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Perspective

Why I Love Partisanship

Political feuding dominates our land. And in the eyes of one European, that’s exactly how it should be.

By Justus Bender
October 3, 2010

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A couple months ago, when I arrived in Boston, it took a cabdriver in Cambridge named Eric less than five minutes to start complaining about how politics in Massachusetts had turned into blood sport. How Republicans were running attack ads against state Treasurer Tim Cahill. How Democrats were accusing the GOP of abandoning all principles to win an election. How, two years ago, a Revere city councilor was slugged in the face by a constituent. By the end of our drive, Eric had gotten so heated he almost hit another car.

As a visitor to this country, I can see it in people’s faces, this deep-felt outrage whenever Bostonians – and, for that matter, other Americans – discuss political issues. Health care, banks, taxes, immigration. “Partisanship” is a dirty word. You, too, might bemoan the fact that many in Massachusetts and the rest of the country are divided to the core. But take it from me, there’s nothing better than merciless, full-fledged political debate.

I come from a small European country known for having the most uncharismatic politicians in Western civilization. They call it Germany. We have a way of debating policies that would bore you to death. Our chancellor, Angela Merkel, is as controversial as a cup of camomile tea. When attacked by her opponents in a campaign, she has said, “We should not senselessly nag at each other, but at least assume the others had good intentions.”

Until about a year ago, Germany was governed by a coalition of the two largest parties. Imagine a debate between Deval Patrick and Charlie Baker after they had served in the same administration for four years and you get a sense of how unexciting the 2009 German elections were. Think of the German voter as a prisoner in an isolation unit, desperate for any kind of sensation, even if it’s a slap in the face by a guard.

Maybe Eric the cabbie has a point about extreme political tactics. But shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that a taxi driver in Boston would bother to discuss the political culture in his state? Try asking a cabdriver in Berlin to comment on the positions of his politicians and all you’ll get is an empty expression.

What’s the harm in that? The less excitement politicians generate, the less people participate in the political system. Between 1998 – roughly when politics in Germany started becoming bland – and 2009, voter turnout fell from 82.2 percent to 70.8 percent. By contrast, in the United States between 1996 – when Republicans and Democrats started their death match during the Clinton administration – and 2008, voter turnout rose from 49.1 percent to 58.2 percent. The turnout percentage is still higher in Germany, but the trend is telling.

Democracy is as much about the guts as it is about the head. So what happens when a political system has the rationale, but fails to inspire the cabbie? It dies. Elections are decided by those who actually vote, and when the majority goes silent, extremists can make their voices heard.

In recent years, the right-wing National Democratic Party of Germany has managed to win seats in the parliaments of two eastern states, Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Their numbers are small, but in Saxony, they boycotted a minute of silence for victims of the Holocaust and World War II. There’s your controversy, you might say. Yes, but it’s not a productive one over policy; it’s a destructive questioning of the values of our democracy.

In the short term, the Germans suffering the most from the situation are talk-show hosts, who can’t get their guests to disagree honestly on issues. Their ratings look like the stock market after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. I know Germans who watch Larry King just to see US politicians discuss policy. My countrymen aren’t in any way affected by the issues covered; they just don’t want to miss a good fight.

While sitting in a pub in Hamburg, I’ve heard people talk about the Tea Party movement. Yes, they know about it, and, yes, they love it. It’s not that they necessarily agree with the principles; it’s just so refreshing to feel the fire of political outrage on your face. So the next time you feel like complaining about the nastiness of political discourse in this country, pause and think about us Germans. In politics, silence isn’t golden – it’s unbearable.

Justus Bender, a writer and editor for Die Zeit in Hamburg, is a visiting journalist at the Globe. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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