Monday, February 13, 2017

How Germany does democracy these days

When Trump won the 2016 election, many of us sat up and asked, “Did anyone get the number of that truck?”  Words came to mind like flummoxed and flabbergasted (to say nothing of shocked and devastated.)  A great moment in history for reminding us of the folly of getting too sure of ourselves.

Great.  We learned our lesson.  Now can we go back to sanity?

Unfortunately not.  We have to live with the consequences of a Trump presidency for what could be years.  And one of those consequences is the endless Monday morning quarterbacking over how it happened.  Chief among these is the claim that we deliberately ignored the signs.  The country had undergone a terrible financial crisis in 2008.  The Obama government bailed out the sons of bitches responsible.  The taxpayer watched it all happen and realized the government was working in tandem with the 1% and we were just going to go on getting screwed over and over again.

So the manipulators of information simplified the message, making government the sole bad guy, and the Republicans were in like Flynn.  They liked to tell you that government was the problem and to get around government we needed to allow the business sector to run things.

Never mind that this only led to continued control by the 1%.  Americans like their explanations in plain language.  No need for facts.  We leave those to the Pied Piper to make up as he goes along. We are into self-indulgence, into entertainment, and we don’t like things that don’t make us happy.  So we manufacture facts to suit us.  Evil in the world?  No problem.  God will answer your prayers.    Afraid of dark-skinned people?  No problem.  We’ll just throw more of them in jail.  Or keep them out, if they’re coming from foreign countries.

Simple-mindedness is the way to go.  Allows time to watch Netflix.

I remember Robert Reich warning, long before we thought Hillary could possibly lose to Trump, that we had made a mistake not taking care of the folks in America who were out of a job because of globalization.  We needed a better safety net, better social protections for people thrown out on unemployment, better retraining for new jobs.  Better social welfare generally.

But we are Americans.  Strong individuals who can take care of ourselves.  Don’t need no damn government handouts.  So we didn’t do anything about the globalization safety net.  We just let the marketplace do its thing.  Got screwed, did you?  Tough.  Sorry.  Shit happens. Unions?  A minimum wage?  Universal education?  What are you, a socialist?

Enter the Pied Piper with an easy explanation and easy solutions.  He’s going to build a wall to keep Mexicans out so they can’t come in and take your jobs.  And you, my fellow Americans – not all of you, obviously, but a critical mass of you, believed that shit.  And were too stupid to realize that Mexicans can fly in as tourists and then just not go back, the way most illegals have always come in.  And the ones crawling through the desert are probably not taking your automobile manufacturing jobs, anyway.  And if you look at the actual statistics, you’d see that Mexicans are going home to Mexico more than they are coming in these days.  And unemployment is at a new low.  And the stock market at a new high.  Just more facts.  We're not into fact; we're into fears.  Don't care that it's robots, not Mexicans.  Can't stop the robots, so let's do what we can and stop the Mexicans.

Reminds me of the battle in 1978 over the Briggs Initiative. Orange County California State Senator John Briggs wanted to prevent gay men from becoming teachers because, Briggs insisted, gay men were child molesters.  Even after Harvey Milk demonstrated that most child molesters were heterosexual, Briggs persisted.  There are too many heterosexuals to go after, he said, so let's go after the gays.

If you don’t read, you don’t know that it’s not foreign labor threatening your jobs; it’s technology.  Robots, not Mexicans.  I think most people know that now.  But Trump's wall idea still resonates with his supporters.  And with all the Republican legislators who obviously know better.

I became a Bernie Sanders supporter early on because he was the one focusing on economic inequality as the real source of American discontent.  I thought he was right about that, and I thought that Hillary was too much part of the rich democratic establishment – Wall Street, for short – to be in a position to fix things.  When Debbie Wasserman Schulz and the New York Times and others put all their support behind Hillary, I went along.  What’s not to love about the idea of having a female president? Sure is time, don’t you think?

We got our priorities all wrong.  We didn’t address the national discontent, and the result is Trump.  We didn’t build the wall high enough to protect against a tsunami, and now we’re going to spend years bewailing the water in the carpets and drapes, the broken furniture, the stains and the smell.  A long, very painful, very tiring clean-up.  No way around it.

Because I feel a responsibility to stay in touch with the world outside my door, I watch the news on a daily basis.  That means a steady barrage of bad news – the roll-back of civil rights, the risk of nuclear war, the Great Lie that is Trump who, instead of cleaning the swamp, is reinfesting it with alligators.  And that means I need to supply myself with a steady diet of Mozart, dog and cat videos, good food and wine, a good long soak in the bathtub as often as possible.  And lots of good writing about all the other things going on in the world.  (I’d like to add diet and exercise, but so far that’s been a total bust.)

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I try to keep abreast of what's going on in the German political scene.  Partly because, while America has clearly gone off the rails, Germany seems to be, so far, at least, humming along quite nicely, thank you.  One of the benefits of the information age is that I can watch all the political talk shows from German television, as well as news from Germany.  I’m still living out my “history of things that never happened,” the decision I almost took, but didn’t, to emigrate to Germany back in the 60s, before I got distracted by Japan.  For about four decades, I pretty much neglected Germany for Japan.  Now in retirement, I’m balancing the scales.  Japan is fading.  Germany is becoming more central to my life.

It’s not replacing my American identity, but it’s enlightening it.  I am currently struck first with how very similar Germany’s social and political problems are to our own. That’s true for most of Europe as well, of course – I just happen to be focusing on Germany.  And second, I’m struck with how often Germany seems to be getting right what we are getting wrong.  Why, I wonder.  Is it that they have figured out how to do things better?  Or is it that we have lost what we once had?  Complex questions, obviously, and simple generalizations are worthless.  But those questions at least guide the topics I take on these days.

I’m struck with the impact Trump has had on German political life.  It’s front and center, and Germans are all over the issues, asking themselves things like how close they are to a similar breakdown of democracy.  There’s Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Viktor Orban in Hungary.  And the AfD in Germany.  Is Germany at risk of falling to their own Trump-like Pied Piper?

I'm developing some enthusiasm for the new SPD (social democrat) candidate who seems to have half a chance against Merkel in the September election for chancellor.  Martin Schulz, his name is. Sort of like electing "Marty Jones" for president.  Despite the "socialist" name, in Germany, they are actually a centrist party.

Then there's the new president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.  Also a socialist.  Not sure whether his election today will get in the way of Schulz's candidacy for chancellor in September.  Hope not. 

The socialists have been in coalition with the conservatives, Merkel's party - which is actually two parties in one, the Christian Democrats in the country at large and its sister party the Christian Socialists in Bavaria.  They are referred together as "The Union" and are center-right.

Mirroring them on the center-left are the Greens, and the SPD.

Then there is a party called simply "The Left," which kind of fills the slot where the former East German Communist Party used to be (and don't say that too loudly or you'll piss a lot of people off).  

Then there are several right-of-center to far-right parties, all of which are making people nervous these days, especially the "Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party," The AfD’s main shtick is opposition to immigration, but they throw in a little homophobia and other conservative issues as well.

What's amazing to watch, and what makes me admire the German system so much and prefer it to our two-party system, is that while they yell and scream at each other sometimes, they all seem to get together when it counts.  Coalitions form, come apart, others form.  All adjusting to the times.  

Anna Will had Martin Schulz on her program for the whole hour a couple weeks ago.  During the interview, she confronted him with one of his constituents who had once voted SPD but now felt politicians had all let her down.  It was a set-up no politician would ever want to be subjected to.  He pulled it off with great grace, however.  Not sure whether he persuaded the voter, but he gave it all he had.  Persuaded me.

As miserable as it must have been for him, it's the very image of what one wants to see happen in a democracy.  The Democrats in the U.S. are being held responsible for Trump.  The socialists in Germany, who joined in a coalition with the conservatives, have also lost most of their support for that reason and are now trying desperately to get it back.  Let us run the show, instead of being a minority party tied to the Unions, Schulz argues, and you will see.  Why should I believe you lying politicians, asks his constituent.  Maybe if the democrats would go back to being democrats, start looking out for the little guy again instead of being just another money-chasing party.  Maybe if the socialists would be the socialists they were of yesteryear, the party of Willi Brandt, etc. etc.  Amazing the parallels here.

If you want to read up on German politics, there are much better sources than me.  But I have brought in this much detail to provide some context for what German politicians are saying about America these days and at how well they are getting to the real issues we seem to skim over.  And that includes commentary on what has been going on in the U.S.  Leading politicians are saying (to me) amazing things.  Let me give you some examples.

Here are bits (translation mine) from Martin Schulz’s very passionate acceptance speech before the SPD when he accepts the challenge to run for Chancellor in September:

(about the nationalist tendency of right-wing parties):

the party of Marie Le Pen, which the AfD identifies so closely with, translates to “National Front.”  We here in Germany have had a party with an aggressive nationalism before.  We experienced it in the first half of the 20th Century. [This party] is no “alternative” for Germany.  It is, rather, a shame on the Federal Republic.

