In a period of increased political polarization, fragmentation of society, and growing social inequity, many Germans and Americans feel left behind even though economic indices are generally positive in both countries. In an effort to better understand these issues, the American Council on Germany and the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius are hosting a series of discussions in various cities in the United States. Some 60 people gathered at the University of Texas at Dallas on March 25 for a discussion and reception, which was held with support from the World Affairs Council of Dallas. Dr. Jennifer Holmes, Interim Dean and Professor of Political Science, Public Policy, and Political Economy at the School of Economic, Political, and Policy Sciences at University of Texas at Dallas, welcomed the audience. ACG Board member Dr. Nina Smidt, President of the American Friends of Bucerius and Director of International Strategic Planning and Business Development at the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius, set the stage with opening remarks.
In a conversation moderated by Dallas journalist Lee Cullum, Dr. Christian Martin, Professor of European and Mediterranean Studies and Max Weber Visiting Chair in German and European Studies at New York University, and Dr. Banks Miller, Associate Professor of Political Science and Program Head of Political Science, Public Policy and Political Economy at University of Texas at Dallas, discussed a variety of topics including the rise of populism, overcoming social imbalance, and commonalities of challenges facing communities in the U.S. and Germany.
Ms. Cullum began by noting the growing divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Dr. Miller agreed that income inequality is one of two reasons for polarization in the United States. The second is immigration. While these two issues do not directly cause polarization, there is a correlation. As economic inequality and immigration increase, polarization also increases. In turn, this results in less common ground between the two political parties in the United States. Republicans focus on ideology while Democrats tends to more open to consensus. However, Dr. Miller noted that the Republican Party has had a shift in values. He said it is essentially the party of President Trump rather than the traditional Republican Party.
Although Germany does not have as deep a political divide as the United States, Dr. Martin noted that income inequality is still an issue. He acknowledged certain political cleavages. Despite the pension and labor market reforms in the early 2000s by the SPD-led government, one does not see a tectonic shift in economic inequality that is seen in the U.S. However, German unification exacerbated economic inequality because people in eastern Germany did not have accumulated wealth like those in the west. This partially explains why political attitudes are different between eastern and western Germany. The largest debate taking place in Germany today is the increasing divide between urban centers and rural areas. This urban-rural divide has been fueled by globalization and digitalization. One could say the same trend is playing out in the United States.
In this highly globalized world, Dr. Martin argued that voter participation has decreased. This is largely due to politicians’ inability to create affective change. However, globalization creates winners and losers. It would be beneficial to invest in education and improved workforce preparedness to bridge the gap so that more people benefit from globalization than not. Dr. Miller agreed that similar issues can be observed in the United States. The struggle is that the U.S. is set up to be more status quo oriented, making it difficult to truly bridge the growing divide.
Turning back to immigration, Ms. Cullum noted that living in Texas, immigration is often in the media – but it is not nearly as much of a concern as it is often portrayed to be. Dr. Miller noted that the number of foreign-born people living in the U.S. is relatively high. Immigration poses less of a threat than some people believe, as immigrants are less likely to commit crimes and – in most circumstances – contribute to economic growth, rather than deplete it. Dr. Miller stated that there is evidence to suggest that public opinion is shaped largely by outside forces and less personal circumstances. He wonders what political elites are doing to drive further polarization. In looking at immigration in the EU, Dr. Martin pointed out that Emmanuel Macron of France has suggested that there should be a common border. This, of course, has been met with a great deal of hesitation from across the European Union as each country wants to control its own borders. Individual countries want to take back control of who gets in and who stays out.
In closing, the panelists agreed that the trends that can be seen playing out in Germany and the United States still present many challenges. It is unlikely that social cohesion will improve on either side of the Atlantic without significant commitment and investment both from leaders and citizens.