The new liberals?

The challenge of success for Germany’s Greens

Greens DPA 1800px
Flower children. Source: DPA

The well-documented rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a populist party on the right, is only half the story. The other half is the almost symmetrical rise this year of the Green Party. The Greens have positioned themselves as the clearest and most uncompromising alternative to the AfD — and are being rewarded with rising poll numbers. In Bavaria on Sunday, they might become the second-largest party in parliament. Something similar is imaginable in national politics one day.

This Greening of Germany also reflects several other trends in the complex political tectonics of Western democracies. The old left-right dichotomy, which ultimately dates to the Industrial Revolution and Karl Marx, is losing relevance in today’s information economy. Instead, a new spectrum has emerged, between proponents of “open” and “closed” societies. “Open” here means pro-immigrant, pro-trade, pro-pluralism; “closed” means anti-migrant, nationalist, authoritarian.

The AfD stands for closed. And the Greens, although their origins in the counterculture of the 1970s were on the post-Marxist left (still audible in pundits such as Jürgen Trittin), have in effect evolved into Germany’s party of openness. This is the result of a disastrous omission by the Free Democrats (FDP), Germany’s liberal party, which should have claimed this role as its birthright. Instead, the FDP has allowed itself to be maneuvered into the rhetorical corner of “neoliberalism” (a term which the FDP’s enemies willfully twist out of its original meaning).

The Greens have also occupied the most liberal spot on another axis, that between patriarchal authoritarianism and egalitarian libertarianism. With women playing a greater role in their party than in any other, the Greens are surfing on the #MeToo wave as it propagates from America to European shores. Unlike the other “left” parties, they are also prepared to talk tough toward Russia. And of course, by dint of their name branding, the Greens have dibs on the biggest problem of our time: climate change.

The Greens also have a sociological advantage. Their supporters tend to be educated and affluent, whereas other lefties are more often blue-collar metal bashers or coal miners. At school and at home, the Greens have spent their lives near their alleged ideological enemies. There are dinner tables where dad votes CDU, bro votes FDP and sis votes Green. Lots of fighting, but also some cuddling (a.k.a. coalition-building).

So here is what the Greens must do to capitalize on their strong polls. Above all, they should sever all mental links to their old partners, the Social Democrats (SPD). Like its sister parties across Europe, the SPD is forever stuck in the past century, preaching “a gospel of envy … and the equal sharing of misery,” as Winston Churchill memorably put it. It has no answers for the coming digital age or the environment, and should be allowed to atrophy in peace. 

It would also help enormously if the Greens lightened up a bit. In the past, they tended to be hyper-Germans: preachy, do-goody, humorless, dour — the sort who sport sandals but harangue you for recycling a white bottle in the brown-glass bin. In their new and mature phase, they must live and let live, without invoking the nanny state at every turn. In short, the Greens should proudly become what the Free Democrats could have been: classical liberals.

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