Merkel Governed Germany to the Left of Bernie Sanders: Why Don’t Americans Know?

The headline at Fox “News” blares: “German Elections: Big Setback for Merkel’s Conservatives as Center-Left Party Comes Out on Top.”  In a single sentence, it summarizes everything wrong with how American media and the American public understand what “conservative” means.

In America, conservatives don’t want women to get abortions and some conservatives are even proposing the death penalty for women who succeed in aborting a zygote or fetus.  Angela Merkel’s “conservatives” offer abortions to women in the first three months of pregnancy at no cost (if low-income) and with no excuses. A woman must meet with a state-approved “counselor” to essentially get a prescription for the abortion, a remnant of Germany having outlawed abortion in 1871 and doubled-down during Hitler’s time, but that’s it.  And the meeting to get the prescription, the law says, must be, “An open-ended consultation that encourages the woman to keep the child while at the same time not persuading her.”  No ultrasound wand rapes, no gory movies to watch, no multiple visits, no bounties on people who help.

In America, conservatives don’t want the government to be funding or directly providing any sort of healthcare, saying that should be left to the “free market.”  Healthcare is a privilege in America, but a right in Germany guaranteed by the government (Germany got the world’s first single-payer system in 1884).  Angela Merkel’s “conservatives” give free health insurance to anybody not able to pay, and those who can pay for health insurance do so according to a sliding scale based on income (like with progressive taxes).  Nobody in Germany is uninsured; nobody goes broke or becomes homeless because a member of their family got sick.

In America, conservatives don’t think unions should exist with any government protections and employers should be able to destroy them at-will, which is why only a bit more than 5 percent of the US private workforce is unionized and we’re still fighting to maintain a 40-hour workweek.  Angela Merkel’s “conservatives” run a country where every company with over 1000 employees is required to have members of their board of directors made up of “works council” representatives and, although the deindustrialization of the country as a result of neoliberal “reforms” in the 1980s-1990s led to a huge loss of manufacturing jobs to outsourcing, unions and works councils still have great power and represent 97+ percent of all workers in large (1000+ employee) firms.  For example, IG Metall, the nation’s largest union, recently “won its key demand that workers have the right to reduce their working week from 35 to 28 hours for a period of up to two years in order to care for family members.”  Wait: did somebody say, “a 35-hour workweek with full-time pay” is normal in Germany?

In America, conservatives have fought any sort of mandatory paid vacation time so effectively that we’re the only fully developed country in the world that doesn’t require employers to offer it. “Conservative” Merkel’s Germany requires a minimum of 24 workdays of paid vacation per year and 9-12 paid public holidays (depending on the state); most employers offer 5 or 6 weeks plus paid holidays. Merkel, of course, is just fine with that; her government employees are required to take their vacations and holidays, and she does, too, to set a good example if for no other reason.

In America, conservatives have successfully fought so hard against every attempt to put paid sick days into labor law that just going to work or visiting a restaurant during flu season is risky; you never know if your co-worker or the guy cooking or delivering your food just sneezed on it because he can’t afford to take the day off. We’re the only developed country in the world that doesn’t mandate paid sick leave. In Merkel’s “conservative” Germany, employers are required by law to pay 100% of salary for up to six weeks when employees get sick (the employer can ask for a doctor’s slip after 3 days) and, if the person is disabled by their illness or injury, must pay a minimum of 70% of salary for up to 78 weeks.

In America, conservatives say we shouldn’t take tax dollars from rich people to pay for a high-quality public transportation system that reduces carbon pollution and makes it easy for low-income people to get to work or go grocery shopping.  Merkel’s “conservative” Germany has one of the best, most modern and clean public transportation systems in the world.  In five cities, the country has been experimenting with free public transportation to encourage people to leave their cars behind to hit European air-quality standards.

In America, conservatives hate the idea of high-income people paying taxes to provide healthcare, education, housing or anything else for average people. In Merkel’s “conservative” Germany, wealthy people paying a top 50.5 income tax rate is considered a social obligation…although you don’t have to file a tax return unless you think you’re entitled to a refund or have underpaid. The government does all the math.  (We could do that here, but the tax preparation industry makes billions a year off us and buys off politicians…)  Anyhow, as I reported here on back in May:

Back in 2011, I was up late one night watching, as I recall, Bloomberg News on a hotel TV. The American host was interviewing a very wealthy German businessman at a conference in Singapore.

Amidst questions about the business climate and the conference, the host asked the German businessman what tax rate he was “suffering under” in his home country. As I recall, the businessman said, “A bit over 60 percent, when everything is included.”

“How can you handle that?” asked the host, incredulous.

The German shrugged his shoulders and moved the conversation to another topic.

A few minutes later, the American reporter, still all wound up by the tax question, again asked the businessman how he could possibly live in a country with such a high tax rate on very wealthy and successful people. Again, the German deferred and changed the subject.

The reporter went for a third try. “Why don’t you lead a revolt against those high taxes?” he asked, his tone implying the businessman was badly in need of some good old American rebellion-making.

The German businessman paused for a long moment and then leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees, his clasped hands in front of him pointing at the reporter as if in prayer.

He stared at the man for another long moment and then, in the tone of voice an adult uses to correct a spoiled child, said simply, “I don’t want to be a rich man in a poor country.”

In America, conservatives say if you’re poor that’s because you’re a moral failure and deserve whatever happens to you, including living on the streets.  The Constitution of “conservative” Angela Merkel’s Germany requires all citizens live with grundgesetz or “dignity” which includes the government doing whatever is necessary to ensure all citizens have a home, food, clothing, toiletries, furniture, transportation, and enough money to cover the minor expenses of life.  They have a basic allowance (we’d call it direct-cash-welfare) program that gives cash to all poor people to meet those minimal necessities.

