These are the worst of times for Germany’s Social Democrats; after its losses in the Bavarian election on Sunday, it’s never been closer to the abyss. That justifiably leads people to wonder whether the SPD can still call itself a big-tent party. Next, we’re likely to see party leaders and members hunt for the guilty, and again call into question the sense of the decision to form a coalition in Berlin with the Christian Democrats.
But the causes of the party’s inexorable decline runs deeper. Social classes as we know them are dissolving, and social cohesion is ebbing, along with a sense of solidarity. That’s death for the major political parties. None have been hit harder than the SPD.
For decades, Germany was well-served by the major political parties, which tended to have a smoothing, unifying function. The SPD was particularly good at this: its politicians wrestled to find a stance on all manner of difficult questions – and they took positions that served the country. They did so three times in the last few years, even though that meant losing favor in coalitions with the CDU and CSU. But they made it their brand to adapt, practically to the point of self-denial. That’s how it seemed to critics within the party, anyway. At least that’s how internal party critics understood it – and their continuing criticism of the party leadership further weakened the party, rather than fixing its problems.
At the same time, the party is a victim of its own success. Today, industrial workers in collective bargaining agreements are confident, strong economically, educated and independent to the degree that they don’t think they need a party anymore to represent their interests. Workers owe many of their achievements to the SPD, but those achievements appear inevitable; workers are barely conscious of the party’s role in this. Sure, gratitude is no reason to elect a party. And successful IT entrepreneurs and web designers move into spheres that are inaccessible to the SPD. The party has long since lost the battle for the center of society with a will to success, as its mission was once described by Sigmar Gabriel, a long-time SPD leader.
But the problem goes beyond the SPD. The decline of the party reflects the process of society drifting apart. In political discourse and especially in media debate, we hear less and less about balance and more about polarization and special interests. No one talks anymore about bringing people together, or about one single particular issue. That is the biggest problem. The big tent party, with its aim to offer the right answer in all political debates or at least find solutions, seems obsolete to voters.
In recent decades, it’s been the SPD that’s suffered from this, more than the CDU. Initially, environmentally-minded pacifists among SPD voters drifted off to the Greens. That became a home for former SPD voters who dreamed of an even better world, liberated from material worries and preferably in solid civil service jobs.
Later, disappointed leftist SPD voters sought out the Left Party. That was partly after long and painful debates on “Agenda 2010,” the welfare reforms launched by former leader Gerhard Schröder. Even a decade on, the party is still struggling with these questions.
In recent years, another trend added to the SPD’s woes: voter migration to the right. In social democratic strongholds, for example in the Ruhr region, the AfD has gained a level of popularity unthinkable a few years ago.
But here, in particular, voters’ rightward drift didn’t seem to strike out of nowhere. Rather, this is one of the SPD leaders’ biggest failures. So far, the party leadership has failed to take a clear stand on migration. SPD leaders tends to sympathize with refugees while the party base and large parts of the electorate struggle with this question.
This issue has left far deeper scars on the party landscapes of other European countries. Other countries, such as France or the Netherlands, are already familiar with the kinds of single-digit election results the SPD suffered in Bavaria.
So should the SPD just hang up its hat and head home, job done? That conclusion would be cynical and naïve at the same time. But maybe it’s time the party stops trying to find an answer to every question in the political debate.
Either way, the SPD deserves to continue to play an important role in German politics. But it will have to fight hard to do so.
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