A Fateful Year Can Germany's SPD Stop Its Long, Slow Decline?
Germany's Social Democratic Party was once the party of the working class and knew what it stood for. Lately, though, its lack of a coherent message has left it ineffectual and unpopular. This year will be critical for the SPD's survival.
It's 1 p.m. on a recent Saturday afternoon when Stephan Weil receives an urgent plea for help. The governor of the German state of Lower Saxony, one of the last remaining strongholds of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), is standing on the second floor of the Stadthalle congress center in the city of Braunschweig. The party's local chapter is hosting an event here and some 300 party members -- "comrades" in SPD parlance -- have shown up. There are meatballs and flutes of champagne on offer for the New Year's reception. Weil laughs. Party crisis? Not here.
A woman in her 50s approaches Weil. "Mr. Governor, may I bother you for a second. I'm also a comrade."
"Please," Weil replies. "Call me Stephan."
"Could you please save our party and take over the party chairmanship?"
Weil stops short. The request is flattering, but also dangerous. A reporter is standing next to him and he needs to say something innocuous, and fast.
"Oh," he says. "Well, Lower Saxony is a nice place to be too."
"But something has to change in Berlin! We can't go on like this."
"Oh, come on," Weil replies. "It's a nice thing for you to say."
He's trying to change the subject, but the woman is tenacious. "You have to!" she says. Then she walks off. Weil is left smiling helplessly.
Stephan Weil, 60, is a successful and well-liked state politician. He has an earnest charisma, but he's not exactly tailor-made for the job of party leader. Weil's brief, awkward encounter with the woman in the Stadthalle is telling: The SPD must be in a precarious place if he's being courted as the party's possible savior.
The SPD is more than 155 years old. It outlived the monarchy and survived National Socialism; it transformed itself from an organ of class conflict into a big tent-party; and it has weathered schisms and political realignments. The SPD has been through more than all the other parties in German parliament combined. And yet, 2019could be a make-or-break year.
The question is not whether the SPD will continue to exist as a big-tent party. The question is whether the SPD will continue to exist at all.
European elections are set for May and the SPD's primary goal will be to avoid finishing behind the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. On the same day, a new legislative assembly will be elected in the city-state of Bremen, where the SPD has been in power for 74 years. Then, in late summer and autumn, state elections will be held in three former East German states, first in Brandenburg and Saxony and then in Thuringia and the Social Democrats are not projected to do well in any of them. By the end of this year, the party must also decide what to do about is role as junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition. Should they stay in government or join the opposition? A party congress will make the final call.
More important than all the election results, though, will be the question of whether the SPD can figure out what it wants to be. Will it, like so many other Social Democratic parties in Europe, crumble between the forces of the populist left and the populist right? Should it continue to be the broad, catch-all party it has been for so long? Or should it relinquish the political center and go back to where it all began: the left?
In the western German city of Bottrop, the Social Democratic world is still more or less intact. The tables at a local community center are decked with crumble cake. At the front of the hall, a man plays the barrel organ and sings about "170 years of coal" and "miner solidarity." And around 80 people have shown up on a recent Saturday for the New Year's reception. The party is still in power here. Can the SPD learn something from its comrades in Bottrop?
Michael Gerdes thinks for a moment. There's a pilsner on the table in front of him, his snuff lying next to it. It's not an easy question.
Gerdes, 58, is the directly elected representative for the district of Bottrop-Recklinghausen III. He spent 18 years as a miner, mostly working the night shift at the Prosper-Haniel coal mine. In 2009, he was elected to the Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament. He has sewn a small piece of fabric from a miner's uniform into his white shirt, a symbolic reminder of where he came from.
In the old days, Gerdes says, "if a park bench was broken, then the guy who saw it would come to the works council at the beginning of his shift and say, 'Hey listen, there's a bench broken.' Because he knew that he's in the SPD and he's going to make sure that things get taken care of." That's basically how things are still run in Bottrop today, he adds.
And what about on a national level?
"Well," says Gerdes. "It shouldn't be any different. The people should know that we'll take care of things."
