Tensions on the Rise
Whether you are in Berlin or in Washington these days, the political atmosphere is very similar. In a word—tense. In Berlin, the debates revolve around the euro crisis, exports of tanks to Saudi Arabia, tax reform, and energy policies, while in Washington, the debate over the impending debt ceiling is approaching spontaneous combustion. Taken together with any number of other issues, either in the foreign policy arena (Libya, Afghanistan, or China) or in the bottomless arguments over financial reform, unemployment, and the Defense of Marriage Act, policymakers have a full agenda. And that does not even cover the battles going on in many U.S. states, including Wisconsin and Minnesota, where government shut downs have been increasingly inevitable.
In fact, dissatisfaction with governing bodies is seen no matter where one looks, or so it seems if measured against the level of public backlash and criticism on both sides of the Atlantic. Dissatisfaction with leaders is rampant. Chancellor Merkel is getting hammered for not exercising leadership at home, on the European stage, or in other parts of the world. Her decision to shut down nuclear plants after the Fukushima disaster was criticized as an opportunistic response to poor election results for her party in Baden Württemberg, just as Foreign Minister Westerwelle’s order to abstain from the vote on Libya in the UN Security Council was perceived as both a foreign policy blunder and an effort to shore up domestic support for his party’s plunges at the polls. And then there is the heat generated over the euro crisis which seems to be growing each day.
A Widespread Issue
Elsewhere in Europe, the situation is not much different. British Prime Minister Cameron is being pummeled over questions of media corruption just as he is dealing with enormous economic challenges. French President Sarkozy is looking ahead to next spring’s elections and fighting for his political survival. In Italy, Berlusconi is an escalating embarrassment to the nation, and both Spain and Portugal are wary of the growing cloud caused by Greece’s imminent bankruptcy.
Back in Washington, President Obama is facing an increasingly rambunctious Congress that has shown it will not—or cannot—be reined in by leadership on either side of the aisle. Whether the debt ceiling will be resolved is uncertain but the implications for the country at large are lost among the shouting matches led by political Jacobins who are not only demeaning the debate with invectives found in schoolyard brawls but are also causing more Americans to throw up their hands in despair.
“Kicking the Can down the Road”
Yet amidst all this Sturm and Drang, it is perhaps ironic that the very people who condemn the practice of “kicking the can down the road”—whether its bailing out bankrupt states in Europe or getting a choke hold on the national debt in Washington—continue their quests for reelection and repeat exactly the same policies that created the situation in the first place. And it is perhaps not ironic that these people are increasing the distance between themselves and the people who elect them, resulting in new grassroots-led, and more ideological movements. Germany’s political parties have been losing membership for years and the number of people who identify with political parties has been plummeting.
That said, the electorate is not free from blame in this vicious circle either. The expectations and demands placed on political figures by the voters are becoming increasingly narrow and time sensitive with regard to delivering real substance. The fact that there is now a trend in the U.S. for political leaders to be confronted with signing pledges as to how they stand on abortion, taxes, or the teaching of evolution is a symptom of a larger problem of the political decision-making system in default. With that in mind, political leaders find themselves increasingly unable to confront themselves and their counterparts with credible positions they can hold on to, given the pressures of domestic politics. The NYMBY movement “not in my backyard” is spreading, whether it be Germans complaining about bailing out the Greeks or Americans foaming about their economic futures.
Brighter Days Ahead?
