Americans, Germans ponder political future

Though separated by a language barrier and an ocean, Germany and the United States have both common political ground and varying challenges in a time of great political change. Such was the subject of “Round Table: Societies in Transition,” a German-American conference attended by alumni of trans-Atlantic partnership programs.

Some 75 participants with ties to programs like the Bertelsmann Foundation, the Fulbright Commission, the Goethe Institute and the International Center for Journalists took part from July 14-16 in Washington, D.C.

“Both countries are leading regional powers that have increasingly struggled to balance their internal politics with their international responsibilities, particularly in the debate over the Libya war,” noted Aaron Wiener, a journalist who represented the Arthur Burns Fellowship.

Yet a shifting political landscape raises questions in both countries. For instance, how will the role of political parties change?

The rise of the conservative Tea Party movement in the United States and Germany’s Pirate Party, which opposes Internet regulation, raises the possibility that long-established parties may face increased competition.

For instance, Eike-Christian Hornig of the Technical University of Darmstadt sees “de-alignment from political parties and mistrust in representative organs” in both nations.

“There is genuine concern in Germany, as well as in the United States, on how to get more members of the public involved in politics and public policymaking. I think it is more of a concern in Germany, but many of the American attendees also expressed concerns about bringing more ‘regular folks’ into politics,” said David Rausch, professor of political science from West Texas A&M University.

How parties and politicians use media was another topic of discussion. Despite the success social media brought the Democratic Party in 2008 and the Republican Party in 2010, “most politicians can’t tell the difference between a (computer) server and a waiter,” said Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Technology Forum. Panelists seemed to agree that politicians in both countries are under-utilizing such resources as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

“The Internet is allowing a wide range of interest groups to get involved in the political discussion and this is happening in both countries,” said Eckhart Gouras, director of Verquest International Limited. “Google and Facebook are examples of leading Internet players in both countries. Will this lead to even more similarities in how the political discourse occurs in Germany and the U.S.?”

New media will also help to shape non-governmental groups such as civil societies, panelists noted.

“In each country, the rise of transnational civil society networks is especially relevant as younger generations identify the role of technology in their lives,” said Colette Mazzucelli, an associate professor from New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. She noted that resources such as Skype helped to organize volunteer relief efforts in humanitarian catastrophes in Haiti, Libya and Japan. “This trend of civic engagement is likely to increase in time with implications for German-American societal relations as well as broader transatlantic cooperation, notably at the popular level,” she said.

“It’s easy to talk about what’s necessary to change society but it is a long and hard way to actually do it and get people to come along. New media can do a lot but talking to each other still seems to be the better way,” said Beate Thewalt, another Burns alumnus and a reporter and editor for the German news program “Heute.”

Direct democracy also sparked discussion. From California’s 1978 Proposition 13 to limit taxes to Berlin’s 2008 fight over closing its Tempelhof Airport, voters in both nations have increasingly made their voices heard directly, but panelists debated whether ordinary citizens make informed policy decisions.

“The discussion about direct democracy was interesting because the Germans thought it was a good idea to expand opportunities for direct democracy, but with some regulations,” said Rausch. “I’m not sure the forms of direct democracy used in various American states are good models for export because our direct democracy is much more free-wheeling,” he said.

Among the attendees’ other observations about the nations’ trends:

“It could now be argued (somewhat sadly) that the United States and Germany are both performing at the equal low common denominator of political indecision, procrastination, paralysis and kicking the can down the road,” said Robert Devine, president of the CEISA Research Group.

“Differences between the countries remain stark. Nowhere is that clearer than in the fight over nuclear power. In the U.S., it’s almost universally agreed upon that the government should provide billions of dollars in loan guarantees to construct new nuclear plants, while Germans have moved so far in the other direction as to reject as too nuclear-friendly a deal that would have forced the nuclear companies to pay the government in order to extend the operation of a few existing plants,” said Wiener.

“Each country has its pros and cons and the big benefit of the U.S. is the melting pot environment, where foreigners quickly feel at home and are mainly judged by their achievements and not where they’re from. Germany will have to go down this road to succeed given the aging of its population and the need to ‘import’ people who are not German,” said Gouras.

Ultimately, the conference was more about raising thoughtful questions than definitively answering them. “More questions than answers is, I think, a very good result,” said moderator Cornelius Adebahr.

German Life, 2011