Citizens In Conversation: what brings us back to the table?
Four voices from Germany and the United States take stock of their relationship to public institutions and democracy. What has changed in recent years? And what needs to happen next to regain the trust of the constituents? An interview with citizens of diverse backgrounds from Los Angeles and Texas to Berlin.
Dilek grew up in small town near Stuttgart, Germany. Her parents came to Germany from Turkey as “guest workers” through a government program in the 1970s. The 30-year-old works for the IMF in Washington, D.C.
Harlan was born 80 years ago in Riverside, California and grew up on the Westside of Los Angeles. The retired architect lives with his wife in Pacific Palisades and is a proud father and grandfather.
Matti moved to the United States eleven years ago and lives in Austin, Texas. He is 25 years old and is currently completing a Master’s degree.
Richard was born in Vogtland, Saxony, in the former GDR in 1985. The engineer and reformed Christian now lives with his wife and son in Berlin.
Thomas Mann House: Do you feel like you have lost hope in the government in recent years and, if so, in what way?
Matti: As we are speaking I’m going to the funeral of my girlfriend’s father. He was very sick and was on government disability. And the government barely supported him… Back in 2015, my house in Houston flooded. We were basically homeless at that point and the only people that helped were religious groups. It was quite strange to have them step in instead of the government. Finally, the governor of Texas just made abortion illegal here. He completely took away the rights of women on his own. All this disappoints me greatly, of course.
Richard: I wouldn’t say that I have lost hope in the government. But I think people have generally lost trust in the moral integrity of politicians. So politicians are no longer the type of role model that is leading society, but I wouldn’t say that I have lost trust in politics in general. I would say that with the Ukraine crisis, political trust in our liberal, free, democratic society, pursuing happiness and freedom in the sense of John Locke, actually increased because we saw what the alternative looks like.
Dilek: The government outsources more and more of its services to the private sector. Although this worries me, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Compared to Germany, the vaccine roll-out in the US relied heavily on private providers but worked very well and was very efficient. But I also see other sectors being handled by private corporations, that were traditionally the government’s responsibility. This makes me wonder what the government’s role will be in the future.
Harlan: Personally, I have reservations about the government, but I have not lost hope.
Thomas Mann House: Are you growing more cynical or tired of politics? Or do you think people in general have that kind of sentiment?
Harlan: In general, I have gotten to the point where I try to avoid discussing politics with most people. There are just too many touchy subjects, on both sides of the political spectrum. I’m a Democrat and have been for many years, but I started out as a Republican, and I tend to listen to and respect and even agree with some Republican views, especially on issues of what I would call financial issues. I still think we have a good system in general. But maybe we need a third party, because the two extremes are now leading everything. Despite the fact that people in the middle, if you combine the people who are to the left of center on the Republican side and to the right of center on the Democratic side, probably make up a majority of Americans.
Matti: When I was younger and had just arrived in the U.S., I was more involved in politics. But now that I voted a few times and I have been to protests, and nothing has changed, I’d rather just go on with my life.
Richard: There is a lot of polarization. In the United States, but also in Germany and in other countries. Society seems to move towards the extreme right or the left. Jonathan Haidt pointed out that during the pandemic, the right was leaning into conspiracy theories, and the left was practicing “wokeism.” And I think social media loops served as an amplifier, probably because people spent more time online.
Dilek: What I’m tired of is how complex problems are reduced to one-dimensional issues and how the phrase “this is a scientific fact” has been used and misused too many times. We tend to judge the veracity of statements based on the personalities in the political landscape associated with them and not by data-driven facts. I had the feeling that many restrictive policies that were enacted during the pandemic were either blindly followed or rejected based on who proposed them rather than factual knowledge.
Thomas Mann House: What could be steps to regain that trust?
Matti: I am not sure my trust can be regained easily. With Donald Trump, I think a lot of people lost trust. Regardless of what you think of him, just the fact that anyone could become president, no matter their qualifications was shocking. Then our alternative was Joe Biden, who now doesn’t seem too competent either. I understand that that’s my political opinion, but I think that trust requires a sense of someone’s competency. Competent Republicans would have instilled more trust in me than what we are looking at now.
Dilek: I find it difficult to present a full-fledged plan on how to regain trust. Perhaps, if politicians based their decisions on publicly available data, it would help make the decision-making process more transparent and arguably rebuild some trust.
Richard: One thing I would say is honesty. Honesty also about your own faults. Even though I’m politically more conservative, I think a good example for this is Robert Habeck (Germany’s vice chancellor and member of the Green party). He is very honest in dealing with the crisis, and when expressing his concern for the Ukraine.
Thomas Mann House: Do you think the issue could be a lack of involvement? Do you see opportunities for getting involved yourself?