The battle for November 6, 2012 is in full force now in the United States, with President Obama’s campaign for a second term in office gaining momentum and the Republican contenders jostling for the GOP nomination. Yet this election will look quite different from 2008. What brought Obama into office in 2008, an ability to inspire millions of people with slogans of hope and change, will not work as well this time. The country does not look or feel like the same country it did three years ago. There is not only tension in the air—there is also anxiety. And in large measure, that has to do with the continuing decline in trust in government, in elected officials, or in the expectation that things will get better. This message of brighter days on the horizon has been the trademark of both politicians and voters in campaigns. But that message is in trouble. And the result is a poisonous use of rhetoric that is causing more and more people to lose faith in the future. The mere figure of 9.2 percent unemployment does not compute until it translates into millions of people looking for work unsuccessfully over a long period of time. That same situation is reflected in the increasing divisions of the country between those who have come out of the last three years of the recession intact—and the millions who were left behind with far less than they had before. Add in the increasing pessimism that all the treasure and blood spilled in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere around the globe in the past several years was for naught and, assuming Obama wins a second term, it is clear that he will face a starting place no way similar to where he was on November 4, 2008.
Meanwhile, Chancellor Merkel has recently indicated that she will run for a third term as chancellor in the fall of 2013. Despite all the critique of her handiwork to date, her chances of following the trail of Helmut Kohl’s sixteen years in office are good. She can entertain a number of options in building coalitions with the Greens or the SPD again, should her current partner, the Free Democrats, fail to make the grade. And there is no one to challenge her bid within her own party, the CDU. With two years to go, a lot can happen, as Fukushima demonstrated. The next time, the meltdown could be economic in the form of a euro in free fall. Even more, any coalition government is going to have to secure a majority to govern, and that is difficult for any combination of coalitions rights now, with the exception of returning to a Grand Coalition with the SPD—a fate which neither side wants, and in particular would be aggressively challenged by Merkel’s sister party, the CSU. That said, they also did not want it in 2005 but there was no other way out—and that “grand” coalition managed to steer a decent course through difficult times. Perhaps such a coalition is the default mode of democracies unable to forge bridges across deep divides.
The Lack of a Strong Opponent
The Social Democrats are looking for a leader, unsure of same, and divided within the party about what the message of the party should be after the beating they took in the last election. If it turns out to be former Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück as the SPD candidate, it would make for an interesting race with his former boss, Angela Merkel. But there is a lot of consensus building within the party to get there from here.
Following their unexpected victory in Baden Wüttertemberg, the Greens are sounding out their national ambitions, which will be tested next in the state elections in Berlin in early September, even though they do not really know who their national campaign leader might be (unless they were inclined to reawake an unwilling Joschka Fischer for another run). Whether the Greens have enough sustained power through the next two years to make a run at the Chancellery remains a question. What happens in the one state they have won the leadership so far—Baden Württemberg—will be a measuring stick for their success in 2013.
Meanwhile, the Liberals are still adjusting to new management and finding a new profile to replace what was their mantra of lowering taxes. Whether that effort will be able to lead to a majority with Merkel again in 2013 is, at this point, seriously in doubt.
Yet all this bodes well for Merkel’s ambitions for a third term—a better situation than Obama faces next year.
But in the case of both Merkel and Obama, their ability to project confidence and reassurance about the future has been strained by events, which, while out of their control, have nevertheless been labeled as their responsibility. And part of that responsibility lies in building a consensus about what the challenges are, determining where the real problems are , and then finding a solution; The political wars going on within German and American society are making that effort increasingly difficult. The battle raging over setting the debt ceiling in Washington is the poster child for this stalemate.
Will a Recess Break the Political Stalemate?
Sometimes a catharsis can jolt a country into focusing on the real issues at stake. But even the argument over what constitutes a catharsis is convoluted. It seems that the old adage—you are entitled to your own views but not your own facts—no longer holds true for the warring parties. You are entitled to your own facts now, regardless of whether you can back them up with evidence.
Germans now go into what they call the Sommerloch—the vacation time during which any number of unexpected issues make their appearance on a stage that is littered with temporarily tuned-out politicians and a lot of noise from various corners of the political spectrum to which a hungry press pays all too much attention. Something similar will happen in August in Washington.
But when the players all return to the stage in a few weeks, we will see what the script looks like, whether anything has changed it, or whether we will continue with a Wagnerian-length set of arias competing with each other for applause. All the more reason why we all need a vacation now.
This essay appeared in the July 15, 2011, AICGS Advisor.