The Erosion of German Democracy
Postwar German democracy has been a success story. But the election victory of Donald Trump in the US has also highlighted growing fractures between voters and political leaders in the country. Many fear that democracy is eroding. By SPIEGEL Staff
In recent weeks, the sense of concern in the Chancellery had become increasingly palpable. With just a year to go until the next parliamentary elections in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel had still not announced whether she would run for a fourth term or not — and her silence was not seen as a positive omen.
Last week, though, the mood among the chancellor’s staff in Berlin began to brighten. Donald Trump’s election in the United States, many of her aides felt, made it more likely that Merkel would campaign for re-election. And on Sunday, she finally put an end to the speculation and announced her candidacy.
In the press conference following her announcement, Merkel made certain to deny media pronouncements — made by, among others, the New York Times — that the German chancellor was now the de-facto ruler of the free world. Such a notion was “grotesque” and “absurd,” she said.
But is it? Trump’s victory, after all, has changed the world. Up until Nov. 8, it seemed unimaginable that the West could in fact be in danger of destroying itself; that the very citizens who enjoy the freedoms guaranteed by Western liberalism could endanger the West by their own loss of faith in democracy. It proves that philosopher Jürgen Habermas was right to speak of “the shattering of political stability in our Western countries as a whole.” The fundamental values of democracy — enlightenment, the rule of law, respect and decency — are no longer self-evident. And that holds true in Germany as well.
Trump’s election victory has now presented Germans with the question: How well does our own democracy work? Could someone like Trump be possible here too?
Germany, of course, isn’t America. So far, the country’s historical sense of guilt for the horrors of World War II has inured the republic to right-wing siren songs. Furthermore, German politics is less polarized, less oligarchic and less corrupt. In Germany, you don’t have to be a multi-millionaire to become chancellor, the social safety net is stronger and the cracks in society aren’t as deep.
Nevertheless, Germany has become all-too-familiar with the symptoms: hatred of the elite; disgust with politicians who have allegedly plundered the state; and contempt for business leaders and journalists. In Germany too, alienation is felt by many and public dialogue has become less restrained and more aggressive, particularly in social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter.
Such developments notwithstanding, German postwar democracy has been an enormous success. For decades, strong center-right and center-left parties (the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) respectively) managed to anchor even fringe right- and left-wing voters in the political process. Furthermore, politics developed in parallel with German society, resulting in the emergence of parties like the Greens, the Left Party and the Pirate Party.
Today, though, that system is eroding. The political front lines are no longer between the left and right, but between the center and the fringes, between the democrats and the populists, between the defenders of fundamental values and those who call them into question. Following March elections in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, the CDU and SPD didn’t even get enough votes between them to form a governing coalition and had to invite the Greens to join them.
The causes for this shift are many. A significant number of voters feel that their concerns and fears are no longer being represented and that politicians are no longer listening. They feel that the political system isn’t meeting their needs for social stability and state control, for home and identity. And they feel they are no longer welcome to say what they feel because opinions are instantly labelled as unacceptable. Yet far from healing the political rifts, repudiation and ostracism have merely made the problem worse. We have now arrived at a situation where the favorite political palliative — “we have to take voters’ concerns seriously” — no longer has an effect. And nobody knows what to do.
Populists have jumped into the gap. They claim to represent the true will of the people and reject both political correctness and the notion that politics is a debate-driven search for balance between competing convictions and interests.
One can, of course, see the rise of the populists as a sign of democracy’s strength. After all, they are providing a voice to those who hadn’t thus far felt represented in the political spectrum. But it is also a danger. It gives power to a movement that does not share the values of freedom, equality and human dignity for all, preferring instead to destroy the foundations of political debate with lies and hate speech. When, though, does such a movement begin to represent a threat? When the populists reach 20 percent support? Or 30 percent? Or 50 percent?
