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Just Nasty Enough, Why Too Much Consensus Is Bad Politics

While the United States' political system is gridlocked by ideological poison, the German coalition government limits the benefits of bickering. A search for that perfect dose of acrimony.

Merkel and her allies voting for another coalition government in 2013
Merkel and her allies voting for another coalition government in 2013
Hannes Stein


BERLIN — It's annoying to live in a country with two political parties that can't even manage to fight with each other.

Two parties, one of which believes at the very mention of general health insurance that Bolshevism has broken out while the other believes it's okay if the state keeps running up debt. One sees illegal immigrants as a threatening horde. The other fails to grasp that while it is very easy for members of the white, middle-class to be generous, the poor view immigrants primarily in terms of competition. One is perfectly serious in its belief that you can make some kind of deal with the blighted old men in Tehran. The other can only come up with muddled foreign policy concepts that often cancel each other out.

Two parties that — at least at the federal level — have lost sight of a wonderful definition that comes from Great Britain: that democracy is a system in which the members of different political clubs fight it out in Parliament then go have a drink together at the pub.

It is often annoying to be an American. At least if you are one of those Americans at the political center, someone who could be defined as a right-wing Democrat or left-wing Republican and who would probaby prefer to vote for a party that doesn’t exist in America: a party with a cool head and a hot, compassionate heart. A party of compromise, common sense and humanity. A party that doesn’t espouse kicking kids out who seek protection in the U.S. from the carnage in their home countries but that does know that with the best will in the world not all immigrants can be let in. A party that has learned that international political enemies can't be turned into friends by diplomatic flattery, and that it is in fact unfair to awaken hopes for the future that can't be honored long term. A party that also understands that every dollar we put into education from young childhood on will pay back a hundred-fold. And so on.

The political divide in America has become a serious problem. It is the plague that has paralyzed Washington where elected decision makers actually can’t decide anything anymore because every piece of draft legislation can be shot down in the courts.

The split poisons the country’s political atmosphere. It finds expression demographically as well: Democrats often live in areas only inhabited by other Democrats while Republicans live in their own areas. Thus it becomes ever rarer for people meet up at a BBQ or street fair, exchange views, and realize that the other guy is just as human as you and me.

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Tell us how you really. Photo: Fibonacci Blue

Nobody knows how to solve this problem. Writer Stephen King once suggested that Democrats be legally obliged to watch Fox for a week, and Republicans to spend seven days watching left-leaning MSNBC. The educational impact would be terrific. People would see that except for the ads, everything is different. Then, aghast, would come the question: "What the hell is going on?"

In a third step, an exciting domestic debate could take off. As such a law wouldn't reach the majority on either side — that's one thing both Democrats and Republicans can agree on — the alternative could be for an American multibillionaire (whether left-leaning Bill Gates, or right-leaning Sheldon Adelson) to donate the money for a holiday camp to which Democratic and Republican families could go spend free vacations together. That might be the last chance, however makeshift, to repair this torn land. Yes, it's a pain to be an American.

Feeding the fringes

But it's also becoming a pain to live in Germany. Because Germany has exactly the same problem, just the other way around. Here there's too much political consensus. The most visible expression of this is Angela Merkel, who, because she knows her stuff, knows that she can only feed Germans the truth in small doses. She has already earned herself the prize of most boring speaker of the 21st century (that's world historical progress — Germany is led by a politician who puts people happily to sleep after five minutes!)

German political consensus is a steady "Yes, but..." of washing over and cheating through. A tenacious and malicious putting off of decision taking. That's not a criticism. On the contrary: what a civilized country it is that keeps putting off its political decision-making battles until tomorrow! But this on-going consensus has a price, which is that craziness is forming at the edges of the political spectrum.

On the right extreme are the people from Alternative für Deutschland and the Pegida demonstrators in Dresden. On the left are the reactionary leftist parties and participants in the Monday Peace Marches. Nobody need be surprised to find that these two camps have all manner of things in common, such as a deeply-felt love of Vladimir Putin. The only surprising thing is that it took so long before Germany developed a right-leaning populist movement. In that sense, France and Britain are far ahead.

What about in the long run? Is it worse to have too much or too little consensus? The short answer of course is that both options are bad. But longer term the answer has to be that it is better for differences of opinion to be dealt with publically, even if all hell breaks loose.

So you could wish for Germany to become more American, so that the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) wouldn't refuse alliances with right-wing populists and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Greens would link up with the leftist party. There would then be two clear political blocks, neither of which is sympathetic, facing off against each other. Then Germans could finally know that silent desperation felt by Americans at the political center.

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