The German elections are coming up on September 26. Current polling (I know, I know) has the social democratic SDP as the lead vote-getter and probable organizer of the next German government.
No one should think that, even if this comes to pass, the new government will necessarily be very radical. At this point, the most likely government the SPD would form would include not just the Greens but also the centrist liberal FDP (forming a so-called traffic light coalition), who are quite conservative on budgetary and labor market issues. And of course the SPD itself has not been very aggressively left for a long time.
Still, such an election result would be an advance for Germany and, critically, could have huge implications for the rest of Europe. Adam Tooze in a very useful article on the Foreign Policy site explains the stakes.
"The key issue is the terms of the traffic light deal; this is what matters for the world and Europe in particular. In the election, Lindner has positioned himself as a future finance minister, the job Scholz now holds. The question Lindner has posed to his electorate of higher-earning, college-educated, upper-middle-class professionals is: Do you want me as finance minister or Robert Habeck, the free-thinking and radically minded co-leader of the Greens? Lindner promises to ensure taxes do not rise and plans to take a hard line on debt. By contrast, both the SPD and the Greens want to find ways around the debt cap that limits public investment. If Lindner gets his way, it would hurt domestic policy and provoke splits within the SPD’s ranks. It would also pose dangerous questions for Europe’s financial future. If a German finance minister throws his weight behind the EU’s smaller conservative member states, which are calling for a return to fiscal orthodoxy, it will be a disaster for Europe. France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Portugal all have debts in excess of 100 percent of their GDPs. They represent 60 percent of the euro area’s population. The stage would be set for a disastrous clash of the type that resulted in the eurozone crisis.
Scholz and his team know this. They were principally responsible for architecting the deal with France that saved Europe in the face of 2020’s COVID-19 shock. They know that returning to a conservative line is profoundly unrealistic. The question is: What price will German politics exact?
Based on current polling, it would be the SPD and the Greens calling the shots in coalition negotiations, but a lot depends on the final tallies....
If the SPD comes out ahead but the FDP does better and the Greens less well than expected, then Scholz’s dilemma will be how to allocate key portfolios. If Lindner is serious about dictating a conservative financial stance, that should be recognized for what it is: a deeply ideological position that may appeal to his electoral base but is otherwise out of touch with reality. Compared to that, a gamble on a Red-Red-Green government might seem like a better bet. It would certainly provide the basis for a more accommodating pro-European fiscal policy. The risk would be it would encourage the CDU and FDP in opposition to harden their position on both domestic and European debt, meaning disaster in the future. To avoid alienating SPD and Greens voters, it would need to deliver results fast, something that would mark a true break with the Merkel era.
There are risks to reopening the left-right divide in German politics. But there are risks also to pretending the differences between progressivism and stand-pat conservatism are not real. Either way, it is not too much to say Europe’s future hangs in the balance."
Those are some high stakes. But it's worth asking: how on earth did the SPD get into the relatively good position they know have after being left for dead about a year ago? The answer has a lot to do with the evolution of Olaf Scholz, the SPD's candidate for chancellor, who suffered through the grand coalition governments with the Christian Democrats and the attendant ebbing of social democratic strength to historically low levels. Scholz may not have returned to the radicalism of his youth but he has nevertheless realized that the social democrats need a fresh strategy that speaks directly to the constituencies they have been losing.
Scholz' evolution is well-described by Jeremy Cliffe in a New Statesment article. This part of the article is key to understanding the Schloz' new approach and SPD's current success.
"Those gloomy circumstances [the precipitous decline in SPD support], say Scholz confidants, plunged him into a period of reflection on the centre-left in Germany and internationally. He studied the woes of the British Labour Party and the US Democrats, and read widely. JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016) and Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims (2009), both accounts of fractured societies of winners and losers, urban hotspots and provincial backwaters, particularly affected him. So too did the works of the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel on justice and meritocracy, the Serbian-American economist Branko Milanović on inequality and the Turkish economist Dani Rodrik on globalisation. That reflection, following his experiences in Hamburg, forged in him a unified approach to politics – Scholzism, if you will – that deserves at least some of the credit for the SPD’s current revival.
