Germany Found a Way to Reduce Polarization. Could It Work in the U.S.?

The country’s robust investment in public media has helped it reduce political divisions.

Illustration of an angry man whose face is obscured by a television displaying the German flag
Harold M. Lambert / Keystone / Getty ; Mark McGillivray

About the author: Uri Friedman is the managing editor at the Atlantic Council and a contributing writer at The Atlantic. He was previously a staff writer and the Global editor at The Atlantic, and the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

When Edmund Schechter, a Viennese Jew who fled the Nazis, arrived in postwar Germany in 1945, he encountered a “wasteland”—not just physically, he said, but “psychologically.”

All newspapers had ceased publication. Radio stations were destroyed and devoid of their Nazi staff. The “silent” media landscape provided “virgin territory” to “do all sorts of things really from scratch,” recalled Schechter, who had escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp to the United States only to head to Germany after World War II to help vanquish the dark forces that had just threatened to devour him.

Inspired by media in their own countries, American, British, and French authorities created public-service broadcasting structures in the areas of West Germany under their control as part of a wider effort to build democracy there. The systems were deliberately designed to prevent the likes of the Nazis’ propaganda apparatus from reemerging—to ensure, as Schechter explained at the time, that stations did not become a “mouthpiece” of government and that they represented “every level of society.”

Schechter would oversee radio activities in the American zone of West Germany, and with others would help build the foundations of a German public-media system that is now one of the finest on the planet. Today, as the U.S., plagued by accelerating political polarization, struggles to achieve democratic renewal of a different sort, it’s time for lessons to flow in the other direction.

Over the past several decades, polarization has increased more in the U.S. than in other comparably wealthy democracies. But perhaps more striking, according to research by the economists Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow, and Jesse Shapiro, the most significant declines in polarization among such democracies have occurred in Germany, a divided country as of three decades ago.

The economists’ paper is not the only study to record decreasing polarization in Germany in recent decades. The authors, however, noticed an intriguing pattern in their data. “Countries with falling polarization,” Boxell, a doctoral candidate at Stanford University, told me, “spend a lot more on public broadcasting per capita.”

Germany is an overlooked paragon of public broadcasting. Its system, established as an antidote to the exploitation of mass media by Adolf Hitler and his henchmen, is one of the world’s most effective models for how to coalesce much of a country around a shared reality and common set of facts. It’s a hybrid of U.S.-style federalism, British-style public-broadcasting freedom, and welfare-state-style media regulation, designed to keep the public close and the government at a distance. German public broadcasters enjoy remarkably large audiences and widespread trust across the political spectrum—along with investment levels that dwarf those in the U.S.

“Strong public media is definitely part of the equation” in reducing political polarization in Germany, Rodney Benson, a media scholar at NYU and a co-author of two surveys of public media in leading democracies, told me. The fact that most Germans get “at least some portion of their news from this same high-quality, trusted source” is “bound to dampen the creation and circulation” of dueling perceptions of truth, he said.

Political signals back up the social science. There’s a logic to why populists around the world, including those in Germany, consistently attack public broadcasters: Robust public broadcasting mitigates polarization, the lifeblood of populism.

All this presents policy insights for the U.S. Other factors likely tamping down polarization in Germany, such as an electoral system based on proportional representation, are unlikely to be adopted in the U.S. anytime soon, but ramped-up investment in public media is a feasible reform—one the Biden administration could embrace if the president is serious about being the healer of national maladies that he cast himself as in his inaugural address.

Germany’s public-media success story began seven decades ago, when Schechter and his colleagues launched new papers and stations, recruited prodemocracy German staffers, and helped shape local laws to maintain media’s independence from the state, all of which eventually provided a legal and institutional framework when television emerged.

In 1950, regional radio stations moved under the umbrella of a new national public broadcaster: ARD. Public media developed a unique federal structure, involving a network of regional broadcasters plus broadcasting laws and programming responsibilities devolved to the West German states. A postwar constitution enshrined principles such as freedom of broadcasting and noninterference by the state in media.