The erosion of political discourse is something that politicians in Berlin have been noticing for some time and parties have been searching for ways to stop the loss of members and the loss of faith in politics. They have carried out membership surveys and held referendums. The Chancellery spent millions on a project aimed at finding out what Germans are really concerned about and how they want to live.
But such steps have done little to repair the defects in the country’s system of democracy. Mayors and city council members complain that angry voters are now blocking almost every communal project; the state has withdrawn from many rural areas entirely; and everywhere, lobbyists from companies and associations are gaining influence. Even recent attempts to reinvigorate democracy by way of an increased number of referendums is threatening to fall victim to the populists.
It is Tuesday evening, one week after Trump’s election, and Matthias Bartke is standing in the civic center of Rissen, a neighborhood of Hamburg, talking about Donald Trump and the German right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD). In front of him are 15 people, almost all of them over the age of 60.
Bartke, a member of the SPD, calls such events “District Debates,” and Rissen, located just behind the upscale Hamburg neighborhood of Blankenese, is Bartke’s electoral district. The walls of the civic center are decorated with pictures of old, thatched-roof houses. “Farage, Wilders, Le Pen, AfD — and now Trump! We are living in the era of the right-wing populists,” Bartke says to his audience. He’s wearing a simple black suit with no tie.
“The populists have no substantial policies to offer,” he says. A woman in a red scarf shakes her head vigorously. “No, no. It’s not just that,” she says. Later, she will ask him why Germany doesn’t just send Syrian men back to the war. “They are in good shape; they should fight for their country.” Bartke’s first response is to laugh. He could answer that it would be inhuman to send refugees back to the war to die. Instead, he says: “That’s not something that our country does.” The woman doesn’t seem convinced.
A few hundred meters away, Benjamin Wilke is leaning against a newsstand at the entrance to a suburban train station smoking a cigarette. Wilke, 29, is wearing neon-blue sneakers along with neon-red rave pants. He doesn’t know who his political representative is and he is uninterested in taking part in any district debates.
“The politicians are all lying to us anyway,” he says, exhaling a cloud of smoke. “They should focus on their own people and not on random refugees.” Wilke is a handyman, but currently has a job as a sales clerk. He says he doesn’t know what party he will vote for in next year’s parliamentary elections, but he thinks it audacious of Merkel to run again: “after the whole refugee stunt that she pulled.”
Such dissatisfaction is apparent among all age groups, education levels and social classes. Politicians from every established party have encountered the phenomenon and are often frustrated that even their core voters are pulling away.
In early November, several hundred municipal and regional politicians from across Germany gathered in Berlin for an SPD party convention. Initially, everything seemed normal, as though nothing had changed in the world. The event program called for two days of discussion on “future spaces” and “modern administration.”
But the convention quickly veered off-topic, with mayors, district administrators and town council members venting their frustration in an unending litany. Taken together, the message was clear: The relationship between politicians and voters, they said, is deeply troubled — even among the grassroots where the bonds have traditionally been stronger.
“We have become the whipping boys,” said one Social Democrat from Freiburg during a workshop called “Growing Cities.” It hardly matters what the project is or how early one seeks input from locals, he said: “They are always opposed.” Often they reject ideas on principal, he said, simply because the proposal comes from the city administration or from political leaders. “We are universally suspected of playing favorites or being corrupt.”
Germany’s Deserted Regions
A municipal representative from a rural area in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia said that standard political jargon, such as “education drive” and “investment lag,” no longer gets you anywhere. “And how should it when mildew is spreading in local schools?” That, she said, is what people talk about over dinner “and not whether education should be controlled by the states or by the federal government.”Local politicians feel trapped, with targets set by the federal government in Berlin on one hand and the protests of the frustrated electorate on the other. In many places, angry voters take advantage of direct democracy to cancel out decisions made by elected representatives. It often works like this: Municipal representatives spend years developing a project with city administrators only to have furious citizens collect signatures and put a stop to the project by way of a referendum. The result is that the two sides are in competition as to who better represents the will of the people.
