What’s Wrong With Germany’s Social Democrats?

Andrea Nahles, Chairwoman of the German Social Democrats, speaks to the media in Berlin last week. Credit Robert Schlesinger /Getty Images
Andrea Nahles, Chairwoman of the German Social Democrats, speaks to the media in Berlin last week. Credit Robert Schlesinger /Getty Images

What does it take to make a major political party so frustrated with itself that it prefers therapy over governing?

The German Social Democrats are mired in a sort of depression. Call it power-phobia. The party governs the country as the junior partner with the center-right Christian Democrats, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel — yet many members fear that carrying on in this coalition might destroy them.

The party seems to be in free fall. In recent elections in the state of Bavaria, the Social Democrats, known by their German acronym SPD, scored their worst result ever, sliding from 20.6 to 9.7 percent. There is another election due in the state of Hesse this Sunday, where polls point to a similar result.

Should the Social Democrats receive another beating in Hesse, demands will grow within the party to quit the governing coalition. That could lead to new elections, and a new coalition of parties that would put the SPD on top. But many in the party, especially young members, believe Germany’s oldest political party needs a sabbatical — a timeout to reflect what went wrong and how to reset.

Part of the party’s problem is that Ms. Merkel’s conservatives have co-opted many of the center-left’s ideas, from the introduction of the minimum wage to the establishment of same-sex marriage, and in doing so both embraced and suffocated the Social Democrats.

But there’s another, self-inflicted reason for the malaise of the SPD. In the past two decades the Social Democrats have shifted to the right economically, but (perhaps as a compensation) to the left culturally. This may be fine for the country’s urban upper classes, but it leaves most German voters confused about the party’s appeal.

At the same time, the SPD has ignored an issue that a center-left party, born of the labor movement, should be eager to embrace. Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy and Europe’s richest country, is a prosperous place — but one rived by inequality and social injustice.

You have to look twice at traditional data to see the scale of the problem. Unemployment has halved in the past 20 years, from around 11 percent to around 5 percent; private wealth has nearly doubled, to 11.7 trillion euros today. Wages have risen, too.

But the drop of unemployment in Germany came at a price: the emergence of a new lower class, the so-called precariat — the working poor, or, as you might call them, the subsistence laborers — who find it nearly impossible to accumulate wealth. One million people in Germany are employed in the gig economy — “Leiharbeiter,” in German — who do only temporary work without protection against dismissal. More than three million more Germans have only temporary work contracts, with only mild protections.

Meanwhile, the richest 10 percent of the households in Germany possess nearly 60 percent of the entire net household wealth, according to a study by the trade union-linked Hans Böckler foundation, well over the average for developed countries. This is Ms. Merkel’s Achilles’ heel. Why has SPD not attacked it?

The answers is that, in order to do so, the Social Democrats would have to confront themselves with their very own shortcomings, with failures that touch the heart of their leftist self-image. Over the last two decades, largely under the auspices of the Social Democrats — either as the governing party, or as the junior party with control over domestic ministries — state-financed poverty has been replaced by privately-financed poverty.

Beginning in the 2000s under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the SPD were the ones who legislated many of the reforms that created today’s imbalances. They not only introduced drastic cutbacks in social welfare; the party also initiated a tax reform that lowered the top rate from 53 to 42 percent.

The maximum rate kicks in comparatively early, with an annual income of around 55,000 euros. But how fair is it, from a leftist point of view, that the same tax rate applies to someone earning 200,000 euros? Nor did the SPD seem to mind that the chief executive of Deutsche Post earns 239 times the salary of his average employee.

Then came the refugee crisis, which hit at a time when the belief in solidarity among Germans themselves had reached a low. All of a sudden, it seemed, the Social Democrats rediscovered their empathy for the underprivileged — as long as they had come from abroad. The party showed a striking lack of interest, at least rhetorically, on the social costs imposed by the arrival of over a million refugees.

Earlier this year, a food bank in Essen, in western Germany, decided to temporarily exclude foreign nationals, who were overwhelming their supplies and leaving longtime clients empty- handed. Leading Social Democrats accused the food bank volunteers of xenophobia.

Yet the SPD’s moral outrage did little to answer a complex question that confronts the entire continent: How do you distribute scant resources fairly in a framework that transgresses national boundaries?

To organize globalization in a fairer way, into one a system at least resembles the balances of the old nation state, is both a demanding and a highly demanded task for Social Democracy today. It is something that the center left should be ready to tackle. Instead, the Social Democrats turning inward, unable to answer the country’s most pressing questions at a time when Germany needs them.

Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.

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