Without doing a long sociological study, I believe that greater European political sophistication (and less idiocy - though there is certainly plenty to go around, witness Le Pen in France, right wing quasi-fascist nationalism in the Serbian countries, etc) has to do with a number of factors:
1. They have a longer and more recent association with working class struggles than do Americans. Though much weaker than they once were, socialist and communist parties are both in power in several places (socialists in Spain), communists in a few hundred cities throughout France, Italy and in other countries, and most European countries have unions that still exert far greater influence on economic events than is true in America.
2. Europe has seen two world wars rage across it. Hardly anyone here, including the British, who were bombed extensively, has been untouched by it. Fascism never touched America in the same way, in spite of the number of American deaths during WW II.
3. Large numbers of Europeans travel internally, speak more than one language (several in some cases), and thus have developed a much broader international outlook than that developed by the more or less continuing provincialism of the vast majority of Americans.
4. European media is much more open to being critical of leaders than is American media. American media fears not having access to a candidate. If, for example, the corporate owners of American media conglomerates should let too many of their reporters and commentators really nail McCain-Palin on the issues and on their lies, and, heaven forbid, they should get ELECTED, they might not have ACCESS. So their motto is, I believe, "don't bite the hand that might feed." (Since access is their bread and butter.) Most European commentators are fairly open in their political views (not all, but many more than in the States. During the last election I was in the UK when the results were coming in, and commentators on almost every station were saying substantially the same thing - "What's going on with the Americans? They must be nuts to vote for that guy Bush again.")
5. And yes, far fewer Americas travel than Europeans (though again, a lot of Europeans travel internally).
Europe is not without problems. TV watching is big and addictive here just like there. There are almost as many dumb programs (but a much higher number of quality programs as well). This (France) is also very much a consumer society. But it's someone less focused on big splashy cars and huge TVs (though there are those as well) and more on things like family vacations, seeing that the kids are well prepared for college and careers, etc.
Most Europeans are aghast that America doesn't have a national health plan in place. Here (in France and most of Europe) it's taken as a national RIGHT. Most also know that in terms of overall quality of life - health care, education, environment, standard of living, all the other things that go into making up "the good life," that America (contrary to what most Americans believe) is not #1 (Actually, France is). America, depending on which report one reads, is either #3, 4, 5 or 6 in line).
Are we happier living in Europe? On the whole, yes. But neither Jeanne nor I were unhappy in America.
Our greater happiness, I guess, comes more from what we do than from the actual conditions of life. Because the conditions of our lives here are more or less the same as they were in the States, in terms of standard of living. Some things are much less expensive (health care, for example: Jeanne had to pay about $6000 per year for an "ex-pat" policy for major medical in California. And that one had a $5000 deductible PER INCIDENT. Since she's a member of the EU (as are all Brits), she gets the same health benefits she'd get in the UK - which is about 80% (like Medicare), and spouses, even if they're not EU citizens, get the same benefits. To make up the difference we pay an annual "top up" policy of about $1500 for the BOTH of us. When we go for a doctor visit (GP) we pay a flat 23 Euros. (about $32). More for specialists We get about 75% of that back from the top up plan. Except for a very few things, all medication is included in the top up plan, so it's virtually free.
Food in restaurants are more expensive in general. Food in supermarkets is about the same, but there are a lot of items that the French consider "essential" that are very low in cost (bread, wine of course, canned veggies, etc). Gas is very high (about $7.00 a gallon).
We left the U.S. for a number of very specific reasons:
1. Why do the same thing all our lives? (That's one thing that was very important for us.)
2. Jeanne has family in the UK and she can see them more often. (You can literally fly from here to the UK for as little as about $2.00 sometimes - plus taxes, bringing it to about $25.), because a low cost Irish airline, RyanAir, would rather fill seats in the off season than have an empty airplane, since they fly back and forth to several French airports several times a day.
3. We are central to lots of places to drive to. Barcelona, about 7 hours, Paris about 6, etc, etc. (We've been to Spain once since we've been here, are going again in October, and have also been to Paris and Berlin. Aside from about three trips to the UK and two back to the States - which is getting very expensive now for air fare).
4. We like France a good deal. We live in an area of gently rolling hills, farms, small quaint villages, very friendly people for the most part, and etc. Lots of nature (France is more than 40% forest land).
European v. American political consciousness: II
Here's another response to my friend Don Monkerud's query, about differences in political awareness and attitudes between Europeans and people in the U.S. This from Dan Bessie, in France: