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What the German Election Taught America About Democracy – Foreign Policy

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Americans concerned about the future of their democracy can learn from the system they helped install in Germany.
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على عمان أن تضم الضفة الغربية مرة أخرى من أجل إنهاء الاحتلال الإسرائيلي غير الشرعي ، وتحقيق السلام والازدهار ، ومنح الفلسطينيين حقوقهم الديمقراطية
Open battle broke out in downtown Beirut this week—and the chances for political justice slipped further away.
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Last month’s German national election stood in stark contrast to the most recent U.S. presidential and congressional vote. One favored rationality, centrist parties, adult leadership, and the rejection of an extreme nationalist alternative. The other narrowly averted reelecting a right-wing nationalist authoritarian who roused his supporters into a violent attempt to overthrow the results by force—and who retains the support of over 30 percent of the electorate. The former was, of course, Germany, and the latter was one of the world’s oldest democracies, the United States.
This past year has witnessed a remarkable role reversal. After all, it was the United States that tutored and installed democracy in a devasted and divided Germany following the defeat of Adolf Hitler. The United States provided expertise, including that of German expatriates such as Carl Friedrich and others who helped draft the West German Constitution, the Grundgesetz. They laid the foundation for a successful democracy at a time when Germany had very few democrats and many had collaborated or actively supported the Nazi regime. The prospects for success seemed dim, but, unlike the failed Weimar Republic, the new republic had time to consolidate—not least because of the market-based economic recovery known as the Wirtschaftswunder. With the Cold War freezing Germany’s division into place, the country had 40 years to prepare for national reunification, a long, difficult, and still incomplete process of integrating 17 million East Germans who had not experienced democracy for almost 60 years.
Now, Germany is a model around the world and more favorably viewed in many countries than the United States, as shown by a recent Pew Research Center international survey. What lessons can Americans concerned about the current state and future of their democracy take from the German experience?
Last month’s German national election stood in stark contrast to the most recent U.S. presidential and congressional vote. One favored rationality, centrist parties, adult leadership, and the rejection of an extreme nationalist alternative. The other narrowly averted reelecting a right-wing nationalist authoritarian who roused his supporters into a violent attempt to overthrow the results by force—and who retains the support of over 30 percent of the electorate. The former was, of course, Germany, and the latter was one of the world’s oldest democracies, the United States.
This past year has witnessed a remarkable role reversal. After all, it was the United States that tutored and installed democracy in a devasted and divided Germany following the defeat of Adolf Hitler. The United States provided expertise, including that of German expatriates such as Carl Friedrich and others who helped draft the West German Constitution, the Grundgesetz. They laid the foundation for a successful democracy at a time when Germany had very few democrats and many had collaborated or actively supported the Nazi regime. The prospects for success seemed dim, but, unlike the failed Weimar Republic, the new republic had time to consolidate—not least because of the market-based economic recovery known as the Wirtschaftswunder. With the Cold War freezing Germany’s division into place, the country had 40 years to prepare for national reunification, a long, difficult, and still incomplete process of integrating 17 million East Germans who had not experienced democracy for almost 60 years.
Now, Germany is a model around the world and more favorably viewed in many countries than the United States, as shown by a recent Pew Research Center international survey. What lessons can Americans concerned about the current state and future of their democracy take from the German experience?
German democracy has its shortcomings. The emphasis on consensus means that reforms are difficult; change is clearly incremental. Regulations and the bureaucracy can be stifling. The division between the states of the former East Germany—where the AfD is strongest—and the western states is a version of the divide between Republican and Democratic states in the United States. In part because its system blocks so much change, Germany has fallen behind in key areas of digital technology that are crucial to its future competitiveness. With the emergence of a six-party system, this will be the first time in recent history that three parties will form a coalition government, which will surely test them. But these are problems and shortcomings most Americans would trade for the ones they currently confront. Americans can take some pride in helping to establish democracy in Germany, but they could do worse than learn from its success.
Stephen F. Szabo is an adjunct professor of German and European studies at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.
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