Taking care of things. It's a constant refrain when party members are asked what the SPD of today is missing. But it's not so easy to simply start taking care of things again. And it grows more difficult the bigger the problems get.
The most pressing questions of our time are complex and can often only be solved internationally. There's also the issue of voters -- at the moment, many people think the Greens are more capable of solving two problems in particular, climate change and right-wing populism, better than the SPD.
The SPD has made Germany a better, fairer place. It helped millions of people get an education and made the country more democratic under former Chancellor Willy Brandt, who forged a new relationship with the Eastern Bloc in defiance of German conservatives. Together with the Greens, the SPD later pushed through a raft of socio-political reforms. These were clearly outlined, leftist projects. Today, however, the party is being torn apart by the demands placed upon it.
The SPD is being asked to look after Germany's industrial workers, but also the environment. It is expected to be an open, worldly party, while at the same time ensuring that not too many refugees come, especially not the wrong ones. The SPD is expected to simultaneously appeal to a broad spectrum of voters, from AfD adherents to liberal students.
"The situation is really an absolute disaster," says Albrecht von Lucke. The political scientist has been thinking about leftists for years and on 2015, he wrote a book called "The Black Republic and the Failure of the German Left" -- black being the color associated with the center-left Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Lucke, 51, is a leftist intellectual himself. He is dismayed by the SPD's decline, but thinks it makes perfect sense in a historical context, perhaps even inevitable. There was a time when the SPD had a monopoly on the left. These days, though, it's under attack on four sides: by Germany's Left Party, the AfD, the Greens and its own coalition partners, the CDU, which Merkel has guided firmly to the center. "Justice and cohesion -- other parties started offering these two values long ago," Lucke says. "The classic SPD voter no longer exists."
Essentially, he thinks all hopes of a rescue are an illusion. Stay in the government? No good -- that would further suffocate the idea of the Socialist utopia from which the SPD has lived since its founding. Leave the Grand Coalition? Also no good -- the party would then lose its "utility."
If Lucke is to be believed, there is no hope for the SPD and one can be forgiven for needing a stiff drink after talking with him. But it was too early for that on a recent Thursday morning. Sophie Passmann, a 25-year-old moderator and satirist, made do with a black coffee and a vegan apple porridge at a cafe in Berlin's Mitte district. Passmann lives in Cologne and has written a forthcoming book called "Old White Men." She's a feminist and, in a way, the epitome of the left-liberal milieu. Really, her views would align her more with the Greens, yet in 2015 -- or 2016, she's not quite sure -- she joined the SPD.
"Because I love the idea of the party," she says. "I know of few better concepts than solidarity, a united society and people who are prepared to sacrifice some of their own prosperity for the greater good, because they have an idea of what such a world could look like."
Then she says: "That is one of the few ideas that I am seriously passionate about. And then I have to look on every day as the party leadership makes a joke of it."
What follows is an extended monologue about political speech, online communication and visual imagery. All of it needs to improve, Passmann says. "But beyond that, it could be so simple: All the smart people need to be locked in the Willy Brandt Haus (SPD headquarters in Berlin) for half a day and forced to come up with a definition for the new working class. Why is no one in the party making this effort?" she says.
The new working class?
"The so-called 'digital precariat,' people who move from internship to internship, from temporary job to temporary job, who can't afford an apartment with their income and at 35 still live in a fucking shared apartment even though their parents at their age had already bought their own place," Passmann says. She knows plenty of people like this who, at least theoretically, would make "good SPD voters." "But the SPD doesn't offer them anything," she says -- really, these people "should be a social democratic core constituency."
It's true. To this group of younger voters, the SPD can seem a bit stale. On the other hand, the 'precariat?' The social question? One wonders how people from the real -- the analog -- precariat would see things. Here too, the SPD faces the problem of having to serve two masters. On the one hand, the party is supposed to represent the weakest in our society; on the other, it's supposed to stand up for people who work in cafes from their laptops, who have a university degree but who have unfortunately been unable to find a permanent job.
In the SPD's heyday, its voter base was made up of workers just as much as artists and creatives. The artists and the creatives, people like Sophie Passmann, have since left. And the workers?