German public broadcasting “started off as a means of democratic reeducation and rerooting political pluralism in Germany, and then morphed into a means of preventing new forms of disinformation or propaganda, particularly from the East” during the Cold War, Constanze Stelzenmüller, an expert on Germany at the Brookings Institution and a former journalist for the German weekly Die Zeit, told me. (Today, she added, public broadcasting has a new assignment: helping make German society more resilient against Russian and Chinese propaganda and disinformation efforts.)

Even now, when social media and online streaming have shattered the concept of appointment viewing, millions of Germans tune in to ARD’s 15-minute national bulletin, Tagesschau, each night at 8 o’clock. The program, which first aired in 1952 and which the journalist Marie-Sophie Schwarzer has described as “the most successful news show in the western world,” still attracts about 10 million viewers each day, or 12 percent of all Germans—compared with the roughly 3 percent of Americans who watch the most popular network evening-news show in the U.S.

Every night, “a heterogeneous audience … sits around the common campfire to listen to the day’s stories” on Tagesschau, the former American public-television broadcaster William F. Baker once marveled. “The show is done in a slick, clean, professional manner, similar in look to BBC newscasts but with a bit more technology. It’s delivered by news readers, not news personalities. The feeling is open and straightforward. The content is clear and feels complete, what you need to know free from editorial statements.”

In 2020, an edition of Tagesschau that aired after the German government announced its first COVID-related shutdown was the fifth-most-watched TV program of the year. (It was right up there with the UEFA Champions League final and two episodes of Tatort, a long-running crime show airing—where else?—on ARD, right after the evening news on Sunday.) At a moment of acute national crisis, Germans turned en masse to their trusted Tagesschau.

ARD’s nonpartisan political talk shows are also popular. And each day, 53 percent of Germans listen to one of ARD’s more than 60 radio stations. Nearly 40 percent of Germans (including similar percentages on the political left and right) cite ARD or a second national public broadcaster, ZDF, as their main news source. An astounding 82 percent of those on the left and 72 percent of those on the right say they trust ARD. In fact, public broadcasters are the most-trusted news sources in Germany.

Not all of the trend lines are so rosy. Germans with populist views are more distrustful of public media than other Germans. And Hartmut Wessler, a German media scholar at the University of Mannheim, told me that younger Germans, who tend to get their news online and on social media, “have a somewhat looser connection” to Tagesschau.

The hold that public broadcasting has on the nation, Stelzenmüller said, is “not the same” as it was during her grandparents’ time. “My grandfather expected dinner on a tray on Sunday nights at eight to watch the news, and then we would all watch Tatort together,” she recalled of her visits with him in the early 1980s. But German public broadcasting’s influence on the population is still far greater than that of PBS or NPR in the U.S., she added.

One obvious factor bolstering German public broadcasting is its high level of funding. German public media receive $135 per capita in public funding and $157 per capita in total funding (including additional revenue sources such as advertising and sponsorships). In the United States, public broadcasters get only $3 per capita in government funding and just $9 per capita when factoring in individual donations and corporate and foundation underwriting.

But just as key is the funding model. Germany’s public broadcasters are multibillion-euro enterprises largely financed by a flat broadcasting fee of about $20 a month paid by each household. Broadcasters don’t receive direct state subsidies and are thus less subject to government whims than, say, the U.S. Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which receives an annual appropriation from Congress. Funding in Germany is also designated for multiyear periods, which inhibits the government from making resources dependent on its views of programming.

The German fee is determined by an independent commission with representatives from each state who consider “only the technical and public-service needs” of the outlets, Benson, the NYU media scholar, said. (State legislative bodies still must approve the funding.) Wessler noted that “societal oversight” of public broadcasters occurs through broadcasting councils that supervise matters such as budgets, leadership, standards, and programming and aim to represent a range of groups such as trade unions, employers’ associations, religious organizations, and political parties.

ARD’s federal structure—with one national channel and numerous regional broadcasters that cater to the country’s 16 states—matters as well. The setup “has helped immensely to make [the system] more genuinely representative,” Stelzenmüller said. “Public broadcasting really does need to pick up what the consumer wants, and that may be regionally and politically different.”

Competition has helped too. Stelzenmüller noted that as a result of a push to privatize German television in the 1980s, “public broadcasters realized that they had become a little bit fuddy-duddy and needed to adapt.” (Tagesschau is now on TikTok, and ARD and ZDF support a web-TV operation called “Funk.”)

