Make Institutions Sexy Again: Some Thoughts on the German Elections
They say it’s normal to cry after your first time. Last September, I walked to the nearest voting station, showed my ID and invitation letter, and voted for the first time in a German local election. As a foreigner, I was only able to vote for an Integrationsrat, an expert on integration issues whose powers are largely advisory. It was the first time this option had been opened to me, and will hopefully signal a larger political role for non-European residents like me in the future.
But I wasn’t getting all choked up only because I’d exercised my right to vote in the country I’ve been living in for the better part of a decade. I was also amazed, even moved, by how easy the voting process was.
It started with the invitation letter. Since I registered my address at the City Hall as per legal requirement, local authorities automatically added me to the list of registered voters. They sent me a letter informing me which voting station to go to and on which day, and to bring the letter plus a valid ID. The polling station, which was about fifteen minutes’ walk away from my apartment (even with my short legs), was practically empty. There was no line, and no security check at the entrance. I simply walked in, showed my papers, and was handed a pen and ballot. I marked my chosen candidate, folded up the ballot, and inserted it into the box. Done.
I had some prior idea of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into the German voting process due to having dropped by a voting station in 2019, during the elections for the European Parliament. Though I was not allowed to participate in those elections, I was determined to satisfy my intellectual curiosity about the nuts and bolts of voting in Germany. The polling assistants kindly allowed me to watch the voting and tallying process, and to ask them questions about their tasks.
Certainly, my first few questions sounded fairly outlandish. Hailing from the Philippines, where electoral violence is routine, I was expecting German polling stations to be kept safe by armed guards who would pat everyone down for weapons. The assistants explained that, firstly, the inaccessibility of firearms in Germany makes this very unlikely. Secondly, electoral violence would be pointless because it would render the results moot. The city or district would simply repeat the election.
As the assistants elaborated, a stable institutional set-up also explains the high level of trust and security Germans feel towards their electoral process, despite the lack of large, coordinated efforts at independent electoral observance. Volunteers are carefully shuffled around so that team members are less likely to be acquainted with each other. This prevents collusion, and creates a polite but nevertheless vigilant atmosphere, wherein all the volunteers monitor each other. In other words, each volunteer is an independent observer.
In short, it takes a great deal of “invisible” work to make processes so simple for end-users. Contact data must be collected, filed, and protected. This is the basis for secure, orderly automatic registration. Appropriate dates and venues must be blocked off. These, of course, must be run by a small army of trustworthy, competent, and, of course, eligible volunteers. All of this occurs in a context of generally safe, peaceful political processes, in a country where guns are both hard to come by and an uncommon sight outside hunting circles.
Some German acquaintances flattered me by asking for my “expert opinion” as a political scientist on the various political parties. My reply is that I personally lean center-left, but generally advise German voters to look beyond flashy rhetoric, and select parties who have a proper appreciation for institutions. This goes for workaday structures civil registries, the postal service, and public transportation systems, as well as more controversial, politicized institutions like courts and law enforcement. This opinion seems to be shared by a significant chunk of the German electorate. In the recent election, some voters from far-left party Die Linke transferred their allegiance to the Greens, who, while still left-leaning, are closer to the political center and have better relations with established institutions as well as other parties. In other words, the Greens can more convincingly claim to be able to implement their platform—not just successfully, but in a way that respects democratic norms and bequeaths an even stronger structure for future generations.
However, compared to people in my home country, Germans seem to take their institutions for granted. It is assumed that civil servants, police, etc., will be honest and efficient. The infrastructure that keeps both public and private business running—roads, trains, electricity, and so on—should keep running smoothly and punctually. The real debate right now is how to make infrastructure more environmentally friendly, and not how to keep them running at all. Whenever possible, I try to remind people that a state of general stability and efficiency in the past and present is no guarantee of its continued future.
At the same time, Germany’s heritage bombards people with reasons to be skeptical of bureaucracy. Classics from Kafka’s The Castle to recent films like System Crasher portray bureaucracy as cold and oppressive. Looking not very far back into German history, the Nazi death machine demonstrated how bureaucracy might be harnessed for horrifying ends. Corruption, abuse, brutality, and outright genocide can obviously occur with or without bureaucratic support. However, in a world where the large, semi-permanent nation-state is still the default polity, liberal democracy cannot subsist without it.
Pro-institutionalist stances in the social sciences focus on the protective and emancipatory functions of bureaucratic set-ups. The impersonal nature of bureaucracies is embraced (within reason). Rules and professional distance are meant to regularize processes. From the perspective of power dynamics, they are meant to promote formal equality by preventing the powerful from leveraging their money and connections. Endemic corruption and cronyism are signs that institutions are too weak, and have been hijacked by personal or dynastic interests. At their best, functioning bureaucracies in Germany and elsewhere are bulwarks of rule of law and systematized social support in modern nation-states. Hence, even superhumanly ethical, courageous, and competent politicians at the top will only get so far without well-oiled bureaucratic machinery. Those who venerate principles like human rights and constitutional safeguards should extend more of that appreciation to bureaucratic institutions and processes.
Then again, this article is not just a love letter to German bureaucracy.
The persistent popularity of populist parties, especially in the former East Germany, suggests that this bastion of democratic processes is in trouble. The word “populism” is now used as a catch-all for a broad range of scary political developments across the globe. Nevertheless, one can argue that populism itself is not necessarily a bad thing. In small doses, it can be a corrective to the arrogance and complacency of elites. It pushes institutions to stay accountable to the people they claim to serve. It should not, however, come to be the dominant mode of politics, as its disruptive and polarizing style is not sustainable in the long term. The gadfly can sting the horse into action, but it cannot pull the cart itself. In more contemporary words:, Bernie for Senate, but never for President. Rising populism, therefore, is a warning sign to address disenfranchisement and check the health of institutions more closely.
