Weimar’s Lesson for the Tea Party

As political analysts around the world are wondering how on earth the standoff in Washington can come to an end, perhaps the more interesting question is what the shutdown will do to U.S. democracy in the long run. Weimar Germany offers a useful lesson here.

I know this is a tough sell to Americans, who tend to see their political system as so “exceptional” that comparisons to any other country are futile. But while Weimar Germany was radically different from today’s U.S., they share one very important trait: widespread disillusionment with the democratic system. Weimar shows that an unwillingness to cooperate in parliament can go a long way towards destroying a democracy.

Just a quick note up-front: I won’t claim that Republicans and Democrats have much in common with Nazis and Communists, and I don’t think the U.S. will be ruled by a fascist dictator anytime soon.

That said, the late Weimar Republic was suffering from a severe case of bipartisan (actually sept- or octpartisan) bickering that sounds awfully familiar. Germany was more or less a functioning democracy until 1930, when a grand coalition of several democratic parties led by the social democratic SPD split up over a dispute on social-spending cuts.

From 1930 until Hitler’s victory in 1933, no government had a majority in parliament. Chancellors Brüning, Papen and Schleicher had to rule by presidential decree and parliament was dissolved four times in three years. This state of chaos was the result of the parties in parliament refusing to cooperate on any issue.

The parties of the dissolved grand coalition lost their majority in the election of September 1930, which meant that any majority government would have to include a non-democratic party. The SPD and the Communists of the KPD shared many policy priorities and could have ruled together, but the KPD had categorically ruled out any cooperation. It followed Stalin’s theory of “social fascism”, claiming the SPD was the greatest enemy of the working class – more so than the Nazis.

Similarly, Hitler’s NSDAP was unwilling to cooperate with any party that supported a parliamentary democracy Hitler derogatorily called the “system”.

Hitler’s rise had much to do with his charisma, anger at the treaty of Versailles and the Great Depression. But parliament’s dysfunction – its inability to reach decisions by majority – was crucial in making voters disillusioned with democracy.

A similar process is noticeable in today’s U.S. Multi-party coalitions are obviously not an issue here. Unlike Weimar, the two-party system guarantees there is almost always a working majority in each chamber of parliament. But the impasse between House and Senate has the same effect as the lack of majorities in Weimar: It is impossible to pass a budget through the democratic process. And like Weimar, the impasse is the result of hardliners categorically refusing to cooperate.

By hardliners, I mean the Tea Party. Much has been written about both sides being at fault, but this is clearly a crisis created by a far-right group sticking to demands everyone knows can never be met – in effect refusing to cooperate. The Tea Party is intent not on running a country, but on bringing down a democratically elected government – a goal it shares with the non-democratic parties of the Weimar Republic.

Weimar shows how dangerous this strategy is. Germans voted a fascist in power in part because they saw that democracy was no longer functioning. The longer Congress is unable to do its job, the more Americans will think their system is broken – as polls show they already do.

Americans will never vote a politician as bad as Hitler into power. His rise was the product of very unique circumstances. America’s democratic tradition is much stronger than Weimar’s, and any demagogue will still consider him- or herself a democrat.

But what U.S. voters may soon do is fall for a populist politician who offers to clean up a complicated and dysfunctional democratic system. This could be a Sarah-Palin type or a more charismatic version of Ted Cruz on the right, or it could be a left-wing populist. Weimar shows that as democracy descends into chaos, voters start to long for simple solutions and a strong hand to end the bipartisan bickering. But populism and simplistic solutions are always dangerous because they undermine the foundation of democratic governance – compromise and reason.

America’s democratic system has functioned well for over two hundred years because the people trusted and supported it. Once this trust is gone, the damage may well be permanent.

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