A couple of weeks ago, I chatted with Marco Rubio, the young American senator from Florida who is a possible Republican vice-presidential candidate. As we talked, an image of a Labrador sprang to mind: with his dark, gleaming eyes and glossy appearance, Rubio is a bundle of infectious, positive energy and bouncy good cheer.

He arrived clutching the ultimate political bone: a memoir, released just in time for the 2012 campaign, entitled An American Son. This is a classic of its genre: it relates how Rubio, 41, pulled himself up from a hardscrabble Cuban immigrant background to attend college, before marrying his (blonde, gorgeous, ex-cheerleader) wife, producing four (highly telegenic) children, and becoming a politician, while constantly thanking Jesus, loving his parents and extolling the American dream. Or as he writes: “I am the child of immigrants, an American with a history that began with a special place in his heart for the land of lost dreams his parents had left, so their children wouldn’t lose theirs.”

On one level, it is temptingly easy for someone like me to smile at this; in the British culture where I grew up (but no longer live), such unbridled optimism seems so alien that it automatically sounds fake – particularly when it is presented without any sense of irony at all, and wrapped in the clichéd phrases of America’s founding mythology and a political focus group. And yet, on another level, Rubio’s book also sparks a profound pang of sadness in me. For if there is one key thing that is missing in Europe right now – and which the continent desperately needs – it is precisely that sense of positive energy and mission that men such as Rubio embody, with their cheerleaders, immigrant roots and all.

A couple of weeks ago, for example, just after reading Rubio’s book, I travelled to Austria, where I met Norbert Walter, a senior German economist and former high-flyer at Deutsche Bank. Walter confessed to me that he also recently published a book, Europa – Warum unser Kontinent es wert ist, dass wir um, ihn kämpfen (rough translation: Europe – Why our Continent is worth fighting for). This also tries to set out a positive vision, by arguing, for example, that the euro is a great project, and Europe a continent “that has a lot to offer … a great treasure for the Europeans …and Americans and the Asians”. But this message has been a tough sell. His book makes people laugh, since, as Walter says, “nobody wants to be so positive”. Dreaming is not a very German – or European – thing to do.

Indeed, being upbeat in any sense increasingly feels at odds with the European discourse. As economic pain grows, voters are increasingly choosing political parties out of a sense of anger and revulsion, not inspiration. And it is fear (of falling apart) now driving the elite to forge a solution to the single currency woes, not any sense of mission. Resigned pragmatism (at best) or angry terror (at worst) rules the day; the concept of a “euro vision” sounds more like a song contest than a platform.

Of course, this cultural contrast is nothing new. America was founded by immigrants who were fleeing from places such as Europe precisely because they wanted to live a dream. Idealism, optimism and exceptionalism have always defined the nation. And today, if anything, those levels of idealism and optimism are markedly lower than in the past. Earlier this week, I met with senior politicians in Washington and heard endless handwringing about the level of negativity that is now afoot in the political campaigns. Fear, not vision, is driving much of the current 2012 political advertising. And many voters are deeply disenchanted with the political candidates, partly because that American dream looks increasingly tarnished. As polarisation and economic pain grows, social mobility is falling, along with the belief that the next generation will have a better life. There is a yawning gap between political rhetoric and reality.

Yet, while the slogans may seem hypocritical, the key point is this: even amid the handwringing, nobody in America really doubts that there should be a vision. Having a positive mission is seen as almost obligatory. Just look at how men such as Rubio or Obama keep producing their “memoirs” – or manifestos – brimming with dreams. And it is here, above all, where the contrast with Europe now lies. The deeper Europe sinks into its woes, the harder it feels even to dream of having a dream, never mind actually implementing a positive vision. Maybe that makes for pragmatic politics, but it also feels distinctly debilitating. Rubio’s book, in other words, might make me wince at times, or even chuckle. But I for one would desperately love to see a few energetic 41-year-old German, French or Spanish leaders today; especially if they described themselves as a proud “European son” – with their heads held high.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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