In America, conservatives fight like hell to keep out immigrants and refugees who are not white or Christian. “Conservative” Angela Merkel stunned the world when she invited over 1.5 million mostly Syrian Muslim refugees into Germany all at once; she gave a speech saying that Germany had rebuilt after WWII and made it through reunification with the former East Germany. “We can do this!” she said to cheers, openly defying German white supremacists. With her example, people across the country met arriving trains with open arms, flowers, toys and applause. With a population of 83 million in Germany, that’s the equivalent of an American president saving the lives of and welcoming 6.1 million non-white non-Christian refugees into the United States…in less than a year.

In America, conservatives have fought for years to make people spend longer and longer times in prison for their crimes on the theory that “punishment” will deter crime. Prison is also free labor (the 13th Amendment says slavery is still legal in the US — today — “as a punishment for crime”) and most former slave states have Jim Crow-era laws that prevent a former convict from being able to vote for the rest of his life, both being further incentives for conservatives to increase imprisonment rates, particularly for Black Americans. As a result, we have 810 people in prison out of every 100,000 of us. In Merkel’s “conservative” Germany, imprisonment is seen (outside of the most heinous crimes) as an opportunity for rehabilitation and reintegration into society, so their incarceration rate is 78 per 100,000. Prison doesn’t seem to work to deter crime here, either: our crime rate is twice that of Germany and they also have a multiracial, multicultural society.

In America, conservatives say there shouldn’t be any minimum wage and “the market” should determine all wages.  If there must be a minimum wage, they say, keep it at $7.25 an hour.  “Conservative” Chancellor Merkel took over a country in 2005 that didn’t even have a minimum wage because unions and wage councils has been so effective at maintaining a high standard of living.  Nonetheless, as cheap Chinese import caused union membership to fall, her ruling coalition pushed through a minimum wage law in 2014 that is now set at about $11/hour which, with free healthcare, subsidized housing, a monthly up-to $1377/month “pension for low-income and retired workers,” and free education all the way up to a PhD or MD, can be a living wage in many parts of the country.

In America, conservatives say that paying for college should be on you or your parents; it’s not the responsibility of the country to get you educated.  In 2014, “conservative” Chancellor Merkel helped push through a complete and total abolition of all public college and university tuition — even for foreign students (there are now over 380,000 foreign students taking them up on this).  Nobody, in this “conservative” country, has student debt…unless they decide to attend a fancy private university or fly over here to go to school.

In America, conservatives fight like hell against free pre-K education for low income families.  “Conservative” Merkel pushed through, in 2013, a new law guaranteeing 7 hours a day of free daycare/education for 3-6 year-olds and in many parts of the country the minimum age to qualify is 1 year old (790,000 kids under three attend these).  Some schools are allowed to charge for the lunch they feed the kids, but that’s it.

In America, conservatives say that if you can’t afford a place to live, you can always live on the streets, a local “skid row,” or a homeless encampment as do more than half a million Americans.  In “conservative” Merkel’s Germany, housing is a right and all Germans and legal residents are entitled to housing/rent assistance. (Nonetheless, there is a small homeless population there, a problem across the developed world that only Finland seems to really have in hand.)

In America, conservatives have aggressively fought for the “right” to own and openly carry not just handguns but actual semiautomatic weapons of war; as a result we have the highest rate of gun deaths in the developed world. Thus, there were 19,379 gun deaths and 611 mass shootings in the US last year. Germany, with one of the highest gun ownership rates in Europe, had 815 gun deaths (including suicides and accidents) in 2018. Owning a gun in Germany is like owning a car in the US: you must pass both proficiency and written tests, get a license, and register the gun every year with the government, proving you are safely storing it. And assault weapons of war are banned.

In America, conservatives fought to deregulate internet service providers (ISPs) so, since Trump killed net neutrality in 2017, they can not only watch and record everything you do online and sell your browsing history and activities for a profit, but they can also charge you whatever they can get away with (averaging around $61/month for 140 Mbps). “Conservative” Chancellor Merkel runs a country where it’s a felony for ISPs to snoop on you or sell your information and competition is mandated, so the average cost of a high-speed 250 Mbps connection is around $30/month.

In America, conservatives have fought any regulation of drug prices, even opposing letting Medicare negotiate their prices, which is why Americans pay more than twice as much for pharmaceuticals than citizens of any other country in the world. In Angela Merkel’s “conservative” Germany, the government negotiates wholesale prices for the whole nation and the federal law says, “The pharmacy sales price for prescription drugs is determined by adding a margin of 3 percent to the wholesale price, plus a fixed pharmacy service compensation of 8.35 Euros, and the value added tax.”

In America, conservatives have fought for years to allow the chemical, pesticide and herbicide industries to use you, me and our kids and grandkids as guinea pigs for their new compounds, then pull them off the market when we get cancers, birth defects and childhood brain damage. It’s why there are over 60,000 untested chemicals in our homes and workplaces today. In “conservative” Germany, they employ the “precautionary principle,” meaning that new chemicals have to prove their safety before they’re dumped into consumer products, toys, German bodies, or the environment.

If Angela Merkel has governed Germany for 16 years as a “conservative,” there are probably a heck of a lot of Americans ready to adopt the label.

The fact is that — by American standards — Merkel has governed to the left of Bernie Sanders for nearly all her time as Chancellor, and even moved her country farther toward a comprehensive and effective social safety net over the past decade. These policies have made her one of Germany’s and the world’s most beloved politicians.

Somehow, though, that never makes it through to American news viewers and readers.