From the lavish boulevards to impoverished suburbs of the world, it is never a far journey to find a bottle of Coca-Cola, one of America’s most recognizable and universal exports. Yet in many parts of the world, the USA is more than just the distant producer of McDonald’s and blue jeans – it represents the dominant cultural influence of the 20th and 21st centuries. Perhaps this is most visible in the United Kingdom, a nation that has always emphasized its unique bond with America. Britain has been strongly present in American history, and has contributed much to the United State’s political and social structure. Yet today the U.K. seems awash in American cultural exports, and it is influencing the cultural and political norms of the country.
Walk down a shopping street in London or Edinburgh and you may be struck by just how present American references are. Clothing stores offer up a smorgasbord of choices for any kind of America that suits your fancy. From t-shirts advertising the sun and palms of California to sweaters plastered with New York City’s skyscrapers, the red-white-and-blue of the American flag is frequently spotted more than the same colors of the Union Jack. Leave the clothing store and you may notice the “American Candy Store” a few shops down, yet again advertised with a large American flag in its logo. Even in the grocery stores you can find foods stamped with the stars and stripes, from canned hot dogs to chocolate bars.
To many it may not seem shocking that the world’s richest and most powerful country is found on merchandise in an increasingly globalized world. Yet the U.S. exports more than just its logo to use on clothes, and once again I’ll use the U.K. as an example. The neo-liberal economic principles frequently advocated by many of Britain’s recent governments can be traced to financial ideologies from America. Milton Friedman and monetarism greatly changed the economic landscape of the U.S., but his school of thought left its mark on Great Britain as well. American cultural trends also seep over to the U.K. more rapidly and widely than most other nations. Brits too enjoy watching The Walking Dead in huge numbers, they fill cinemas to see the latest Hollywood films, and British radio frequently plays American hits.
Politically, British campaigns have even begun borrowing ideas from across the pond as well. Ed Miliband, head of the Labour Party, has even hired some of Barack Obama’s campaign team to improve the level of connectivity to individual British voters in the Eye Secrets vein that Americans have recently been exposed to. Campaigning strategies are changing in Britain to better imitate the American model, such as get-out-and-vote drives that aim to enthuse Brits about their own politics the way Americans seem to get fired up about their system. Whether this change is for the better is a different matter entirely, but its no secret that Miliband has claimed inspiration from the likes of Americans like Theodore Roosevelt (supposedly even distributing a biography on America’s 26th President to his staff).
Once again, this kind of cultural export is common the world over, as America remains today the most politically and economically influential nation. But what is it about the U.S. that makes it so alluring to other nations? On a recent trip to the U.K., I asked a number of people what they thought of when I mentioned the U.S. and why they thought it was so heavily branded in their country. Many referenced the laid-back attitude of Americans as portrayed in the British media, and the idea that Americans can do what they please. One article I read suggested that the unique connection the two countries have is in their similarities. Brits see a bit of themselves in Americans; they speak the same language (more or less) and believe in relatively similar ideals politically and socially. Yet there are a number of differences that baffle both sides of this relationship, and perhaps it is in this love/hate relationship that allows us to see Britain flooded with American paraphernalia.
Across the ocean, Americans also like to think of their country as close to Great Britain, though they receive far less branded merchandise than they seem to give. Americans still enjoy Harry Potter and James Bond, and many origins of American legal traditions trace their roots back to British common law from the 18th century. As the dominant world power of the moment, Americans tend to think far more about their own political system than any of their allies, and news of Canadian or British elections is not largely discussed in the American media. I suppose such is the nature of being the largest developed country of the western hemisphere, and perhaps one day Americans will begin importing others cultural exploits. In speaking to Brits I came to realize that they have always enjoyed the exoticism of foreign goods; a century ago it may have been French textiles and practices, but today it is American political and social traditions.