One reason Katarina Barley was able to become general secretary of the national body of the SPD is that she hasn’t been a politician her entire life. A former judge, she was first elected to the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, in 2013.
Barley has not yet become jaded by politics and can still view things from the outside. That helps her understand why many Germans have turned their backs on politics. “Political decisions frequently seem tedious and are often difficult to understand,” she says.
Thus far, her SPD party has been unable to find a solution for its increasing inability to reach voters. The party has implemented video chats, allowing members to pose questions directly to senior party members. It holds Facebook discussions between voters and representatives. SPD office holders make door-to-door visits. And recently, the SPD opened up its Berlin party headquarters, allowing non-members to submit their ideas for inclusion in the party’s platform.
They are all well-meaning steps, but no more than that. They help the party communicate with people who are positively disposed to it already — but the party remains unable to reach the others. Indeed, the bases of all established parties have been shrinking for decades. Since 1990, their membership rolls have halved. Only the Green Party has gained members since 1990, but it too has seen the number of new members drop in the last two years.
Interestingly, it looks as though Trump’s election has put a stop to that trend, at least for now. Since his victory in the US, many more people have joined Germany’s left-leaning parties than usual. Within just eight days, the SPD registered 700 new members on its website alone. The Green Party got 114 new members in a single day. The Left Party, meanwhile, welcomed 314 new members in the week following the election, more than four times more than during a normal week.
Donald Trump’s victory appears to have made clear to many the threat right-wing populism poses to democracy, says the SPD’s Barley. “It was apparently a kind of wake-up call.” But Oskar Niedermayer, a prominent political scientist at Berlin’s Free University, is skeptical. He says he hasn’t yet been able to identify a trend reversal.
Four years ago, the Green Party made a big deal of opening up an office in the town of Anklam, located not far from the Baltic Sea coast. Even Claudia Roth, the party’s co-chair at the time, traveled up from Berlin and formulated the vision of a “Democracy Mile” that was to be established in the structurally weak town in a region that had formerly been part of East Germany.
Just a few weeks ago, however, the office was closed down. Ulrike Berger, the former head of the party’s state chapter in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where Anklam is located, scraped the sunflower stickers off the front window, packed some boxes into a car and took off. The Greens have given up on the city, as has the SPD.
Support for the populists, by contrast, is on the rise: In state elections in September, the AfD won 26.2 percent of the vote in the city.
The area surrounding Anklam is the epitome of a region that has been unable to keep up. Those who are able, move away, with only the poorly educated, the unemployed and the elderly remaining behind. The result is that schools are closing, government agencies are being consolidated and buses have become more infrequent. The entire area is becoming deserted.
The feeling of having been forgotten by “the powers that be” has become widespread in the region and social researchers already wrote years ago that democracy in the region is merely “a facade without a cultural foundation.” Wherever the state pulls back, anger and resentment grow to take its place.
If the government doesn’t finally do something for eastern Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, says Helmut Klüter, a geography professor at the nearby University of Greifswald, one can assume that the AfD will clean up in the next municipal elections and take over the city halls of dozens of towns. “Then, the party of the frustrated will be in the majority here.”
Experts say that ongoing demographic shifts are endangering democracy. “It is increasingly dividing the country into zones of winners and losers,” argues Reiner Klingholz, director of the Berlin-based Institute for Population and Development. And not just in the eastern part of the country. He says that the solution has to be that of granting municipalities more freedom to make their own decisions and loosening rigid guidelines. That, he says, is the only way of allowing locals to develop solutions of their own when it comes to keeping schools, stores and medical practices open in addition to keeping public transportation up and running. “A new foundation develops in places where people can organize themselves,” Klingholz says.
The crisis of democracy is a boon for the AfD. No previous political movement has ever been able to profit as much from drawbacks to the parliamentarian system as the right-wing party. “Something is wrong with Western democracies,” AfD deputy head Alexander Gauland said in response to Trump’s election victory. “The elite are becoming alienated from the people” across the globe, he says.
