Why Germany’s Politics Are Much Saner, Cheaper, and Nicer Than Ours

German voters aren’t blasted with angry rhetoric or pleas for political donations. Is that a good thing?

BERLIN -- It’s the day before the German election, and Stefan Liebich, a member of the Bundestag for the far-left Die Linke party, is standing on the sidewalk at a busy intersection, smiling and shaking hands. He has a boombox and an assistant who fills up crimson balloons that say “Really Red” -- to differentiate them from the slightly-less-red balloons being inflated by their rivals, the Social Democrats (SPD), who have a similar setup just a few feet away.

He’s in peak campaigning mode, yet he takes a 45-minute break to talk to a group of foreign journalists, including me, who can’t vote and don’t speak German.

Liebich’s casual arrangement seems fitting for someone running for, say, student council in the U.S., but he’s actually just a few thousand votes from losing his seat in parliament if Die Linke doesn’t garner a large enough percentage in the upcoming election. He says he is “excited” to see whether or not he makes it in.

It may seem barebones, but this is a typical last-day campaign event for a parliamentarian in Germany, where campaigns get government funding, parties are allocated TV advertising time, and microtargeting of voters is unthinkable.

Stefan Liebich in 2006. (AP) 

To Americans who rarely get a respite from partisan vitriol, fundraising requests, and attack ads during campaign season, it’s almost enough to make you want to brush up on the college German and head to the visa office.

“It is completely different from the States,” Liebich said. “And I’m happy about it.”

But the scale of the campaign is just the start. There are no attack ads, because, in post-reunification in German culture, “the attacker would always turn out to be the loser,” Liebich explains.

Each party creates just one 90-second ad for the entire election, and the number of times it airs on TV is proportional to the number of votes the party garnered in the last election. For smaller parties like Die Linke, that means about four times on each of the two major channels. Total. In the last U.S. election, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both spent more than $400 million each on TV ads, the vast majority of them negative.

Unlike in the U.S., where elected officials start campaigning almost as soon as they set foot in office, German campaigns last only six weeks. Because there are small parties to soak up hardline voters, as well as a lack of primaries -- candidates are put on a party list -- there’s also no need for candidates to swing wildly toward a radical base for one part of the election, then gradually ease toward the center as it wears on. (Though one could argue that a list is less democratic than a primary.)

Die Linke’s total campaign cost just 4 million euros (about $5.4 million) -- for all of its candidates across the entire country. The German government and party-membership dues pay for the bulk of the country’s political campaigns, while corporate and individual donations make up just one-third of the cost.

And for the entire election season, even the larger campaigns of main parties, like the SPD or Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, cost somewhere between 20 and 30 million euros -- and again, that’s the total for everyone from Chancellor Angela Merkel to the most junior parliamentarians, combined. Meanwhile, a single U.S. Senate seat now costs an average of $10.5 million to win, and Obama’s reelection campaign alone cost $700 million -- excluding money from PACs, which don’t exist in Germany.

In the U.S., being rich can partly help solve the problem of where to get all those campaign dollars, but Liebich says he spent very little of his own money, except for on a small “really red” Mini Cooper he bought to both advertise the party and to drive around after the election is over.

A pleasant side effect of these government-funded, low-dollar elections is that German politicians spend very little of their time fundraising. Meanwhile, in Washington, lawmakers devote, as Reuters reported, “up to four or five hours a day ... in tough re-election campaigns -- in telemarketing-style cubicles a few hundred yards from the Capitol.”

“In the U.S., it seems you spend too much time raising money instead of taking care of the daily parliamentary work,” Liebich said

Workers paste up posters of German candidates in Berlin in August. Pictured are (R-L): German Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Rainer Bruederle of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP,) and Peer Steinbruck of the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

German elections aren’t totally sleepy, though: The headquarters of the SPD, Merkel’s main opposition, was buzzing on the eve of the election, and Thorben Albrecht, the party’s director of policy planning, said he hadn’t spent time with his family in weeks.

His party was busy knocking on 5 million doors, something unprecedented as far as German campaigns go. The only problem? They had no idea whose doors they were -- supporters, opponents, swing voters -- because Germany doesn’t do microtargeting.

The memory of the Stasi, the secret police who spied on East Germans before reunification, looms so large there that Germans are wary of releasing any information about themselves to anyone. Even voters I tried to interview on election day seemed reluctant to tell me their names or who they cast their ballots for.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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