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What the German Election Taught America About Democracy

Americans concerned about the future of their democracy can learn from the system they helped install in Germany.

By , an adjunct professor of German and European studies at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.
Workers rearrange the chairs in the plenary hall of the German Bundestag to fit the new seating arrangement for the parties in parliament after the recent election, in Berlin on Oct. 15.
Workers rearrange the chairs in the plenary hall of the German Bundestag to fit the new seating arrangement for the parties in parliament after the recent election, in Berlin on Oct. 15. Monika Skolimowska/picture alliance via Getty Images

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 devastated 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 devastated 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?

  • Limiting the role of private money: As Robert Kagan, Martin Wolf, and other commentators have argued, U.S. democracy is in deep trouble due to a number of structural changes. The most important of these has been the growth of social and economic inequality and the concentration of wealth among a small group of what would be called oligarchs in any other setting. The vulnerability of the system to large campaign donors and dark money has grown exponentially since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited amounts on elections. Although Germany has experienced many campaign finance scandals in the past, most notably those that emerged at the end of the chancellorship of Helmut Kohl, it has maintained a fairly open, transparent, and limited campaign financing system mainly using public money. The country has avoided the scandals that have plagued the U.S. system.
  • The parliamentary system: One of the great systemic weaknesses of the U.S. system is what the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called the “imperial presidency.” Presidential systems are more vulnerable to autocrats than parliamentarian democracies. The personalization of power and government is something Germans learned to avoid after their experience with the Hitler regime. What’s more, the German system of proportional representation, unlike the U.S. and British first-past-the-post alternatives, produces multiparty coalition governments that reward consensus and compromise. Rather than a separation of powers between legislature and executive, the division is between the parties in federal and state coalitions and those in opposition, allowing both functioning majorities and clear lines of responsibility. And this rewards centrism, as the major parties need to be able to cooperate with each other to form a government. Even opposition parties have a role in policymaking, as the chairs of Bundestag committees are apportioned among all the parties in parliament and not simply controlled by the majority. The Bundesrat—the upper house representing the ruling governments of Germany’s 16 states—adds another layer of necessary cross-party compromise.
  • The role of political parties: Combined with public financing of campaigns, the parties rather than the candidates or private donors control recruitment, and party discipline reigns in parliament. All of this limits the ability of individual political entrepreneurs to evade party control. The party rather than the individual matters, and this more directly links the voter to party and governmental responsibility. This is then reinforced by the party list and proportional representation electoral system. Actually, the United States had a similar system of strict party discipline until 1969, when a reformed primary system was introduced to limit the control of so-called party bosses. While it is true that the German system is not ideal and has led to the spread of party patronage in most institutions receiving public money, this seems a price worth paying compared to a political Wild West that favors big money and extremist candidates.
  • An open electoral system and high voter turnout: In Germany’s September parliamentary elections, voter turnout was close to 77 percent, compared to 67 percent in the 2020 U.S. election, which was high by U.S. standards. All eligible voters are automatically registered in Germany when they take up residence in a community, and every voter receives a reminder with instructions by mail. Like in many other democracies, voting is held on Sundays, when few citizens need to take time off from work. Mail balloting is unproblematic, with around 40 percent of Germans voting by mail this year.
  • The notion of a democracy that defends itself: The Germans also provide some lessons for Americans in their willingness to actively defend democracy. Given their historical experiences with the fragility of democracy, a number of proactive measures are in place to combat and ban anti-democratic parties and political hate speech. These have been employed in the past against the Communist Party and neo-Nazi groups, and they hang over the head of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which only received 10.3 percent of the vote last month, down 2.3 percentage points from the previous election in 2017. Some restrictions are also in place on anti-democratic disinformation on social media, while most Germans still rely on mainstream television and other media for their political information. The concept of free speech in Germany really refers to responsible free speech, and efforts to spread disinformation or to undermine democracy are not tolerated. This helps explain why Russian attempts at disinformation, primarily in support of the AfD, have had far more limited impact outside the small ecosystem of Russian and pro-Russian media.
  • A limited national security state: As the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington made clear to everyone, the United States has a group of a disaffected former and active members of the military and police, many of them well armed, in a stark parallel to the Weimar Republic’s experience with the murderous Freikorps and other alienated veterans of World War I. While Germany also faces this problem with extremist elements in the police and military, it has taken actions to contain them, including disbanding a special forces unit. While today’s Germany is often criticized for neglecting defense, the lack of a large military force, national security apparatus, and militarized police has proved to be a plus for democracy. However, the ending of military conscription a decade ago has left open the danger of a more isolated, self-selecting, and radical military.
  • A social market economy: While social and economic inequality is growing in Germany, the levels there are still low in comparison to the United States. Germany has a social welfare system whose basic outlines were in place in the 19th century and that benefits everyone, including the middle class. It also has a strong sense of social solidarity. Germans call their system a “social market economy,” which embodies both conservative and socialist traditions. German unification brought into the nation 17 million East Germans who were socialized in a communist planned economy and strengthened the social dimension of the political culture. Germans have an idea of positive freedom, which holds that the state has an important positive role in maintaining social equality and cohesion. The state must guarantee a substantial social network of institutions and policies to protect the individual against so-called jungle capitalism and the clash of socioeconomic interests. As a result, German society has a much more equal distribution of wealth: In 2017, the Gini income inequality index compiled by the OECD (where 0 indicates complete equality and 1 complete inequality) was 0.29 in Germany compared to 0.39 in the United States. The United States also had the 39th-highest poverty gap in the world, while Germany ranks 144th. The decline of trade unions in the United States contrasts with the role of unions in Germany, whose participation in collective bargaining and corporate governance is enshrined by law. For example, their members sit on every supervisory board of a publicly listed corporation.
  • Confrontation with the past: Both the United States and Germany share a terrible legacy of racism, but Germans have confronted their Nazi past boldly, the most striking symbol of which is a large and powerful memorial to the Holocaust in the very center of Berlin. Americans are only now beginning to confront the legacy and history of racism, but, unlike in Germany, this is now just another politically polarizing issue. Most importantly, Germans don’t take democracy and an open society for granted. Their history with the alternatives—the two great totalitarian ideologies that caused so much suffering and death in the 20th century—is still too fresh. Americans have become complacent given their over 200 years with a form of democracy. Americans still have the hubris of exceptionalism, something Germans shun.

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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