In a recent interview with the online publisher Social Europe Wolfgang Merkel, director of the Research Unit Democracy and Democratization at the WZB reflects upon the tasks and challenges ahead for social democrats in Germany and beyond.
What, in your opinion, is the historic position of the SPD in the German political system, and where does it stand now? It’s certainly an interesting inflection point.
If we talk about the historical position of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) it depends how far we want to go back. If we take a brief look, going back to the early days of the Federal Republic after the Second World War, then we find a social democracy which started with a moderate beginning in terms of electoral success. Then it turned left in the 1950s and confined itself in a so-called ‘20% tower’ by presenting itself with anticapitalist positions. It turned again in 1959 when it got rid of the Marxist terminology in the Bad Godesberg program.
Over the next ten years the SPD grew stronger and stronger in opposition, until it joined the first grand coalition with the CDU/CSU in 1966. After three more years it formed a two-party coalition with the Liberals. Only in 1972, at the peak of Willy Brandt’s popularity, did it become the strongest party. It was only in 1998 after 16 years of Helmut Kohl in government the SPD was able to repeat a similar electoral triumph. From 1969 to 1982 Germany was governed by a rather successful social-liberal coalition through which the SPD dominated politics in Germany.I would consider this phase the most social democratic one for the Federal Republic of Germany, when the cultural, social and political modernisation of our society made huge progress. Without a doubt, the Social Democratic Party was the driving political force behind this process.
However, it was a much stronger reformist force after 1969, during the first phase under the Chancellor Willy Brandt, than it was at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s under the more pragmatic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. When the liberals left the coalition the social democrats were forced out of government by a constructive vote of no-confidence by the Bundestag. The SPD had to go back into opposition. The following period out of power did not prove to be a time when the social democrats recreated themselves very effectively. There is a long-standing, but largely unfounded myth inside the SPD that the social democrats can recover and rejuvenate only in opposition. This can be observed at present as well when Martin Schulz decreed immediately after the electoral defeat that the SPD will not join any government.
Nevertheless, after 16 years of government under the Christian Democratic Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the SPD won back power in 1998 and formed a ruling coalition, this time with the Greens. It was a historical moment, since the first red-green coalition was seen as the most progressive coalition formula. I would consider this to be a period when the SPD stuck, only to some extent, loyally to its social democratic values. Following the so-called ‘Third Way’ the SPD adopted too many market-liberal policies.
Here, I am not thinking so much about the (in)famous Hartz IV labour market and social policy legislation but much more about what I would see as a failed tax policy. They gave too much away – they reformed the taxation system too much for the benefit of huge corporations and those on high incomes. Strange enough: the leading SPD-politicians believed in the neo-classical “trickle down” effect. In reality, their policies increased socio-economic inequality in Germany. Seen from a progressive perspective the governmental balance was mixed: Positive results with regard to environmental-, social- and citizenship policies, but negative outcomes of an overly business-friendly tax policy.
Seven years later the red-green coalition lost by a very small margin against the incoming Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2005 and became junior partners in a grand coalition now ending its second term of office. After 2005 one could describe the SPD’s development as one of slow erosion and decline. The peak – so to speak – of this decline was certainly the last election in September this year when they only won 20.5% of the popular vote.
As you mentioned, the story of the SPD has been one of decline. That is obviously also the case, and often even much more pronouncedly so, for other European social democratic parties. When you look at the SPD as it now stands, what would you consider its strengths and where would you identify its weaknesses?
If we look at the SPD at the end of 2017, it is somewhere in the middle of European social democracy. Less successful, still, than most of the Scandinavian social democratic parties, but certainly stronger than the Socialists in France, and Greece or the Social Democrats in the Netherlands, where the parties have virtually (or almost) collapsed.
The strength of the SPD, and in particular compared to those socialist or social democratic parties, is that they have stronger social and organizational roots in defined segments of society, certainly, still, among workers. However, this is changing. We may talk about this later, but German social democrats have a closer connection to the trade unions and the state. The trade unions are still stronger in Germany than in many of the western, or eastern, or southern European countries. So, the SPD does not look splendid, but it is certainly in a better shape than many of her sister parties in neighbouring states.
Another structural strength of the SPD is its close connection to the state. Even when the social democrats are in opposition at the federal level they often hold strong governmental positions in the single states (Laender). There, the SPD has performed pretty well in some states. It is always in some state governments; therefore the SPD never lost its “organic” links to the state even when in opposition at the federal level. This is rather different from many of the social democratic parties in the rest of Europe. We should still exclude from this sample the Scandinavian countries.
So, the SPD has proven that it can govern according to its values, as well. This is what we have seen even in the last grand coalition, at least during the first two years, when the ministries led by SPD ministers performed pretty well. For the first time, they introduced a minimum-wage law, which is, admittedly, not that high, but it was a powerful first step, €8.50 per hour. Now, the government has to enforce the law which is not fully and properly obeyed to by certain sectors of the economy, particularly construction, gastronomy, and the food services industry.
