Sanity beyond expectations

2012-11-10

2012 POTUS Electoral Map by County

American voters re-elected President Barack Obama and made some other amazing choices in the November 6, 2012 elections | New York Times

Germans and the world at large breathed a collective sigh of relief when Americans re-elected Barack Obama president of the United States. Which, when you think about it, does not make any sense.

Sure, those less concerned about the niceties of liberty and democracy might be genuinely happy. In the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin can now cash in on Obama’s promise to be more flexible after the elections. The Chinese leadership is said to be pleased that they don’t have to deal with a new face in Washington, even though nobody knows exactly what makes the Chinese happy.

And yes, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s steady and skillful course in Asia has brought about some positive change, such as in Myanmar.

But for the average European, Obama has not done a thing to raze the walls that America built around itself since 2001. Quite to the contrary, with new fingerprinting requirements even for legal residents and new fees for U. S.-bound travelers, he expanded on what was once seen as George W. Bush’s xenophobic overreach.

And does anyone remember the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize (also known as the “Thanks God They Got Rid of Bush” Award)? With Guantanamo’s military tribunals in full swing, a kill policy that does not even spare his own citizens (except for a vague assurance not to hunt citizens for sport), and CO2 emissions rising unchecked, Obama hardly lived up to the Nobel Committee’s expectations.

The only role that Europe seems to play for Obama is to be blamed for the Euro crisis, or to deliver military resources to reduce America’s exposure in Middle Eastern hot spots.

So why is it that 90% of Germans would have elected Obama?

Possibility 1: They are naive and ignorant.

It is true that Germany since the re-unification, and in the last four years in particular, had plenty of things to worry about at home and in Europe. Germans have come to expect less from America. So maybe they didn’t look at all the issues above but held on to the messianic image that Obama projected during his 2008 visit to Berlin.

This is somewhat contradicted, though, by the unprecedented level of media coverage that American politics lately receive in the German media — we are talking top-of-the-news, in-depth reporting about every twist and turn in the primaries, the Supreme Court ruling on healthcare, or presidential debates. It seems that to the same degree that the transatlantic relationship has lost substance, the Germans’ interest in the soap opera that is American politics has grown.

Possibility 2: They still hate Bush so much.

The level of animosity that George W. Bush attracted during his tenure is singular. While Americans, more worried about their domestic economy, have been busy blaming the new guy for their problems, the hatred for Bush is still vivid in Europe. Mitt Romney, or any other Republican, is simply judged guilty by association.

While this is an understandable sentiment, it’s not a reasonable one. Conventional wisdom holds that Republican presidents with their free-trade philosophy and “savior of the world” attitude were often more beneficial for Europe. Democratic presidents tended to be more beholden to their domestic interests (say: trade unions) and thus more protectionist in their global policies.

Possibility 3: They genuinely care about America.

Personally, I prefer this third option. The Germans’ sentiment might not be based on any perception of their own benefits from Obama’s presidency, but rooted in fundamental values and a friendly concern for the well-being of America.

That sentiment, naturally, is based not on what is “objectively” better for the United States.  That is not only for history to judge, but in fact there are many justified doubts whether Obama is the best person to lead America in these times.  His bend-over-backwards desire for compromise, hit leading-from-behind approach on issues of monumental importance, his overly deliberative, wavering decision making — all this may well be more than just a style issue, but rather a substantial weakness with the potential for serious damage.

But I believe there are two things that the Germans see in Obama, and that deeply resonate with them: reason and compassion.

And that, indeed, shines a spotlight on the state of American politics that should give pause.  If a political discourse is no longer seen as a debate of two competing visions, but rather a choice between sanity and fear-mongering, between compassion and misanthropy, then there seems to be something fundamentally wrong.

The running commentary from those dark corners of the America body politic on the state of Europe may have done its part to the German response, too.  Many there seemed to be happy to point to the Euro crisis, or to any arbitrary anecdotal evidence, as proof of the impending demise of the European “experiment” as a whole.

(What a stark contrast to 20th century America, when her first instinct was not to gloat but to help.  Among the enduring evidence of the Greatest Generation’s greatness is that Marshall prevailed over Morgenthau, on the understanding that only when their friends succeed, so will America.)

That against this backdrop the people of the United States chose what the Germans perceive as reason and compassion (over whatever the alternative might have been) certainly gives the Germans joy.  And that in this spirit the Germans still wish their American friends the best for their own destiny, despite the misgivings on the past decade, is something that should give all of us hope.

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America’s exceptional voting system

2012-11-06  

Even as the election season mercifully draws to a close, the media keeps churning out articles that remind us of the dismal state of the American voting system. The left-wing and the right-wing media trade competing conspiracy theories, preparing their narrative to explain the loss of their favorite.

David FrumDavid Frum | NSB

In this environment, the commentary by David Frum stands out – particularly for his un-American willingness to look for benchmarks outside the United States:

The kind of battle we are seeing in Florida – where Democrats and Republicans will go to court over whether early voting should span 14 days or eight – simply does not happen in Germany, Canada, Britain or France. …

The United States is an exceptional nation, but it is not always exceptional for good. The American voting system too is an exception: It is the most error-prone, the most susceptible to fraud, the most vulnerable to unfairness and one of the least technologically sophisticated on earth.

