The Americanization of German politics

Yes, Americanization, and anyone who knows (e.g. from reading F&V) what I think of politics, American style, knows that I am not praising Germany with a headline like this.

During the campaign for general elections in September, a lot of press coverage used the term, Amricanization. It typically referred to the candidate-centered nature of the campaign. For example, for the first time in German history, there were debates between the leaders of the two largest parties, patterned after US presidential debates. Such debates, although now practiced in New Zealand, Canada, Britain, and other parliamentary systems, are a rather odd fit for parliamentary systems, where the collective program of the leader’s party matters much more to the polititical and policy-making process than does the candidate for the top executive position. The Americanization went even further in the extent of coverage (much of it rather negative, and even sexist) of Angela Merkel herself, and in the extent that poor popular evaluation of Merkel may have contributed to the unexpected collapse of her party’s lead in the polls late in the campaign.

Now Americanization has emerged in another, sinister, sense. Among the many features of American politics that are subsersive of democracy is the common practice of policiains to cash in after their term is over, going to work for companies whose bottom lines have been enhanced with the assistance of the politician while he or she was in office.

Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is at the center of an increasingly damaging scandal for having taken a lucrative job with the Russian corporation Gazprom almost immediately after leaving office. In the last two weeks of Schröder’s chacellorship, Germany and Russia signed a six billion dollar contract for Gazprom to build a gas pipeline under the Baltic sea to transport Russian gas to Germany, thereby bypassing Belarus, the Baltic states, and Poland (each of which currently benefits not ony from access to some of the gas itself, but from fees collected from various land routes).

I was watching DW’s European Journal (an outstanding news program carried on LinkTV) one night last week and I actually heard Schröder justify his taking of this job on the grounds that the practice of retiring politicians accepting jobs with companies that had business with the government is very typical in America.

Shame on Mr. Schröder for his sleaze, and shame on American politicians for setting such a low standard of democratic ethics.

0 thoughts on “The Americanization of German politics

  1. Of course, good old Gerhard could also have cited the Japanese example of “descent from heaven.” Or, for that matter, the number of British peers who just happen to be the heads of major public corporations. There’s always a golden parachute for any successful ex-politician, whether it’s on K Street or Wall Street (or a nice cushy “academic” [cough] job at the Kennedy School). This is hardly a uniquely American phenomenon, and one that I’m not sure would be easy to solve in any democracy (where, after all, we wouldn’t expect retired politicans to have to forage through dumpsters to feed themselves!).

  2. One can hardly absolve American politics by reference to Japan, a country with an even more corrupt relationship between corporate influence and politics than the US. (These two coutries are probably at the pinnacle of this sort of sleze among allegedly “advanced” democracies.)

    I would also not conflate the peerages in the British House of Lords with what I was referring to, given that the reference there is to public, not private, corporations, and, more importantly, the weakness of the House of Lords as a political institution. (That is not to say that the practice Chris describes is not potentially corrupting; one could also point to similar practices with respect to the Canadian Senate). Britain, on the other hand, has far stricter regulations on this sort of “cashing in”–government officials taking private jobs with clear interests before the government–than does the US or, obviously, Germany.

    The Clinton administration put in place some strict rules, but they were only by executive order, and thus not really enforceable. If put into law and enforced, similar rules would go a long way to minimizing the ethics problems of situations like Schröder’s and the many cases we see in the US by a perusal of contemporary headlines.

    So, no, I cannot buy Chris’s essentially defeatist approach, which I take to be–politicians will seek gainful employment, and so we really can’t do anything about it! Sure we can, but we have to demand it, and not just accept a sleazy status quo.

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