How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Proponents of liberal democracy breathed a sigh of relief on May 7, when political newcomer Emmanuel Macron roundly defeated right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election. But this election, although critical for the future of the European Union, was far from being this year’s only electoral barometer in Europe: British Prime Minister Theresa May has called for a snap general election on June 8, France selects a new legislature on June 11 and 18, and Germany elects a new parliament—which could result in a new chancellor—on September 24.
For two reasons, Germany’s upcoming federal elections should provide more drama than usual. The first is the recent rise of the country’s first federally viable right-wing party since World War II—the anti-Muslim, nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. The second is the Social Democrat (SPD) Martin Schulz, who represents the first legitimate challenge to Angela Merkel’s chancellorship in over a decade. In other respects, though, the German elections promise to be the least exciting electoral contest in Europe this year.
The levers of power in German politics remain staunchly resistant to the radical-right populism devouring other countries. To be sure, Germany has its fair share of radicals—just look at the lieutenant in the German army who was hoping to assassinate a former German president and the current justice minister while posing as a Syrian refugee. And by some estimates, some ten percent of voters support the AfD. Yet for all intents and purposes, German politics will leave this election season much the way it entered.
The boring nature of German politics is remarkable considering that fewer than 30 years ago, Germany was attempting to unify two disparate halves of the country. The eastern half had only just emerged from some six decades of autocracy, and the western half, while durably democratic, had struggled with waves of internal terrorism since the 1970s. How, then, has Germany become a standard-bearer of stability and democracy?
The answer, in a word, is institutions. World War II reduced Germany to rubble—economically, physically, and psychologically. As German elites surveyed the literal and symbolic ruins of their country, they resolved to create a political structure that was designed to avoid the mistakes of Germany past. As a way to prevent postwar West Germany from replicating the Weimar Republic’s disastrous instability and the Nazi regime’s genocidal autocracy, they implemented an array of rules to promote moderation and consistency in politics. At least in part, it’s largely thanks to these rules that present-day Germany has avoided having one of its main political parties hijacked by radicals, something that American Republicans experienced recently with the Tea Party movement; flirting with electing a national leader similar to Le Pen, whose political party holds only two of the 577 seats in the country’s National Assembly; or electing the likes of Donald Trump, who has a habit of pushing for policies that conflict with the official Republican stance and who lacks any experience whatsoever in public office.
As German elites surveyed the ruins of their country, they resolved to create a political structure that was designed to avoid the mistakes of Germany past.
Take Germany’s electoral system. Unlike the United States, whose first-past-the-post style of voting has resulted in only two legitimately electable political parties, Germany uses a version of proportional representation that creates a multiparty system. In the simplest terms, if 28 percent of Germans vote for Party A and 21 percent of Germans vote for Party B—the same percentages of Utahans who voted for candidates Hillary Clinton and Evan McMullin, respectively, in the 2016 U.S. presidential election—then Party A would receive 28 percent of the seats in the German legislature and Party B 21 percent. Under an electoral system that proportionally translates vote share into legislative seat share, voters don’t feel their voices go unheard when they cast ballots for a smaller, niche party, since even those parties can enter parliament. This allows voters to align themselves with a party that largely represents their interests, as opposed to choosing a party whose only selling point—in some voters’ minds—is that it is the “lesser of two evils.”
By creating a system with smaller, more diverse political parties, rather than monolithic, one-size-fits-all parties, Germany has space to accommodate citizens who are politically active, influential, and even extreme. For instance, Christian Democratic Union (CDU) supporters who resent Merkel’s comparatively inclusive refugee policy can opt for the AfD, rather than focusing their anger on transforming the CDU. In the United States, such disgruntled activists can splinter a party into incompatible centrist and radical wings, à la the Republican Party. In Germany, unhappy voters simply find an electable party that better fits their views. The relative stability of Merkel’s center-right CDU and Schulz’s center-left SPD as the main parties is, to an extent, explained by Germans’ desire for predictability, but it’s also a reflection of the political calculus behind party platforms. The CDU and SPD’s centrist, catch-all positions resonate with a wider range of voters than the specialized appeals made by niche parties, which means that Germany’s two main parties reliably attract a sizable number of moderate voters.
PACIFYING POPULIST PANGS
Of course, there are drawbacks to creating a system that gives political radicals free reign to build their own electorally competitive political party. In fact, this very type of political permissiveness undermined the Weimar Republic and helped the Nazis come to power in 1933. Consequently, Germany requires political parties to win at least five percent of the vote in order to win any legislative seats. This electoral threshold prevents extreme fringe parties from gaining a foothold in power while still allowing them to exist and to cater to their voters. By keeping radical niche parties in check while also permitting them to be elected, political radicals can be quarantined in nationally ineffective parties, preventing them from potentially usurping or undermining more centrist or moderate parties from the inside.
Germany’s political institutions also prevent nationalists and wildcards—think Trump—from becoming candidates for executive office. Germans elect their parliament, and whoever leads the party with the most votes usually ends up as chancellor. This keeps out people like Le Pen, who, while charismatic and persuasive, is in charge of a political party that held no seats in the National Assembly from 2002 to 2012. Despite Le Pen’s prominence and strong performance in the first round of this year’s presidential election, her party currently has no national legislative influence—the National Front holds 0.35 percent of seats in the National Assembly—although the party has already influenced French political culture in possibly seismic ways.
Having the head of the leading political party run the country also makes a Trump scenario almost impossible in Germany. The leaders of mainstream, established parties are elected by the party’s own members; people who are committed to a party’s ideals and success are unlikely to elect an unknown individual or someone who doesn’t share those values. Further, Germany’s selection process ensures that political neophytes, extremists, and outsiders don’t end up at the helm of a system they might not understand, attempting to implement policies that voters may deem unacceptable.
Germany’s selection process ensures that political neophytes, extremists, and outsiders don’t end up at the helm of a system they might not understand.
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
So while Schulz was widely termed an outsider and a fresh face in politics when he officially became the SPD’s candidate for chancellor in January 2017, he’s no Trump. Schulz joined the SPD at the age of 19, has spent some four decades in politics, and served as the president of the European Parliament for five years. And even though he’s new to the national political scene, if he’s elected chancellor, he’ll be surrounded and supported by far more experienced national parliamentarians, and Germans will know precisely what policies to expect from him. What’s more, if he strays too dramatically from the SPD’s core principles, he’ll be removed from office. In contrast to a president, a chancellor serves at his or her governing coalition’s pleasure; if the chancellor loses the confidence of the party or coalition partners, then he or she loses the chancellorship, too. For instance, SPD leader Helmut Schmidt was removed as chancellor when, in 1982, his governing coalition fractured and installed the CDU leader in his place, a fate Willy Brandt had narrowly avoided ten years earlier. Although such maneuvers sound odd and potentially even undemocratic to an American audience, these institutional constraints mean that Germany has little need to fear being governed by either a fringe politician or a demagogue with no political experience.
This year has brought debates around authoritarianism, nativism, and populism—not only in North America and Europe, but also in parts of Asia—to a fever pitch. And after the AfD’s respectable performance in a key regional election earlier this week in North-Rhine Westphalia, frequently considered a bellwether for national parliamentary elections, meaning that the AfD is now represented in 13 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments, it’s tempting to ring the alarm and to worry that radical-right populism will soon sink German democracy. Let’s not be rash, though—not because we’re deluded that this brand of populism is now in the past (as other scholars point out, it’s not, particularly in Europe’s East), but because Germany’s political culture, structure, and history give us good reason to believe that the system will withstand the battles ahead. Germany, in short, has taken an old maxim to heart—by learning from the past, it hopes never to repeat it.