Sunday, November 15, 2020

America is More Wilhelmine Than Weimar

Over the past four year there have been a lot of comparisons between the United States and Weimar Germany. These were mostly rooted in comparing democracies succumbing to fascism. The most recent election has me thinking of a different period in German history, the period know in Germany as the Kaiserreich but sometimes in English as the Wilhelmine period, lasting from 1871-1918. (It also happens to be the period of German history I used to be a paid expert in.)

Historical analogies are always limited and imperfect, so it's best to use them not as a one to one comparison, and more simply as a way to get some deeper insights into the present by looking into the past. 

In this case I see an analogy because Wilhelmine Germany had a hybrid political system with elements of democracy and authoritarianism. The Reichstag was voted on through universal male suffrage, a much broader franchise that existed in most of Europe in 1871. The Social Democrats would become the largest party in that body by World War I.

So while Germany had the biggest socialist party of any country at the time, the Kaiser was still the head of state. The military declared an oath of loyalty to him. He controlled foreign policy as well, and got to choose the chancellor. The German electorate may have looked left and liberal on paper, but conservative elites still got to run the show. It all came crashing down in the revolution in November of 1918, when a war-weary people had enough and forced the Kaiser to abdicate, making way for the Weimar Republic. 

The most recent election is a sign that America too is more of a hybrid system than a true democracy. Joe Biden won a clear majority of the vote, and a clear majority of voters chose Democrats in the House and Senate races. Despite that success, Democrats will likely not control the Senate, which much like the Kaiser will get to decide what kinds of laws get passed and which don't. The judiciary has been loaded with conservative judges by a president who lost the popular vote and Senate that is not representative of the people. They will likely strike down or neuter progressive legislation. 

As in Wilhelmine Germany there is great tension between urban and rural areas, and by proxy between the forces of tradition and modernity. In both cases tradition has a lopsided Constitution on their side to effectively veto any changes they don't like. That traditional phalanx is a minority of Americans, but because they think they are the "real Americans" this seems totally fair to them. Just as German conservatives viewed Social Democrats as foreign to the nation and their power illegitimate (especially later under Weimar), American conservatives view liberals and even "Democrat run cities" as outside the nation. They have not recognized the legitimacy of a Democratic president since Carter. They impeached Clinton on spurious grounds, said Obama was a foreigner, and are currently refusing to acknowledge the results of the election.

There are of course some very important differences, but I find them telling. (Again, we should use historical metaphors to illuminate, not as a parlor game.) As someone pointed out on Twitter, the less democratic Kaiserreich produced an innovative social welfare state, while America's democracy is eroding it. In the German case this was a way of buying the compliance of the masses, in the American case it's a reflection of Herrenvolk nationalism. Most white Americans simply do not want to share with others, especially those of different races. McConnell and co. have made the greatest mission to thwart any expansion of the welfare state, as evidenced by their refusal to accept compromise on the ACA and challenging it in the courts. 

Another difference is in the legitimacy of the varying hybrid systems. Germany was a new nation in 1871 and its union of various states and kingdoms tenuous. It really took the experience of World War I to truly forge it together, but ironically the failures of the war killed that system. America by contrast has had the same Constitution for over 200 years, and it is politically unacceptable to state that it needs to be replaced. It has been woven into the very identity of the nation. This means, of course, that the current system where the courts, electoral college, Senate, local voting requirements, and gerrymandering limit democracy as much as the Kaiser choosing the chancellor did will not be changed save for a revolution or a massive shift in political consciousness. I don't expect either to be in the offing.

I do want to end with an important parallel, however. We spend so much time talking about Weimar because most Americans know little about the rise of authoritarianism outside of that example. If we look back to the Kaiserreich, we can see the rise of what historians refer to as volkish nationalism. This was a national conception based not on language or culture, but blood and soil. The Nazis obviously grew out of this tradition, but it had many offshoots. In the time of the Kaisers extreme nationalist groups like the Navy League achieved a great deal of popularity. The massive monument built to the Battle of Leipzig in 1913 (which I've written about for the German Studies Review) was really a monument to the German nation as a Volk, with no references to the Hohenzollerns (whose army had helped with the battle!) 

This somewhat inchoate nationalism thus undermined nationalist allegiance to the system the Kaiser represented. I think of Trumpism in similar terms. His supporters don't really care about the rule of law or other once conservative values. They see themselves as the real nation and want their enemies to be smote. They have little affection for traditional elites. Trump's appeal, and why he won the Republican primary, was that he represented a kind of nihilistic anti-politics. And yes, you can see that with Nazism and its self-definition as a "movement" rather than a party. But for the most part I suspect the people who voted for Trump will remain what they always have been: Republicans. 

They will continue to support the hybrid system that chokes democracy and deny legitimacy to liberals in authority. It's not a one to one with Wilhelmine Germany, but like that system a veneer of democracy helps paper over a system rigged in the favor of the wealthy and advantaged. I don't think a November 1918 is coming in our case, though. Be prepared for decades of semi-democratic stasis.

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