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Social Democracy at Death’s Door

The European elections delivered a crushing blow to the German Social Democrats. Only a miracle can save them now.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer arrives for the weekly government cabinet meeting on May 29, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. The current government coalition is made up of Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU). Sean Gallup / Getty Images

The Social Democratic Party (SPD) went into last week’s European elections with some bold, albeit vague campaign slogans: “Come together and make Europe strong” was one. “Europe is the answer” was another. Given the party’s humiliating performance, taking in a new historic low of just over 15 percent, one has to wonder whether they were asking the right questions.

The Social Democrats lean hard on “more Europe” as the solution to Germany’s problems, and are far more likely to praise French president Emmanuel Macron than defend the leader of their British sister party, Jeremy Corbyn. They banked on selling themselves as a stable, mildly progressive bulwark against creeping right-wing populism but seem to have lost this role to the Greens, who broke 20 percent in a nationwide election for the first time. The looks on the faces of party chairwoman Andrea Nahles and “wholeheartedly European” top candidate Katarina Barley Sunday night were ones of defeat, out of luck and bereft of ideas for what to do next.

Catastrophic as the election may have been, it was anything but unexpected. The Social Democrats have been lumbering from one defeat to the next for nearly two decades, their toxic brand of what Oliver Nachtwey calls “politics without politics” costing them hundreds of thousands of members and millions of voters. The European elections were merely the latest confirmation of a seemingly unstoppable downward spiral for what was once the proudest, strongest socialist party on earth.

Going Through the Motions

On paper, the party’s election program sounded alright: fair wages, women’s rights, environmental protection, against the right-wing demagogues and for a united, democratic Europe. The SPD’s candidates were not particularly charismatic but few German politicians are, and most of the party’s campaign talking points were practically indistinguishable from their competitors. So why did the Greens do so well while the SPD crashed and burned?

At the risk of oversimplifying things, the SPD in 2019 has a serious credibility problem. The Social Democrats have spent nine of the last fourteen years carrying water for Angela Merkel’s grand coalition in Berlin, burning through eight different leaders in the process. It seems whoever dares take up the mantle, whether party stalwart Sigmar Gabriel or the most recent disappointment Martin Schulz, puts their entire political career at risk. What’s left of the SPD’s base is sick and tired of the coalition, and anyone who associates themselves with it soon becomes a political liability to be disposed of after the next electoral defeat and superficial attempt at rebooting the party.

Despite noises from the top about internal “renewal” and restoring Social Democratic credibility on social justice issues, little changes in policy terms — and cannot change as long the SPD remains the junior partner of the Christian Democrats (CDU).

Though the coalition has been fairly tolerable for German workers compared to the situation across most of Europe, economic growth is anemic and downward mobility on the rise for large portions of the working class, further aggravated by the so-called “refugee crisis” which sparked fears of labor market competition among some sections of the working class and stoked xenophobic attitudes across the country.

In practical terms the SPD’s presence in government perhaps stopped the CDU from pushing the occasional spending cut, moderated its line on a few social questions, and bolstered organized labor’s position at the negotiating table during the economic crisis in 2008. But these nuances of high politics are lost on the wider electorate, which after more than a decade of Merkel wants change.

The logic of a grand coalition and the SPD’s junior role means that Angela Merkel gets most of the credit from people who support the government, while the Social Democrats — once a reliable source of at least moderate social-democratic opposition — are dragged into irrelevance and discredited in the eyes of their traditional base.

Whereas in 1998 Gerhard Schröder was able to ride a wave of public frustration after sixteen years of conservative rule and win a landslide victory, twenty years later the SPD is an integral part of the government and has nothing to show for it. For anyone anxious about the state of the country, experience has taught them that the Social Democrats will deliver more of the same. So why not try out something else like the Greens or the populist right, as other European voters have?

A Workers’ Party Without Workers

The SPD has watched its support break down for decades, as the industrial proletariat fragmented and the traditional working-class milieus that constituted its natural home drifted apart. This process accelerated in the 2000s as the SPD embraced neoliberal social policies, beginning with the founding of Die Linke in 2005.