AfD co-founder Konrad Adam likewise believes his party is engaged in a battle with the “political class.” Adam allows that the people can’t make do entirely without political representatives when it comes to governing. But politicians have become a hermetically sealed caste, he believes. “What do we need them for? Couldn’t we get rid of them entirely?” he wonders. Adam views the appellation “populist” as an “accolade.”
It is hardly surprising, then, that in a survey conducted by the pollsters at Allensbach last May, fully 71 percent of AfD voters agreed with the statement: “Politicians are clueless. I could do better.” Furthermore, the AfD rejects the legitimacy of all politicians who don’t adhere to “the will of the people,” as defined by the AfD. The Allensbach study shows that “only very few Germans have internalized the principle of representative democracy” — the idea that important decisions are made by elected politicians who “when in doubt vote in accordance with their own consciences and not with a momentary interpretation of the will of the people.”
The AfD enflames voter hatred for politicians by referring to them as “traitors to the people” if they don’t constantly heed this so-called “will of the people.” Indeed, when Donald Trump began promising to lock up Hillary Clinton after the election, senior AfD member Björn Höcke demanded that Angela Merkel “be dragged out of the Chancellery in a straitjacket.”
Like Trump, the AfD relies on radical simplifications and provocations. “Pointed, even provocative claims” are essential to receive media attention, wrote party head Frauke Petry in an email to AfD members. Once the message has hit home, she wrote, it can still be “competently and elaborately” expounded upon.
While the AfD does not yet hold any seats in Germany’s federal parliament, the party does have representatives in 10 state legislatures, but many of them consider their parliamentary work to be secondary. Instead, the party focuses on its connections to its supporters. It wants to be a movement more than a political body. Höcke in particular is fond of telling his followers that the party must “remain fluid” and not “calcified” like the “established” parties.
And the AfD has, in fact, been successful in mobilizing many people who had long since turned their backs on politics. Since the AfD began experiencing electoral success, turnout has increased. That sends a powerful message to mainstream parties — but for democracy as such, it is a dubious achievement.
On a recent Tuesday evening, Jean-Claude Juncker devoted a good hour of his time to the people. The European Commission president attended a town meeting in St. Vith, a small city in the German-speaking part of eastern Belgium. Many of those who live in St. Vith work in Luxembourg and do their shopping in discount supermarkets in Germany.
The European Union has become a normal part of daily life on the Continent, but it isn’t nearly as deeply rooted when it comes to politics, as a mini-survey carried out in the meeting hall prior to Juncker’s appearance demonstrated. More than half of those present said that they don’t feel adequately represented by the European Commission.
Juncker made a valiant effort to convince his audience that he is not merely a well-paid bureaucrat who no longer knows what goes on in the normal lives of Europeans. “I don’t just sit in the 13th floor like a demi-god,” he said. “I know what’s going on.” When German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble wanted to throw Greece out of the euro zone, Juncker said he called friends in Athens to ask them about the effects of European austerity policies in the country. “I know what it’s like for people in Greece who don’t even have enough money for a visit to the doctor.”
The EU would like to develop a greater closeness with the people of Europe, but that is easier said than done. The debate over the “democracy deficit” in Brussels is as old as the European Union itself. The problem is that many highly political decisions are still made by bureaucrats, while elected representatives, whether in European Parliament or in member-state parliaments, still have too little say. Following his election to Commission president in 2014, Juncker claimed that his would be a “political Commission” and would focus on important issues rather than such trifles as the shape of cucumbers or the energy efficiency of toasters. But he has found limited success.
Attempts to increase the powers of European Parliament have likewise proven ineffective thus far. Since the signing of the Treaty of Lisbon, representatives have more power, but compared to members of parliament in Germany, for example, European parliamentarians have limited rights.
The bond between the people of Europe and their representatives in Brussels is too weak, says former German high court justice Dieter Grimm. “The election of the European Parliament is not sufficient to establish more legitimacy for the EU.” He says there is a lack of a “continuing process of European-wide consensus building.” The consequence, Grimm continues, is that the Commission and the European Court of Justice are “largely disconnected from the democratic processes in the member states and in the EU itself.”