According to the German Institute for Economic Research, between 2000 and 2016, the percentage of all voters who were working class dropped from 37 percent to 19 percent. And while 48 percent of workers voted for the SPD in 1998, by 2017 that figure had fallen to less than a quarter. If the SPD ever wants to get back on its feet, it'll have to start by winning back the voters it lost here.
This is something Claudia Moll knows all too well. As the 50-year-old sits on an ICE train on a Friday in late November, she reflects on the strange week she just had. For nearly 30 years, Moll worked as a geriatric nurse in Eschweiler, a city in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. She loved her job, but when she grew tired of Germany's chronic shortage of careworkers, she decided to run for political office on the ticket of her party, the SPD and won a direct mandate. Ever since, she's wondered where she ended up.
"The people in my parliamentary group always see things so scientifically," says Moll. "They always have to academize everything. I tell them: My dear colleagues, we also need people who build our universities and fix the toilets. Then they just stare at me like a fish. It's too simplistic for them, but it's true." She laughs, quite loudly. The train journey is only 20 minutes old, but already, half of the people in the compartment are eavesdropping.
Moll used to work as a cashier at a supermarket. "That wasn't for me. The people in line wouldn't stop talking to me." As a geriatric nurse, she spent years working shifts. In her down time, she hangs out with her Karneval club or plays in a brass band. She is a dedicated smoker, wears her hair short and doesn't have much used for designer clothes. Above all, she can talk. A lot.
There are SPD parliamentarians who say Claudia Moll isn't a good fit in Berlin. These are typically the same people who say the SPD needs to get back in touch with normal people and speak their language. It would be difficult to find a better definition of that profile than Claudia Moll.
The SPD, once the go-to party for the common person, has become elitist, a kind of left-leaning country club. Eighty-two percent of the SPD's representatives in the Bundestag are college educated. Many of the party's high-ups began as office managers and worked their way up. Claudia Moll is the antithesis to the ladder-climbers.
"We're always talking about crisis," she says. "Come on! A crisis is when my daughter can't find her blue jeans. And we always want to analyze our election defeats. What's there to analyze? We lost. Period."
Recently, Moll stood up suddenly in a legislative session and shouted in the direction of the AfD that she was ashamed to have right-wing populists in parliament. She needed police protection after that outburst, but she says she doesn't care. "Yeah, so what? I shouted something. I could have said it more quietly, but why should I?" She says fear is one of the SPD's problems. "We always let ourselves be herded. And then it's like, right, left, right, left. It unsettles people."
As the ICE train approaches Hanover, a woman sitting next to Moll tells her: "I would vote for you in a second," she says. "See?" Moll tells her office manager.
The SPD needs more people like the geriatric nurse Claudia Moll and the coal miner Michael Gerdes. Frankly, it needs a lot more of them. The party needs more of Sophie Passmann's anger, more of her coolness -- a lot more of it. The last time the SPD was cool was back when everyone had Nokia cellphones.
But what the SPD is missing the most is an idea of what it stands for. And that is exactly what current party head Andrea Nahles wanted to deliver. When she took over the SPD reins, there were plenty in the party who were skeptical of joining Merkel in yet another Grand Coalition. But Nahles promised them that the party could both be part of the government and redefine its sense of purpose. Political consultants call this sort of thing "sharpening the profile." But the only thing that has sharpened since Nahles took over has been the party's decline.
Take the party's stance on refugee policy. This was the first thing Nahles wanted to clarify, yet it's still up for debate. The discussion over Germany's welfare laws has proven similarly difficult. The SPD hopes to have a solution by mid-February that will appeal to as wide a range of members as possible -- as a big-tent party's policies should. But does this sort of broad policymaking still work?
A few days ago, SPD members of the Bundestag from Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia met in Osnabrück for a retreat to address environmental policy. Specifically, they wanted to clarify what was more important: the interests of industry workers or climate protection. It didn't take long for passionate difference to emerge.
Party leftist Matthias Miersch, who focuses on environmental policy, demanded a quick exit from coal. You can't negotiate with nature, he said, adding that he finds it imperative to "subsume" everything under this principle.