Rising populism, whether of the right or the left, directs itself not only against elites, but against the bureaucratic machinery of the status quo. Populism offers the prospect of power placed directly in the hands of “the people,”—whomever this might or might not include. Change will come. Action will be taken. No more corruption, jargon, or red tape. This is why populist displays of power tend to be both disruptive and spectacular. They satisfy supporters’ desire to see decisive action, and to feel emotional attachment and even catharsis in connection to the workings of power.
Everyday paperwork processes in Germany, and the institutions responsible for managing them, are notoriously thorny, even to the native-born. Drastic downsizing since the 1990’s has accomplished the opposite of streamlining. Staff are constantly overworked and backlogged, even as their tasks get more and more demanding. There’s an old joke among bureaucrats and civil servants to the effect that any memo announcing a simplification of processes actually means that they’ve become (even) more complicated.
On a more personal note, I was surprised by how closed-off Germany’s bureaucratic institutions can be, especially for a political culture that supposedly prizes transparency and fairness. My academic trajectory has included research into the law enforcement sectors in both Poland and the Philippines. Recently, I tried exploring similar research in the town where I live in Germany. The assistant in charge of fielding emails to the Police Press Office answered promptly and forwarded my query both times, but had to tell me that nobody had responded to either query. Furthermore, municipal projects are not widely publicized, so one often finds out about them long after the fact. It’s a far cry from my experience in supposedly less-developed countries, where a couple of emails or phone calls could get me personal appointments with high-ranking officials in the military or Ministry of Interior. There appears to be a culture of standoffishness, to put it diplomatically, that discourages mutual outreach between institutions and the public they serve.
This is one of the downsides of the professional distance that is meant to keep bureaucracy fair and predictable. Bureaucracy can become impenetrable, unwieldy, and unresponsive, seeming to grow for its own sake. End-users can then become understandably frustrated, especially since bureaucracies in welfare states are so intimately involved in basic facts of life: where you live, whom you marry, how you treat health issues. Bureaucracy that has lost sight of the end-goal of service, or at least appears to have done so, is also likely to lose people’s trust and loyalty. This goes double if the bureaucratic institution appears to be “hiding” its mechanisms from the public—the institution has not only kept distance, but retreated behind an opaque screen.
Given the growing controversy around migration and demographics in Europe, we would also do well to remember the differential impact of the bureaucracy-society divide. Members of marginalized groups might be especially reluctant to engage with bureaucratic structures, even if it means giving up access to programs for support, training, advancement, and social integration. This increases the likelihood of their being trapped in society’s fringes, and vulnerable to recruitment into populist or extremist movements.
Of course, this is not to say that bureaucratic institutions should start to imitate the populists’ theatrics and state of permanent disruption. Rather, they should address the root causes of populist appeal. Not least among these is the lack of emotional connection and trust towards bureaucratic institutions.
What can a country like Germany do to address the growing disconnect between its public and its bureaucratic institutions, while maintaining professionalism? Transparency is key, first and foremost. A bureaucracy that claims to be fair should not fear the understanding and scrutiny of clients. Citizens and residents must have easy access to information, in plain language, about the basic mechanics, goals, and rules of democratic institutions. Civic education can be a continuing process throughout the lives of citizens and residents.
As people grow in personal and professional experience, so should the breadth, depth, and reflexivity of their civic engagement—not least in relation to bureaucratic institutions. In addition, people can and should be apprised of fundamental, but not always obvious, changes to their political institutions that occurred since they last studied them in school. Ever-deepening European integration makes continuing education essential. How do the powers of local, federal, and EU-level institutions relate to each other? Once people wrap their heads around these dynamics, how can they then reach the relevant institutions and hold them accountable? Addressing these concerns through information and openness is key to solving the long-standing democratic deficit in Germany, and indeed, all other EU member states with regards to the integration process.
We should also give due importance to good, old-fashioned face-to-face engagement between bureaucrats/civil servants and the wider populace. More frequent Open Door days, perhaps in virtual or hybrid format due to the ongoing pandemic, would go a long way towards concretizing citizens’ understanding of bureaucracy. People should also be able to actively investigate and engage with these institutions, which is why Freedom of Information laws are essential.
It’s important to maintain a skepticism and critical attitude towards our institutions. At the same time, we should maintain a sense of appreciation, and even love, towards them. As philosophers from Plato to M. Scott Peck have emphasized, love isn’t actually blind. It is aimed towards the genuine well-being and growth of the self as well as the other. Loving democracy also means loving the institutions that give it structure. I do believe that it is possible to strike a healthy balance between professional distance and loyal service. To quote the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, “Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest of human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible to see the other whole and against a wide sky!“
Jamina Vesta Jugo recently defended her doctoral dissertation in Political Science at the University of Goettingen. The book version, to be published by Brill, is forthcoming. She is also a Training & Mentorship Officer at STEAR. Ms. Jugo would like to thank Jedidja van Boven for her editorial guidance, and Lino Klevesath for his insights on the German political system.
Gay, P. (2000). In praise of bureaucracy: Weber, organization, ethics. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Habermas, J. (1999). The Structural Transformation of the Public sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (T. Burger and F. Lawrence, trans.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. First published 1962.
Kaelin, L. (2012). Strong Family, Weak State: Hegel’s Philosophy and the Filipino Family. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.
Kafka, F. (1969). The Castle (W. Muir and E. Muir, trans.). New York: Modern Library. First published 1926.