National parliaments, by contrast, are seen as being much more effective in representing the interests of citizens and of controlling the government. Angela Merkel, for example, must face parliamentary questioning, including about policies she pursues in Brussels.
That, says Green Party sage Reinhard Bütikofer, is why the best way to strengthen democracy in Europe is to increase the influence of national parliaments. In imitation of the Bundestag, they should keep close tabs on what their heads of state and government agree to in Brussels. “The fight for European democracy must be won in the member states,” Bütikofer says.
In 2010, “alternativlos” was chosen as the “non-word” of the year in Germany. It means “without alternative” or “indispensable” and was used frequently by Angela Merkel during the financial crisis to describe her policies. It became emblematic of a political path that she preferred not to put up for debate.
Those who refused to accept that a given decision was “alternativlos” were seen as outsiders. Like Wolfgang Bosbach, the CDU politician who was vehemently opposed to Merkel’s course during the crisis in Greece. “We in Germany, of course, have a guaranteed right to freedom of expression,” Bosbach says. “But watch out if you use it in a way that the political mainstream or the journalists don’t approve of.”
Nothing enflamed the hatred of the elite as much as the alleged indispensability of the government’s course of action and the moral arrogance of a public discussion which pronounced certain viewpoints as politically incorrect. According to the public opinion research institute Allensbach, many Germans believe that freedom of opinion has eroded significantly since 1990. A survey conducted by the institute shows that in 1990, 78 percent of those surveyed were of the opinion that it was possible to freely voice an opinion in Germany. Today, that number has plunged to 57 percent.
The popularity of Heinz Buschkowsky, the SPD politician who, until recently, was the mayor of the Berlin quarter of Neukölln, is instructive. Buschkowsky gained acclaim — and notoriety — for his openness in speaking about the problems facing his district, which has a significant immigrant population. He was famous for his repeated insistence that “multiculturalism has failed,” a statement that did little to endear him to his party. It did, however, endear him to many in Berlin who felt that politicians and the media were not talking enough about the problems created by migration and the difficulties of integration. Those who did, many felt, were quickly branded as racists.
Volker Kauder, conservative floor leader in the German parliament, feels that exaggerated political correctness is one reason that voters are flocking to the populists. “Of course anti-Semitic and racist comments must be rebuked, he says. “But not everybody who is worried about Islamist terror is an Islamophobe.” He says it is often the case at his public appearances that people only have the courage to speak openly once the press has left. “People must be allowed to ask questions without being seen as part of the right wing,” says Kauder. “Otherwise, they will ask their questions elsewhere.”
There was a tumultuous scene two weeks ago in the state parliament of Baden-Württemberg involving the AfD. In a debate about first responders, AfD representative Claudia Martin accused the German Red Cross of “lobbyism” and “cronyism,” a claim that provoked anger from politicians of other parties. Representatives from the CDU, SPD and Greens said her comments were “insulting” and a “flagrant disparagement.” Parliament Vice President Wilfried Klenk of the CDU had trouble getting the debate back under control.
In fact, though, malfeasance between the government and the Red Cross has long been an issue in the country. Under the cover of altruism, the Red Cross in Baden-Württemberg has become an ambulance corporation that dominates the first responder market without offering particularly reliable services.
What it does have is good connections to politicians. Parliament Vice President Klenk himself worked as a Red Cross official until just over a year ago while the state’s justice minister, Guido Wolf, likewise of the CDU, heads up the local Red Cross chapter in Tuttlingen.
Not every side job held by a politician is proof of corruption and lobbyism. But the example from Baden-Württemberg shows that the lines of acceptability have shifted. There are now some 5,000 professional lobbyists working in the government quarter of Berlin, many more than used to be the case. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder himself became a lobbyist once he was voted out of the Chancellery.