"I think that's wrong," countered Sigmar Gabriel, the former party leader and the foreign minister in Merkel's last government. "I also think it makes no scientific sense to believe that the question of whether to opt out of brown coal in Germany in 2035 or to do it in 2037½ would have any influence on climate protection policy." With an uncompromising all-for-nature attitude, he said,a "perfect storm that is directed at the SPD" is on its way, he warned. The welfare reforms of the early 2000s and the financial crisis already disappointed the "core voters of the SPD" twice. The same thing is now in danger of happening with industrial policy, Gabriel said.
Before the last federal elections, Gabriel went on, workers at VW's plant in Salzgitter told him: "You know we're going to vote for you, but we also have to tell you one thing: The only decent flyer that was distributed here was from the AfD." The right-wing populists, Gabriel said, had managed to convey a simple message to the workers, namely that they should be proud of their work. "What we are underestimating, Matthias, is the level of emotionality that is triggered among affected people," Gabriel warned. "People are saying, 'They're putting us on the wrong side of history.'"
The lesson from the disagreement was this: Anyone who shares Matthias Miersch's position would be better off voting for the Greens. And those who sees things like Gabriel should perhaps vote for the CDU or maybe even the FDP. Either way, neither could say they were making a truly Social Democratic argument.
The famous principle of straddling positions which made SPD members under Willy Brandt so proud, no longer works today. In a world in which only the strongest brands survive, the SPD must make a decision. Either it fades into insignificance as an administrator of the status quo, or it remembers the party it used to be and fights to change the status quo, to change, or at least civilize capitalism -- or maybe even develop a viable alternative. It would be a regression back to a time before the SPD was a big-tent party. Indeed, it would have to become a serious version of the Left Party, meaning it would have to fight for justice while still wanting to govern. This would certainly not win the SPD 35 percent of the vote, but it could get it back to 25 percent.
This is what Andrea Nahles has to work with. Yet when she welcomed a reporter to her office last Wednesday, she was nevertheless in excellent spirits, laughing loud and long at something she had seen on Twitter. Andrea Nahles has a lot of fun, which is rather surprising.
Listening to her many critics might give one the impression that she and Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz are responsible for everything that has gone wrong with Social Democracy in the past decade. It hasn't even been a year since the two took up their posts and already they've lost more support within the party than Sigmar Gabriel did in seven years at the helm.
Nahles has heard the rumors about her imminent deposition, but she ignores them. She'd rather talk about the coming weeks and months, European elections and the coalition's plans. All of a sudden, what previously looked chaotic is now arranged into manageable policy portions, draft laws and motions. "We have to stop talking and start doing," she says.
And this approach could very well be her problem: She is far too professional and disciplined a politician for the current situation. She has a vested interest in keeping the party the way it is, with all its structures and rituals. Nahles is a politician for the Social Democratic status quo -- not for a big crisis. For that, the SPD would need someone willing to chart a new course and lead the party down a radical path toward creative destruction. But Nahles doesn't want to destroy, she wants to preserve.
To that end, Albrecht von Lucke had this to say: Of course, the SPD could become more radical and move clearly to the left again. But even then, there would be no hope, because "with every fundamental repositioning, the SPD negates its own governing history."
So there's no hope at all?
It wasn't even two years ago that the SPD appeared to have found what it's missing today. That was when Martin Schulz had announced he would run for chancellor.
Suddenly, the SPD seemed to be the party that took care of things again, just like the coal miner Michael Gerdes had wished for. Party members talked like the geriatric nurse Claudia Moll: understandable, clear, direct -- and with an endearing Rhineland accent. If only for a brief moment, the party again stood for a clear message: justice. It was cool again, sort of, because Schulz's retro charm, glasses and haircut had made him into a cult figure for Sophie Passmann's generation within a matter of days.
But then Schulz and the party got distracted. When it came time to give the word "justice" meaning, their broad, unified message disintegrated into lots of smaller ideas and got confused. In the end, nothing worked.
Still, before the chaos and distraction set in, when the SPD was still riding its euphoric high, there was one valuable insight: There's still life in this party yet.