via Defining Ideas (Hoover Institution)
December 14, 2017
Editor’s note: A version of this essay originally appeared in Telos.

Theodor Fontane, the master of the nineteenth-German novel, published Before the Storm in 1876. Set during the winter of 1812-13 in and around Berlin, it explores the decisive historical moment when Prussia changed sides—breaking out of its forced alliance with France in order to join with Russia in the anti-Napoleonic war. Yet the dialectic of that historical moment was such that Germans could participate in the rout of the French army, while nonetheless embracing aspects of their revolutionary legacy. Even as they fought against Napoleon in their “war of liberation,” they also integrated some of the social consequences of the revolution that had begun with the storming of the Bastille.

So near the conclusion of the novel, the Prussian Major General von Bamme, commenting on social changes around him, a gradual leveling of class differences, remarks, “And where does all this come from? From over yonder, borne on the west wind. I can make nothing of these windbags of Frenchmen, but in all the rubbish they talk there is none the less a pinch of wisdom. Nothing much is going to come of their Fraternity, nor of their Liberty: but there is something to be said for what they have put between them. For what, after all, does it mean but: a man is a man.” Mensch ist mensch.

Parsing the revolutionary triad—liberty, equality, fraternity—Fontane posits his own variant of nineteenth-century liberalism: he does not expect the modern world to be marked either by much individual freedom or by social solidarity, but at least the state ought to be able to provide formal equality before the law. Such was his response to the political culture of Bismarckian Prussia.

Today, however, this passage from the novel challenges us to consider variants of democracy in our contemporary world, especially in the light of that tricolored political formula. If, following von Bamme, formal equality has largely become normative, how have liberty and fraternity fared in modern democracy, and do alternative political communities pursue their realization differently? Is there only one paradigm for democracy or do different nations pursue varying paths? Do some democracies offer more liberty and others more fraternity?

In these brief comments, I am likely to err on the side of excessive schematization: the positions I want to tease out of several texts deserve more nuance and differentiation than possible in this limited space. Yet the binary character of the analysis is also a reflection of today’s highly polarized public debate, certainly in the United States and Western Europe, in the wake of various political developments, above all the 2016 election that led to the Donald Trump presidency. The character of the rhetoric, in the press and from politicians, has gone well beyond normal, even spirited debate and, instead, has raised fundamental questions about the character of democratic polities. Trump’s critics have variously attacked him as a new Hitler and as a Manchurian candidate for Moscow. Meanwhile Trump’s own inaugural address, with its Jacksonian tones, was a broad-brush attack on the whole political elite. This discourse, on both sides, goes far beyond policy differences and points toward fundamental, even constitutional questions about the character of democratic governance.

One trope in this polarized discourse provides a promising opportunity to link this debate to concerns about alternative constitutions of democracy: the assertion that has circulated in parts of the liberal press that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is now the leader of the free world (or the West), since the American President has, so the argument goes, disqualified himself from that role. To be sure, the adulation of Merkel has lost a lot of its credibility in the wake of her own poor electoral performance in September. Still, she is often taken to stand in as an alternative to the American President. What does Merkel represent and why does she function as a foil to Trump? Why would Germany—of all countries, given its national history—suddenly be seen as a plausible candidate to lead a liberal West? How do contemporary Germany and America represent alternative models?

A good piece of the trans-Atlantic sniping between Washington and Berlin is, of course, merely a function of electoral politics. Merkel faced the Bundestag elections in September, and in the campaign she had to highlight her distance from Trump; had she not done so, her results would have been even poorer. But leader of the West? This is more than Angela Merkel wants, nor does Germany have the military strength to fill that role.

Yet when liberal critics of Trump use Merkel as a positive counter-example, something deeper is going on: alternative traditions and expectations regarding government in the two nations. The United States and Germany represent different political cultures, and these differences are reflected in contrasting constitutional statements. From a German point of view, Americans are deemed excessively individualistic; from an American point of view, Germans can appear to be excessively conformist, authoritarian, and obedient. Under-socialized loners on the one hand, pliable crowds on the other—Americans versus Germans: this is the stuff stereotypes are made of, but these images are also pertinent to constitutional structures and cultures—liberty versus fraternity.


Few documents of the early American republic have received as much attention as George Washington’s “Farewell Address” (1796), in which he announced his withdrawal for a third term as president. Based on his own notes, but drafted first by James Madison and then developed by Alexander Hamilton, the address strikes themes that have recurred repeatedly through American political history, from its critique of partisan factionalism and parochial regional interests to its apprehensions concerning foreign affairs. But like any political statement, this one can also be read in terms of the specific historical context; among other things, it entails a Federalist attack on Thomas Jefferson.

