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Back to Basics

Looking for an alternative to dysfunction in Washington? Maybe it's time to turn to Berlin.

Illustration by John Pobojewski / Thirst
Illustration by John Pobojewski / Thirst

As the number of democratic countries expanded dramatically in the years following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, many new leaders paid homage to the experience of the United States, the world’s oldest liberal democracy. America eagerly and smugly took this adulation as its due. President George H.W. Bush caught the tone in his 1991 State of the Union speech: "The triumph of democratic ideas in Eastern Europe and Latin America, and the continuing struggle for freedom elsewhere all around the world, all confirm the wisdom of our nation’s founders."

But while America was congratulating itself on being a beacon of freedom, it overlooked the fact that, in practice, very few of those new democracies actually followed the U.S. lead.

And why would they? America’s late 18th-century constitutional system, with its strikingly undemocratic Senate and its weirdly indirect mechanisms for presidential elections, didn’t exactly look like the cutting-edge model of governing. Instead, new democracies looked for cues in a place where elected representatives were chosen according to a strictly democratic system. Where politicians cooperated more than they squabbled. Where policies generally strove to serve the best interests of the nation. And where, above all, public servants placed a premium on getting things done.

The new democracies, in other words, looked to Germany.

Two decades later, events appear to have conclusively vindicated that choice. If anything, the United States now offers an even worse advertisement for the virtues of democracy than it did in 1991. Congress is paralyzed by partisan bickering, and Barack Obama’s administration barely seems up to the task of launching a website. Germany, by contrast, still offers a fine example of the virtues of steady government; it is Europe’s rock.

This all raises the question: How did they do it? In 1945, the place was a bunch of smoking ruins; 70 years later, Germany is a strong democracy that also happens to be one of the world’s economic powerhouses. What did Germans do in between to make their system of governance a model for countries like Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and even post-Franco Spain?

The answer is elegantly simple: Germany’s post-World War II political system, anchored in the lessons learned from previous national failures and tragedies, emphasizes both freedom and workability. This system shows that vibrant democratic values and efficient governance don’t have to be at odds. It’s a lesson the United States would do well to learn.


As they set to work in the late 1940s, members of the assembly that drafted West Germany’s postwar constitution, the Basic Law, couldn’t help but reflect on the Nazi dictatorship and the turbulent (but democratic) Weimar Republic that preceded it. Both experiences had seared them. Nazi tyranny gave them a profound appreciation for the importance of fundamental human rights, and the framers of the Basic Law correspondingly gave a central place to the inviolability of individual freedoms: speech, assembly, protection against illegal search and seizure, gender and ethnic equality. At the same time, the trauma of Weimar — when the lax rules of German interwar democracy all too often sabotaged efforts toward economic and other national progress — left the assembly members with an equally strong concern for effective governance. From 1918 to 1933, opponents of democracy had repeatedly exploited the weaknesses of the Weimar political order. Vowing to prevent that from happening again, the framers of the Basic Law made sure to develop a political framework that created incentives for cooperation and stability and that preempted gridlock.

The result was a thoroughly federal system with a strong separation of powers, a chief executive whose authority comes directly from the parliamentary majority, and a constitutional court that monitors the legality of legislation at all levels. So far, so good. But the framers also added a few crucial innovations.

One was the brainchild of a true genius among the German framers: Carlo Schmid, a legal scholar of dual German-French parentage. (Unsurprisingly, he was a strong advocate of European integration long before it became a mainstream idea in Germany.) Schmid’s greatest contribution to Germany’s nascent constitutional order was something called the "constructive no-confidence vote." Most parliamentary systems have mechanisms that allow members of the legislature to demand the dissolution of the government when it appears to have lost the confidence of the majority. In the Weimar years, Nazis and communists repeatedly used such a measure to cripple chancellors and sow chaos — even when they knew they didn’t have the votes to offer a viable alternative. Schmid’s innovation was to make it impossible to initiate a no-confidence vote without proposing a new government at the same time. This ensured that even the most serious political crises wouldn’t deprive the country of a working administration.

In the early 1950s, German leaders added a few critical tweaks to the country’s fledgling political system (though these changes weren’t part of the Basic Law itself). Notably, they created a unique electoral system that gave each adult citizen two votes: one (the more important) for a party, and one for a candidate. This shrewd bit of political machinery biased the system toward coalition: A person might cast one vote for the Social Democrats, ensuring that party’s victory in the general election, while simultaneously giving a vote to an individual Christian Democrat. Moreover, a new threshold rule determined that a party could only get into parliament if it won at least 5 percent of the votes cast, a measure designed to prevent political fragmentation and to promote workable majorities.

The Basic Law and other key parts of Germany’s system aren’t perfect, of course, but they’ve done a remarkable job of balancing the need for functional government with safeguards against authoritarian excess. One big measure of this achievement is the extraordinary record of political and economic stability that has allowed a country of 82 million people to become the world’s fourth-largest economy — right behind Japan, whose population is about 55 percent larger. Yawning budget deficits? Runaway inflation? Burgeoning labor unrest? Government shutdowns? Modern Germans only confront such problems when they read news about other countries.

To be sure, this extraordinary success was far from given at the end of the 1940s, when most Germans were still wondering where they’d get their next meal. Some analysts would surely ascribe this remarkable comeback to a specific German "culture" of efficiency. But that raises the question of why these inherently efficient Germans managed to stumble from one catastrophe to another for the three decades starting in 1914. In fact, it’s precisely this tortured history that has prompted Germans to appreciate the need for strong but flexible institutions.

The emphasis on continuity ingrained in the Basic Law, which celebrated its 65th anniversary in May, hasn’t prevented Germans from changing its system as needed. In fact, the guarantee of workable government embodied by the constitution has been a major precondition for several rounds of large-scale political reform: Germany has implemented not one but two ambitious retoolings of its federal system within the past eight years. The first trimmed the power of the upper chamber of parliament; the second reordered the financial relationships between individual states and the central government.

Contrary to popular belief, Germans aren’t prejudiced against change. And the Basic Law gives them the space to re-engineer as they see fit.


It’s worth contrasting this with the American cult of constitutionality. The piece of paper that regulates U.S. political life is the deity at the center of the nation’s secular religion. Americans treat the men who authored it as superheroes, endowed with transcendent intellect and X-ray powers of historical insight. Never mind that, among many other things, these men failed to predict the importance of political parties: The Founding Fathers sneered at "factions," which they saw as regrettable expressions of conflict among competing interests.

Today, as it has for so long, a misplaced reverence for ordinary men who made groundbreaking but highly imperfect decisions has contributed to a dangerous refusal to confront the government’s weaknesses head-on. Consider this: The U.S. Constitution has been changed only 27 times during the 225 years it has been in effect. The Germans, by contrast, have amended their constitution 59 times since it came into force in 1949.

This certainly is not an argument for adopting the German constitutional structure as America’s own. The two countries have starkly different histories and political environments. Yet the current dysfunction in the United States, including the obvious democratic deficits of the country’s own Basic Law (2000 presidential election, anyone?), is increasingly prompting questions about the need for far-reaching, systemic reforms. What Germany’s example shows is that freedom and good governance don’t have to contradict each other, and that fact should guide change in the U.S. system.

It may sound crazy at first, but there’s a lot Washington can learn from Berlin. 

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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