Germany has never had it so good. It is one of the healthiest, wealthiest nations on earth. Employment and exports are at record levels. Consumer and labor confidence are high. The country commands respect on the global stage not for its military prowess but for its economic and moral strength, while its chancellor is widely admired.
So how, all of a sudden, does a man from the left, whose agenda calls for an expansive welfare state, who is campaigning as the voice of the little guy and whose battle cry is, essentially, “Make Germany Fair Again,” have a real chance of unseating Chancellor Angela Merkel in the general election in September?
Martin Schulz, Ms. Merkel’s challenger, has revitalized Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party almost literally overnight. Even a few months ago, before he announced his candidacy, it was lumbering at about 20 percent approval ratings, where it had been for much of the decade. Today, it is over 30 percent — a strong showing in a fractured political landscape with an insurgent far right. In some polls, if the election were held today, Mr. Schulz would just narrowly beat Ms. Merkel.
At first glance, his success is a mystery. Mr. Schulz made his career abroad, as a member and eventually president of the European Parliament — one of the very Brussels institutions that many Germans regard as elitist and out of touch.
But the answer isn’t all that hard to fathom. Perhaps because he is a relatively fresh face on the domestic political scene, he has been able to touch on two discomforting ideas long unaddressed by politicians.
The first is, despite their country’s amazing economic performance over the past 20 years, many Germans worry that not everyone has benefited equally. Much more than in the Anglo-American countries, Germany sees national growth as a national asset, and one that the state needs to ensure is distributed fairly.
And that’s the second idea. Does the state still serve its ultimate purpose to protect its citizens?
Both ideas were certainties two decades ago. Germany was overseen by two dominant political parties that broadly agreed on the need for a strong social-welfare state, and they generally delivered the goods.
That’s no longer the case. In the eyes of many, the driving forces behind the growth during the “neoliberal” era after the fall of the Berlin Wall have been greed, egoism and social irresponsibility.
These vices became painfully apparent during the financial and euro crises. It’s easy to overlook the impact that those crises had in Germany, since it sailed through the former relatively unscathed and it dictated the terms of the response to the latter.
But Germans themselves weren’t too happy. While the government bailed out domestic banks — and entire countries — with taxpayers’ money, the bankers who caused the near collapse were granted bonus payments. Losses were socialized while profits were privatized.
The Germans had not really digested all this when Ms. Merkel took another major step: Her decision to let in one million refugees and migrants in 2015 was driven by generosity, altruism and a social responsibility — all very noble, but all done without much apparent concern for what the average German thought, or wanted.
For the common citizen, these developments boil down to one question: Where, in all those years, has the state protected my interests?
The German polling institute Allensbach found that one particular figure has made a sharp decline since the summer of 2015: the percentage of Germans who are optimistic about the future. It has plummeted from 60 to only 34. The researchers believe the lack of optimism stems from the difficulties involved in having taken in so many refugees at once.
Fears, psychologists say, tend to generalize. If you become concerned about too many foreigners, you are very likely to become afraid of economic downturn, too.
To be sure, this doesn’t make the Germans xenophobes or anti-Europeans. But it is why Mr. Schulz’s program, and the Social Democrats broadly, hit a nerve. “People have come to see globalization and refugees as attacks on their way of life and their values,” a leading Social Democrat told me. “Expect an emotional election campaign focusing on fairness, charity and feelings.”
This is where social policy gets a dash of identity policy. Morality matters. It might matter even more the richer a nation becomes. The more inequalities are tackled and eradicated, the more pressing the remaining inequalities appear.
Ms. Merkel has begun to speak about these challenges, too, but she’s following in Mr. Schulz’s footsteps. And she’s weighed down by her previous policy moves and the impression that she’s merely a pragmatist, willing to change direction as the polls dictate.
Mr. Schulz, as a man of Brussels, doesn’t have that baggage, nor did he face much competition among the Social Democratic leadership, many of whom are sullied from serving as junior partners in a coalition with Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
And while for some, service in the European Parliament might stain them as internationalist bureaucrats, Mr. Schulz is able to walk a fine line. Most Germans still believe in European unity; they just want to be led by someone who will put their interests first. “The Martin” and “The Donald” couldn’t be more different in character, but in this regard Mr. Schulz has certainly learned a lesson from America’s recent election.
Being a heartfelt European, Mr. Schulz defends European integration more emotionally than Ms. Merkel does. Yet he also strives to make people feel at home in the nation-state again.
Yes, parts of Mr. Schulz’s tune might sound like nationalism. But it might just be Social Democracy taken out of the freezer, where it had been placed by the neoliberal left in the 1990s. With solidarity as its core promise, it could never do without the idea of a confined community.
Mr. Schulz is just de-icing this idea. While Ms. Merkel’s main message of the past years has been “I’ll protect others,” Mr. Schulz’s campaign message is “I’ll protect us.”
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.