Yet more is at stake when it is re-read today. Washington’s evidently deep anxieties concerning threats to the cohesion of the union—his repeated reference to the centrifugal forces of parties, regions, and foreign powers—are ultimately the flip side to the fundamental assumption he makes concerning his addressee, the “people of the United States,” whom he associates with the absolute priority of liberty. Thus he concludes the opening section, in which he affirms that he will not continue as president, with a set of wishes including: “that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; [and]… that … the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete ….”

The Constitution, in other words, is a free constitution because it is a work of the people, i.e, “your hands,” and the people acts in a context of liberty. This is a Lockean vision, in which liberty precedes law, and law therefore takes shape to protect liberty and pursue prosperity. The freedom of the people pre-exists the formation of the State. So, before launching into his set of specific programmatic statements, his political recommendations, Washington affirms one more time: “Interwoven as is the love of liberty with every ligament of your hearts, no recommendation of mine is necessary to fortify or confirm the attachment.” He could not be clearer: the people’s innate love of liberty precedes any recommendation, any advice or policy, of the executive, even the recommendations that he, the ultimate founding father, is about to offer.

Washington’s prioritization of liberty has consequences. While liberty represents the existential condition of any politics—because the free people precede the formation of the political community—that same liberty is simultaneously a potential source of disruption, because it can unleash the forms of partisanship and regionalism against which he warns.

Washington therefore offers a de facto corrective: not state power, by any means, but religion and morality instead. The political form of self-governance depends on a virtuous citizenry, made up of individuals each of whom can govern his own innate passions. Only citizens who, individually, have the character strength to govern themselves are equipped to participate successfully in political self-governance as citizens of a republic. Governing oneself requires morality, and the source of morality is religion. Liberty and religion for Washington therefore have reciprocal importance for political life: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports… Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?”

To be sure, the defense of religion here also serves as an attack on Jefferson, in an early version of a culture war: “In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.” Here Washington implicitly casts Jefferson as the enemy of religion and therefore a threat to the republic (and the debate over the scope of freedom of religion still occupies our political life). Yet beyond that specific historic significance, Washington primarily mounts a substantively republican argument that posits a deep connection between liberty and virtue, and the dependence of the latter on religion.

For Washington, religious affiliation could not be grounds for any restrictions on civil rights, as he wrote in his famous “Letter to the Jews of Newport” of August 17, 1790: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” From Washington’s point of view, what distinguishes an American constitutional character is the presumption that liberty, including that “liberty of conscience,” precedes the political community. It is therefore not up to a state to grant freedom, since people are a priori free: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

In this analysis, the European states’ enlightenment-era granting of tolerance is judged retrograde because it assumed that the sovereign, typically the monarch of enlightened absolutism, is endowed with the capacity to grant freedom. In contrast, for Washington, the freedom of the people predates the power of the state. We are free by nature, not thanks to the generosity of any monarch.

Washington was a man of his age, an Enlightenment thinker, whose address can be juxtaposed with elements of the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s essay, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784), in order to contrast American and German constitutional cultures. Kant is a crucial source for German political thought and liberal democracy in general. Yet in this well-known text, which culminates in a call for the public use of reason, Kant approaches the public with a tone that can be described at best as scolding, at worst as arrogant. While Washington jabbed at the intellectual Jefferson, Kant stands as the intellectual who looks down at the “deplorables,” the bulk of the population that refuses to think.

“Laziness and cowardice,” he writes, “are the reasons why such a large proportion of men, even when nature has long emancipated them from alien guidance (naturaliter maiorennes), nevertheless gladly remain immature for life. For the same reasons, it is all too easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all. I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me.”

Gone are Washington’s “auspices of liberty,” replaced by Kant’s presumption of a nearly universal ignorance. Kant’s solution is familiar: some individuals will start with their public use of reason, and others will therefore follow. Yet even this prescription is hierarchical, since it assumes that the many need the few to lead them. Moreover, in what he designates as a private sphere, the realm of labor, reasoning is prohibited. While reason is necessary in public, he stipulates that it only be undertaken as long as it remains effectively inconsequential and limited by the obligation for obedience. Discipline must be maintained, and he envisions speech as free only where sufficient police power preserves order.

