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Public trust helps Germany through its coronavirus crisis

A medical practice assistant emerges to talk to people waiting to do a coronavirus test in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

Other than the group of shrieking conspiracy theorists who tried to break into the German parliament the other weekend after an anti-lockdown protest went awry, it seems most Germans do actually trust their government.
All around the world, the pandemic has raised questions about how much voters trust their leaders – and by international standards, the Germans trust theirs more than most.

According to the communications company, Edelman, which updated its annual survey on trust in May this year after the pandemic began, 64% of Germans believed that their leaders are doing the right thing. That was compared to 48% in France and 60% in the UK.

Another study by researchers at Trier University, which looked at 57 countries, also found Germans more trusting than most of their European neighbours.

Often it is only the Scandinavian countries, the Dutch and the Swiss who are more trusting. And even as Germany’s Covid-19 infections started to rise worryingly in October, a variety of local surveys kept suggesting the same: 85% of Germans agreed with the most recent restrictions on social gatherings and masks, 70% think the government is behaving in a fair, democratic and competent way.

Regular conversations with people on the street give you that impression too: There’s just generally a feeling here that the government is looking out for its people and that, comparatively speaking, this is a good place to be.

Whether completely justified or not, Germans are proud of how the country has coped so far. Some believe that this level of trust translates directly to better crisis management. “The government’s strong performance strengthened the population’s trust … increased trust led to better discipline with [pandemic restrictions] and that ultimately explains why the second wave [of infections] has not been as dynamic, up until now,” Friedrich Heinemann, a leading researcher at the Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research in Mannheim, told broadcaster Deutsche Welle in mid-September.

In reality though, this is more of a ‘chicken-or-egg’ situation; it’s difficult to disentangle cause and effect. Did trust in the German government rise, because it’s a good crisis manager? Or was the government able to manage the crisis well because Germans trusted it?

Obviously, up until now, Germany has been relatively lucky in terms of infections and deaths from Covid-19. The country had excess emergency beds and cash, and the government was quick to commit to spending more than one trillion euros to help its economy and workers recover, more than many other nations.

“In a situation like that – and especially if you compare the situation here with that of other countries – you quickly learn to appreciate your own government,” suggests Tom Mannewitz, a political scientist at the Chemnitz University of Technology, who studies democracy, populism and extremism.

“It has been a textbook example of crisis management,” adds Kai Unzicker, a sociologist and senior project manager at the Bertelsmann Foundation, whose work focuses on social cohesion. “You can’t say everything was done right but it was handled very professionally. [Politicians] acted decisively and were transparent,” he says, and, as an example, refers to several videos, widely circulated on social media, that show German chancellor Angela Merkel calmly explaining how exponential infections work. “People appreciated that,” Unzicker concludes.

So it’s hardly surprising that all this corresponds to an increase in locals’ trust in the authorities. But in fact, Germans have always trusted their government. “Germany’s success in dealing with the crisis is due in part to [Angela] Merkel’s style of leadership,” John Kampfner, British author of the recently released book, Why the Germans Do It Better, writes. “But it is about more than that. It is about the role of the state and society. It is about social trust.”

“There is a basic trust in the state here,” says Laura-Kristine Krause, head of the German branch of More in Common, a non-profit which studies and promotes social cohesion; the organisation also has offices in the UK, the US and France. “Just in general, people here trust the state – although that doesn’t mean they are always satisfied with it. Generally they believe that the state and its institutions will function.”

“I would also say that we expect a lot from the state,” Krause continues. “Germans tend not to say, ‘hey, we’ll solve this problem ourselves’. We expect the solution to come from above – which is quite a different attitude to some other countries.”
The relationship is reciprocal – Germans expect a lot from their government, she says, and their government expects them to behave like good citizens. Although levels of trust may rise and fall – for example, there was a fall in 2015 based on perceptions of the government’s handling of immigration – Germany generally has “a healthy foundation” when it comes to trust, Krause concludes.

“The idea that Germans always behave well and follow the rules is not just a myth,” agrees Mannewitz. “It is, I believe, an expression of the political culture here. People tend to have more of a hierarchical relationship with the state and there’s also a lot of trust in state institutions.”

Sociologist Unzicker thinks the level of trust also has to do with Germany’s political system, which is still based on post-Second World War rules concocted to prevent any single party from dominating. “Our political system is based on coalition building and finding consensus, which is very different from, say, the British electoral system,” Unzicker explains.

“You also have to consider the circumstances. In comparison to other countries, Germany is not as divided. The divisions between political parties elsewhere are already so deep, that it has been almost impossible for them to find a compromise. We just don’t have that here  – at least, not at the moment.”

Of course, over the past months there have been disagreements – with, for example, authorities in Germany’s 16 states arguing with the federal government about how far lockdown rules should go and who is paying for what. But in general, the pandemic has not been as politicised as in countries like the US.

Unzicker has another interesting explanation as to why his fellow country people are so trusting of their Bundestag-based overlords. It’s about voter turnout, he says. Political scientists believe that trust in leadership and the number of people that vote in a country are related, even as they develop in parallel.

While Germany’s voter participation has been dropping since the 1970s – back then around 91% of registered voters cast a ballot, while in 2017, only around 76% did – it is still comparatively high compared to many other nations.

That includes the UK, where voter turnout was around 67% in 2019 and the US, where it sat at about 55% in 2016.

“No matter what happens next, the trust levels will fall again,” Mannewitz concludes. “I believe this will happen before the end of the pandemic, and at the very latest, it will happen when the government cannot afford – or no longer wants to afford – the extra funding needed. When it comes to politics, I actually believe that good economic management of the crisis is almost more important than virologists’ management of the disease,” he argues.

Right now, many Germans are still doing “surprisingly well” in economic terms, he says. In some areas – in Germany’s all-important industrial sector and in employment figures, for example –there was even some growth over summer and signs of a recovery, after the initial springtime Covid-19 shutdown.

Most local economists predict this recovery will continue – as long as infections remain under control. Clearly, that could change: The latest figures show an unexpected 0.7% dip in industrial production for August and experts also say that if there are further pandemic problems for major trading partners like the UK or France, economic indicators could swing back to negative.

In that case, all that trust – Mannewitz describes it as “a form of political credit” for Germany’s ruling parties – might not be enough.

“How the economic crisis is dealt with, will be very important,” More in Common’s Krause agrees. “And we’re going to have to deal with the societal consequences of this for a long time anyway.”

Krause admits she is concerned: A survey published by her organisation in September that looked at how Germans were experiencing the pandemic found that, while trust in the government had gone up over the past few months, ordinary people’s willingness to compromise with neighbours who hold different opinions from them, had somehow fallen. Previously 48% of respondents said they wouldn’t be willing to compromise. Now 55% say they wont.

“Frankly, that worries me,” Krause admits. Because, for example, “the [far right party, Alternative for Germany] AfD were already fairly successful in a healthy economy. I would worry about how they would do in an economic crisis. And unlike some of our neighbours, Germany is not crisis-hardened,” says the researcher. “So we will see how resilient we are.”

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