Social Disruption

Social Disruption: How to Confront the Fraying Social Fabric and Social Inequality in Germany and the U.S.?

Throughout 2019, the ACG collaborated with the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius to facilitate an exchange between German and American opinion leaders, social entrepreneurs, and foundation representatives through four lecture tours to seven U.S. cities. Given the political polarization, fragmentation of society, and growing social inequity on both sides of the Atlantic, this program will look at how to overcome the fraying of the fabric of society.

Social entrepreneurs and foundations have played an important role in recent years and have had a major impact on creating growth, employment, prosperity, and social renewal at the community level. In both countries, there are remarkable examples of projects and initiatives that can be catalysts for creative approaches in the other country.

The programming in each city engaged local government representatives, local community foundations, private foundations, and social enterprises. The goal of the project was to highlight the work and activities of local social entrepreneurs and foundations in their local communities and to share best practices.

The ACG and the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius kicked off a series of discussions in various cities in the United States on March 25 in Dallas with an event titled “Social Disruption: How to Confront the Fraying Social Fabric and Social Inequality in Germany and the U.S.?” Some 60 people gathered at the University of Texas at Dallas for a discussion and reception, which was held with support from the World Affairs Council of Dallas. Dr. Jennifer Holmes, Interim Dean and Professor of Political Science, Public Policy, and Political Economy at the School of Economic, Political, and Policy Sciences at University of Texas at Dallas, welcomed the audience. ACG Board member Dr. Nina Smidt, President of the American Friends of Bucerius and Director of International Strategic Planning and Business Development at the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius, set the stage with opening remarks.

In a conversation moderated by Dallas journalist Lee CullumDr. Christian Martin, Professor of European and Mediterranean Studies and Max Weber Visiting Chair in German and European Studies at New York University, and Dr. Banks Miller, Associate Professor of Political Science and Program Head of Political Science, Public Policy and Political Economy at University of Texas at Dallas, discussed a variety of topics including the rise of populism, overcoming social imbalance, and commonalities of challenges facing communities in the U.S. and Germany.

Following a successful event in Dallas, Texas, in late March, the two organizations hosted discussions in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Nashville, Tennessee, on the economic, political, and social concerns on both sides of the Atlantic. More than 120 people attended the two discussions with co-authors of Our Towns: A 100,00 Mile Journey into the Heart of America Dr. Deborah Fallows and James Fallows (1977 ACG Young Leader), and journalist Martin Klingst, author of “Trumps Amerika: Reise in ein weisses Land” and Senior Political Correspondent for DIE ZEIT.

To give a local perspective, in Charlotte, Chris William, Managing Director at Wells Fargo and Host of “Carolina Business Review,” and in Nashville, Karl Dean, former Mayor of Nashville, moderated the discussions, which honed in on how communities are trying to address the fraying of the fabric of society.

Community engagement remains the backbone of American cities, and libraries play a critical role in communities. Across the United States, local government remains important. One of the takeaways from the conversations in Charlotte and Nashville was that regardless of issues at the federal levels, local governments are thriving. Local communities are looking internally to fix their challenges instead of turning to the federal government.

Many of the same issues can be seen in Germany, even if common challenges are being addressed differently on both sides of the Atlantic. This includes concerns like affordable housing, growing cities, immigration, the urban/urban divide and the urban/rural divide, and education and workforce development. However, there are also differences between the two countries. For example, Germany has better public transit in urban areas and a better health care system and does not have an opioid crisis.

There is reason to be optimistic about the future. While completing the research for their book, the Fallows saw that although many places are wrapped up in local problems, there are opportunities. One example can be seen in Erie, Pennsylvania. This rust belt town lost much of its industry in the 1980s and 1990s, however the town decided to reinvest in education and technology. Erie is now a hub for startups. Mr. Klingst believes that there are people everywhere “fighting the good fight.” In the United States, an advantage is the can-do spirit. This is unlike Germany, as many fear failure. Having served as DIE ZEIT‘s Washington, DC, correspondent for seven years, Mr. Klingst found it difficult to obtain meetings with politicians in Washington; however, his experience in small towns was quite different. He found that people were very open and willing to share their experiences. He was welcomed into communities and saw the passion of the American spirit.

