The Decline of Germany’s Social Democrats

Risen_35.1_beerClay Risen in the Boston Review:

the SPD’s leadership problems are just the surface, and the deeper issues extend well beyond Germany. Like center-left parties in France, Italy, the Netherlands, and most of Scandinavia, the SPD suffers from the crisis of purpose that the late political scientist and parliamentarian Ralf Dahrendorf predicted a quarter-century ago: it has become the victim of its own success, fighting for a social democracy that Europe has already achieved. Which is not to say that new challenges do not exist—the IT revolution, globalization, European integration, and the splintering of the working class are rewriting the terms of the European social contract, the very heart of the social-democratic movement. But the SPD is stuck fighting the battles of a previous war. “The SPD still wants to protect workers and jobs, but we’re in a post-social democratic party period,” Jackson Janes, executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, said.

Even worse for the SPD, voters now believe that the center-right CDU, at least with Merkel at the helm, is the more competent defender of the welfare state. Schröder fought for, and won, painful labor-market reforms in the early 2000s, which introduced greater workplace flexibility but also exacerbated the gap between rich and poor, driving hundreds of thousands of Germans into poverty. It was Merkel who insisted, in response, on shoring up the welfare state, and it is Merkel who, in the current governing coalition with the free-market Free Democrats, is resisting pressure to cut taxes (though she did accept some cuts as part of the coalition deal). “Angela Merkel is the opposite of the typical CDU member in many ways,” said Daniel Friedrich Sturm, a correspondent for the national newspaper Die Welt and the author of Where Is the SPD Headed? If Merkel has an American analog, it is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a conservative by convenience who wins by tacking to the left of his left-wing opponents.