Germany’s Left Is Committing Suicide by Identity Politics

Social democrats have committed to a partnership with Angela Merkel that exposes their greatest vulnerability.

Martin Schulz, head of the German Social Democrats (SPD), at the SPD federal congress on January 21, 2018 in Bonn, Germany. (Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)
Martin Schulz, head of the German Social Democrats (SPD), at the SPD federal congress on January 21, 2018 in Bonn, Germany. (Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)

On Sunday, the delegates of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) completed a massive U-turn by voting in favor of officially opening negotiations with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU bloc to form a government. The deal isn’t set in stone; SPD members would still have to approve the final terms of the coalition contract in a referendum likely to be held in late February. But if they do agree to form another grand coalition — astoundingly, the country’s third partnership among its major parties since 2005 — it could mark another step toward the SPD becoming less popular than the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). The SPD is already under 20 percent in the polls — a historic low — with trends moving in the wrong direction.

Matthew Karnitschnig of Politico Europe drew a fitting analogy to U.S. politics: The next grand coalition will be like Germany’s Hillary Clinton — an encapsulation of mainstream politics whose grasp on power is both inevitable and brittle. German elites are already facing familiar criticisms — above all, that they’re insulated from criticism and have lost touch with voters’ concerns. But it’s clear by now the SPD suffers significantly more from its association with the conservatives than the other way around. And that’s because of German politics’ recent emphasis on issues that structurally disadvantage the German left — immigration and identity politics.

The SPD’s political hopes have always hinged on two conditions, both of which are hindered by a coalition with Merkel. First, the party needs to persuade voters that it is a real alternative to the conservatives; the reasons why a grand coalition undermines this goal should be obvious. But the SPD also needs its economic bread-and-butter themes — social justice and welfare — to be foremost in voters’ minds.

The latter condition has not been fulfilled in part because Germany is in the midst of a decade-long economic boom, with corresponding tax revenues: The SPD can’t get electoral traction for its calls for public investments because all its competitors agree that some portion of government surpluses should be spent. But Merkel’s decision to keep borders open for refugees in the fall of 2015 has also made life difficult for the SPD. As her coalition partner, the center-left party was obliged to defend that decision — and proved keen to do so — even as it exposed the party’s greatest vulnerabilities.

The refugee decision alienated not just conservative voters who comprised Merkel’s base but also the blue-collar workers who made up a significant portion of the SPD’s. But in the resulting political climate, which has been dominated by identity politics, the conservatives had two structural advantages: First, their traditional values and policies on cultural issues (law and order, restrictive immigration) are both firmly anchored and significantly more popular with the average German than any alternatives (save the far-right AfD); and second, even as the CDU/CSU lost more voters last year compared with the previous election than the Social Democrats — the CDU/CSU lost a quarter of its parliamentary seats in the 2017 election — its baseline party support was much higher than the SPD’s to start with.

The SPD, in contrast, was already polling well behind the CDU/CSU when the refugee issue surfaced in 2015. And then these questions about immigration exposed a deep fissure in the party’s base, which is divided almost evenly between blue-collar workers and leftist progressives — proponents of conservative and liberal identity politics, respectively. It’s impossible for the party to signal fidelity to either without risking the loyalty of the other. And in either case the SPD has political competition to whom it can lose its voters: Progressives have the Greens and the far-left Die Linke, and the working class could vote for Merkel’s conservatives (whose economic policies were scarcely distinguishable from the SPD’s in recent years) or even the AfD, which explicitly targeted blue-collar workers.

An elegant solution for this dilemma would be to find a way of decreasing the salience of identity politics and focus on economics and welfare state reforms instead. This is exactly what defined the political climate the last two times social democracy ran Germany: during the first postwar recession and the first oil shock under Helmut Schmidt from 1974 to 1982; and during the early 2000s, when Germany was considered the sick man of Europe and Gerhard Schröder pushed through highly contentious reforms of the German welfare state.

However, the current successes of the German economy render this strategy rather difficult. This might explain why, after the election, former SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel published an article in Der Spiegel with the seeming intention of confronting, rather than avoiding, the party’s identity politics dilemma. He recommended that it focus more on conservative voters’ cultural concerns, placing a greater emphasis on “German identity” and the idea of “homeland” when talking about immigration and the European Union. Using the terms coined by British author David Goodhart, Gabriel argued on behalf of ensuring that “Somewheres” (voters bound to local traditions and economic structures) stay with the party, rather than attending to “Anywheres” (the highly mobile class whose life and work are not bound to one place), who are avowedly multiculturalist and in favor of deeper European integration.

Gabriel succeeded in triggering a vivid debate. Prominent SPD politicians at the federal level, who affiliate with the political values of the Anywheres, opposed his recommendations to focus more staunchly on the Somewheres. What’s less clear is whether the SPD’s voters and their politicians on the local level share this clear positioning in favor of the Anywheres. Either way, the fierce reaction to Gabriel’s article has mostly served to embody the problem of the party’s cleavages rather than resolve it.

But the broader point is that it should come as no surprise that this cleavage flared up with the talks over the immigration policies of a renewed grand coalition: Most SPD mayors and politicians with responsibility in government were fine with restricting family reunification for asylum-seekers as demanded by the CDU/CSU. The draft for a renewed grand coalition agreement was thus written in this vein. But at Sunday’s conference, the party’s functionaries were calling for a more hospitable refugee policy and passionately demanded renegotiations with the conservatives.

This conflict between the Somewheres and the Anywheres is very palpable within the other two parties of the German center-left camp, too: Sahra Wagenknecht, a prominent leader of the radical Die Linke, proposes immigration policies that are extremely close to the far-right’s nationalist tone; the reaction from her party has been so severe that she has now recommended to form a new left-wing populist movement, inspired by the nationalism of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise across the Rhine. And within the Greens, the rather conservative wing around Robert Habeck is trying to push leading left-wingers from key party positions.

These seemingly unbridgeable differences on identity politics within the progressive parties make cultural politics a no-win subject for the SPD and Germany’s other center-left parties, and the poll numbers for the SPD confirm as much. The only conceivable way for the SPD to reclaim voters is if it can present itself as viable alternative to the conservatives in economic and welfare state matters.

An opportunity to do so will eventually arrive whenever Germany’s ongoing economic boom inevitably dips into a substantial recession. But making good on that opportunity will require the SPD to have already regained credibility as a polarizing antagonist to the CDU/CSU on the opposition benches. Joining another grand coalition while the German economy is moving full speed ahead is pretty much the opposite of what it should be doing. Which is why if SPD members agree to the coming coalition contract, it may be the last time in the foreseeable future the SPD is strong enough to partake in, much less run, a German government.

Timo Lochocki is a visiting professor of public policy at Davidson College.

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