The European mockery of U.S. politics continues. The latest contribution comes from two talking heads at Der Spiegel – a magazine I thought would hold itself to higher standards than this. Sadly, I was wrong. In a piece that reeks of ignorance and demagoguery, Sebastian Fischer and Mark Pitzke, current and former U.S. correspondent for Der Spiegel, embark on a journey that is more revealing of the German political culture they hold dear than any insights into American politics and society. Here is how they start:
The United States has temporarily avoided federal default. As the Republicans lick their wounds, the Democrats are triumphant.
Well, not exactly. The Democrats are increasingly worried about the implementation of Obamacare, with costs of health insurance going up dramatically for most Americans. The roll-out has been an abysmal failure and there is no improvement in sight. By the time the primary elections start in the lead-up to the 2014 midterm elections, there is going to be a whole new crop of candidates out there to challenge the incumbents who voted for, or otherwise have endorsed, Obamacare.
Long-term, the funding fight that just ended could turn out to be a home run for the Republicans, just as the debacle with Hillarycare prepared the ground for Republicans to take Congress in 1994.
Back to Fischer and Pitzke:
But no one should be happy, because the debacle has exposed just how broken the American political system truly is. The president kept things short, speaking for only three minutes on Wednesday night to praise the debt compromise reached by Congress. After he finished, a reporter called after him: “Mr. President, will this happen again in a couple of months?” Barack Obama, who was on his way out the door, turned and answered sharply, “No.”
First of all, the funding fight actually shows how strong the American democracy is. Our political scene allows disputes, differences in opinion and analysis, and diverging ideologies to fight for the approval of their voters. By encouraging intellectual pluralism the U.S. democracy usually takes the American society in a healthier direction than Europe. Or, as I put it in an article on free debate and prosperity earlier this month:
There is a prevailing idea in Europe, again with the exception of Britain and to some degree Denmark, that politics is about bringing everyone to the consensus table. The construction of the EU has reinforced the institutional structures that favor consensus over a free, vigorous debate. Where American politicians can end a debate on a note of disagreement, Europeans often get nervous over the lack of consensus and agreement. I am not going to speculate as to where Europe got its consensus extremism from, though the parliamentary system itself may have been biased in favor of compromise and consensus rather than principled disagreement. But what really matters is that a political system that favors compromise and consensus gradually erodes, and eventually eliminates, principled debate. As part of the convergence toward a compromise the European parliamentary system implicitly establishes a value norm that then becomes the attractor point for all future political discourse.
The pursuit of consensus puts the European parliamentary system on autopilot in one direction, and one direction only. As the current economic crisis demonstrates, this can have disastrous effects, both for outer-rim states like Greece and for core euro-zone economies like France.
Where dissent is viewed as a bump in the road to consensus, democracy ultimately loses its meaning.
Furthermore, and actually as a result of Europe’s consensus extremism, the debt problems are worse in the EU than they are here in the United States, a fact that Der Spiegel carefully evades talking about. But even more worrisome is that the lack of dissent in Europe’s political discourse is about to put the entire continent on a very dangerous path to heavy restrictions on free speech.
However, none of this is of any consequence to Fischer and Pitzke as they continue to mock the most vigorous democracy in the industrialized world:
With his re-election in 2012, Obama thought he could break the Republican “fever.” Instead, the conservatives paralyzed the government and risked a federal default just so they could stop Obama’s signature project: health care reform. And this despite the fact that “Obamacare” had been approved by a majority of both houses of Congress, was upheld by the US Supreme Court, and was endorsed by the American people in the voting booths
Well… Obama lost ten million votes in 2012 compared to 2008. He also lost two states that he won in ’08. Republicans increased their hold on state legislatures. There are now more Republican governors than ever in recent history. That is hardly an endorsement of Obamacare. And the fact that the law has been upheld as constitutional has nothing to do with whether or not it is good for the American health care system. On the contrary, being constitutional is an absolute minimum requirement for any law to even be considered by Congress.
Does Der Spiegel really believe that ignorance is bliss among its reporters? Fischer and Pitzke again:
[The] political crisis has turned out to be a systemic crisis. America’s 237-year-old democracy is approaching its limits. Its political architecture was not designed for long-lasting blockades and extortion, the likes of which have been enthusiastically practiced by Tea Party supporters for almost the last four years. The US’s founding fathers proposed a system of checks and balances, not checks and boycotts.
These two German gentlemen are apparently very poorly educated on the history of American politics… Our constitutional republic has survived far worse things than this. It has survived presidential impeachments, it has functioned during wars and deep economic crises. That is a sign of tremendous strength, not a democracy at its limits.
Or do Fischer and Pitzke suggest that we here in America should follow the German tradition of replacing democracy with a strong leader when times get tough?
In hardly any other western democracy are the minority’s parliamentary rights as strongly pronounced as they are in the US, where a single senator can delay legislation, deny realities, and leverage the system. In Germany, the government is built from a majority in parliament. In America, the president and his allies in Congress have to organize majorities for each new law. But for a long time Obama has hardly been able to find any — not for immigration reform, or new gun control laws, or even for the budget, as the world’s largest economy has been making do with emergency spending measures since 2009.
More than 400,000 Americans died as a result of the German preference for majority rule.
Scarcely 50 right-wing populists, led by Tea Party Senator Ted Cruz, have been pushing their once proud Republican party into a kamikaze course. Why are the other Republicans letting them do this? They are afraid of radical challengers within their own party in their local districts. Meanwhile, the Democrats hardly pose a threat, because over the past several years the borders of the congressional districts have been manipulated in such a way that they almost always clearly go Republican or Democratic.
