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What Can We Learn About Democracy From the German Election? | Insight

Germany’s unique electoral system, which allows multiple parties to viably compete for power, sheds light on American struggles.

Imagine pressure building inside a corked bottle. What does the pressure do? If it builds enough, it will push the cork out. If some unsuspecting individual with no knowledge of physics—myself, for example—holds the cork in, something even worse might happen. Without a direct way to escape, the pressure must destroy the bottle. The glass shatters, and we who hope to keep the bottle shut are left sweeping up the pieces, or worse.

In democratic politics, think of the bottle as a political community, the cork as the leading political parties. As discontent with politics grows, the first target will be the powerful or leading parties who seem to have failed. In a two-party system like America, the parties, or cork, can’t really go away, as voting systems hold them in place. Anti-party sentiment becomes anti-system or anti-democratic, because the parties are the system. In a multi-party democracy like Germany, which just held its national election, you can let the cork blow out of the bottle. If the leading parties lose their popularity, a new cork—new leading parties—can be used to fill the gap, bottle intact. There’s no reason to hate the system when you’ve got options.

In last Saturday’s episode of Bird’s Eye, we discussed the benefits and shortcomings of both methods of realizing democracy: two-party and multi-party. In the wake of Germany’s elections on Sunday, it is possible to see the distinct advantages of a system which releases pressure rather than forces it to dangerously build up.

A short digression summarizing the results: based on projections, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) narrowly won the most votes. It did so over its chief rival, the center-right alliance of Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), whose popularity dropped precipitously in the wake of long-serving Chancellor Angela Merkel’s retirement. Following both major parties, the Greens posted a strong third place finish with the largest projected gains over the previous election. The right-nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) saw its vote share decline and has gone from the third largest party in Germany to the fifth.

In the next few days, the results will become clearer, and the news media will offer endless analysis of what these specific results mean. The parties governing Germany will likely change places or roles, although, as Philip noted on Friday, continuity in policy will likely mostly prevail, for better or worse.

But back to our stopped-up bottle. In the United States, both parties face discontent. On the right, changing demographics and the fallout of unbridled globalization have fueled this dissatisfaction, while persistent social and economic inequality have burdened the left. With nowhere to turn within the confines of our politics, many Americans are not just losing faith in the two parties but liberal democracy altogether.

In Germany, however, where migration and the “democratic deficit” of the European Union have also built pressure and discontent, the multi-party system is working to relieve it. Yes, the far-right AfD constitutes a significant chunk of the German Bundestag (parliament). However, its potency may have petered out because its anti-system, anti-democratic rhetoric is not gratified by a politics in which voters have sufficient alternatives to turn to within the system when the status quo loses its luster. And it isn’t just that German multipartism reduces negative effects. The Green Party is a big winner in the elections, the most likely junior partner in any coalition, and it offers the possibility of new and forward-thinking ideas in the face of the global climate crisis. The pressure can and does build, but its dissatisfaction can find accommodation while generating innovation.

That isn’t to say there aren’t challenges ahead for Germany. Right now, the coalition that emerges from the elections will probably be made up of three parties. Coalition negotiations will be long and fraught, and coordination within an eventual coalition will be especially difficult. As support for leading parties wanes and new competitors slowly gain, fracturing the voter base, finding a majority could get even harder. In these periods, when politics becomes increasingly unworkable, the pressure-relief might paradoxically fuel anti-system sentiment by introducing instability. Relieving the pressure is only a good method as long as it can lead to effective governance that maintains democratic confidence.

Germany’s future may not be exclusively rosy. Whichever coalition emerges will need to find ways to adapt innovatively to a shifting geopolitical environment, but for the moment, relieving the pressure looks awfully good.

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