“But only a ruler who is himself enlightened and has no fear of phantoms, yet who likewise has at hand a well-disciplined and numerous army to guarantee public security,” Kant writes, “may say what no republic would dare to say: Argue as much as you like and about whatever you like, but obey!” The public use of reason, vital for enlightenment, must respect the laws, no matter how irrational, and even this curtailed civic life appears as a concession on the part of the state. The state allows for free speech only because it has an effective police force to uphold the law. Where Washington posits the people as first of all free, Kant treats the people as subjects and therefore subordinate. In the best of cases, these subjects have an innate potential for reason, although they typically fail to use it; when they do use it, their ability to act on the insights of reason is limited by the prerogatives of the monarch, the state, and the law.

For the contrast between the two traditions, Kant’s complaint about the people’s failure to reason is less important than the discrepancy between Washington’s priority of liberty on the one hand, and Kant’s primacy of state and reason, or even, the state as reason, on the other: that is the perspective of German philosophical idealism that stands in contrast to core Anglo-American traditions.

The respective constitutional languages echo this difference. The German Basic Law (Grundgesetz) commences with a listing of the participating states, the Länder, which have pride of place in this federal statement, in contrast with the populism of the American rhetoric announcing “We, the people” as the source of order. The first section of the Basic Law concerns fundamental rights and commences with an assertion of human dignity (“Würde”), a response to Nazi era atrocities as well as the legacy of a tradition of Catholic teaching that productively corrects the idealist inheritance.

But one can note, with consternation, that the first article of the German text makes no mention at all of liberty or freedom, though it does invoke “human community, peace and justice in the world.” The second article gets closer to freedom but only in the sense of the “free development of one’s personality,” with the qualification that one not violate others’ rights, the constitutional order or morality laws. None of these points concerning the German text is egregious, but they describe a paradigm in which it is the state that grants rights, and each of these rights is only granted, by the state, with limitations. The difference from the American text is stark.

It is however article 4, section 1 of the German Basic Law that lends itself best to a contrast with the American Constitution: “The freedom of faith, of conscience and the freedom of religious and philosophical confession are inviolable.” (“Die Freiheit des Glaubens, des Gewissens und die Freiheit des religiösen und weltanschaulichen Bekenntnisses sind unverletzlich.”) This is a clear and unambiguous statement of religious freedom as a feature of the nature of belief.

On this point the contrast with the American language is indeed striking, where the First Amendment refrains from making any similarly substantive assertion concerning a religious condition, inviolable or otherwise, and instead addresses the state by limiting its power: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

While the German constitution makes a statement about religion, the American text does nothing of the sort but instead, explicitly, articulates a sharp limitation on state power. It is not a statement about subjects to whom freedom of religion is granted magnanimously but, on the contrary, a statement by citizens limiting the freedom of the state in order to defend their own liberty.  Freedom of religion significantly precedes even freedom of speech, the press, assembly and petition, but the syntax prioritizes a limitation on state power.

American and German constitutional cultures and their respective modes of liberal democracy evidently represent alternative outcomes that we can map back onto Fontane’s novelistic reflection on the French revolutionary appeal: liberty here, fraternity there. The United States developed a libertarian, or a libertarian populist, route (libertarianism and populism themselves are by no means easily compatible), while Germany followed an idealistic, Kantian path, prioritizing obedience to the law (no matter its provenance), the state and first principles: on the one hand, the principle of liberty; on the other, subordination to the community of the law (fraternity). Washington invoked the importance of experience over speculation. That was another swipe at the excessively theoretical Jefferson, but it highlights a greater distinction: the United States is inductive, Germany deductive; and the contrast between empiricism (an Anglo-American tradition) and German idealism continues to echo through current political debate, including the question of the leadership for the West, which returns us to the contrast between the German Chancellor and the American President.


As is well known, candidate Trump ran a controversial campaign, and as an outsider to the political system, he faced equally heated opposition from many quarters. His victory came as a surprise, as much in Germany as elsewhere, and when Merkel begrudgingly sent her congratulations, she wrapped them in a carefully worded message, intended to demonstrate her distance from Trump, in a way that is symptomatic of contemporary German political culture. Her message to the victorious candidate: “Germany and America are bound by common values — democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. It is based on these values that I wish to offer close cooperation, both with me personally and between our countries’ governments.”

