BERLIN — The day I arrive here, Germany's capital is abuzz. Chancellor Angela Merkel is meeting with her cabinet about whether Germany should be the lead player in a European Union effort to aid Greece. Members of the bundestag, the lower house of parliament, are waiting and debating. As our group of American journalists enters the federal chancellery to meet with Merkel's national security adviser, we pass TV camera crews and reporters setting up outside, anticipating interviews with party leaders. German citizens, for their part, have already made abundantly clear where they stand: About 85 percent oppose a Greek bailout.
Merkel dives in anyway, committing 22 billion euros, pending the bundestag's approval. Her response comes late, after weeks of dithering, but would still be a crucial tool for preventing, or at least delaying, the contagion that could filter from Greece through Europe and beyond. She knows it will be a tough sell with the German public, for whom bailing out profligacy violates a German ethic of aggressive saving and fiscal responsibility.
A more important constituency to convince, however, are members of parliament, who have the final say. Merkel leads the Christian Democratic Union, but her party doesn't have the votes to pass legislation by itself. A chancellor going out on a limb to support something the public overwhelmingly opposes, and needing help: To American eyes, it looks like a perfect opportunity for the opposition party to capitalize politically by voting no. Oh, and I should mention that a crucial election would be held just days later.
So what does Hans-Ulrich Klose, a leader of the opposition Social Democrats, tell me and the other U.S. editors?
We have no choice but to help. It's the right thing to do.
"The Weimar Republic failed because we didn't have enough Democrats who said country first, party second," he said.
Three days later, the bundestag approves easily, with the Social Democrats abstaining rather than voting no. The vote shows extraordinary cooperation, and it was not the first time. Competing parties have worked together on Germany's involvement in Afghanistan, for instance, despite public pressure to pull out.
Picture this in the polarized America of today: President Barack Obama pushes legislation overwhelmingly opposed by voters of both parties. The midterm elections are days away. And Republicans ... do what? Go along with Obama? Never! They would fight it to the hilt, hoping to garner the election day spoils. The same would be true in reverse, of course. Democrats would never go along with a Republican president's wishes in the same circumstances.
Merkel did in fact pay the price. In last Sunday's election in North Rhine-Westphalia, her center-right Christian Democratic Union and its coalition partners the Free Democrats lost, costing them the majority in the upper house. The CDU will now need help from Social Democrats to pass legislation. And though those two danced together gracefully starting in 2005, we're bound to see the limits of German political cooperation soon.
The same week, political rivals were cooperating in Britain, though it is more a marriage of necessity than anything else. Prime Minister David Cameron's conservative Tories will share government leadership with Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrats in a highly unusual arrangement.
It all seems very foreign back on this side of the pond. The German and British collaborations are driven by their multi-party systems, not an innate desire to work together.
Here in the U.S., our two-party system is built to stall. Gerrymandering and the campaign finance system only harden the divide. And Americans, more than Europeans, tend to surround themselves with people who think the way they do, in their neighborhoods and social structures. Throw in websites and cable news networks that cater to the extremes and you have a polarized society.
A growing number of U.S. voters are alienated by the two traditional parties and call themselves independent. The system is stacked against their emerging as a party of their own. But maybe their discontent is the crack that shows polarization here won't last forever.