Throughout their travels over the course of four years, Deborah and James Fallows encountered communities across the United States dealing with the same issues. One of the common themes they encountered was the rural/urban divide. While small towns are addressing their struggles, they still feel left behind. This could be seen in the sentiment toward immigration, education, and workforce preparedness. The 2016 election results turned people away from focusing on national or international politics and toward looking at the local level. Dr. Fallows believes that the struggles are the same across the United States.

Given their journalistic backgrounds, each of the panelists aimed to get a fair and accurate depiction of small towns. Mr. Fallows stated that public events tend to skew older and white, however their research was more representative of the communities. Dr. Fallows noted they went to schools, YMCAs, concerts, libraries, and pubs. Those conversations counted for more than large public gatherings. Mr. Klingst did similar visits to measure the pulse of communities across the U.S.

Although small towns and cities on either side of the Atlantic face issues of social inequality, there are people at the local level looking for solutions to their problems. On the periphery of the two public events, the panelists met with local leaders, including Charlotte City Council Member Braxton Winston, who became engaged in local politics after the shooting of an unarmed African-American man, Keith Lamont Scott, by police in 2016, and Shanna Hughey, President of Think Tennessee, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that helps strengthen civic engagement throughout the state. In both cases, these individuals are providing voices to the disenfranchised and working to improve the lives of those around them.

In the fall, the ACG and ZEIT-Stiftung a third round of discussions centered around social cohesion. On September 24 and 25, Ali Aslan, journalist and television presenter, spoke on the changing demographics and their impact on society in Germany at the ACG’s Pittsburgh and Chicago Warburg Chapters. Focusing on the political landscape of Germany, Mr. Aslan discussed the lasting effects of the 2015 refugee crisis.

The refugee crisis of 2015 changed many political debates in Germany. It was divisive in the EU in part because some member states were all too happy to enjoy the benefits of being in the EU but were unwilling to take in refugees. Mr. Aslan believes Chancellor Merkel did something out of character: She acted quickly to alleviate the situation. Reflecting on political developments within Germany, Mr. Aslan believes the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has deliberately gotten it wrong: Merkel did not open Germany’s borders, as AfD leaders describe it. In reality, she did not close Germany’s borders and undertook a humane act to give refugees a safe haven. Some EU countries chose to look the other way or said “thanks but no, thanks,” leaving Germany to absorb one million refugees. Mr. Aslan acknowledged that Merkel’s consultations with her European counterparts were not sufficient, and that she may have overestimated her sway with other European leaders.

The AfD leveraged this issue to gain support, but Mr. Aslan reminded those gathered that the party was founded by economists and academics in response to the financial crisis and concerns about the common currency. The founders were worried that Germany would serve as a de facto Bank of Europe, bankrolling every other EU country. Some forces in the AfD began to argue for harnessing the refugee crisis as a raison d’être instead. The party split over its main platform, and the far-right forces won the tug-of-war. It would be convenient to call the AfD an isolated problem in the east, but the party is much more pervasive. Mr. Aslan believes that “we have made them bigger than they are”; he said journalists report on them because those articles get the most clicks – and ultimately even the fourth estate is a business. The AfD is getting double digits in the polls everywhere and 30 percent in some Länder.

Referring to a “detached elite,” Mr. Aslan thinks we have yet to find the right tools to restrict the AfD’s influence. The party is close to the point where it will grow difficult to keep isolated, with some calling the party a “conservative movement” that could be considered as a possible coalition partner. “Nationalism is back,” he said. “We thought we had retired nationalism.”

One in four Germans has a diverse background, with roots outside of Germany. At a time when the German labor market could use an infusion of young people, immigrants can provide a helpful solution. However, when Germany is pitted against English-speaking countries, immigrants are typically attracted to those countries instead because of the language barrier. People so far have been seeing refugees as a burden instead of an opportunity.

Although he acknowledged that criticism can be leveled at Merkel, when asked about her legacy, Mr. Aslan said, “I think history will be kind to her.” After all, when Western values were under threat, she stepped up to the plate.

In an effort to reach different communities, the two discussions took place in venues which share in the belief of equality and social justices. In Pittsburgh, Mr. Aslan spoke to some 50 guests at the Rodef Shalom Congregation, the oldest synagogue in Western Pennsylvania which is an inclusive Reform Jewish community. In Chicago, the discussion was held at Dentons US LLP, a law firm with international offices that focuses on employment and labor, health care, and immigration law, among other issues.