Germany’s public broadcasters don’t operate in some politics-free paradise, though. Critics argue that broadcasting councils operate with too much political influence, and last year a tussle among parties, ostensibly over a vote to raise the household license fee by 86 euro cents, threatened to bring down the governing coalition in one German state.

And although German politics remains relatively stable and centrist when compared with European peers, the reintegration of eastern and western Germany is still very much a rough work in progress. Germany certainly has its share of polarization challenges, with the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party and divisive debates over issues such as immigration.

Whatever the precise effect that public broadcasting has had on reducing polarization in Germany, the causality is complex. In contrast to the U.S., where commercial broadcasting came first and public broadcasting was tacked on later, public broadcasting was the early entrant in Germany; commercial television didn’t arrive until the 1980s. “The dominant media sets the tone for the entire media system,” Benson noted, providing “a model for other media to follow” and making “media that diverge from that standard appear less legitimate and appealing.”

There are limits, of course, to what the United States can learn from Germany’s success. Increased investment in public broadcasting will not counteract structural drivers of American polarization, such as gerrymandering, economic inequality, and the country’s majoritarian political institutions. But to get anywhere, Americans need to start somewhere. And media reforms are where some concrete progress could be made.

When I mentioned the idea of a major push by the Biden administration to boost public broadcasting, Thomas Carothers, a democracy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was skeptical, arguing that it was perhaps too late for such an effort to take root. “Once you’re really polarized, creating more public broadcasting or more public spaces is really hard, because people have already left the public space or they’ve already made their minds up,” Carothers, a co-editor of the book Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization, told me.

And yet when telling “the story of why the U.S. is so much more polarized than most established democracies,” he added, “certainly one element of it is the fact that in the United States, television went private and then went extreme much more extensively and quickly than in other countries.” Indeed, in their study, Boxell and his co-authors found that polarization accelerated in the U.S. after the mid-1990s, when Fox News and MSNBC launched.

That’s where the window (however narrow) for going big on public broadcasting opens. The right and the left, after all, are united in complaints about the current partisan-media landscape. And while no media outlet is in great shape in the eyes of most Americans, public media are less bruised and battered than the others—in keeping with trends in many democracies where public-service media are the most-trusted news outlets. In a 2020 Pew survey of Americans, PBS, the BBC, and The Wall Street Journal were the only three outlets that were more trusted than distrusted by both Republicans and Democrats. Two of those three are public broadcasters (and one isn’t even American).

One way to attract bipartisan backing for a surge of funds for public media, Benson proposed, would be for investments to take the form of “support for local journalism, which tends to be more popular and trusted than national media” (and has been shown to act as a bulwark against political polarization)—drawing inspiration from ARD’s regional structure in Germany and the BBC’s recently launched Local Democracy Reporting Service. “New public funding for PBS and NPR could be part of a larger package to ensure provision of nonpartisan regional and local media,” he suggested.

Such an approach could align with U.S. public broadcasters’ existing networks of local stations and build on bipartisan legislative proposals to support local journalism. States could enter into coalitions to undertake the effort if federal action isn’t possible.

Implementing an initiative like this at the national level would be difficult, Benson conceded. But he argued that it could come through policy reforms that are focused on combatting the partisanship and polarizing effects of commercial media, such as a “Fairness Doctrine for the social-media age.”

Policy makers could also make the case that an injection of public funds would yield a more inclusive American media ecosystem. U.S. public broadcasters “produce primarily for elite audiences,” whereas “the Western [and] Northern European ideal of public media is all about providing quality media for everyone,” Benson noted. “If PBS and NPR relied more on public rather than elite philanthropic funding, they would have more of an incentive to serve a broad public, and this might eventually help broaden their audience and crowd out some other media.”

Wessler, from the University of Mannheim, floated another idea that’s been bubbling up in Germany and might appeal more to American free marketeers: establishing “cooperative media platforms” that “bundle quality offerings from both market-driven and public-service news-media outlets,” partly funded through the country’s broadcast-license fee.

Efforts like these would surely face political opposition. “But once established, universal government services are very popular and rarely dismantled,” Benson pointed out. “Public media in the U.S. is so vulnerable because it’s not universal.”