As Europe Threatens to Implode, America Shrugs

Polls suggest Americans are shrugging off the EU threat to global recovery.


Americans are increasingly inundated with news about the debt crisis rocking Europe, but that doesn't mean they care. According to data from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, the European crisis was the No. 3 story in the news media last week, its biggest week since early December. And during the first 20 days of May, the crisis' level of news coverage has well exceeded all other monthly levels seen thus far in 2012.

[Read: Should Greece Leave the Eurozone?]

Still, the issue doesn't register with the American public as particularly troubling. According to the Pew Research Center's News Interest Index, only 17 percent of Americans polled earlier this month said they are following the European situation closely; more than twice that figure, 37 percent, said the same of the president's gay marriage views. The week prior, the crisis was much less important to Americans than the death of former NFL star Junior Seau, who was the top story for 11 percent of Americans, versus Europe's 3 percent.

In some ways it's relatively obvious why Americans aren't paying much attention—people only have so much capacity to worry, and Americans have plenty of other, more readily apparent problems to fret over.

"There are plenty of worries here at home in terms of difficult times and unemployment, so why spend your mental energy worrying about Europe, when you've got unemployment problems at home?" says Gary Hufbauer, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

But other foreign issues have recently rated as much more threatening to Americans than the debt crisis. A December Pew poll shows Chinese economic competition as outstripping Europe as a threat to economic well-being. And in a February Gallup poll, more Americans said that they were "very concerned" about other countries' holdings of U.S. debt, the political situation in Iran, and trade relations with China than said so about the European situation.

[See why gridlock might be good for the economy.]

That apathy comes despite plenty of doom and gloom from across the Atlantic. There are constant warnings about the havoc that a eurozone meltdown could wreak on the global economy. This week, Paris-based think tank OECD said in its twice-yearly economic outlook report that while U.S. growth is likely to remain moderate, the European economy is the "most important downside risk" to the global economy.

"A bad outcome scenario in the euro area with implications for the rest of the world cannot be ruled out," OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria told reporters, as reported by Reuters.

In part, it may simply be that it's hard to fear that which you don't fully understand.

"Americans have difficulty with things like monetary policy and quantitative easing and all those kind of things," says Dennis Jacobe, chief economist at Gallup. "When you start to talk about the European Central Bank and you talk about the countries involved and the elections and the debt levels and the potential for contagion, it just gets really complicated for the average American."

In addition, it's possible that constant Europe coverage has in fact helped Americans to care less.

"There's a potential view of crying wolf, and that's because they've heard this stuff for years now. It seems to get hyped, and then it seems to be solved," says Jacobe.

But beneath all this is the more basic question of how much Americans really should care about the European crisis. As with many other issues, people inside the beltway may have a skewed perspective of what matters.

"It's a bit of a cottage industry here in Washington to wring your hands over Europe and see an analogy between Greece and Lehman Brothers," says Hufbauer. And in fact, he says, average Americans—despite their lack of deep knowledge about sovereign debt—may perceive that the D.C. set is overreacting.

"Americans may be more sophisticated than that simple extrapolation," he says. "My view is that [worry over Greece leaving the eurozone] is completely overdone. Countries in the past have changed their currencies, left, done new things in the world, and of course the world hasn't fallen apart, the country hasn't fallen apart."