'Whipping Boys' 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

Hermann Bredehorst / DER SPIEGEL

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."

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JeffPage 11/23/2016
1. The Rise Of The Right Wing.
The real concern for those people who have voted for Trump in the US, and those who may very well vote for parties described as being "Right Wing", simply for feeling a sense of loyalty to their own country haven't been addressed. Surely with the immigration crisis across Europe not being properly resolved, the people have a right to feel abandoned by their politicians. It's the liberal politicians that have imposed what are really "illegal immigrants" on to them by inviting them. Their is a clash of cultures and beliefs, and unfortunately these Muslim immigrants are not going to integrate fully into western society, no matter what Mrs Merkel or any other leader says! The final insult to the people is that they are paying for the illegal immigrants. The Muslim immigrants want one thing only and that is to take control. At least the "right wing" parties recognise the dangers of liberalism towards Muslims, they recognise the dangers that Merkel and Co don't seem to! It's not being "racist, xenophobic or Islamophobic" to speak out against the wrong policies by the politicians. It is certainly not hate speech or incitement to want their politicians to stop and think seriously about what they are imposing on their people and the dangers they could be putting them in. The US and British have seen the danger, and so has Victor Orban. More European leaders will wake up to the dangers soon.
Wetoldyouso 11/23/2016
2. You don't send
Your political leader crushed the Greek economy and crucified its population to benefit German banks. Then, seeing the vast miscalculation she made re huge numbers of Arab and African migrants pouring in, she made a disgusting blackmail deal with a man rapidly turning into one of the most oppressive autocrats on the planet. Is that what you are pointing to as the terrible things Germany doesn't do anymore? Since when does stability depend on "more state control"? Haven't we had precisely enough of that? And as for Trump: he WAS democratically elected, remember? No one died at the polling stations, Muslims aren't being murdered in the streets, and dislike and distrust of trade agreements like TTP is as wide in Germany as it is in America. He has in fact destroyed nothing except that you idealogues didn't get the status quo you wanted in the corrupt, self-dealing, dishonest Mrs Clinton. And as for, "And yet no one knows what to do . . ." Actually, they DO know what to do, they just do not want to do it. For example, shoving multiculturalism down the throats of peoples who do not want it and destroying their sense of "home and identity". How many years have you allowed Moroccans, Tunisians, and other North African illegal migrants to hang out in the shadows of Germany because you couldn't get them back to their own countries? How many jihadists did Merkel's grand gesture let into Europe? Tell us again about the large and growing Salafist movement in Berlin? And you dare to talk about no one knowing what to do about "home and identity"?! This handwriting has been on the wall for a long time. The refusal of politicians everywhere to read it, aided and abetted by ivory tower journalists waggling their moralistic fingers at common folk is what has given nationalism new impetus. But you just will not admit that it is just possible - you were wrong.
Banana Monarchy 11/23/2016
3. Again, the culprit is you the press
It is the traditional press that undermines democracy. Not on purpose but because you are so naif. Where Fox and Breitbart are street fighters and bring guns to a fight, the old fashioned decent journalists do not even bring a knife but want to fight with their bare hands. facts are unimportant for certain left or right wing politicians. Do not give them the chance to manipulate the not so well to do voters who did not too well. Help the not so fortunate with an education a subsidy or something else and help them even more by denying the existence of the ultra right or left parties. Sultan Erdogan made it clear: Democracy is like a train you get off when you have reached your destination. It is on that principle that 20% of Europe's and Germany's politicians operate. So do not allow them the coverage they so badly want.
Inglenda2 11/23/2016
4. Germany a democracy? A matter for doubt!
Whether the sentence (German postwar democracy has been an enormous success), can be regarded as a fact, or just an opinion, depends on the point of view. While it is true to say, the Christian Democratic Union ((CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), were for decades, strong centre-right and centre-left parties, neither has really ever taken the trouble to represent the citizens of Germany. The definition of democracy is; a form of government by the people, for the people, through the people. What we can see in Germany, is government by the political parties for the political parties. The electorate have the right to vote, but little influence as to how the country is governed. The only choice they actually have, is to decide which party program is the least harmful. It is therefore no reason for astonishment, when new parties, which promise a change, are welcomed with open arms.
hallo-jk 11/23/2016
5. the idea that democracy is ensured through Western liberalism is just hillarious
Only the Spiegel? The opposite remains true. Sorry guys but you all went to the wrong schools. jk
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