How predictable. When nothing else works, you throw in the standard argument against our constitutional republic – congressional redistricting. Again, Fischer and Pitzke are sadly uneducated. The redistricting process is extremely closely monitored, and “manipulation” is almost impossible. There are experienced legislators involved; there are lawyers involved; courts; journalists; political scientists and demographers…
But never mind all that. Let’s do things the German way. Let’s not care about the fact that people move, that the economic and social geography changes; let’s not worry about how representative our elected officials are. All we should do is create a party system where people vote for parties, not candidates, and where conservatives and social democrats rule together as if there were no differences between them.
Which, in Germany, there aren’t. Back when Adenauer was around, Germany got off on a good start with a federal constitution that promised true democracy and political vitality. Then the Germans decided they wanted a welfare state instead, and all of a sudden their country was run from the top down, with Bonn – now Berlin – running an increasing part of the budgets in states and cities. With more and more entitlement programs, funded and mandated by the federal government, lower German governments gradually changed from being true representations of their voters’ will to what is now little more than federal spending agencies.
Is that the kind of democracy that Fischer and Pizke want?
As a result, America loses the representative nature of its representative democracy. In the congressional elections in 2012, Democrats won 1.17 million more votes than Republicans, but Republicans got 33 more seats in the House of Representatives. Changes in majority rarely exist anymore.
Oh, dear… In 1994 Republicans took both chambers in Congress, under a Democrat president. In 2000 the senate was split evenly, the House in Republican hands and the president a Republican. In 2006 Democrats won both chambers under a Republican president. In 2008 they held on to Congress and the president was a Democrat. In 2010 Republicans re-took the House under a Democrat president.
No changes in majority?? I am frankly disappointed in Der Spiegel for publishing something so pathetic.
During the recent debt ceiling fight, Tea Party hotheads called their colleagues who were willing to talk with Democrats the “surrender caucus.” Anybody who would vote for a compromise “would virtually guarantee a primary challenger,” Kansas Republican Tim Huelskamp threatened on Tuesday.
Here we go again. Our two German friends go ballistic over the fact that there are – OMG – differences in opinion, values, ideology woven into the American political landscape. But let’s not kick them around too much. After all, in their own backyard, consensus is king, and who are they to risk their careers by promoting dissent in Germany? As is glaringly obvious from the emerging coalition in Berlin between conservatives and social democrats, the German democracy is cleansing itself of differences in opinion. One people, one majority, one chancellor.
Adding to this is the almost unlimited flow of campaign contributions, which finance the increasingly brutal mudslinging during congressional elections every two years. Behind those donations are often radical groups or interested billionaires, such as the brothers David and Charles Koch, who have financed the Tea Party and are thought to have helped plan and direct the most recent crisis.
Why don’t Fischer and Pitzke mention George Soros and the billions he has been pouring into American politics for the past 15 years?
And then, inevitably, these two German clowns sink to the mud-and-gutter level of demagoguery:
At the same time, the US is undergoing huge demographic shifts, which were recently evident in Obama’s re-election. The old “white majority” is slowly shrinking into a minority. One of the consequences has been the rise of the Tea Party, which is loudly pushing back against change, Obama and the government itself. Tea Party protagonists such as former Alaska governor Sarah Palin beguile their followers with folksy language they can understand and proudly hold up ignorance and stupidity as badges of honor in their battle against the “elite” and their intellect.
I have spoken at Tea Party events. I know many people who are involved in that movement. Fischer and Pitzke would be shocked to see how many regular, middle-class people there are in this movement. Some of those who became active early on are now elected officials at the state and local level. One of them is state representative Lynn Hutchings, a black woman with a long, honorable military career behind her. Never having been in politics before, she decided after Obama’s election that it was time for her to do what she could to fight for the values that she holds dear.
I’d like to see Fischer and Pitzke come to a meeting with representative Hutchings and tell her that she is holding up “ignorance and stupidity as badges of honor”.
The truth is that Germans in general, and German political elitists in particular, are culturally and economically programmed against political dissent. Everywhere a welfare state shapes people’s lives, intellectual conformity follows in its footsteps. One reason for this is that the political machinery, as I explained earlier, aligns itself along a path of consensus to preserve the welfare state; anyone who opposes it is thrown out of the political parties because any opposition to entitlements means losing the voters who depend on them. And since, in Germany as well as everywhere else in the EU, half or more of all citizens critically need entitlements to make ends meet, the welfare state effectively becomes the dictator of consensus in the parliamentary system.
Another reason why political dissent makes Germans uncomfortable is that they have not learned to separate person from opinion. This is a symptom of a society with truncated individuals – another effect of the welfare state. A society where government provides lots of goodies to people is also a society where government standardizes the life of the individual. In order to get the most out of what the welfare state provides, people need to conform their lives to the entitlements. This means doing things government condones, and not doing things government (often implicitly) discourages. With everyone conforming to the welfare state’s template life, individualism becomes uncomfortable. The more the welfare state shapes people’s lives, the more uncomfortable people become with individualism.
Those who stick their neck out and break the ranks become unwelcome reminders of what life could really be like. As a result, society develops cultural codes and behavioral patterns where individualism is punished. Conformity and consensus win the day.
We certainly have our problems and challenges here in America. We are still in a very modest recovery from a long, tough recession. But at least we are making economic progress. Germany, on the other hand, is going the same way as the rest of the EU: back into the dungeons of depression, stagnation and industrial poverty.
In five years time, the U.S. economy will be churning on forward. Germany, on the other hand, will be in the midst of a transformation into an economic wasteland. The transformation will be spearheaded by a government thoroughly clean of political dissent.