The first thing you’ll notice when you compare American and German political parties is that there are more of them that matter in the latter country. Unlike in the US, where you’re left out in the cold if you don’t pitch a big enough tent, parties in Germany’s parliamentary system can appeal to relatively cozy clienteles and still have a say. That, together with the fact that the political mainstream is much further to the left, explains why German and US parties don’t line up in neat little pairs. As is illustrated by Germany’s biggest party.
The CDU-CSU: Centrism taken to the extreme
Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union are collectively referred to as the “conservatives,” but they’re very different from Republicans in the United States. Despite the word Christian in party monikers, no one here calls for creationism to be taught in schools, even if the CSU in largely Catholic Bavaria does want to keep crucifixes on classroom walls.
If there’s such a thing as extreme centrism, it’s the CDU-CSU under Merkel. The party may, for instance, favor slightly more tax relief or a slightly tougher stance on migrants than its main rival, the SPD, but there’s hardly anything in the party platform that would qualify as particularly right-wing by American standards.
There’s no question who’s boss of Germany’s conservatives
Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find many points of disagreement between the pragmatic Merkel and Barack Obama – which is why they got along so swimmingly, whereas the chancellor’s distaste for Donald Trump is palpably obvious. Such moderation doesn’t sit well with all members of her party, but there’s no question about who wears the pants. Thus, an American equivalent of the CDU-CSU would be the Republicans minus the (admittedly quite numerous) populists and religious hardliners plus the more conservative faction of the Democratic Party.
The Social Democrats (SPD): Clinton Democrats looking for a mission
If the CDU-CSU has squatted down in the mainstream and refused to budge, where does that leave Germany’s second biggest party, the Social Democrats? The SPD has been trying to answer that very question for the past 12 years.
From 1998 to 2005, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder realigned what had historically been a working class party with strong trade union ties toward the amorphous political center, chiefly by passing reforms that cut state benefits programs in favor of fiscal solidity. When he narrowly lost the 2005 election to Merkel, the SPD looked more than a little lost itself.
Schulz failed to return the SPD to power
It’s no accident that SPD, having already gotten used to life in the middle, has been willing to serve as junior coalition partners to the CDU-CSU for two-thirds of Merkel’s tenure. The rank and file may not like it, but the policy differences between the SPD and the conservatives are nowhere near as apparent as in the previous century.
The Social Democrats’ latest chancellor candidate Martin Schulz tried to return the party to the left, for instance, by floating the idea of free education for all from kindergarten through university. That’s reminiscent of proposals made by Bernie Sanders in the US. But for the most part, the SPD corresponds more closely to the Clinton Democrats. That affinity proved painfully accurate in Sunday’s national vote, which saw the party suffer its worst election defeat in Germany’s post-war era.
The Alternative for Germany (AfD): Teutonic Trumpites
Where do Donald Trump and his supporters stand in all this? Meet the Alternative for Germany, the right-wing populist newcomers on the German political block. The AfD has only been in existence since 2013, but it’s ridden widespread anger with the status quo to join a series of local state parliaments before finishing as Germany’s third-most-popular party in Sunday’s national election.
Alice Weidel was one of the AfD’s top candidates in Germany’s national election
As for the affinities with Trump Republicans … fear of immigrants and foreigners? Check. Hostility toward the European Union? Check. Contempt for standard operating procedure in government and willingness to gut the state apparatus? Check.
As a jingoistic “Make Germany Great Again” outfit full of unpredictable political neophytes, the AfD is fairly comparable to the Trumpites – critics would say it’s to the credit of the German system that there is little chance the AfD will come to power.
The Left Party: Bernie Sanders and beyond
While Americans only began to feel the Bern recently, Germans have had the sensation since 1946. That year saw the formation of Socialist Unity Party in Communist East Germany, which after the Cold War became the Party of Democratic Socialism and then in 2007 simply the Left party. Americans can perhaps best understand the Left, as it is often simply known, as what Bernie Sanders would be if he had been socialized in a Warsaw Pact country.
Or as an interest party for people in the formerly Communist East who might somewhat uncharitably be called the losers of German reunification. The Left is anti-capitalist, anti-NATO and pro tax-and-spend, although it is democratic in the small “d” sense. There’s no real American major party equivalent. Imagine, if you can, the most radical of the Sanders supporters taking over the American Communist Party and getting 6 to 10 percent of the vote based mainly on their strength in states like Vermont, Maine, Montana and Idaho.
The Greens: Important in Germany
The Greens have struggled to find a top issue beyond nuclear power
Ideologically, the Greens in Germany are a similar equivalent to the identically named party in the United States. Both hate nuclear power plants and coal, love trees and wind turbines, and want to recycle everything under the sun. But whereas the American Greens are a marginal curiosity, of interest chiefly when they are seen by Democrats as a threat to their presidential majorities, Die Grünen are an established part of the German political mainstream.
This is a clear example of how systemic differences shape political landscapes. With all German parties getting more than 5 percent of the vote given proportional representation in parliament, a vote for the Greens in Germany is by no means a vote wasted in terms of winning a seat at the table. Support for Die Grünen has declined since Germany’s phase-out of nuclear power robbed them of their signature issue, but they are still set to be part of a coalition in the next government. Jill Stein is green with envy.
The Free Democrats (FDP): Only a little like the Libertarians
The FDP are set to join a governing coalition with Merkel’s conservatives and the Greens
Which brings us to the Free Democratic Party, the traditional allies (some say lap dogs) of the CDU-CSU, who slipped below the 5 percent threshold last time around but easily cleared that hurdle in Sunday’s vote.
On the surface, the FDP would seem to correspond to the Libertarians, with the “free” in their name signifying individual freedom from being told what to do by the government. But the affinities are only skin deep. In their previous stints in power, the FDP have been anything but anti-mainstream. They’re perfectly happy to spend people’s tax euros, to intervene abroad militarily and support various forms of government regulation. To further confuse Americans, the Free Democrats are also referred to as the “liberals,” but that has nothing to do with the often pejorative term for effete left-wingers in the US.