Thursday

16th Jul 2020

Column

George Floyd: What US polarisation means for Europe

In a recent book, Why Are We Polarised? the American journalist Ezra Klein explored the depth of political polarisation that afflicts the United States.

His insights are unsettling as he contends that partisan identity has started to dominate all other identities, even ethnicity.

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  • There are persistent concerns of extremists within the police, military and counter-terrorism forces. Some of the leaders of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party have a documented extremist background, yet sit in parliaments

If you are a Democrat you shop differently, you live in different neighbourhoods and you do other sports than you would do as a Republican.

Favouring Republicans or Democrats is ever less a question of transactional politics (what do they do for me?) and ever more one of identity (what does it say about me?).

In short, the US now has two political tribes. The price for this is high. Political gridlock, a lack of any compromise to bring the country forward and an erosion of democratic rule. Klein blames the Republicans and to a lesser degree the Democrats, as well and the political system.

Klein does not offer a blueprint on how to overcome this extreme polarisation, but he has some suggestions.

One of them: rediscovering a politics of place. Go local. Instead of spending time on Trump's last tweet, people should give far more attention to state and local politics, where they have a bigger impact and where they are confronted with other opinions in tangible contexts.

I had to think of Klein's conclusions when the Black Lives Matter debate reached Europe after George Floyd was suffocated to death by a police officer, a shocking murder filmed in the middle of a busy street.

This visceral image has had huge resonance. In Germany, many people went to the street to demonstrate against racism in his name.

But practically nobody in Germany knows of Mercedes Kierpacz. The 35-year old mother of two was working in a kiosk in the German city of Hanau on the evening of 19 February when a man stepped out of a car and shot her dead.

That evening he killed another eight men who only had one thing in common: they had what is called in Germany a "migration background", meaning that they or one of their parents are not German citizens.

The act shocked Germany, there were some demonstrations and a parliamentary debate, but then life went on.

Already before Hanau, it was clear that racism and an extreme right-wing ideology present a lethal danger and that the authorities need to do a lot more.

There are persistent concerns of extremists within the police, military and counter-terrorism forces. Some of the leaders of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party have a documented extremist background, yet sit in parliaments.

In short, Germany had its work cut out for itself.

Klein laments the constant focus on national politics in the US, which erodes all local nuances and priorities and contributes to the building of a binary political super-identity.

The big impact of Floyd's murder on German debates takes this phenomenon one step further.

Hanau vs Minneapolis

Here, American politics shape our political debate. Eight of us were killed in Hanau, because something is wrong in our country. But many of us react more strongly when a man is killed in Minneapolis.

Instead of arguing the case against racism from our own direct experience, we overload it with different agendas, such as policing in the US and opinions on Donald Trump and Republicans.

Europe already suffers from American-style extreme polarisation.

In Poland, divisions are now so deep that many families stopped discussing politics altogether. The European far- right has happily copied the US Alt-right's playbook of inventing supposed civilisational conflicts that then justify all means to gain and sustain power.

Poland's former foreign minister claimed that his government is up against "a Marxist model which has to automatically develop in one direction only - a new mixture of cultures and races, a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians who only use renewable energy and fight all forms of religion."

That is how you build partisan super-identities in which disparate elements of daily life are aligned behind some supposed political idea.

In this artificial world there are only two tribes, and every mundane activity must fit the tribes' beliefs.

In that world a committed cyclist cannot be religious, and a vegetarian will never drive a car. Goodbye to diversity and pluralism.

Unfortunately, many democratically-minded actors unconsciously step into this polarisation trap. In a mindless import of American debates, a journalist from Der Spiegel argued last week that "the time for journalistic neutrality is over".

He commented on a spat within the New York Times on the publication of a somewhat inflammatory opinion by a Republican senator.

The Spiegel journalist argued that the distinction between facts and opinion is somewhat illusory and that journalists need to become more resolute and uncompromising in a world of irreconcilable differences.

In doing so, the journalist essentially imported an American debate into the German language, but made no effort to reflect its meaning to Germany or Europe.

Our leaders are not serial liars like the American president and our journalists' self-regulation does not talk about neutrality, but about truthfulness and fairness.

For Europe, there is always a lot to learn from the developments in the US. At this point, our most important lesson should be avoiding the extreme polarisation that has weakened the US, and which weakens the EU and its member states alike.

We should address our own problems head on, instead of diverting energies in proxy debates about the problems of our friends across the Atlantic.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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