One of my American friends has the impression that Europeans are much more "politically sophisticated" than Americans, and he has been asking me and other European residents why. So after pondering and writing up a response, I decided to post it here, because other people may be interested in joining the discussion.
I don't think Europeans generally are more sophisticated politically than Americans, though they are more aware and respectful of other countries -- for pretty obvious reasons. Countries are smaller, the foreigner is much closer. "Respect" doesn't mean "like" -- but it's a starting point. Every family in Carboneras (the southern Spanish town I live in) has at least one member who worked for years in France, or Germany, or Holland or some other country. A surprising number of barely educated people are bi- or even trilingual, just because of life experience. Those people tend to be tolerant and open-minded toward all other cultures, which is good.
But they are no more likely than ordinary Americans to have any coherent, critical understanding of the Big Issues that they are always being asked to vote on. Global warming, nuclear energy, national immigration policy (even people who have been emigrants themselves are likely to panic about "too many immigrants", esp. when the economy tightens), national economic policy, religion in schools (as hot an issue in Spain as in the U.S., with the difference being that here the Church -- which still has a big hold -- is on the defensive while in the U.S. the churches are on the offensive, trying to gain privileges like those the Catholic Church enjoys in Spain). The irrational right has been able to mobilize huge demonstrations to demand, among other things, the repeal of the law to teach basic citizenship (mainly tolerance of religious, racial and sexual differences) in the public schools, because only the Church has the right to discuss morality (and the Church's teachers should be paid by the State, i.e., all the taxpayers, whether religious or not). In the last legislature (2004-2008), they accused Zapatero of "destroying the family" because of laws recognizing homosexual marriage, abortion, etc. Now those same people -- a very large minority -- are outraged because a judge (Baltasar Garzón) is requiring ecclesiastical, state and military authorities to open their records so that families can find out when and how their loved ones were murdered during the civil war and Franco-ist postwar years, and where they are buried. None of this is sophisticated.
Before you overpraise the sophistication of European voters, it would be good to analyze the recent votes in Italy. Show business trumps argument. Berlusconi & Co. have blamed all the country's problems on the Gypsies, and now that they've forced a census, they are surprised to find that there aren't that many of them. But no matter, it just feels good to send your cops out to beat up a couple of Gypsy kids or to egg on the crowds to burn down a Gypsy homestead.