The problem the SPD has faced during the last ten years, is it has turned out to be more a ‘coalised’ than a ‘coalising’ party, meaning it entered most of these coalition governments, especially at federal level, as the junior partner, and has paid a bitter price in the electoral arena, despite having an acceptable, or even, sometimes, a good performance in government. The notorious “chancellor bonus” always went to the Christian Democrats.
Why do you think this was the case, even though a lot of the policies that were promised have been successfully implemented? What is your explanation for the lack of electoral benefit that resulted from this?
It sounds very simple, but I think the party that is represented by the Chancellor has a huge advantage compared to the junior partner in government, especially when a large part of the population perceives the performance in government pretty favourably. The socialists paid the electoral price that they joined these coalitions as the junior partner. There is a lack of institutional fantasy or courageousness in that the SPD leaders still do not ask for a rotation in the chancellery after the first half of the legislative period. The present SPD leaders lack a Machiavellian will to power which was present under Chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schröder. Why should an “Israeli solution” not work for Germany? There is no natural political law that the somewhat smaller partner never can represent the Chancellor in grand coalitions. The SPD should not enter any grand coalition without such a rotation if the party still wishes not to commit electoral suicide.
Just let me add one more thing. We should not forget that culturally, and in its social structures, Germany has always been more a conservative than a progressive country. We talked about the years between ’69 and ’82, and then about the years from 1998 until 2005 when social democrats governed the country with a smaller coalition partner. These were extraordinary times, but even during this time the Social Democratic Party, mostly, was not the biggest party in the country.
If you go back to the election of last September, we’ve seen the rise of the AfD, a right-wing populist party now also in Germany, and you might argue that what has been happening in other European countries for a long time has now caught up with Germany, too. So, if you look at the new dynamics in the German political system, where do you see the particular threats to the SPD as the main social democratic party, and where do you see particular opportunities in this new configuration?
That sounds like the typical ‘disease’ of social scientists: that they have a clearer view of the problems, dilemmas, aporias and challenges. If I can start with that, one has to say the pluralisation or augmentation of the number of parties within the German political system has constrained the political space for the SPD. Since 1990 we have to the left of the SPD “Die Linke”. I would not call it a left populist party, as some do, but left-socialist party. We have an ecological party “Die Grünen”, which is rather strong if we compare it to other European countries. Now we have, since the latest election, a right-wing populist party in the Bundestag. Beyond the center-right CDU/CSU the SPD has progressive and right-wing competitors too.
Strangely enough, it seems to me that this right-wing populist party is now the strongest threat to social democracy, because it performs better among workers and the lower classes than the social democrats do at present. So, the SPD did not only lose ecologically inclined voters to the Greens, and more socialist inclined voters to the left. Moreover, it lost most recently a part of its more authoritarian-orientated voters, above all workers and lower class employees, to the AfD, the German right-wing populists.
The political space, in such a party system, is not that big anymore for the SPD, far from what it used to be in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. It is one of the threats: the Social Democratic Party may not be able to extend its political space and reach again. The dilemma is that the more, for example, it goes to the left, which I would recommend, with regard to tax policy, social policy, educational policy, the more it runs the risk of losing voters to the Christian Democrats. But social democracy in Germany and elsewhere has to rediscover its progressive traditions in terms of social justice, even this is not without risk.
If the social democrats go too far to the left, they certainly lose voters at the centre, where Merkel’s CDU, at least, the modern part of her CDU, is prepared to take on all the disappointed voters from the centre of our society. If the SPD is not ecological enough, it loses voters to the Greens, and if too much orientated towards classic industrial policies it may even lose more support from the post-industrial middle classes.
No doubt, the SPD is in a difficult strategic situation. My brief recommendation would be: on the left-right axis they should get a more, and a clearer, leftist profile, in re-distributionist terms. But there is a new ‘cultural cleavage’ emerging in Europe. We term it as a conflict between middle-class cosmopolitans, and the lower classes, which adhere to nativist or communitarian values. Here, the SPD has to be extremely careful not to impart too much cosmopolitanism, because then it would lose the rest of its working-class base. This is highly problematic, and it is a real strategic and ideological threat to social democracy in Germany (and Austria as well).
If I can dwell a bit more on the point you just mentioned, that other social democratic parties struggle to connect to at least part of their core constituencies. That there’s seemingly a change in their core constituency, meaning that what used to be a more harmonious marriage between communitarians and cosmopolitans, that kind of alliance seems very fragile, and fraying around the edges.
