Germany’s election casts U.S. democracy in harsh light

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It’s a scenario that ought to feel familiar to many Americans. In the shadows of the pandemic and with growing uncertainty about the country’s political future, voters participated in an election. In weeks ahead of election day, opinion polls showed a topsy-turvy race, shaped by likely razor-thin margins. On the day itself, election officials were set to receive a record number of mail-in ballots.

But unlike in America, this weekend in Germany there was not much disquiet over the way the country voted — and there is general acceptance of its results. Angela Merkel, the outgoing Chancellor, saw her Christian Democrats fall to an historic low. They posted their worst post-war results, and were overtaken by the Social Democrats. Armin Laschet (Christian Democrats campaign leader) seemed to be apathetic about his defeat. “I would have preferred to be first,” Laschet said. “I understand, of course, that I bear some personal responsibility for this result.”

Such a subdued reaction is a far cry from the fury of former president Donald Trump, who was unwilling to stomach his defeat in November 2020. He spread falsehoods and stoked doubts in the integrity of the American political process and was impeached, for a second time, by the House of Representatives for his role in helping instigate the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by his supporters.

The results in Germany, argued Jan-Werner Muller, a professor of politics at Princeton University, offer a riposte to the conventional wisdom in much of the West that sees restive publics inexorably attracted to polarizing, intemperate anti-establishment forces. “Western democracies are not fated to fight culture wars constantly; grand coalitions between center-left and center-right do not necessarily strengthen political extremes; and social democratic parties can do well without pandering to nativism and Islamophobia,” Muller wrote.

Though some on the far-right fringe of German politics did voice protests over alleged irregularities, attention in Germany’s parliamentary democracy has shifted to the tangled coalition politicking already underway and the policy decisions and compromises that will determine the makeup of the new government. Today’s WorldView’s Michael Knigge said that the result of such an important election was generally accepted and not challenged.

That sense of maturity marks a stark contrast with the situation in the United States. The Republican Party remains in thrall to Trump, who has been hinting at a campaign for the presidency in 2024 under the false pretense that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him. Polling shows that a declining number of Republicans believe it’s important to prosecute the Jan. 6 rioters for their assault on the Capitol.

“We are already in a constitutional crisis,” Brookings fellow and Washington Post contributing columnist Robert Kagan laid out in a lengthy essay for The Post last week. “The destruction of democracy might not come until November 2024, but critical steps in that direction are happening now. In a little more than a year, it may become impossible to pass legislation to protect the electoral process in 2024.”

Scholars of democratic decline see the United States potentially walking down the path of other countries that saw majoritarian or autocratic leaders slowly erode the democratic process through procedural means. “We often think that what we should be waiting for is fascists and communists marching in the streets, but nowadays, the ways democracies often die is through legal things at the ballot box — so things that can be both legal and antidemocratic at the same time,” Daniel Ziblatt, a professor at Harvard University and the co-author of “How Democracies Die,” told my colleague Ashley Parker. “Politicians use the letter of the law to subvert the spirit of the law.”

The rest of the world has already taken notice. A Pew poll published this January found that overwhelming majorities in Germany, France and Britain believed that the American political system needed at least some changes. A fifth of the people surveyed believed it needed to be “completely reformed.” This was prior to Jan. 6.

At the same time, an increasing number of Americans want to see their government strengthen the country’s fraying democracy, according to a new poll by the Eurasia Group Foundation. “After fighting a costly and interminable War on Terror it’s possible that many Americans are newly attentive to turbulence at home, from rising distrust in the electoral system to a deeply rooted history of racial injustice,” noted the EGF’s report.

In Germany, the lower house of parliament, or the Bundestag, gets chosen through a mixed system that sees parliamentarians elected both from geographic constituencies as well as by proportional representation. (Some Democratic lawmakers are fighting longshot campaigns to adapt the U.S.’s federal elections to these objectively fairer and more representative models.) Germany has an easier format to hold elections. This means that there is less room for political quarreling over the electoral process.

“Where Americans must actively register to be able to vote, Germany’s system of recording citizens’ place of residence ensures they are automatically registered,” noted Deutsche Welle. “This difference means that voter lists are regularly updated, including when people die or move, making it more difficult to falsely add people to the database.”

Fraud is, of course, statistically not much of an issue in American democracy either. The Republican Party has been consumed by a heightened hysteria about suspected irregularities since Trump’s election. The center-right Christian Democrats in Germany offer a different vision for what to do following a narrow but nonetheless humbling defeat.

“Instead of contesting [the results], what will likely happen is that the conservatives will take the coming years and work on figuring out how to bring those voters back,” Rachel Rizzo, adjunct fellow at the Center for New American Security, told Today’s WorldView. They aren’t disputing the results. German political leaders understand that if you start questioning democratic processes, it can lead to the foundation starting to collapse. That’s exactly what we’ve seen happen in the U.S.”

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