Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The German Lesson: Run Against Education Polarization

One key to the center-left SPD's success in the recent German election was a deft choice of theme to reconnect to voters they had been losing. In so doing, they consciously modeled themselves against the education polarization that has contributed to such left disasters as the election of Donald Trump and the UK Brexit vote.
Dalia Martin on the Project Syndicate site:
"It was an astonishing victory for a party that polled at around 14-15% just four months ago, when Scholz proclaimed his intention to become Germany’s next chancellor. At the time, his announcement sounded rather bold, even fanciful, considering that the SPD had come to be regarded as an irreparably damaged and diminished party. For years, the party had been hemorrhaging more and more of its traditional working-class and middle-class base. Now, some of those losses have been reversed.
How did Scholz pull off this electoral surprise? A partial hint can be found in the SPD’s crisp campaign slogans: “Soziale Politik für Dich” (“A social policy for you”) and “Respekt für Dich” (“Respect for you”). In the party’s online debates about its electoral program, the overarching message that emerged was that Scholz has a “plan for the future,” and knows how to win back votes from the populists. The party’s focus will be on “respect,” “dignity,” the “future,” and a “sovereign Europe.” It is not for those “who think they are better.”
Among the sources of inspiration for the party’s program is the Harvard University philosopher Michael Sandel. In his recent bestseller, The Tyranny of Merit, Sandel argues that education has become the greatest source of division in society. True, education was once a top progressive priority and part of any self-respecting social democratic party’s DNA. The idea was that if you work hard and educate yourself, you can rise in society. But as Sandel contends, meritocracy has a dark side, because the winners tend to look down on those who do not achieve the same upward mobility.
Even if the winners owe their success largely to luck, an expressly meritocratic system allows them to say that they deserve their gains, because they were all of their own making. It also leads to the conclusion that the less well-off deserve their station, as if they simply failed to try hard enough. According to Sandel, meritocracy – and the attitudes it instills – has made the elite into an arrogant club, while depriving many others of their dignity.
The meritocratic narrative that Sandel criticizes ignores the fact that not everybody has an equal opportunity to “win.” In Germany, only 15% of students from a household without university graduates complete a Bachelor’s degree, compared to 63% of students from more educated households. This is an important reason why Germany lags behind most other OECD countries in terms of social mobility."
And Yasmeen Serhan on the Atlantic site:
"In the final days of Germany’s election campaign, the center-left Social Democrats appeared to focus their final message to voters on one idea: respect. The message was plastered across the country on vibrant red posters and featured in the closing campaign speech of the party’s candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who pledged that a Germany under his leadership would recognize the contributions of everyone in society, regardless of their professional or social merit.
“We are working very hard on respect. Recognition is a question of how we live together in our societies,” Scholz told me and a small group of reporters following his final campaign rally, in the West German city of Cologne. What mattered, he said, was that Germans all felt a degree of responsibility for the future, and that none thinks “they are better than the others.”....
Scholz and his team are open about the lessons they’ve learned from progressive parties elsewhere. Close advisers to the candidate said that while he was crafting his political message, Scholz studied two of the left’s biggest political failures in recent memory: the United States’ 2016 presidential election and Britain’s Brexit referendum. His primary takeaway from both events was that “we should, as progressives, be very careful to acknowledge all the different choices that people make about their life,” Wolfgang Schmidt, a junior finance minister and one of Scholz’s closest advisers, told me. “That’s why Olaf Scholz talked a lot about respect. Somebody without a college degree should not get the impression [that] he or she is seen as part of a ‘basket of deplorables,’” he said, referencing Hillary Clinton’s infamous gaffe about Donald Trump’s supporters.
Scholz might not disagree with Clinton’s assessment. But his point is that this kind of rhetoric isn’t the best way to reach voters. In a recent interview with The Guardian, he surmised that the main reason Britons voted for Brexit and Americans voted for Trump was that “people are experiencing deep social insecurities, and lack appreciation for what they do.” During his final campaign speech, Scholz bemoaned society’s tendency to determine people’s merit on the basis of their education or profession, noting that lawyers such as himself are no more important to society than laborers or craftspeople. By appealing to those individuals and making them feel heard, Scholz would argue, progressives can bring them back into the fold and, crucially, steer them away from the appeals of the populist right."
It's hard to see today's Democratic party doing anything quite so smart. Democratic pols and activists still tend to see education polarization as their friend. They're just wrong about that.

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