Are Germans now more American than we are?
As we face several more weeks of ludicrously irresponsible hostage-taking politics driven by tea-party radicalism, we’d do well to study how postwar Germany — yes, encouraged by the United States — has embraced the sort of consensual, problem-solving politics for which we were once famous.
On Sept. 22, Chancellor Angela Merkel won an extraordinary personal victory in Germany’s elections, leading her Christian Democratic Union to one of its best results in a half-century. The election created some difficulties for her and for Europe, but no one should deny Merkel the accolades she deserves for political genius, toughness and what Chase Gummer in the American Prospect cleverly called her “boring brilliance.”
You can take issue with some of her policies, notably her insistence on austerity in southern Europe, which is suffering from massive joblessness and economic contraction. As Martin Wolf wrote recently in The Financial Times, the danger is of a Germany that “exports bankruptcy and unemployment.” While Merkel may have kept the euro alive by pushing relief for Europe’s south about as far as German public opinion would accept, Wolf’s worries are well-placed.
But let’s focus for now on public policy inside Germany, which has proved that capitalism with strong social protections works. The Christian Democrats call it “the social market,” a system that has been enhanced and reformed over the years by both Merkel’s party and the center-left Social Democrats.
The funny thing is that this moderate form of progressive, bring-people-together politics was what the United States and its allies had in mind for Germany when they worked with German leaders, especially Christian Democrat Konrad Adenauer, to create a post-Nazi state. The goal was to avoid the extremism and polarization that destroyed the pre-World War II Weimar Republic and led to Hitler’s seizure of power.
“The institutions of postwar Germany were deliberately shaped so as to minimize the risk of a rerun of Weimar,” wrote Tony Judt in “Postwar,” his monumental history of Europe after 1945.
One of the keys, said Charles Maier, a professor of history at Harvard, is that the country’s broad conservative party, Merkel’s Christian Democrats, “from the beginning had a strong welfare notion based on the idea of solidarity” drawn from Catholic social teaching.
“The Germans don’t buy the zero-sum thinking that government and markets — or liberty and equality — can’t be pursued jointly,” added Jackson Janes, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies. “They argue about the same issues we face — how much social, how much market and how much government do we want? — but their starting point is that all three should be working together: capitalism with a strong welfare dimension steered by a government which is an ally, not the enemy.”
That used to be us.
Recent years have seen a fragmentation away from the two big parties, and in this election, a new anti-Euro party nearly entered the German parliament. But this time, there was also a strong pull toward the center.
Merkel’s landslide was built primarily from a reshuffling of voters on the center-right. An analysis by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung found that the largest share of the Christian Democrats’ gains since the 2009 election — about 2.2 million votes — came from their more free market-oriented coalition partner in the last government, the Free Democratic Party (FDP). As a result, the FDP fell below the 5 percent threshold required to earn seats in parliament. So Merkel will have to look left, to the Social Democrats or the Greens, for a new coalition partner.
For their part, the Social Democrats did worse than they hoped, but picked up votes from the Left Party — appropriately to their left — and the Greens.
To the dismay of some Germans but to the apparent satisfaction of a substantial majority of them, German politics will have to be more consensual than ever.
Just to be clear (and to short-circuit some right-wing comments and tweets), I’m proud to be an American and harbor no desire to become German. I love our country’s raucous freedom, our culture, history and diversity, the beauty of our vast land, and baseball.
But the fact is that countries learn from each other. Germans applied to their own best traditions some useful pointers about reaching workable compromises in a democracy from us — from the America of FDR, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Why do Germans remember ideas from our history that we Americans seem determined to forget?
E.J. Dionne is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.