For five years, ever since George W. Bush entered the White House, it's been an axiom of international affairs that in comparison with the U.S., Europe is socially and politically liberal. In many ways, that is still true. But changes in the political climate have a habit of creeping up on you, like a light breeze before a storm. And enough has happened or, rather, become visible in Europe this year to wonder whether that truism is still accurate. Last week, I heard one of Britain's most experienced commentators describe this year's Conservative Party conference as "young and sparky." The Tories, sparky? What happened to the comatose bunch of wrinklies with as much spark as a soggy book of matches? Of course, there were plenty of them at the conference, too, but the merest hint that it might soon be fashionable to be young and conservative in Britain confirms the significance of other developments. There's the retirement of Joschka Fischer, the iconic figure of the politics of rebellion; the discovery that many young European Catholics are more traditionally devout than their parents; even, perhaps, the rejection by younger voters of the draft E.U. constitution in the Dutch and French referendums. Put all that together and you can detect the start of something new.
To a remarkable degree, the intellectual climate of Western Europe continues to be set by the convulsions of the 1960s. That's understandable. Those heady days on the streets of Berlin, Paris and a score of other cities helped turn ossified
cultures into creative ones. The politics of liberation transformed personal lives. In Germany especially, the young's impatience with the complicit evasions of their elders enabled a nation to face up to its past with a rare honesty. Even at the time, not all '60s beliefs and behavior stood up to examination. Some sacred texts were junk. (Have you tried to read Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth lately? Don't.) And when, in Germany and Italy, the street politics of the 1960s gave way to the urban terrorism of the 1970s, the idea of a decade of peace and love seemed a bitter joke.
But it is not because of their faults that the ideas of the '60s have lost some salience. It is because of their success. Rudi Dutschke, the German '60s student leader, coined the phrase "the long march through the institutions" to define his generation's ambitions, and by the time Fischer was sworn into office in 1998, such ambitions had been consummated beyond anything of which Dutschke could have dreamed. Everyone knows that some of the great social transformations with roots in the 1960s are with us forever. "The girls in St. Peter's Square who cheer the Pope have the pill in their pockets," Karl Cardinal Lehmann, head of the German Bishop's Conference, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung earlier this year. The Greens may have had a disappointing result in the German election, but environmentalism remains a core European value.
And there, perhaps, is the point. So much of '60s dogma has become mainstream that young Europeans have nothing to protest about. Rebellion has been transformed into angst. The politics of passion has given way to quotidian worries about jobs, pay and pensions. (You can't despise capitalism and enjoy the consumerist heaven to which young Europeans aspire.) Grand schemes no longer engender devotion or, if they do, do so for a brief moment, preferably one (like this year's Live 8 concerts) that involves rock music. It is this dismissal of the big idea, surely, that lies behind young voters' rejection of the E.U. constitution. For their parents, the E.U., with its promise of ever closer union between nations that had recently been at war, was a glorious cause. But for those under 35, the E.U. is not an earthly paradise in the making, but an unremarkable fact of life. Give it a constitution, with all the usual high-tone preambles? Like, why bother?
A certain ennui with the great causes of the past, of course, does not translate into the sort of big C, red-in-tooth-and-claw conservatism familiar in the U.S. Labor market reform may be the watchword of European governments from Greece to Scandinavia, but defense of the "European social model" remains a potent rallying cry. Bush is still a figure of hate and ridicule. But something is happening in Europe, in its economics, social policies and beliefs. In the absence of big ideas, Europeans seem prepared to settle for conservatism with a small c.