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Comparing German and US political parties

Jefferson Chase

Translating Germany's political parties into American equivalents is a difficult but revealing proposition. Where would Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, fall in the German landscape? DW maps it out.

Symbolbild Deutschland USA Flagge
Image: imago/Seeliger

The first thing you'll notice when you compare American and German political parties is that there are more of them that matter in the latter country. Unlike in the US, where you're left out in the cold if you don't pitch a big enough tent, parties in Germany's parliamentary system can appeal to relatively cozy clienteles and still have a say. That, together with the fact that the political mainstream is much further to the left, explains why German and US parties don't line up in neat little pairs. As is illustrated by Germany's biggest party.

The CDU-CSU: Centrism taken to the extreme

Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, are collectively referred to as the "conservatives," but they're very different from Republicans in the United States. Despite the word "Christian" in party monikers, no one here calls for creationism to be taught in schools, even if the CSU in largely Catholic Bavaria does want to keep crucifixes on classroom walls.

If there's such a thing as extreme centrism, it's the CDU-CSU under Merkel. The party may, for instance, favor slightly more tax relief or a slightly tougher stance on migrants than its main rival, the SPD, but there's hardly anything in the party platform that would qualify as particularly right-wing by American standards.

Deutschland CSU CDU Zukunftsgipfel
There's no question who's boss of Germany's conservativesImage: picture-alliance/SvenSimon

Indeed, you'd be hard-pressed to find many points of disagreement between the pragmatic Merkel and Barack Obama — which is why they got along so swimmingly, whereas the chancellor's distaste for his successor Donald Trump was palpably obvious. Despite a few differeing stances, her relationship with Joe Biden hearkens back to the age of Obama, especially in a post-Trump era in which transatlantic leaders are largely looking to paint a picture of centrist harmony. 

Such moderation doesn't sit well with all members of her party, but there's no question about who is in charge. Thus, an American equivalent of the CDU-CSU would be the Republicans minus the (admittedly quite numerous) populists and religious hardliners plus the more conservative faction of the Democratic Party.

The Social Democrats (SPD): Democrats looking for a mission

If the CDU-CSU has squatted down in the mainstream and refused to budge, where does that leave Germany's oldest party, the Social Democrats? The SPD has been trying to answer that very question for over a decade and has seen support dwindling.

From 1998 to 2005, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder realigned what had historically been a working-class party with strong trade union ties toward the amorphous political center, chiefly by passing reforms that cut state benefits programs in favor of fiscal solidity. When he narrowly lost the 2005 election to Merkel, the SPD looked more than a little lost itself.

It's no accident that SPD, having already gotten used to life in the middle, has been willing to serve as junior coalition partners to the CDU-CSU for two-thirds of Merkel's tenure. The rank and file may not like it, but the policy differences between the SPD and the conservatives are nowhere near as apparent as in the previous century.

The Social Democrats' chancellor candidate for the last general election in 2017, Martin Schulz, tried to return the party to the left, for instance, by floating the idea of free education for all from kindergarten through university. That's reminiscent of proposals made by Bernie Sanders in the US. But for the most part, the SPD corresponds more closely to the Clinton Democrats. 

Alternative for Germany (AfD): Teutonic Trumpites

Where do Trump and his supporters stand in all this? Meet the Alternative for Germany, the right-wing populist newcomers on the German political block. The AfD has only been in existence since 2013, but it's ridden widespread anger with the status quo to join a series of local state parliaments before finishing as Germany's third-most-popular party in the 2017 national election. Its results are even rosier in state parliaments in Germany's eastern states, where economic fortunes still lag, more than three decades after the Berlin Wall fell.

Deutschland AfD-Pressekonferenz mit Weidel und Gauland
Alice Weidel was one of the AfD's top candidates in Germany's national electionImage: Reuters/A. Schmidt

As for the affinities with Trump Republicans ... fear of immigrants and foreigners? Check. Hostility toward the European Union? Check. Contempt for the standard operating procedure in government and willingness to gut the state apparatus? Check.

As a jingoistic "Make Germany Great Again" outfit full of unpredictable political neophytes, the AfD is fairly comparable to the Trumpites — critics would say it's to the credit of the German system that there is little chance the AfD will come to power. All other parties have refused to govern with the AfD, and when the CDU flirted with that option at the state level, a major scandal ensued

The Left party: Bernie Sanders and beyond

While Americans only began to feel the Bern a few years back, Germans have had the sensation since 1946. That year saw the formation of the Socialist Unity Party in Communist East Germany, which after the Cold War became the Party of Democratic Socialism and then in 2007 simply the Left party. Americans can perhaps best understand the Left, as it is often simply known, as what Bernie Sanders would be if he had been socialized in a Warsaw Pact country.

Or as an interest party for people in the formerly Communist East who might somewhat uncharitably be called the losers of German reunification. The Left is anti-capitalist, anti-NATO and pro-tax-and-spend, although it is democratic in the small "d" sense. There's no real American major party equivalent. Imagine, if you can, the most radical of the Sanders supporters taking over the American Communist Party and getting 6 to 10% of the vote based mainly on their strength in states like Vermont, Maine, Montana, and Idaho.

The Greens: Important in Germany

Ideologically, the Greens in Germany are a similar equivalent to the identically named party in the United States. Both hate nuclear power plants and coal, love trees and wind turbines, and want to recycle everything under the sun. But whereas the American Greens are a marginal curiosity, of interest chiefly when they are seen by Democrats as a threat to their presidential majorities, Die Grünen are an established part of the German political mainstream.

And with climate change having become one of Germany's main concerns and big campaign issues, the Green party has seen a rise in the polls, moving it past the SPD into second place. 

This is a clear example of how systemic differences shape political landscapes. With all German parties getting more than 5% of the vote given proportional representation in parliament, a vote for the Greens in Germany has by no means ever been a vote wasted in terms of winning a seat at the table.

They are set to be part of a coalition in the next government. Howie Hawkins is green with envy.

The Free Democrats (FDP): Only a little like the Libertarians

This brings us to the Free Democratic Party, the traditional allies (some say lap dogs) of the CDU-CSU, who have reemerged after even slipping below the 5% threshold in 2013.

On the surface, the FDP would seem to correspond to the Libertarians, with the "free" in their name signifying individual freedom from being told what to do by the government. But the affinities are only skin deep. In their previous stints in power, the FDP has been anything but anti-mainstream. They're perfectly happy to spend people's tax euros, to intervene abroad militarily, and support various forms of government regulation.

To further confuse Americans, the Free Democrats are also referred to as the "liberals," but that is used in the classical economic sense and has nothing to do with the often pejorative term for left-wingers in the US.

This is a slightly updated version of a previous article.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.