Deutschland and the Democrats

“Countries like Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and many more are providing free or inexpensive higher education for their young people. They understand how important it is to be investing in their youth. We should be doing the same.”

So opines 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the junior Senator from Vermont and currently the main challenger to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic Party’s nomination. Clinton also recently praised another German policy, the “Kurzarbeit” program, in which the government briefly pays the salaries of privately employed workers whose hours are cut. These two candidates clearly like some of what Germany has to say—but just how much?

Can America learn something from the German system? The GOP is certainly not on good terms with the German government, which blasted the letter that a group of Republican representatives sent to Iran regarding nuclear deal negotiations in March. Democrats are on much friendlier terms with the Bundesrepublik. Hillary Clinton is already popular in Germany, and though Sanders may not be well known, his ideas are certainly more commonplace there and across the Atlantic than in the United States.

Sanders frequently refers to the Nordic countries and Germany as models for the United States in terms of education and healthcare. Germany recently removed all tuition costs for higher education, and Sanders sees this as the right move for increasing the well-being of the average American citizen. He recently introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate to perform the same function, which would effectively make higher education in the United States free as well, if passed.

How would this be accomplished? According to Sanders, the highest earners in the United States should foot the bill by facing increased taxes. Clinton has also warmed to the idea of cheaper or free education, though notably not to the same extent. She recently praised President Obama’s plan to make two-year community college tuition-free, but she has yet to take the leap to supporting Sanders’ cherished idea of completely free higher education.

Senator Sanders also indicates that the Germans are on the right track by providing universal healthcare. So far, Sanders is the only presidential contender to advocate for a single-payer system in the United States, calling healthcare a “right.” Clinton has been more coy about the issue, claiming support for the Affordable Care Act, but not overtly supporting a national, universal healthcare system á la Europe.

Both of these issues—though particularly healthcare—are contentious and ignite fiery debate on both sides of the aisle in the United States. This is not exactly the case in Europe, where even conservative governments in countries like the United Kingdom cringe at the prospect of heavily cutting back their beloved nationalized healthcare systems. The Affordable Care Act was narrowly upheld in the Supreme Court a few weeks ago and has been challenged in courts and in public debate numerous times, marking universal healthcare as far from agreed-upon in the national conversation. Even if Sanders were to be elected to the White House, would he be able to pass legislation enacting a single-payer system? According to Sanders himself, not without a “political revolution.” Though Sanders and Clinton may look to Europe for guidance, the U.S. has a long way to go before adopting this critical component of the modern social-welfare state.

Still, not everything about Germany entices the Democratic candidates. For example, Sanders was quick to lash out against calls for more austerity measures against Greece, stating,
“I applaud the people of Greece for saying ‘no’ to more austerity for the poor, the children, the sick and the elderly… In a world of massive wealth and income inequality, Europe must support Greece’s efforts to build an economy which creates more jobs and income, not more unemployment and suffering.”

Clinton’s response has been more nuanced. She stated in a visit to Greece in 2011 that austerity was similar to chemotherapy: a tough-but-necessary pill for the Greek people to swallow. Clinton has yet to comment on the recent developments in Greece, only indicating that she believes the other EU countries should do everything possible to retain Greek membership in the Union. Merkel’s insistence upon austerity, then, puts her at odds with (potentially) both candidates.

Sanders would also disagree with the system for funding elections in Germany, which allows individuals and corporations to donate unlimited amounts to political campaigns while also banning donations by unions. Sanders has repeatedly called for entirely publicly-funded elections as well as the overturning of the “disastrous” Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which removed many limitations on the amount of money that corporations and labor unions could spend on political campaigns. This is an ironic twist, given that Sanders’ top donors are unions. Sanders has also amassed about 250,000 individual campaign donations so far—most of which were less than $35 each—but labor organizations are a key part of his financial and political support. Sanders has eschewed the use of Political Action Committees (PACs), unlike Clinton. This is clearly an instance in which Sanders would not want to emulate Germany.

Finally, both sides of the Atlantic face the contentious issue of immigration. Clinton has advocated for immigration reform, which would extend the measures implemented by President Obama and allow for a path to full and equal citizenship for those who have come to the United States illegally. Germany has similarly taken measures to incorporate immigrants into society, taking in the largest number of refugees and asylum seekers out of any EU state. Interestingly, Sanders has taken quite a different approach, advocating for slowed immigration in order to “protect American workers.” Echoing some of his right-wing opponents in the presidential campaign, Sanders wants to curb immigration heavily. Recent pushbacks in Germany show that these sentiments happen on both sides of the Atlantic, with extremist groups like PEGIDA gaining steam and attracting thousands to rally against immigrants. Though Sanders is by no means a right-wing ideologue, the parallel is perplexing. His strict protection of American workers by reducing immigration and opposing deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership may be tied to his strong support by the aforementioned unions and labor groups.

Democratic candidates, like self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders, can see manifestations of some of the ideas that they support by taking a look at Germany. Healthcare and education are seen as rights in Germany, or at least have strong societal support and represent models for the rest of the developed world. Other issues draw out the differences between these two candidates and the distinctions between the United States and Germany. Progressive politicians like Sanders and Clinton may want to implement certain segments of the German model in the United States, but they should be careful in doing so, taking care to be aware of the flaws and problems that exist in places like Germany and implementing measures to adapt these lessons in the context of the United States. A pragmatic approach that puts practical and sustainable ideas, including those from across the Atlantic, will be critical.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.