At face value, the statement makes German cooperation with the United States conditional on the listed terms of shared values. At stake then is not, for example, security concerns that the United States and Germany might share—that is, the NATO question for which Trump would later face criticism for his seeming equivocation—but instead a transatlantic participation regarding, for example, “sexual orientation,” which Merkel even lists prior to “political views.” Her representation of the German-American relationship has little to do with its actual historical development. One could parse Merkel’s statement further by noting that she invokes “dignity,” from the Basic Law, rather than the liberty of persons. Similarly her phrasing places freedom in second position, following on democracy, which designates the structure of the state, rather than opting for the reverse order, in which the democratic state would follow on individual freedom. That word order captures an aspect of the transatlantic divide.

Of course, one can hardly fault the German Chancellor for giving expression to a distinctly German political culture, and that culture, the constitution of German political life, is evidenced in the core message of the congratulatory note: conditioning the alliance on abstract principles rather than shared interests, an approach fully within a German idealist tradition.

Trump’s critics present him as having a transactional rather than a relational approach to politics, pursuing short-term advantage rather than building reciprocity and community. Yet his answer to Merkel, presented indirectly in his July 6, 2017 speech in Warsaw, had nothing to do with narrowly defined interests, although vital issues, particularly shared security concerns, were certainly crucial to his argument. Rather, his account involved the importance of historical experience and its legacy for the present. Invoking the Polish past, especially Poland’s long struggles to achieve and maintain independence, he established the significance of national history, within the context of a broader western civilizational narrative. Where Trump’s critics caricature him as a businessman with only venal interests at stake, in contrast to high-minded principle, they misunderstand that he counters the high-handedness of Merkel’s idealist principles—George Washington might have treated them as Jeffersonian “speculation”—with history and an appeal to tradition against theory in the spirit of a Burkean conservatism.

Merkel’s statement establishes a principle of universal dignity, followed by a list of glosses and an emphasis on disregarding one’s place of “origin.”  That erasure of nationality is consistent with her open-borders policy, which would ultimately lead to her disastrous electoral results. The dismissiveness toward place of origin also reflects the aspiration to dissolve nation-state sovereignties into the European Union. Trump argues for the opposite: the individual freedom of the citizen and the sovereignty of the state depend on each other. Hence the need to resist external adversaries, genuine threats to the body politic, as well to maintain our internal capacities, our virtues.

“Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe,” he said in Warsaw, “value individual freedom and sovereignty.” The sequence that lists individual freedom prior to sovereignty is crucial. He continues, “We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are. If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.”

Trump’s liberal critics view passages like this, where he identifies an Islamist enemy and invokes national histories, as expressions of paranoia and racism. Yet his argument is very much in a Washingtonian tradition; he is concerned with the viability of the individual nation as well as the western community of nations, and he is anxious that partisanship and parochialism could enervate the capacity of the people. Thus Trump: “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders?”

Trump draws a connection between borders (meaning both immigration policy and defense against foreign invasion) and values; this pairing echoes Washington’s connection between the union, threatened by dissolution, and morality. Washington linked morality and religion. To this, Trump adds history and will. None of these terms, however, plays a role in Merkel’s message, especially not religion. Trump meanwhile invokes the memory of John Paul II’s visit to Warsaw in 1979, describing a scene in which the assembled crowd called out for God. The Pope’s message was not only the call for a freedom of religion against the Communist government but, more importantly, the recognition that religion can be foundational for freedom, national, and personal.

Contemporary Germany and the United States both belong to the taxonomy of modern liberal democracies. This intellectual-historical parsing of the statements by Merkel and Trump runs the risk of exaggerating the differences. Each of these two political systems should be understood with sufficient suppleness to account for the possibility of varying electoral outcomes or shifting governing coalitions. Yet even allowing for this regular sort of variation—the United States under Obama or Trump, Germany under Schröder or Merkel—these two liberal democracies display some deep variations in constitutional history, culture, and institutions.

Where the American tradition invokes the figure of the free individual and the priority of liberty, Germany pursues the rational state as the vehicle with which to realize a categorical imperative. The success of the former depends on the virtue of the citizen and hence the importance of religion; for the latter religion is, at best, a marginal function, and it relies instead on the virtue of the state bureaucracy.

Aside from his reference to external threats, Trump’s Warsaw address also warns that growing domestic bureaucracy can undermine the national will. While this concern is an expression of his characteristic libertarian populism, it also points to a basic asymmetry between the two models, German and American: it is nearly unimaginable that Germany or other European liberal democracies could develop significantly in directions that would prioritize liberty along American lines, but future American elections could very well steer emphatically toward a model of European statism.