Posted by Alan Eason
I have been thinking about doing this post for some time, before I even saw this from “Der Spiegel” and before the election. The article is – “The American Patient.” The subtitle is more telling: “The Decline of a Great Nation.”
I spent about nine years of my life living in Germany and Austria, when I was in my 20′s and early 30′s. In talking to many friends and observing a good number of elections in both countries, I was often struck by one thing. Many – even most – people there were disengaged from the political process.
If you asked them about any issue, you would often hear: “Na ja….Das ist Politik!.” It didn’t mean just “That’s politics” like we say in the US. It meant more like: “That’s politics, not my world.” Most of the people I knew there left politics up to the politicians. They let them do all the debating, and really stayed out of it. Yes, they would vote for a representative in parliament – really for a particular party – and that was about it. The MP’s (members of parliament) did all the rest – the debating, collaborating and coalition-forming. So it was always strange to them to hear about how Americans would get so passionately involved with our political process.
It seemed to me that Europeans were much more passive, and thus more content to go along with whichever politicians were in power. Most had no real problem with having a much more socialist government (democratic socialism, they would always remind me). There were parties that swung more one way and some that swung more the other. I always got the feeling it was sort of like the high school exercise “student body left – student body right.” The common folk did not seem to get too worked up, whichever group was in power.
I have heard a lot of talk like that from Americans lately, particularly this past week. They think this is the way America should go. We should just accept it and get on with it. That also seems the attitude of the “Der Spiegel” editorial staff. The problem, as they see it, is that we have a bunch of ‘right-wing’ holdouts who cling to an ‘antiquated’ American form of government that stresses individualism. These people (i.e. me) refuse to follow the path that most of Europe and many other countries have been on for years. How can we argue in the face of ‘progress?’
It is a thirty-year-old debate for me. I’ll just share a few of the points I would discuss then, with Europeans. Some are still apropos. For the record, even then I would sometimes be met with a sense of bewilderment or a look like: “You sure are naive.” I am sure some of you will echo them. Have at it
Some points I would discuss with Europeans:
- America’s forebears mostly came from Europe. They suffered from the overly authoritarian governments there. That is why many came to the new world in the first place.
- Europeans of the 18th through the 20th centuries loudly predicted the American experiment would fail, in almost every decade. They had to wait and wait.
- America’s system was set up as a system where the people really could govern, albeit through their elected (mostly from among the common people) representatives. Europe’s system, though it evolved into something more democratic over the centuries, still maintained a class system . The MP’s and others in government moved in their own circles and in their own world. They were the elites.They made their own coalitions (and still do) between parties. Once elected, regular people had little involvement in public movements. It was basically left up to the elites.
- Europe got pretty lucky after 1945 (at least western Europe), with a lot of help from some strange country across the ocean. They were not so lucky the 50-odd years before that, even with their newly formed parliamentary systems. About 30 million unnecessary deaths unlucky.
- When the Europeans did gather and protest (as they did against Reagan and the Pershing missiles in Germany in the early 80′s – I was there) they did not always get it right. Reagan was “The Cowboy” and seen as grossly ignorant and America was supremely stupid for electing him. Note: Ten years later the Soviet Union was dissolving, the Berlin wall was down and Germany was on the way to reunification of East and West. Gorbachev would mourn at Reagan’s funeral in Washington. Fact stranger than fiction.
- Occasionally, even in Europe, people would step back and see the bigger picture. I was in Germany when the Holocaust TV series was shown. It was the first time that Germans, as a nation and at the popular level, really confronted what happened to the Jews and their part in it. Previously, it had always been hard to get Germans or Austrians to even discuss it. During the mini-series, many people were in shock. It had not been thoroughly taught in schools and parents who lived through it had not discussed it much with their children. The news channels had huge discussion series after each episode – some lasting hours. The newspapers were writing editorial after editorial.One of the biggest questions people asked: “How could Germany have done this? How did we get to this point?” “We were smarter than that – what happened?” One of the most telling things I read, I believe it was in an editorial in the “Trierischer Volksfreund,” went something like this: “Germany’s problems partly stemmed from the fact that, too often, “Das Deutsche Volk laesst sich zu leicht reglementieren.” [Germans let themselves fall into line too easily]. “Ordnung ist Gott.” [Order becomes God]. In other words, the editors there – during that painful time of reckoning – realized that the people of Germany should have been more involved during the 1930′s. There should have been much more debate. There should have been mass movements on – yes, social – issues. It was not sufficient to just say “Das ist Politik.”
- Finally, I would remind myself (and them), that America had done this democracy thing pretty successfully for (at that time) 200 years. They were in countries that really had only been at it for a few decades. America had a civil war ‘fourscore and seven’ years in. Europe had at least one world war since starting their experiments.
- At the time, especially the last 5 years of my stay, there were American F4′s and F-15′s flying overhead most of the time – going up on alert every time time anything approached from the eastern bloc towards the West. I often wondered what things would have been like had they not been there. We had some tense times there (like the Soviet blockade of Poland in 1981) and Germans would come up to me privately and say “America is not going to leave us, are you? America will help us if anything happens?” Some had been there before.
Yes, the world has changed.