(about Trump and his politics):

We will never surrender our values, our freedom and our democracy, our rule of law and our pluralism, no matter what challenges we face.  I say that in full knowledge of the fact that a U.S. President wants to build walls, thinks out loud about torture, directs dangerous attacks on women, religious groups, minorities, people with handicaps, artists and intellectuals without shame.  That is unacceptable.  I am sure that European politicians will now, when they travel to Washington, explain to the U.S. government that international human rights and the rights of nations apply to Donald Trump as well.  I’m sure of that.

And here are bits from Steinmeier’s acceptance speech after being elected Germany’s twelfth president since the end of World War II.

A brief aside... Worth mentioning is the fact that in the European political systems, nation and government are represented by two different figures, whether that’s the Queen and the Prime Minister in the U.K., or the president and the chancellor in Germany, respectively – and it’s similar in virtually all countries with a parliamentary system.  That enables them to put all their efforts into assuring the national leader will be person of universal respect, while the political leader is expected to get his or her hands dirty.  Schulz, once a small town mayor, later head of the European Parliament, was once an alcoholic.  He never got his Abitur.  He's not a "top drawer" type but he's drawing admiration from the voters for that very reason, a self-made man of the provinces with a bunch of kids.  At the same time, Steinmeier, also a socialist, has become the national symbol.  He will now represent the nation, and the praise (most of it sincere, as far as I can determine) is coming in from all directions.  You see the current Chancellor coming in with a bouquet of flowers, even though her chief rivals in September will be those very socialists who were (and still are, at the moment) her coalition partners. It appears Germany has worked out how government should be run. Contrast that with the American way of putting those two jobs, government leader and national leader, in the same person.  Look what that has led to.  People wanted a dirty fighter who could smash the establishment as a political leader. What we got is a symbol of the nation who humiliates it on a daily basis, with his lies, with his demonstration that he was working for the 1% all along, with his out-of-control ego and his instinct for nepotism.  The shame never seems to end.

I’m not kidding when I say I prefer the parliamentary system. We might have kept our dignity as a nation by electing an Obama or a Jimmy Carter to represent that nation. And allowed a Trump to have a go at running the government.  Until he revealed his true intentions.  Then we could have had a vote of no confidence and bounced him out. Instead we are stuck with a tyrant for at least four years.

Anyway, the bits:

Steinmeier began with the story of an encounter with a woman in Tunisia who said to him, once, “You give me courage.”  The woman was not referring to him personally, he said, but to Germany as a whole.  And not because Germany was a perfect place, but because it was a place that has shown that one can rise from misery and become a source of hope to the world.

·      …and when this foundation becomes shaky elsewhere, all the more must we stand by this foundation
·      we must distinguish fact from lies
·      nowhere in the world is there more opportunity than here…
·      and who is going to do it, if not us…

Remember when Americans talked like that?

I hope it's clear that I'm not trying to paint a black-and-white picture here of a lousy America and a spiffy Germany. It's not that America is bad and Germany is good.  It's not even that the German political scene is better than the American political scene - that's true, I believe, for the moment, but things change.  The only certainty is that things change.

What I am saying is that "America First" is an absolutely deplorable slogan to go by, and maybe the best evidence that American democracy has gone off track.  Democracy is not a competition.  It is - or should be - a universal cooperative effort.  Of course, we should work to make things better where we live.  But we don't live on an island, and we don't have to assume a zero-sum game.  We can watch other winners, and applaud them when they do well. And try to learn from their example.

Germany is, I think, a good example.  I can think of lots of others - Canada, Australia, Holland and the Scandinavian countries come first to mind, but there are others, as well. Japan's bopping along. Look at how far Taiwan has come.  New Zealand, of course.  South Africa shed apartheid. Most people think Costa Rica's pretty nifty.  Lots of places have people who can be proud of their countries, imperfections notwithstanding.

I am just partial to Germany, when it comes to good examples.

And not just because among all the many candidates for chancellor at Steinmeier's inauguration is Olivia Jones, né Oliver Knobel.

That's her, in the picture at the top, with her arm around Chancellor Angela Merkel.  To Angela Merkel's left is the head of the Green Party, one of them, Katrin Göring-Eckhard.  And just to round out the picture, that's Joachim Löw, the chief coach of Germany's World Cup winning soccer team, on the left.

And here she is again, sitting among the delegates to the presidential election convention, of which she was a member.

And one final time, congratulating President Frank-Walter Steinmeier personally:

photo credit: Olivia Jones photos (all three)


SJH said...

Great blog, Alan! I was going to write to you today to ask what news you're reading. I guess this answers it, but I'm afraid I won't be able to keep up with the German news. Thanks for keeping us posted!

Bill Sweigart said...

Yes, it's a wonderful blog. I especially like how blogs like this one help us gain a greater (more global) perspective on what's going on. Through it all, you project a sense of hope. I'm trying to regain hope. Very helpful this.