My Turn: A view of the election from Germany

  • President-elect Joe Biden arrives at The Queen theater on Tuesday in Wilmington, Del. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 11/15/2020 6:51:10 AM

It is almost four years now since I wrote to an American friend under the impact of President Donald Trump’s inaugural address. Observing that false statements were used deliberately to manipulate his followers’ opinions, I expressed the hope that “sensible and responsible members of Congress will prevent the worst.”

That was when the term “alternative facts” first appeared, like a slogan of an Orwellian ministry of truth. My concluding words were that we, the majority in Germany and Europe, could only support peoples’ attempts to be watchful and to defend liberal democratic values in the years to come.

What are the feelings in Germany and Europe today? To describe them, I can only rely on reports in the media and on personal contacts.

First of all, there is a feeling of relief that the incumbent president has not been re-elected. Relief because we expect an end of erratic politics, of unreliable tactics, of tacit support of or at least lacking distance from discriminatory movements and outbreaks, of intimidating and insulting utterances via Twitter.

On the other hand, it is noted that nearly half the American voters were prepared to endorse the president’s politics, despite his continuing course to divide American society, despite his lack of empathy, despite his defiance of established legal rules and democratic customs.

We note that the call “America First” appealed to many, and we also note that similar claims to prioritize national interests have support in many European societies.

To find answers to the question why this is so would need the expertise of sociologists, political scientists and maybe philosophers.

One cause for this may be lack of education (how many in Europe know the federal states of the U.S.; how many in the U.S. have an idea about the European Union, its members, its political movements?). Another cause could be lack of information (do people form their opinions on the basis of tweets, do serious media provide sufficient coverage and background research?).

In addition, we notice a vast flood of conflicting utterances in the media and a world out there which seems to be more and more complicated and unintelligible. This may be why many gave up reading newspapers and following traditional news channels. Instead they turned to partisan media and conspiracy theories for easy and simple answers. In this, as in so many phenomena in the past, the U.S. only seems to be ahead of Europe – not exactly a comforting analysis.

Perhaps also the fact that the Democratic Party did not present a younger candidate with an agenda showing a clear path into the future may have prevented a clearer outcome of the election in what appears to be a largely divided society.

What are the hopes in Germany and Europe? With Joe Biden as president, there is a clear expectation that communication between the United States government and the rest of the world will return to normal and reliable diplomatic standards. There is absolutely no illusion that a Biden administration will be less demanding to U.S. allies and purporting U.S. interests in a lesser way.

With all Biden’s experience in international politics, the majority in Germany and Europe expect a return to international cooperation, the acceptance of climate change as the paramount global problem and constructive engagement of the new administration in other global issues.

There is strong belief that transatlantic ties will get stronger although many Europeans seem to underestimate how important this will be with respect to Russia and China. We are witnessing cyber attacks, hybrid warfare, and assassinations coming out of Russia, a country where national pride and a long-lasting inferiority complex are apparent.

China’s policy of global investments and enlarging its sphere of influence amounts to a kind of neo-imperialism, which in the past some in Europe have seen in U.S. politics. Finding ways and means to containment and to establish reliable international co-existence and co-operation with these countries will be decisive for decades.

There is also a justified hope that truthfulness will return. Those who care about American society hope that, as president, Biden will make ceaseless efforts to reunite divided movements and opinions under the roof of democratic values.

We hope for a revitalization of democratic debates where different views will be exchanged for the sake of searching out the best solutions and where insults toward opponents will end. First speeches by the president-elect show exactly this approach.

Foreign observers have too little insight to weigh the chances of such a process. It seems, however, that the very basic democratic values, the respect of basic human rights (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, non-discrimination, equal right to vote) are deeply rooted in the DNA of the vast majority of the American people. Therefore we believe that a revival of democratic discourse, combined with reconciliatory tolerance for other opinions, will be possible.

What about the role of the courts? In Germany and in Europe, many fear that a more conservative U.S. Supreme Court might in the end decide in favor of Trump’s challenges with respect to the elections. As a former judge, I disagree.

Having spent an entire working life in what could be, with some pathos, called the search for truth and justice, I have trust in the professionalism of the members of the Supreme Court. As a young judge in my late twenties (Germany has career judges) I had the great privilege to be taught American law by then Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, with whom I afterwards enjoyed a continuous correspondence until he passed away.

Rarely had I met a more conscientious and inspiring colleague who at times almost agonized over his decisions and who was a great example for me and certainly for many other young lawyers. I expect that today’s members of the court will follow this tradition.

I find support for this expectation in a statement released in 2018 by Chief Justice Roberts: “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”

This is why, apart from possible rulings on technicalities like the question of relevant postmark dates for mail-in ballots to be counted, I do not fear that court decisions will overrule votes.

(Johannes Riedel is a former chief justice, court of appeals, Cologne, Germany; a former vice president of the constitutional court of the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany; and a former member of the Consultative Council of European Judges with the Council of Europe, Strasbourg.)

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