Recent headlines have served to show how difficult it is for some politicians to maintain the requisite distance. It was revealed last week, for example, that Germany’s European commissioner, Günther Oettinger, traveled across Europe in a private plane belonging to a lobbyist. And it likewise came out that German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt sought to prevent a lawsuit filed by German consumer protection organizations against VW in the emissions scandal that has rocked the automaker.
Saying that the country has been “bought and paid for,” as some AfD politicians do, is clearly going too far. But to lessen suspicions of corruption, it would be helpful if governments and parliaments were to agree on stricter rules of transparency. A compulsory register of lobbyists would serve to show which lobbyists worked on behalf of which clients. Lawmakers should also be required to reveal all of their income from side-jobs. And new rules should be introduced for former cabinet members regulating how long they must wait before joining a lobby firm.
Many parties believe that direct democracy represents a way to shrink the gap between society and its political leadership. Referendums, they believe, offer citizens a path to a more direct form of participation. The Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to the CDU, recently included demands for national referendums, which are currently forbidden under German law, in its official party platform. The SPD, Greens and Left Party are also in favor.
“Fundamentally, we have to provide citizens a greater say on important questions,” says SPD floor leader Thomas Oppermann. CSU head Horst Seehofer, meanwhile, is fond of pointing to a referendum on the smoking ban in Bavaria that brought to an end years of debate on the issue. The hope is that greater direct participation will diminish widespread disgust with politics and limit the success of populists. But the Brexit referendum in the UK raises doubts as to whether more direct democracy can be an effective tool against populism — or whether it merely gives them a new tool of their own.
In Switzerland, right-wing populists sought a referendum to approve the deportation of foreigners who break the law while in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders would like to hold a referendum on the country’s EU membership. “Of course populists will try to take advantage of these possibilities,” says Oppermann. “But that is an opportunity for politics and not a danger.”
One risk, though, remains: Referendums aren’t always focused on issues relating to policy. Instead, they are often used as a weapon against the powers that be. “Citizen participation,” writes sociologist Christine Schwarz, “can be effective when democracy is seen and practiced as a joint project for success.”
The question is whether that is the goal of the AfD.
How could Trump have been elected? The search for the roots of his success isn’t just being undertaken in the United States. In Germany, too, the discussion over the AfD and its followers will change. If half the electorate throws their support behind the populists, merely ostracizing them is no longer helpful.
If Germany would like to protect its democracy, politicians must find other paths. They must be more critical in their identification and analysis of problems. They must recognize that democracy isn’t perfect. And they must be more courageous and creative in further developing democracy.
Unfortunately, there is no canned solution for how to breathe new life into democracy. But there are approaches for how democracy can be augmented. The most radical of them is one proposed by Belgian historian David Van Reybrouck. He argues that representatives should be chosen at random and not through general elections. Those picked would then be tasked with working together to come up with proposals for the government. The advantage is that angry voters would no longer be able to let off steam anonymously in the voting booths — by voting in favor of Brexit, for example. They would be forced to participate. Choosing representatives by chance, Van Reybrouck says, would create a new form of public beyond the mass media and social networks.
French historian Pierre Rosanvallon, who has written several books about the crisis facing democracy, suggests a similar approach. He proposes complementing government and parliament with citizens’ conferences that would correct and exert oversight over the politicians. Like Van Reybrouck, he is eager to find a forum to increase citizen involvement in politics, beyond just voting every few years and venting on Facebook. He also believes that elections are not enough to secure democracy.
The thinking of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, meanwhile, goes beyond the nation-state. With globalization having robbed national parliaments and governments of their power, it is time, he believes, for a democratically legitimate cooperation beyond nation-state borders. If capitalism cannot be controlled within the framework of a nation-state, he argues, it’s time to develop global instruments. That, though, is likely a project for the longer term.
By Melanie Amann, Sven Böll, Markus Deggerich, Christiane Hoffmann, Steffen Lüdke, Peter Müller, Alexander Neubacher, Ralf Neukirch, Britta Stuff and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt