In his Op-Ed, Paul Ostwald argues that the US and German political culture suffered from opposite evils: While polarization threatened to rip apart the US, an excessive centrism paralysed Germany. But while there is little movement in the US, Germany might have found a way out of the impasse.
Exactly ten years ago, Angela Merkel’s Conservatives adopted a new “Grundsatzprogramm” that set out the party’s take on the coming twenty years. In it, Merkel claimed the political middle ground for her party, telling her cheering followers that, “here is the political centre, and that’s where we will be in the years to come”.
The grand coalition of Conservatives and social democrats that ruled from 2005-9 and 2013-7 blurred the remaining distinctions, bringing about 80% of the parliament onto the government benches. The rise of the radical right party, AfD, is certainly a result of this trend. Too much consensus has made political discourse obsolete.
Across the big pond, the problem appears to be the opposite: a polity suffering from too much polarisation. Democrats and Republicans are increasingly unwilling to cooperate on essential questions; crossbenchers are treated like traitors. This is not a novel phenomenon of the Trump administration, but the political discourse of the commander in chief undoubtedly reinforced it.
Both excessive consensus politics and extreme polarisation are pathologies of political cultures. The question is, where is the mean? And how do we get there? The recent German elections have created a novel situation for the parties, pitting a Conservative-led coalition with Greens and Liberals Social democrats, Far Left and Far Right forces. Even before the first session, this has led to ample ideological confrontation. A healthy development and a good sign towards more diversity.
In the US, there are few signs of rapprochement. Coalitions on the federal level remain unthinkable and even topics that used to bind Democrats and Republicans together, such as Nazi marches on American soil, don’t seem to work any longer. There is, however, the inquiry into Russian interference during the 2016 presidential election. It could offer a path for reconciliation in the face of a common enemy. That both sides of the aisle appear to be implicated in some way or another could bolster trust in a bipartisan investigation.
Taken together, this could offer an opportunity to highlight a common interest: minimise foreign intervention. But that is only a faint glimmer of hope. As long as crossbenchers are demonized on both sides of the aisle, there appears little hope that this consensus on a single issue could carry far into the future. We can only hope that both political cultures will rescale into a healthy equilibrium, with sufficient polarization but paths for constructive consensus. So far, German voters and policymakers have been more decisive in challenging the issue at hand.