Frum is correct to point to a non-partisan election administration as a key factor for efficient and trustworthy voting – no gerrymandering there.

His other observations may be a tad superficial. For example, what does it mean to be the “least technologically sophisticated”? Germany uses no technology whatsoever — all ballots are on paper and counted manually on site, and yet there are usually reliable results available within the hour after closing the polls.

And a lot of additional factors make elections in Germany more robust: reliable voter rolls, a multi-party system, a voting system more aligned with the popular vote, just to name a few.

But the key issue really is trust. It is not simply that the elections are run by civil servants, but that they are trusted to do the job right. While civil servants may be belittled as narrow-minded, slow, inflexible bureaucrats, few people would doubt their integrity and their allegiance to the constitution.

In the United States, however, government employees tend to be seen as accessories of the government’s evil scheme to strip citizens of their God-given rights. And as some of the forum comments on Frum’s article make clear, a nationwide harmonized voting system would be seen as even more of an influence of the federal government over the states.

And that’s where, once again, a principle dear to the American public will get in the way of a more pragmatic and efficient solution: The right of every state to establish the most inferior voting system in the nation shall not be infringed upon.

When the police state starts making sense

2012-09-27

German Identity Card, California Driver License

What’s the difference? Left: A national ID card abhorred by most Americans. Right: A driver license from the Land of the Free. | BMI, California DMV

Voter fraud, voter ID laws, early voting eligibility, poll station hours, and absentee ballots have emerged as the latest battleground in politics and in courts nationwide. For a country that practices elections since nearly 250 years, the voting process in the U. S. seems in utter disarray. Heck, is voting really that difficult? | More →

Speed is scary

2012-10-24

Pushing the limit: 85 mph on Texas tollway

Pushing the limit | Bob Daemmrich/Texas Tribune

Americans, as a rule, are a fearless people, except when it comes to driving faster than 55 miles per hour on their ridiculously wide open roads.

Growing up in Germany, we always thought of American speed limits as typical government overreach, infringing on the God-given right to drive at any speed you like. Only after moving here, I learned that in this one case, it’s not the government’s fault. Americans are genuinely scared of speed. | More →

Constitution too hard to change

2012-10-07

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is promoting his new book like there is no tomorrow. Among the flurry of similarly worded presentations, the Associated Press picked up a point he made in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute:

Scalia said the Constitution makes changing it too hard by requiring 38 states to ratify an amendment for it to take effect.

“It is very difficult to adopt a constitutional amendment,” Scalia said. He once calculated that less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, residing in the 13 least populous states, could stop an amendment, he said.

Antonin ScaliaAntonin Scalia | AP Photo, Jessica Hill

I agree. It echoes my observation that the German constitution is much easier to change, making it a living constitution and certainly easing the interpretative burden on the highest court.

The elected executive and legislative branches have a legitimate interest to update constitutional law according to the people’s evolving moral standards. Right now, that interest is funneled into an unproductive fight over judicial nominations, trying to exert indirect influence over the Supreme Court.

It would lead to a much more healthy discourse, and probably to better and more bipartisan judicial nominations, if there was a workable approach (and thus an obligation) for the legislature to discuss and decide these issues directly.

Whatever people think of Scalia’s political views (uh, philosophies), the consistency of his views is always refreshing.

Non-answers to non-questions

2012-09-29

“Why are candidates silent on Supreme Court?” wonders CNN’s Senior Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin. He, too, seems to have noted the absence of the Supreme Court as a presidential campaign topic.

Jeffrey ToobinJeffrey Toobin | CNN

But while I did at least offer a feeble explanation rooted in my unwavering belief in chief justice John Roberts’ political mastery, Toobin’s write-up doesn’t even attempt answer his own question.

And what’s worse, he tries to evade the non-answer by modulating his question into a non-question:

With a little more than a month to go, it’s not too late to ask the candidates to take a stand on their plans for the court. […] [W]hat does Obama, a former law professor, think about the court? […] [D]oes he believe, like Justices Scalia and Thomas, that the meaning of the document was fixed when it was ratified, in the 18th century.

By the same token, what kind of justices would Romney appoint? Who are his judicial role models?

Really? These are the questions we need to ask?

I mean, it’s fine for politicians to pretend that the Supreme Court is apolitical. But the fact is we all know which kind of justices Obama or Romney would nominate. It’s so obvious is doesn’t even make for a rhetorical question.

Toobin is right, though, that the electorate seems painfully oblivious to the consequences of these choices.

So we don’t have to ask the candidates which kind of justices they would appoint. We have to ask the public what kind of Supreme Court they want for the next 30 years.

Freedom of speech, but how free exactly?

2012-09-23

Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights, adopted by the first Congress of the United States in 1789 | National Archives

The last couple of weeks offered ample opportunity for being disgusted. Disgusted with a world that allows agitators at the fringes to dominate the agenda and relish in senseless violence. Disgusted with politicians who try to score cheap political points over the death of their compatriots. And disgusted with leaders willing to sacrifice free speech over the mere threat of violence. | More →