An Anxious German Media Reacts to the U.S. Government Shutdown

Yixiang Xu

China Fellow; Program Officer, Geoeconomics

Yixiang Xu is the China Fellow and Program Officer, Geoeconomics at AGI, leading the Institute’s work on U.S. and German relations with China. He has written extensively on Sino-EU and Sino-German relations, transatlantic cooperation on China policy, Sino-U.S. great power competition, China's Belt-and-Road Initiative and its implications for Germany and the U.S., Chinese engagement in Central and Eastern Europe, foreign investment screening, EU and U.S. strategies for global infrastructure investment, 5G supply chain and infrastructure security, and the future of Artificial Intelligence. His written contributions have been published by institutes including The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, The United States Institute of Peace, and The Asia Society's Center for U.S.-China Relations. He has spoken on China's role in transatlantic relations at various seminars and international conferences in China, Germany, and the U.S.

Mr. Xu received his MA in International Political Economy from The Josef Korbel School of International Studies at The University of Denver and his BA in Linguistics and Classics from The University of Pittsburgh. He is an alumnus of the Bucerius Summer School on Global Governance, the Global Bridges European-American Young Leaders Conference, and the Brussels Forum's Young Professionals Summit. Mr. Xu also studied in China, Germany, Israel, Italy, and the UK and speaks Mandarin Chinese, German, and Russian.

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The world has been closely following the partial shutdown of the U.S. Federal Government. The drama playing out in America’s capital is as much a subject of ridicule overseas as it is a source of growing international concern.

The German media, in almost synchronized cohesion, has referred to the government shutdown as a tragic event in the steady self-destruction of the world’s oldest continuous democracy. It is surprising for German media and its audience that a federal government shutdown, furloughing hundreds of thousands of federal employees, pushing the government toward defaulting on its debt liabilities, and creating massive economic distortions, was even allowed to happen.

It is conceivable that the political spectacle taking place in Washington looks like total insanity to Germans.  Even though, for the time being, Chancellor Angela Merkel is entrenched in talks over Germany’s federal budget between the conservatives and the Social Democrats, a scenario like the U.S. government shutdown is completely beyond the scope of imagination in German politics.

There is consensus in the German media that the House Republicans, particularly the Tea Party, have taken the entire country hostage over far-right conservative ideologies. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung sees the Republican effort to wrestle with the Democrats and the President as a ridiculous fight “to allow as many Americans [to go] without health insurance.”  The Süddeutsche Zeitung described the Tea Party as “a small group of radical Republicans” and “Staatsnihilisten” (state nihilists).

This radicalization within political parties is responsible for widening political cleavages in American politics today. Just as the Tea Party is willing to hold the entire country ransom for its ultra-conservative ideologies, the Democrats refuse to negotiate with them. The resulting victims of this fierce political collision and governmental dysfunction are, of course, the American people. Large-scale federal furloughs and unprocessed benefits will hit a lot of Americans hard, not to mention the disastrous economic impact that costs the country more than $300 million a day.

However, some in the German media argue that the American public is not entirely innocent in the political disaster. More and more Americans tend to live among other like-minded fellow citizens, creating a blue-red geographic divide across the country. Columnist Hubert Wetzel claims that “the parties exacerbate this self-selected red and blue apartheid; they deepen the political, cultural and geographic divide in society.” According to Der Spiegel, There are few politicians “who are willing or capable of thinking beyond their own electoral constituencies.” Public confidence in Congress is at an all-time low, leaving many average citizens frustrated with the political parties and their politicians. Yet, American voters are the ones who elected these politicians in the first place.

This level of responsibility was also highlighted in German media. Political campaigns in the United States are privately funded―unlike in Germany, where the government provides funding. With this phenomenon, there are many opportunities for private interests and ideologies to seep into national political agendas. Bipartisanship in Congress is also less comprehensive than in Germany, where a multi-party, coalition-based parliamentary system exists. This structure defines German political culture as one of compromise. Conversely, the “monopoly” approach in the United States fuels parties’ confidence to act unilaterally.

The political spectrum in America is also very different from its German counterpart. Not only are there more parties representing specific ideological positions along the German political spectrum, but also major political parties in Germany tend to be central or even left-leaning in their political agendas. Cologne’s Stadt Anzeiger cynically points out, “The American Tea Party’s ideas about the relationship between market and state makes the German FDP look like a socialist workers’ club.” It also commented―in a partial state of disbelief―that the Tea Party seems to see the state as “a dog running up the street, begging for sausage.”

To the German media, perhaps the most pressing concerns come from the image of the U.S. government as dysfunctional. Economies around the world, particularly in Europe, are just starting to see fragile recovery, and significant political turmoil in the world’s largest economy can cause unrest and distortion in international markets. In the age when the West, led by the United States, is also trying to establish new democracies around the world and promote democratic values, a portrait of dysfunctional democracy that’s not even able to pass a budget is not exactly the message it wants to dispatch around the world―especially during the fragile global economic recovery.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.