Never before in the history of postwar Germany has there been such a disconnect between the people and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). The people want to talk “refugees”; the SPD hears “redistribution of wealth.” The people say, “We fear crime”; party leader Martin Schulz hears “opposition.” You don’t have to be an ear specialist to recognize a serious case of political hearing loss.
When US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained the thinking of Donald Trump’s support base to German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, he spoke of the “can-you-hear-me-now voters.” The German version of that phenomenon is the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany. AfD politicians are like shift foremen in populist factories, experts in feeding legitimate concerns and false anxieties into the machine and mass-producing enraged citizens at the other end. Germany’s election on September 24 was proof.
The SPD’s downtrodden party leader Schulz is up for re-election at today’s party congress in Berlin. And there’s not much speaking for him: Compared to the party’s 1998 federal election result – when Chancellor Gerhard Schröder first was elected – he managed to lose some 10.6 million voters in September. One out of two Schröder voters is gone. It’s as if he snatched the main support pole out from underneath one of Germany’s big-tent parties, until it drooped and collapsed on its electoral base of blue-collar workers and white-collar staff.
Schulz’ SPD isn’t longing for an awakening, but for a cozy after-lunch nap.
But it’s not just Schulz, the person. The whole SPD is nowadays but a shadow of its former self. Today’s social democracy no longer steps out of line. It’s gone from freethinking hippie to grumpy old man. It no longer sees global value chains, workplace flexibility, welfare improvements and digital transformation as things worth striving for, but as impositions.
On Thursday, the party will consider not only whether Schulz has a future leading it but also whether it should start talks to join a new grand coalition with Angela Merkel [Update: They voted yes to starting talks]. But today’s SPD is a long-faced party that sees the future as the sum of fears. Their list of demands for sitting down with conservatives reads like a socialist five-year plan. The majority of Germans aren’t supposed to be empowered, but paid off and sedated.
And because money is apparently no object, refugees from all over the world are implicitly being invited to move into the German welfare state. Schulz just recently decided that, for the sake of compassion, Germany must refrain from setting an upper limit on the number of refugees the country takes in. That would basically come down to making the government’s failure in 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, into raison d’état. The SPD seems to accept that that betrays ordinary people, straining public finances and social cohesion. Schulz’ SPD isn’t longing for an awakening, but for a cozy after-lunch nap.
Now the party is a lot like Schulz: ill-humored in tone, rusty in thought and cowering while it shields its eyes from the blinding future.
There still are people in the SPD who feel the heartbeat of the creative mission deep within. But the party’s reaction to them ranges from indifference to rejection. Many of them can no longer stand German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, whose sharpness and inconsistency are a perfect reflection of the skittishness of our times. Hamburg Mayor Olaf Scholz is raising eyebrows with his pragmatism. And the SPD establishment thinks Manuela Schwesig, state premier in rural Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, should stay out in the boondocks until she shows what she’s made of.
So the party resembles its leader: ill-humored in tone, rusty in thought and cowering while it shields its eyes from the blinding future. If you could make a wish for Germany’s oldest political party, it would be for new life to spring up and bust open the slab of concrete. There’s no lack of progressive causes in Germany – from zero-emission mobility to fertile ground for start-ups to a re-founding of the European project. German politics doesn’t need resentment, but a healthy dose of wholeheartedness and reason.
To all the rebels traveling to the SPD party congress in Berlin today, pick up a copy of French bestseller “The Coming Insurrection,” which takes an unabashed look at the dismal times pre-Emmanuel Macron: “We’re setting out from a point of extreme isolation, of extreme weakness. An insurrectionist process must be built from the ground up. Nothing appears less likely than an insurrection, but nothing is more necessary.”
Gabor Steingart is publisher of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org