As the Republicans gavel their convention in Tampa to start the coronation of Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate – and with the Democratic party convention following in North Carolina a few days later to re-nominate Barack Obama − the words of America’s first president might be well remembered. George Washington, in his farewell address in 1796, said this about the political party system:

“It serves to distract the Public Councils, and enfeebles the public Administration…agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one…against the other.”

Clearly we have not learned a lot in the past two hundred plus years to prove Washington wrong. Washington’s insights might ring familiar to any of the political leaders coping with party systems in democracies these days. The cacophony of debates emerging from party squabbles has always been the price we pay for the open political process in our societies, for better and for worse. Whether one sits in the House of Commons in London, the Bundestag in Berlin, or the Congress in DC, the discourse of those we elect to represent us can be at times uplifting or embarrassing. And yet democracies are based on the right of freedom of expression for all citizens. Along with that right goes the responsibility to tolerate what might appear to some as nonsense and/or insult.

What will unfold in the coming weeks in the U.S. is a full scale war of words across the Democratic-Republican trenches, the likes of which we have seen before. However, this year’s contest may escalate to new levels with the increasing amount of fiscal and technological weapons available to both sides. Yet, when one takes a closer look, a growing set of sub-trenches become visible within the ranks of the two parties in battle. Republicans and Democrats alike are anything but a uniformed group of soldiers marching in the same direction to a similar beat. The cleavages in the Republican Party over its campaign platform or the embarrassing case of Todd Akin are illustrations of the mixed bag of its membership. The same can be said of the Democrats. Yet every four years the two sides need to organize themselves to get their candidate elected with 270 electoral votes. What unites them despite the internal differences is that goal – even if it is only for that moment. After that is either achieved or failed, the internal battles resume.

The lucky elected winners of these elections are then challenged to lead their troops, often inebriated with the afterglow of victory, and also to seek common ground with the losing side. President Obama faced that challenge after his election in 2008, and was severely hindered in his ability to achieve both objectives. That problem – otherwise known as gridlock in Washington – will not change much regardless of who wins the presidential election in November, and regardless of the outcome of the Congressional elections.

Is it any different in Germany? In some ways, the chancellor has an easier path than does the American president. The formation of a government is based on a coalition majority within the parliament, which then elects the chancellor and in theory sustains the chancellor’s leadership throughout the four years of governing. Chancellor Merkel has managed to get elected twice in two different coalitions, a unique accomplishment. Yet neither situation spared her from serious clashes within the coalition she led or currently leads.  At the moment, Merkel is confronted with significant tensions within her coalition over the euro crisis, specifically with one of her junior partners in the coalition – the CSU – making serious accusations about both her policies and those of the European Central Bank, as well as the Greek government. No less critical is her other coalition partner – the Free Democrats. Not unimportant in both cases is the weakening position the two small parties face with an eye on elections in the second half of 2013. The CSU will be facing state elections in Bavaria, while the FDP will be facing the national elections and its survival as a viable partner for the chancellor in a governing coalition – a chancellor who continues to enjoy high popularity ratings.

The battle over the euro crisis thus becomes immersed  in the domestic political positioning of the parties in search of their own interests and designs on electoral advantage. The result can be  another version of the gridlock affecting the political process in Washington.

The challenge  for both chancellor and president is that of appealing over these political party feuds and fights for their own electoral success. On the one hand, the parties supply the organizing of the electorate and their votes. Indeed, political parties are actually enshrined in Germany’s Basic Law . On the other hand, they seek to exact their interests from their leaders after the elections. In neither the American system nor the German parliamentary system is there  a way out of this dilemma.  The ability of the chancellor or the president – or the challenger to the incumbent president – to determine the course of their parties is also a measure of the effectiveness of the elected leader. When cracks appear in either system, that effectiveness is limited and often a sign of imminent demise.

President Obama is looking out over a political horizon that reflects back a very fragmented party landscape. It is a landscape that may spell defeat for him in November if he is unable to consolidate his support among the competing groups within his own party, let alone the uncertain trends within the independent circle of voters. Romney faces the same challenge. Chancellor Merkel looks out on a stronger horizon of support, despite the weaknesses of her two coalition partners. Some of that has to do with the current internal disarray of the two parties challenging her next year, the Social Democrats and the Greens. Given that set of factors, Merkel is very likely to be re-elected as chancellor even if she reverts to a different coalition government given her personal popularity for now. Nevertheless, even then she would still be plagued with the same problems of political parties which George Washington so vehemently condemned over two centuries ago. Neither presidents nor chancellors can easily live with their parties. Yet, they cannot survive without them.

  • K Bledowski

    Parties are the whipping boys (and girls) of political forces that distill voters’ preferences: they are unloved and stigmatized but convenient, alive, and kicking.

    Germany has traditionally opted for ‘narrow tents’ of special interests. The recent emergence of the Greens, the Left, and now the Pirates is a good illustration. Doubtless, in America the equivalent electorates also exist. Yet the more conservative body politic here views such splintering as more disruptive to transmission of political choices than having no parties at all. ‘Big tent’ politics of the U.S. is messy, fraught with loud, shrieking campaigns, and punctuated by sharp personal attacks to stake out territories amenable to very diverse electorates.

    Both visions of politics have worked well to sustain democracy and accountability; one is no better than the other in that respect. I think, ultimately voters must feel comfortable that their political choices get heard, transmitted to elected officials, and transformed into policy.

    The big difference between Germany and America lies in external constraints. German politics faces limits to sovereignty imposed by the EU that are foreign to the U.S. Even from a Canadian point of view (a better analogy to Germany’s “big brother EU”), the electoral process in the United States poses little immediate translation to domestic legislative prerogatives, fiscal choices or even foreign policy. Therein lies the crux of Germany’s (and Europe’s) current malaise: domestic electorates embrace the EU and Europe only as auxiliary political and economic constructs. All the same, they (the electorates) are not ready (yet) to submit to higher political authority beyond their domestic jurisdictions.

    This bodes ill for a quick resolution to the Eurozone crisis. The decisions will have to be political and they will have to lie at a pan-European level. The politicians may ultimate become willing to shift gears and embrace federal solutions. Unfortunately, their multicultural, multiethnic, and multilingual base may not follow suit. We ought to brace ourselves for major political upheavals ahead. The political crisis in the EU is next.