‘Whipping Boys’: The Erosion of German Democracy

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.

  • The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 47/2016 (November 18, 2016) of DER SPIEGEL.

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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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