Why America Radicalizes Brits

In its successes and failures, its wealth and dilapidation, the United States infects many of those who visit.

An American flag, but the red stripes are instead red arms and fists.
The Atlantic

The United States has a strange power over Britain, radicalizing Brits who spend any time in its embrace—for the British, there’s no other place like it.

Europe, the idea and the reality, has challenged and polarized Britain for half a century, but mainly on practical and constitutional grounds—whether the U.K. should belong to Europe or stand apart from it. With David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on British membership of the European Union, this question became immediate and existential. Distant America is neither. And yet the very idea of it exerts a hold that seems to only grow with experience, radicalizing even the most mild-mannered of Brits who venture there, in a way France, Germany, Italy, or Australia does not.

The idea of America has always been political: the wealth and opportunity as some see it, the injustice and individualism as others prefer. With Brexit this has only become more pronounced. The U.S. has been held up by one side of the argument as an opportunity to grasp, and by the other as the danger of what might become. To ardent leavers, it offers the hope of free trade without constitutional entanglement; to many remainers, it means subservience to a greater power, chlorinated chicken, and privatized health care.

This hold that the U.S. has on the British political debate mirrors that which it seems to have on a raft of British politicos who went there and came back radicalized (or indeed simply stayed there, never to return). While I’d like to claim credit for this observation, it is, like most journalistic insights, something someone else noted once upon a time, which I can no longer find. It was a line that stuck and, once lodged, began to chime again and again.

An endless number of influential British figures have been enthralled by their experience across the Atlantic, including former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and ex-Labour Party leader Ed Miliband on the left, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the right. Both Brown and Miliband are huge fans of the U.S. because it made them feel free, their friend and former adviser Stewart Wood told me. And yet they both thought individual liberty had been prized too highly over equality, he noted. Tony Blair liked the U.S. preference for private enterprise over public works, Wood said, while Brown loved its “Madisonian constitutionalism.” For Johnson, born and brought up in the U.S. in his early childhood, the country represents liberty and energy, verve and vigor. He may be high European in his cultural tastes—preferring ancient Greek and the classics to Hollywood—but the idea of America stirs him.

Gerard Baker, the British editor at large of The Wall Street Journal, has spoken of his own political evolution from left-wing student to arch capitalist after visiting both the Soviet Union and the U.S. in the 1980s. In 1986, he traveled to Moscow and was struck by its “drab uniformity.” A few months later he went to New York, “with all its colour and diversity.” Baker recalled that “whatever remaining doubts I might have had about the relative virtues of the capitalist system versus the communist system were removed.” Christopher Hitchens is another obvious example, transformed from outspoken Marxist opponent of U.S. foreign policy to iconoclastic supporter of American intervention.

Having spent quite a bit of time in the U.S. over the years, I felt as if I understood intellectually how this might happen. You don’t have to live in the U.S. to know that it is a land of wealth and poverty, opportunity and prejudice, freedom and mass incarceration. If any one of these things happens to be a particular passion, seeing how views might harden is easy. In the U.S., after all, none of these things is very far from the surface—unlike the English class system, endless and subtle in its hold, America wears its complexities for all to see, projecting them to the world in an endless diet of film and music, on Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon Prime.

Yet only on a recent trip to the U.S. did I begin to feel America’s peculiar effect, not just understand it. I had no great epiphanies. I did not discover something profound after a week driving through the Midwest and its surround. That the car is king, food is fast, and race is an issue are not observations likely to win me a Pulitzer. But what I did notice on this trip was a feeling in myself that I think explains the U.S.’s radicalizing power: on the one hand, a sense of awe at the country’s energy and positivity, its enduring ability to regenerate itself; and on the other, a sense of abandoned hopelessness that runs very close.

I’d seen rich and poor America before, of course: the endless suburban wealth in places such as Atlanta, Georgia, and Austin, Texas, as well as the deprivation of Clarksdale, Mississippi. But the contrast between deindustrialized Youngstown, Ohio and reimagined Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, just an hour apart, told the story of America’s hold on the British imagination better than anywhere I’d been before.

Take Pittsburgh first. Here was a place known as the Steel City: gritty, industrial, blue-collar—and, like most such cities, declining from the 1980s as its heavy industry closed, its companies relocated, and its population fell. The story is wearily similar to that of many cities in the U.K., including Liverpool and Newcastle, Birmingham and Glasgow. Yet, like other American cities (though unlike many in Britain), Pittsburgh has successfully reinvented itself as a tech hub, with booming incomes despite a still-falling population—and is now ranked as one of the most livable cities in the world.

Had any English city so successfully regenerated itself, I wondered? Manchester, perhaps the most successful one outside London, was doing well, but could not be said to boast anywhere near as much wealth, or as diverse an economy, as Pittsburgh. According to official European Union figures, the average GDP per capita in Greater Manchester is £30,500, or about $39,700—10 percent below the EU average. In Pittsburgh, it’s more than £46,000, or $59,000, which is similar to the wealthy “Home Counties” near London.

Pittsburgh is the kind of city that stirs sympathy for America’s embrace of the creative destruction of free markets. Its success asks questions of Britain’s failures to achieve the same kind of economic generation. Put simply: Why aren’t more of our cities like Pittsburgh?

But that’s only one side of the story. The other comes in the hollowed-out city centers of old, deindustrialized Ohio. I went to two, Canton and Youngstown, each shocking in its own way and like nothing I’ve seen in England. In the dilapidation and hopeless poverty of some of their inner-city neighborhoods, both were unmistakably, obviously American—even though within a 10-minute drive of these areas, you would hardly know it.

In England, poverty and discrimination, like the class system, are less obvious, even if they are just as pervasive. The poor pit villages of the northeast wear their economic abandonment better; they kept going through better welfare, more state employment, and higher transfers of central-government income to maintain schools, roads, and other services in an area that has lost its economic reason for existing.

Of course, both small-town Ohio and big-city Pennsylvania are America. Academically, I already knew that, but feeling it is different. The question I Ieft with was whether you can have the creativity without the destruction, or does a country have to accept the abandonment of Youngstown to get the creative boom of Pittsburgh? If you stymie the bust, as in Britain, do you also stymie the boom? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I can see why people—Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband, Boris Johnson, and countless others—move to America and feel that they do, one way or another.