Social Cohesion Issues in Germany and America Op-ed

[Published May 20, 2019 in “The Tennessean“]

Repairing the Fraying Social Fabric through Transatlantic Cooperation
Patrick W. Ryan, Dr. Nina Smidt, and Dr. Steven E. Sokol

  • Patrick W. Ryan is the president and founder of the Tennessee World Affairs Council.
  • Dr. Nina Smidt directs international strategic planning at ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius.
  • Dr. Steven E. Sokol serves as president of the American Council on Germany in New York.

In a period of increased polarization in domestic politics, fragmentation of society, and social inequity, efforts to adapt and grow to meet the complex 21st century challenges of globalization and technological change should begin at the local level. Germany and the United States face many of the same domestic challenges, and local communities in both countries can learn from each other’s innovative approaches to these issues.

Today, most Americans and Germans enjoy an unprecedented standard of living. Nevertheless, many people in both countries believe something is wrong – regardless of income level. Many Germans and Americans feel left behind even though economic indicators in both countries are generally positive. This impression is having a serious impact on our societies and cannot simply be reduced to economic angst. There is a sense that our social fabric is fraying, our social market-based economic systems are failing, and our societies are changing so rapidly that people cannot keep pace.

In both countries one can observe greater distrust of institutions — churches, the media, unions, political parties, and government agencies — increased segregation of communities based on income levels, deeper divisions between ethnic groups, more polarization between urban and rural areas, and less dialogue between people of differing political beliefs. This comes at a time when some are trapped in information echo chambers they have created themselves.

Various trends contribute to this sense of anxiety about the future: 1) global migration leads to demographic diversity and change; 2) globalization creates more economic opportunities, but also greater inequality; 3) the Internet gives people more choices about how to get information and which issues they want to follow; and 4) a growing culture of autonomy deepens individual choice and self-determination vs. a concern for society at large.

Nashville and Germany have already found local solutions that make a difference. For example, in Nashville “The Tennessean” Editorial Board has launched the “Civility Tennessee” campaign practicing, promoting and encouraging civil discourse in the community. In one German city, Cologne, elected officials and community representatives established an “integration council” to enhance dialogue, develop strategies, and to find approaches to strengthen the cohesiveness of the community.

To confront the challenges posed by economic globalization, a greater focus needs to be put on workforce development opportunities that provide individuals with the skills needed for 21st-century jobs. Germany’s apprenticeship model – a collaborative approach between schools, unions, and employers – provides highly skilled training to 50 percent of German youth. German companies in Tennessee are especially strong in the automotive and manufacturing industries, as evidenced by Volkswagen’s Chattanooga assembly plant employing 2,000 people and drawing additional suppliers to the region. And, Volkswagen has brought its workforce training programs to the state, which helps give Tennesseans the skills they need to thrive. Such programs often grow out of public-private-partnerships. For example, in 2016 the State Funding Board approved $600,000 in FastTrack Job Training funds for one of VW’s suppliers to train new employees.

In both countries, there is a recognition that the younger generation should be better informed about issues impacting their communities and more engaged in civic life for the benefit of society in general. In Tennessee, the World Affairs Council builds civic and global awareness through its educational outreach programs. Organizations like Think Tennessee also build civic involvement through innovative programs that empower and encourage citizen engagement. And in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, the “Youth Moves” program helps communities actively engage youth in their decision-making processes.

Another effort bringing attention to these issues and fostering solutions is a panel discussion titled, “Social Disruption: How to Confront the Fraying Social Fabric and Social Inequality in Germany and the U.S.?” on May 23rd at Belmont University. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean will lead a conversation with Dr. Deborah Fallows and James Fallows, co-authors of “Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America,” and German journalist Martin Klingst. Together, they will identify some of the common challenges facing communities in the United States and Europe and explore some of the steps that can be taken to improve the social fabric in this volatile period.

By taking action at the local level, community members can demonstrate how our civic culture can be revitalized, the social fabric strengthened, and today’s economic realities more effectively addressed. They also show how much Germany and the United States can gain from exchanging ideas – if we look to the future with common purpose, hope, and aspiration.

Patrick W. Ryan is the President and Founder of the Tennessee World Affairs Council. Dr. Nina Smidt directs international strategic planning at ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius in Hamburg. Dr. Steven E. Sokol serves as President of the American Council on Germany in New York.