the country have to make sacrifices for the community and the common good, a core of unity and belief in a shared destiny seems instrumental. Also, we know that European integration does by no means automatically give rise to supranational identity, and a more robust European imagined community seems necessary before deeper or wider integration should be undertaken.

On a more optimistic note, the fact that the relatively strong national-regional cultures in the US do not inherently or systematically seem to undermine the strength of the federal political system, neither through low levels of diffuse support for the idea of federal governing institutions or low internal solidarity, supports the notion that a strong member-state national identification in European does not necessarily preclude European identification or support, and that the key to a stronger imagined European community is in the kindling of a layered and inclusive “European-plus-national” identity roughly similar to the layered and inclusive “American-plus-regional” identity has taken shape.



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Beck, U. (2005) “Re-Inventing Europe: A Cosmopolitan Vision’, Quaderns de la Mediterrania 10: 109-116.

Bishop, B. and R. Cushing (2008) The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. Houghton Mifflin

Economist (2011) ‘America’s Fiscal Union: The Red And The Black’, The Economist

Economist (2013) ‘Gobble, Gobble: How The Thanksgiving Day Plate Varies Across America’, The Economist,

Etzioni, A. (2013) “The EU: The Communitarian Deficit”, in: European Societies, 15:3, 312-330.

Easton, D. (1965) A Systems Analysis of Political Life. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

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Mueller, J.W. (2013) “How Europe Could Face its on Shutdown: Just as the Tea Party has Paralyzed Congress, an Alliance of Populist Anti-EU Parties Could Force Europe into Gridlock” The Guardian, 21 October 2013.

Philips, K. (1969) The Emerging Republican Majority. Arlington House

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[1] Other factors being e.g. perception of representation and institutional fairness and justice (see Scharpf, 2009).

[2] While it seems plausible that the US’ high degree of cross-regional mobility would over time dissolve at least some these regional differences, in effect mobility has over time reinforced the differences, as people increasingly sort themselves into like-minded communities, a phenomenon analyzed by Bill bishop and Robert Cushing in The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (2008).


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