Monday, September 19, 2005

"Kraftvoll. Mutig. Menschlich."

I don't get cable news, so when it comes to TV, I have to choose between local, network, and what they show on PBS, which includes a healthy dose of the BBC and various small shows focusing on European and Asian news.

It's really like choosing between night and day. When it comes to network news, I can't tell the difference between newsmagazines, daytime shows, and the evening news anymore. They all give the news from the same middle-of-the-road, human-interest point-of-view, and half of their feature stories play out like movies of the week or episodes of CSI. Maybe under other circumstances I might be interested in an in-depth story of how schoolteachers in New Orleans were helping children cope with Hurricane Katrina -- say, if the New Yorker were writing it up -- but when I want to know what's going on in the world, I'd rather watch the BBC or PBS.

The BBC World News is terrific. They're also the only news agency that actually either 1) gets interesting footage with their cameras, 2) buys that footage from someone else, or 3) has the guts to show it on the air. After the suicide bombings in Iraq, they had video of bodies and frantic people in the marketplace. When (hello!) North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, they had video interviews of the ambassadors who negotiated the deal. And they had a terrific video of German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder rhetorically slapping around his opponent Angela Merkel in a televised debate after the election, when the two of them were in the same room!

Am I the only one who's fascinated by the German election results? It's like Bush-Gore 2000 -- but way more complicated. To recap, Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats were heavily favored to win, well, heavily -- instead, the conservative group and Schroeder's Social Democrats battled to a stalemate. Although neither party won a majority, depending on whom you ask, either Merkel or Schroeder won enough votes to head a coalition of Germany's fringe minority parties: the Greens, the Left Party, or the Liberal Democrats. Both parties (which basically make up the political center in Germany) are willing to form a coalition with each other, but only if their party leader (Schroeder or Merkel) serves as Chancellor. In the video I saw, Schroeder sat in a chair four feet away from Merkel, whose party had beaten his in the popular vote, and said that it was ridiculous to even speak to the Social Democrats if they wanted to insist that he stepped aside. "Let's get serious," he said. Ouch.

Schroeder has got to be the most butch left-leaning leader in Europe, with as much put-on macho swagger as an Italian fascist. I love his campaign slogan: "Kraftvoll. Mutig. Menschlich." Which translates charitably as "Strong. Bold. Humane." -- but sounds more like "Powerful. Ballsy. A Real Man." You see this on posters in Germany with Schroeder's picture on them.

Schroeder knows that his party won the expectations game, and that more voters are on the general left than the narrow center-right in Germany, and he's using all of this to his advantage. "We are Germany's governing party," a Social Democrat party rep said in a speech yesterday.

Americans need to be reminded of the rest of the world more often, not just as a place to travel or full of people who want our largesse or to thwart our national will. We need to see how other countries -- countries much like ours, with racial and regional heterogeneity, concerns and fears about the future, a full political spectrum and real political emotion and intellect -- figure out how to live together democratically. As long as we think (and are led to think) that our political theater is the only show in town, we're going to continue to act with minor-league minds and major-league muscle, both here and abroad. For the first time in our history, it's become possible for Americans to stop worrying about Europe. There may be no prior time in our history when it's not just more important, but more instructive and illuminating to think about Europe again.


Andy Lang said...

Good summary and interesting perspective on the election. No, you're not the only person fascinated by this. :)

I'm not sure I'd agree with your description of the Greens, Free Democrats and Left Party as "fringe." Together, they polled about 12 million votes, i.e., more than one-fourth of the total. Four million voters supported the Left, or 8.7 percent. There hasn't been a single one-party government in Germany since the 1960s; either the SPD or the CDU/CSU have to govern in coalition with one of the smaller parties, and in Germany that's quite normal.

The FDP is one of the Federal Republic's oldest parties--founded in 1946 and a direct descendent of older, "liberal" parties that have existed in Germany since the 1850s. The Greens have been in the federal government for seven years, and in the Bundestag since the early 1980s. The Left has been a stable "third party" in the eastern states (where's its share of the vote nearly equals that of the CDU and SPD), is the junior partner in two state governments and the largest party in more than 100 municipalities. It's now gaining ground in the western states for the first time.

None of these represent a "fringe." Rather, in Germany they are called "milieu parties" with a particular social milieu as their base. For the FDP, that would be business and middle-class people who support free markets and civil rights. For the Greens, a large part of the formerly-radical (but now quite middle-class) generation of "1968"--especially those for whom the environment is issue number one. For the Left, left-wing socialists (still quite numerous in Germany as almost everywhere else in Europe), those who still believe in the very traditional German "social state" and especially Germany's growing underclass of unemployed and low-income workers.

There are indeed "fringe" parties but these three are not among them. You'd have to look at the 40 or so parties that collectively manage to win no more than 3 to 4 percent in a typical election: four extremist parties of the right, a handful of left-wing sects, the small German Communist Party, and a collection of other small groups. That's the "fringe" in Germany and it's quite small.

Tim said...

Many thanks for your comments, Andy. "Fringe" was ill-considered. I originally wrote just "minority parties" -- I don't know why I went back and added "fringe," other than to suggest by contrast that the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats (which are themselves composed de jure if not de facto of multiple parties) There's also a pejorative connotation to "fringe" that I didn't intend at all. Anything else that I could add about the Greens, the Left, and the Free Democrats you've nicely done already.