Roughly sketched, Scholzism has three pillars. Pillar one is to restore social democracy as a bridge between middle-class progressives, the old working class and the emergent precariat. That means combining a third-way affinity for “what works” with a theory of social justice that goes beyond just social mobility. “Social democracy was never an elitist project telling everyone they need to do an Abitur [academic school leaving certificate] and go to university,” explains Miebach. Rather, it is social democracy as the guarantor of “the chance to live a decent life, the respect and dignity that a good job provides”, as Scholz put it in his 2017 book Hoffnungsland [Land of Hope]. “Respect” here is the keyword, and it permeates the current SPD campaign, its rhetoric and its literature (“out of respect for your future”, “a society of respect”, “respect for you”)."
A very interesting article by Nathan Gardels on the Noema site expands on the significance of Scholz' approach. He calls it the reverse "deplorables" strategy.
"The prospects for Olaf Scholz, the Social Democratic Party’s candidate for chancellor in the coming German election, are looking up because he has stopped looking down.
His poll numbers are climbing the more he abandons the elite rhetoric of fierce competition in the flat world of globalization that champions the sophisticates who dominate cosmopolitan culture industries and the cult of canny entrepreneurs whose algorithms scale them up to unicorns overnight, mythically making it to the top through nothing other than their singular genius and clever marketing moves.
The imputation is that those who merely work with their hands and hearts to make the daily world turn — the very store clerks, elderly caretakers, waiters, janitors, meatcutters, supply packagers, delivery drivers and others on the front line of the COVID battle — are second-class citizens, if not slackers and losers who deserve low pay and lowly regard as proper compensation for their lack of ambition and college credentials.
When such constituencies actively resent this demotion of their dignity, they are cast into Hillary Clinton’s condescend[ing] category of “deplorables.” Perhaps more than anything else, this rift in the social status-sphere is what roils politics across Western democracies today.
Understanding this, Scholz has sought to reverse the implicit disdain for average workers and pledged to restore a society that respects their dignity and compensates them for their real value upon which the success of all others is built.
Scholz’s political message is informed by his reading of philosopher Michael Sandel’s 2020 book, “The Tyranny of Merit.”....
The best [according to the tyranny of merit] would scale the heights. When success came, it was due to nothing other than making it on their own “merit.” “Then those who rise by dint of effort, talent, hard work, will deserve their place, will have earned it,” says Sandel. “The implication is that those who do not rise will have no one to blame but themselves.”
In Sandel’s reading, this patronizing blame on the un-rising is the root of the populist revolt. Scholz agrees. And that is what he is trying to uproot in German politics.
“Why did Britain vote for Brexit if it was against its own interest?” [Scholz] asks. “Why did America vote for Trump? I believe it is because people are experiencing deep social insecurities, and lack appreciation for what they do. … We see the same dissatisfaction and insecurity not just in the U.S. or the U.K. but in the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Austria or Germany. … Among certain professional classes, there is a meritocratic exuberance that has led people to believe their success is completely self-made. As a result, those who actually keep the show on the road don’t get the respect they deserve. That has to change.”
Scholz wants to replace the self-serving ideology of “merit” with one of societal “respect,” calling out the hypocritical “applause” for frontline workers during the pandemic so far unaccompanied by any commensurate revaluation of their economic worth. He has pledged to start heading down that path with a $15 per hour minimum wage in his first year in office if elected, something that has long been resisted in Germany. Scholz has also pledged to preserve and invigorate the country’s apprenticeship programs for small and medium size industries, which are the backbone of its manufacturing strength and working-class employment, while loosening fiscal strictures that inhibit investment and spending that would boost the fortunes of those who labor in the basic service economy.
The election on September 26 will demonstrate whether Scholz’s approach resonates with voters, many of whom have abandoned the mainstream parties of the postwar period. More than any set of policies, his crusade for “respect” that would stamp the dignity of recognition on every level of society would go a good distance in stemming the animus of resentment that fuels anti-elite populism."
If Scholz wins it will be interesting to see whether his approach spreads across Europe and perhaps even across the pond to our fair land. I think Biden would be happy to have the Democratic party stamped from this mold but his party.....that's a different matter. As are the left elites who currently control the commanding heights of cultural production.
Still one can hope that a fresh wind is blowing and that that wind reaches here.
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