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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Germany’s Wulff Toppled While Wisconsin’s Walker Fights On

At the beginning of 2012, Wisconsin and Germany were both suffering from the plight of compromised figureheads. In the case of Wisconsin, the figurehead is also the chief executive, whereas in Germany they are distinct offices, so the situation in Wisconsin was more intractable. Germany’s figurehead office has much less political power, so any occupant is more dependent on maintaining credibility and stature.

In Wisconsin, Scott Walker faced a petition for a recall vote. Assuming Walker is recalled, the vote would be followed by an election for the office. Even if recalled, he could be a candidate in that election. Wisconsinites could vote to recall him then conceivably vote him back into office. Because recall pertains to a duly elected incumbent, the bias in the procedure is to respect the result of the election (i.e., “elections matter”). This bias makes sense in the case of the recall movement against Walker because it was not predicated on scandal or any charge of illegality against him. The recall is not an impeachment. Rather, the movement was in reaction to a piece of legislation that Walker had supported that took away some bargaining rights of the government employees’ union. The law’s intent was to help reduce a $3 billion projected budget deficit in 2011. Walker did manage to balance the budget, with help from the law to enabled the government to save money on public employees.

                                            Opponents of Walker gather as the recall petitions are turned into the government.  
                                                                     Tannen Maury/European Pressphoto Agency

In terms of the recall, the issue is thus whether the four year term of Walker’s office as figurehead and chief executive of Wisconsin should be cut short because of disagreement with a law that Walker signed. In other words, the matter is not an impeachable offense; rather, the question is whether the popular sovereign—the people—should have the right to circumvent one of the hallmarks of a republic (i.e., representative government): the fixed term of office, which is meant to protect the officeholder from the popular passions of the moment in order to make difficult decisions. Put another way, if it were easy to recall an elected representative, none would be likely to make the difficult decisions that we look to be made for our own good. While valid from the standpoint of direct democracy, easy recall undercuts what distinguishes a republic.

In Germany, Christian Wulff was facing a vote from the legislature removing “immunity from prosecution” from his figurehead office. On February 17, 2012, with the SPD and Green parties having come out in favor of making Wulff subject to charges of improper ties to business executives, he resigned. The scandal first broke in the previous December. It gained traction not only because of the special gifts that Wulff had received while the executive of what is comparable to a county in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, one of Scott Walker’s aids was being convicted of corruption from when Walker was the executive of a county in Wisconsin (Milwaukee county). The immediate difference is that Walker was not implicated whereas Wulff was (by the Hanover prosecutor’s office). I would add that Walker could make use of the political power that came with his authority as the chief executive whereas Wulff had no such power and thus succumbed to the pressure by resigning. In both cases, the man at the top was compromised and this in turn impacted the respective states dramatically. Because of the “dual” nature of Walker’s office, Wisconsin faced a prolonged fight over Walker in 2012 whereas German parties already settled on a new figurehead just days after Wulff resigned. It might be wise of Wisconsites to consider splitting the head office into two—one a figurehead and the other the leader of the majority party in the lower legislative chamber. Wisconsin would still be a republic.

I refer to Wisconsin and Germany as states both in the sense of having a government and in being states in unions of states. That is, both republics were at the time semi-sovereign; the U.S. and E.U. taking up the rest of the governmental sovereignty, respectively. This basis of comparison is typically undercut. For instance, Nicholas Kulish of the New York Times writes of Wulff that the “scandal first emerged in December with the news that [he], while serving as governor of the state of Lower Saxony, had taken a private loan from the wife of a wealthy friend worth about $650,000.” However, there is no such office as “governor” within Germany. The Wisconsin office of governor applied to Germany would be to combine the figurehead and chief executive (or chancellor) offices (i.e., Wulff and Merkel) of the German government. Furthermore, Lower Saxony is a Land, not a Staat. Translated into English, Land means land, region or territory whereas Staat means state. You can see how similar English is to German here. Auf Deutsch, the German regions are called Länder, nicht Staaten! Also ist es nicht richtig zu Lower Saxony “state”heissen. [so it is not correct to call Lower Saxony a state]. Lower Saxony is about the size of a county in Montana, and Germany itself is the size of Montana. In addition to scale, both states (Germany and Montana) are semi-sovereign states in unions that in turn have some governmental sovereignty. It would be utterly misleading of a European to refer to Scott Walker as having been the governor of the state of Milwaukee in Wisconsin, but this is how Kulish describes Wulff as the executive of Lower Saxony in Germany. Das ist seltsam. (This is strange).

Germany is not in itself a United States of Europe. Nor for that matter is Britain or France, even though they are large states in the E.U. Neither for that matter is California or Texas a United States. These are all semi-sovereign republics that are member states of comparable scale (though not in population though clusters relative to the populations of the two unions) in unions also of comparable scale (and population) and with both political and economic aspects. Considering Kulish’s “report,” it is no wonder that the category mistake survives as the default. It would be more accurate of me to refer to Merkel, Sarkozy and Cameron as governors (i.e., executives of states in the E.U.) than for Kulish to refer to Wulff as having been the governor of a region of one of those states. Any American state could itself have a federal system. Considering the cultural differences within Wisconsin (e.g., Madison vs. Reinlander—itself a Land or resembling the Länder along the Rein?)—not to mention Illinois and California each being incredibly diverse internally—giving their respective Länder some autonomy might not be a bad idea. Calling the regional or county executives “governors” and the regions or counties themselves “states” would be utterly misleading, as both terms refer to polities that are members of empire-level unions and yet are comparable in scale and government to independent states in the world.

In the cases of Wisconsin and Germany, correcting for the category mistake, we can say that the political risk in the credibility of Walker and Wulff being undercut or weakened in late 2011 was mitigated by the fact that both republics are states in unions of such states. In other words, Wisconsinites did not have to count only on the government of Wisconsin and Germans did not have to count only on the government of Germany. Therefore, the recall and possible prosecution were not so risky to political stability that they should not be undertaken for that reason. It turns out that category mistakes really do get in the way in political analysis, and that correcting them allows for insights that would not otherwise be possible.


Nicholas Kulish, “German Chief Could Lose his Immunity,” The New York Times, February 17, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/17/world/europe/president-wulffs-immunity-challenged-in-germany.html

Melissa Eddy, “Merkel Backs Rivals’ Choice for President of Germany,” The New York Times, February 20, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/20/world/europe/former-east-german-activist-nominated-as-president.html

Monica Davey, “Organizers Say 1 Million Signed Petition to Recall Wisconsin Governor,” The New York Times, January 17, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/18/us/organizers-say-1-million-signed-petition-to-recall-gov-walker-in-wisconsin.html