The social democratic task has to be to free sections of the communitarians from their nativist inclinations and to strengthen the solidaristic versions of communitarianism. This can be done by recourse to the nation state even by social democrats. Open borders are not per se progressive. Neoliberals are the most pronounced defenders of open borders. I will come back to this point. Cosmopolitans tend to underestimate the value of a strong communitarian, and solidaristic nation state. However, the nation state can no longer be based on an ethnically homogenous nation, but has to be rooted in a republican understanding of the demos. To do that, but not give up the nation state in favour of liberal cosmopolitanism, is one of the tasks of present-day social democracy.
So, why do you think, first of all, is there a trajectory that these two groups are moving apart, and why is social democracy struggling to remain connected to at least one of them?
One part of the answer is that these different groups have different economic and social interests. Another is that they rely traditionally on different sets of values and cultural preferences. If I can dwell on this a bit more, then I would say, people who are in favour of open borders – I simplify the cosmopolitan position – are in favour of opening the borders for goods, services, capital, but especially, also, for refugees, asylum seekers, and of giving up competences to a supra-national level, for instance to the European Union.
They are the beneficiaries of open borders. They come from the higher-middle strata. They are well educated. They have the kind of human and cultural capital, with which they can live in Berlin, Zurich, New York or Rome. Communitarians are mostly coming from the lower strata, they are less educated, their human capital is simply not very mobile. They depend on narrower, domestic contexts. They have to rely on communicative and supportive neighbourhoods. They and not the cosmopolitans from higher social classes have to carry large parts of the burden, if a country opens wide its borders for migrants.
This has been the case, to some extent, during 2015 and ’16 in Germany. It was clear that the traditional working classes would not benefit from the uncontrolled influx of refugees and migrants. The lower classes compete at the lower end of the labour market, or the housing market, and in the educational “market” as well. They have reasons, they have rational economic reasons, for not opening the borders too wide.
On the other hand, there’s also a tradition of internationalism within social democracy. This is an ideological heritage, which the social democratic parties cannot or should not give up so rapidly. However, the cosmopolitans are prone to vote for the Greens, and now, to some extent, for the Merkel CDU as well. It might be an illusion that social democratic parties will win over many cosmopolitan voters for their distributional cause. In cosmopolitan and environmental matters they only can be an incomplete copy of the green original.
Therefore, my advice to the SPD would be: be wary of opening the borders too much without thinking about the consequences. This is something where your traditional clientele has to carry the main burden upon the whole of society. That is what the cosmopolitan functionaries of the party`s headquarters forget sometimes
It is, somehow, a simplified understanding of justice and humanity, if one believes the more we open the borders, the more humanitarian we are. The whole discussion brought forward by Paul Collier and others points in a different direction: progressive governments should go into those countries where refugees live in camps and should really work there to better the living conditions. They could do more for the well-being of millions of people than to pull the fittest of them by illusionary promises into European countries. This does not exclude accepting quotas of immigrants on clear criteria and the consent of the people and not the elites alone. Such discussions are utterly absent from the official social democratic discourse.
It is a shame that a rich country such as Germany only commits ‘development aid’ worth just 0.52% of GDP (2017). The Scandinavian countries invest 1% of their GDP into development aid. It’s more in this direction social democrats should think of going than of opening the border only for a small portion of those who are living in miserable conditions.
What you describe is a very difficult balancing act for the SPD, as well as, presumably, for other social democratic parties across the world. Do you see any international role models, you know, parties that have managed this balancing act reasonably successfully, and that other parties could learn some lessons from?
I’m always cautious when I’m asked, “Is there a role model?” The contexts are different. Traditions are different. This is what we have to keep in mind. So, I would not recommend as some do, simply to look at the United States and the (partial) success of Bernie Sanders or to Jeremy Corbyn in UK. They have got an appeal to younger people which most European social democratic parties don`t have. That is true. Traditional social democracy can learn from their electoral campaigns. But campaigns are something different from governing complex and open societies .Some social democrats have welcomed the advent of Emmanuel Macron. However, I do not think that President Macron can be an example, or a role model, for the SPD as some pro-EU activists would have us believe. If one looks closer at his economic and social policies, then the SPD should be quite distant from this kind of (neo-)liberal policy tradition. One can cooperate with Macron’s “En Marche” on matters of European integration, but certainly not follow his socio-economic model. The authoritarian way he leads his movement-party “En Marche” can be ruled out.
What social democracy can learn from Sanders and Corbyn is authenticity and credibility. To regain lost credibility is important for social democratic parties all over the continent, particularly among young citizens. Again, if I would ask, “Which party comes closest to a role model?” then I would answer we have to look to Scandinavia. If we look to Denmark then we find a social democratic party which campaigns very firmly against immigration, but develops social justice within Danish society. Sweden remains another point of reference for social democracy as well.
Therefore, it should be a mix between the Danish case, which is highly successful on the labour markets, and the traditional Swedish social democracy as well, where we certainly find a more balanced mix of cosmopolitan and social democratic- communitarian values. However, the balance has to be a very fine-tuned one, and each party and country has to find the right balance on its own. This is true for the SPD as well.