Dilek: It is not easy to find the time to get involved in politics. But we can shape policy by getting involved in our communities on a local level as well, which is what I personally have been doing.
Harlan: As a candidate? No, I would never do that to myself or to my family. The ordeal that politicians have to go through is just disturbing. And you get pushed into the extreme, either left or right, just to be accepted by your own party. It’s so absurd.
Matti: I stopped getting too involved, and I think a lot of it comes down to “if no one’s gonna help me, then I need to help myself.” I have been in need of help from the government at various times. And I understand that there might be rich people who never have to rely on help. But I’ve been through that system, and I had to learn the hard way not to rely on it. And as someone who believes that the government should reach out and proactively help people, it was a bit of a shock to think that I’m on my own.
Thomas Mann House: What are your expectations of the current administration?
Harlan: I don’t want to say that I’m against Biden, but I’m disappointed that he’s not more in control of what he says and what he does. I think the Ukraine situation shows the importance of a really good statesman who can can speak his mind and not miscommunicate or cause confusion. He’s communicated well with European allies and the rest of the world but he’s made some pretty bad blunders in terms of off the cuff remarks.
Richard: In Germany, the previous government was already a crisis government. The Merkel administration was navigating the Corona crisis. And on top of this, we now have the war in Ukraine. So I would say right now it’s mainly a crisis government and my expectation is to lead us through this crisis in a good way.
Dilek: I am worried about the rift between the left and right. Leading public discourse has become increasingly difficult, as the loudest voices on the extremes drown out the center. I hope that the current administration can make more space for the segment of the population whose voices are hardly heard and foster more nuanced discussions.
Matti: Most of my expectations are on the state level. I am disappointed that we just illegalized abortion. And I expect us to have better social programs. Texas is one of the richest states so money should go to preventing crimes, to preventing illiteracy, to helping healthcare. Healthcare is a massive issue, of course, I think on the state and federal level. I just don’t see things changing on a federal level. Nationwide, in the short term, I just want someone that everyone could get behind as a human being.
Thomas Mann House: What importance do you give to international cooperation in times like these?
Harlan: With the Ukraine situation, I think European countries should address it first and foremost. I think we should have our say and be supportive of our European allies. In terms of policy I actually don’t think Biden has made any grave error with the Ukraine situation. I don’t think anybody really wants to go to war over there. America has done this too often. Being the policemen of the world has never served us terribly well.
Matti: I think we already delve into other people’s politics so much. Afghanistan, Ukraine… We’ve always got this high opinion of ourselves. But we don’t seem to react when people look at us critically. For example when it comes to police treatment of people of color. And the treatment of Mexican or Haitian migrants. We should learn more from our neighbors, like Canada who have a lot of stuff figured out that we don’t. Including a president who when he meets with other presidents around the world doesn’t completely embarrass himself on social media.
Dilek: I believe that international cooperation is more important than ever. Our economies are deeply intertwined in many ways, and we have already witnessed the economic repercussions caused by supply chain disruptions at the onset of the pandemic. Governments must work together to maintain wealth and foster growth.
Richard: The Ukraine crisis has shown how important of an ally the U.S. is to Europe. Not only for us, but also for the French and for the UK, and other countries. It is an important factor that we are still a united free, democratic Western world. And I’m also happy for our, economic ties, that I get to have an Apple computer and an iPhone and that they are driving cars from us and so on. But I also value this alliance in itself, not only economically.
Thomas Mann House: Where do you want your country and society to go in the coming years?
Richard: First of all I am hoping for a positive resolution of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. The other big topic to me is demographic change. It is already a big problem in the Baltics and in China. And of course, a society that is decreasing will die sooner or later. So as a society, I guess that’s probably the biggest challenge, to make it attractive again to have a family and kids.
Matti: There are parts of Texas where I am not able to say certain things or have a bumper sticker on my car without feeling unsafe. And those same people, if I’m being fair, are not welcome on the University of Texas campus, because of their beliefs. Other countries don’t seem to have this kind of divide. Think of places like South Africa and Germany and what they managed to deal with. So I hope we can overcome this divide. And then I hope we adopt at least the very basic principles that have been adopted everywhere: environmental issues, women’s rights, the fact that people of color deserve equal treatment.
Harlan: I certainly want to see us continue and succeed as a democracy. I would also like to see us not be going to any more wars unless they are really laid on us. Ultimately, too, I think there needs to be more equality in the world. I don’t think we need a world government. I don’t think that would be any better than the U.S. getting involved. I don’t want to see us lose our influence, but I want to see us use it more wisely.
Dilek: I see that the generation now eligible to vote for the first time, has different priorities than older generations. Generally speaking, they care more about sustainability, embrace diversity and are digital natives. All of this gives me hope. I am confident that we already are going into the right direction and that things will only get better.
The interview was conducted by Josh Widera.