By Tobias Dürr*
What makes German social democracy appear so unattractive these days? Is it the all-too obvious lack of decisive political leadership? Or is the constant indecisiveness at the top of the Social Democratic party an expression of a much deeper malaise undermining the movement’s “fundamentals”? Both interpretations are true, with one process negatively affecting the other – and vice versa. To be sure, there are still options open for the SPD. But with poll numbers in steady decline and confidence dropping ever further, the increasingly urgent question is whether the party will be able to change its ways while it still can.
It is highly unlikely anyway that a political party founded way back in the 19th century should still be successful 150 years later. It is useful, therefore, to consider the sheer scale of the historical events and processes the party has had to overcome since its beginnings. These challenges include rapid industrialisation and the first globalisation; the first world war, subsequent civil violence, inflation and depression; Nazi repression and totalitarian dictatorship, the second world war and unprecedented genocide; the partition of Germany and the cold war as well as, in Eastern Germany, a second totalitarian dictatorship; the West German Wirtschaftswunder and increasing Europeanisation; internal cultural liberalisation, mass immigration and the arrival of the knowledge-based economy; the advent of the ecological question and new social movements.
All this seemed to come to a close two decades ago with the collapse of dictatorial state socialism and German unification. The west had finally won, or so it seemed. Accordingly, there was much talk about the “end of history” (Francis Fukuyama) at the time. This reassuring diagnosis resonated quite well with the German Social Democrats’ collective frame of mind – but as we know things turned out very differently. Since the early 1990s the world has witnessed a dynamic “return of history” (Robert Kagan).
International and global circumstances have kept changing at a dramatic pace. The early 21st century is marked by the – both welcome and unwelcome – effects of the second globalisation: “the rise of the rest” (Fareed Zakaria) from India and China to Russia, Central Europe, the Caucasus and Latin America; a global “democratic recession” (Larry Diamond) characterised by the aggressive return of authoritarian systems and nationalistic behaviour patterns. In addition, global crises concerning climate, energy and food are looming. As one of the world’s leading exporting nations, Germany has profited greatly from many of these recent global developments. At the same time, it is evident that the Federal Republic’s long-established economic and social model urgently requires determined and continuous renewal. Lacking this, the changes, challenges and dangers that indisputably lie ahead will sooner rather than later make the established German ways of doing things obsolete.
In these circumstances, as the renowned German historian Jürgen Kocka has recently insisted, to remain relevant the Social Democratic discourse needs “Verzeitlichung”, ie to be infused with a much greater awareness of the factor of time. The distribution and redistribution of wealth and goods already produced should not be at the forefront of Social Democratic thought and politics today, but rather the active creation of new life-chances, new wealth and new social cohesion in the constantly changing environment of the 21st century. At the level of their official programmatic utterances the German Social Democrats do not object to this notion; the principle of the “preventative welfare state” last year even found its way into the party’s new platform, the “Hamburger Programm”.
But parties are always communities of shared experience and shared memories, too. The SPD, allegedly more keen on programmes and concepts than any other German party, in truth is a deeply worn-out, tired community of a backward-looking kind. Most of all the German Social Democrats suffer from a deep psycho-demographic malaise. A large majority of its members and officials joined the party decades ago, very often as young idealists during the heyday of the Willy Brandt chancellorship. These closely-knit circles of members and functionaries within the party simply do not want any determined departures from the old ways of thinking and doing things.
Therefore, when Oskar Lafontaine’s party of the populist left today keeps describing the 1970s as a utopia-like Social Democratic dreamland lost, it skilfully and maliciously addresses the nostalgic yearning rampant among the Social Democratic membership. Making matters worse, Kurt Beck, the SPD’s current leader, perfectly represents the traditionalists’ defensive and status quo ante-oriented mentalities. The fact that Beck relies on these groups’ support further increases the party’s propensity for stagnation, self-pity and navel-gazing.
As a consequence, the German Social Democrats seriously risk gambling away the considerable assets and chances they undoubtedly still possess. Their ageing core membership and functionaries may not approve of a progressive Social Democratic narrative combining life-chances for all and a dynamic economy, high quality education and upward mobility as well as the goal of ecological sustainability. The remarkable paradox, however, is that young voters, obviously not driven to the polls by any kind of dreamy nostalgia, have recently been virtually forcing themselves on the Social Democrats.
Three regional elections were held in Germany earlier this year. In all three, the SPD scored remarkable (and remarkably little discussed) successes among young voters under 25 years of age. In the Hesse regional election, the Social Democrats gained an additional 15 percentage points in this age group as a whole, and 20 points among young women under 25 years. In Hamburg, the SPD gained 9 points in the under-25 age group, while it scored 7 additional points among young women from Lower Saxony. In Hesse and Hamburg the positive trend continued in the next, older age bracket as well, increasing by 15 percentage points among women between 25 and 34 years, and by 6 points in Hamburg. Among students, apprentices and trainees the SPD gained 12 points in Hesse and 17 points in Hamburg. Here, a full 50% of all voters currently receiving any kind of training or education voted Social Democratic.
What these numbers strongly suggest is that among the younger groups of German society there is a growing demand for a modern and dynamic interpretation of social democracy for the 21st century. Active, future-directed policies and politics for life-chances, better education and upward mobility for all are clearly seen as an attractive proposition by more and more people. What is missing is a Social Democratic supply meeting these demands.
Certainly, under the leadership of Kurt Beck the SPD has not made any serious attempts to prove that it cares for the young and agile, the upwardly mobile and energetic, those keen on education and optimistic about the future. Instead, Social Democrats have spent much more time and effort addressing elderly people – and elderly males in particular – with all their vested interests and fears of losing what they have got. Social Democratic politics and policies have to be about these groups, too – but they certainly should not be about them alone. The SPD would be a more successful party if it were perceived above all as a dynamic party of progress and equal life-chances, emancipation and renewal.
The voting patterns of younger Germans prove that the zeitgeist in the country is progressive. Whether the “real existing” SPD will be able to profit from this public sentiment, however, depends on the political astuteness and creativity of the Social Democratic leadership. It is, after all, the sharp-minded politician’s task to monitor and politicise changes within society. Parties never simply “hit upon” pre-existing majorities within society – they create and generate them politically. This is what Gerhard Schröder did in 1998 when he successfully proclaimed the ascendancy of the “Neue Mitte” (the “new centre”) within society; this is what Barack Obama is trying to do in the United States right now when he claims to be building a new cross-cleavage majority for “change”.
The German Social Democrats will only survive, let alone be able to assemble majorities of voters, if and when they regain support beyond the small remaining hard core of their traditional voters and functionaries. The more the SPD behaves as a defensive party of traditionalists, the more it will corroborate the claims the populist old-left Lafontaine party is making. Instead of nostalgia and closed ranks, what the German Social Democrats need to display is a renewed capacity for curiosity, sociability and connectivity. In short, what the SPD needs is a desire for progress and not for stagnation.
If the party sullenly continues to search for its future among the relics of the 20th century, instead of mustering the necessary passion and conviction to build a new Social Democratic majority for our own time, soon there will be no one left to follow its banner any more. “Yes, we can” – it has been a long time since anyone has heard anything reminiscent of Barack Obama’s confident battle cry from German Social Democrats. That, above all, is why this once proud old party is so unnecessarily miserable these days. The SPD could do much better.
*Tobias Dürr is editor-in-chief of Berliner Republik magazine and chairman of the Berlin-based thinktank Das Progressive Zentrum.