The departure of Oskar Lafontaine and other left-wing Social Democrats cost the SPD some of its most popular figures and a decent chunk of its electorate, but after a few successful years the party has ceased to benefit from Social Democracy’s ongoing losses. Its recent result of 5.5 percent was its lowest ever in a European election. Tragically, with Die Linke trapped in the protest party ghetto and the Greens rapidly becoming the new vanguard of progressive neoliberalism, there is hardly anyone left on the SPD’s left wing who stands a chance at turning the ship around.

Instead, younger and white-collar workers appear to be defecting to the Greens, while older and blue-collar workers increasingly cast their vote for the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The AfD does particularly well in the east, winning a plurality in both Saxony and Brandenburg and now poised to dominate the upcoming elections in those states this fall. The only cohort still largely loyal to the SPD are workers over sixty — a fact that for biological reasons alone does not bode well for the future.

The reasons behind the Greens’ appeal are fairly evident, as the Fridays for Future protests dominated German headlines in the months leading up to the elections and climate change became a key issue for many voters. The Greens seem to offer a modern, progressive answer to climate change and tap into the cultural attitudes of urban and middle-class milieus. Unburdened by historical ties to labor unions or other working-class organizations, they can deftly navigate between groups and more authentically embody liberal Europeanism than their stale Social Democratic counterparts. More importantly, unlike the SPD they’ve been in the opposition throughout Merkel’s reign and can plausibly claim to represent a breath of fresh air. For the first time in their history, they may have a real shot at the chancellorship in 2021.

The more sinister development is exit poll data suggesting that the AfD has developed a solid base among working-class voters.

Though undeniably a party of the wealthy in terms of its leadership, the AfD appears to have captured the working-class protest vote across the east and partially even the west. The German Trade Union Confederation reported that over 13 percent of its members voted for the AfD this time around.

Only time will tell if this trend consolidates into an enduring political bloc, but if it does, it will make left-wing parliamentary majorities practically impossible for the foreseeable future and greatly complicate the political terrain for the Left and organized labor — which so far has supported the grand coalition nearly unanimously, likely in hopes of preventing a more aggressive, openly conservative coalition.

The SPD appears trapped. Decades of attrition have left it with a precarious infrastructure staffed largely by careerists and a handful of true believers. Its traditional base has decamped to protest parties on the Right and Left, while its leadership lacks charisma, political vision, and the kind of popular support necessary to carry out such a vision. Should the grand coalition last a full term, the party can be thankful if its election results remain in the double digits.

Without the mass working-class base that made it a social force to be reckoned with, what’s left of Social Democracy is resigned to compete as one political entrepreneur among many on the electoral market of ideas. For now it would seem the many years under Merkel’s thumb have tarnished their brand too much for a comeback, and the party appears clueless as to where to turn.

Clouds on the Horizon

Going into the second half of the grand coalition’s term, it’s hard to imagine how the SPD could regain its lost spark in the foreseeable future. Regional elections in September and October will almost certainly bring further AfD success and losses for the center-left. Whatever the next national coalition will be, it won’t include the Social Democrats, who will likely find themselves at the weakest point in their history.

One of the few voices of reason to emerge from the wreckage has been SPD youth chairman Kevin Kühnert, who first rose to prominence last year through his opposition to rejoining Merkel’s government. He recently made headlines for suggesting that large corporations should be taken under collective ownership, and has sought to pull the party to the left on some issues. He along with people like Simone Lange, mayor of the northern coastal city Flensburg, represent a small but vocal left wing who may now have a chance to make their argument. A vote of confidence in chairwoman Nahles scheduled for next week is likely to send her packing, but even if Kuhnert and allies triumph, it is unclear whether the Social Democratic brand can ever be rehabilitated.

Social Democracy’s looming extinction as a major force in German politics in many ways corresponds to European norms, but nevertheless has major implications for German society. As the oldest continuously operating political party in the world, the SPD played a crucial role both in winning basic rights for the working class as well as, in the post-war period, modernizing society in a tense but productive alliance with big capital. Germany as it exists today with its high standard of living, liberal civil society, and robust welfare state would be unthinkable without the SPD.

With the country’s traditional parties in political free fall, the Greens will likely rise to the occasion and become the new stabilizing force in government. This could stave off the political crisis for a few more years. But what happens after that is anybody’s guess.

With the Right growing and a recession looming, a strong Social Democratic Party is more needed than ever. Absent some profound, unexpected change, it seems more likely to end up in the dustbin of history.