Friday, January 28

Against national populism

The triumph of Olaf Scholz as the new German chancellor has many political readings, beyond the obvious end of the 16 years of the Merkel era. On the table are from the possible changes in the international projection of Germany to the very difficult balance between fiscal austerity and the great needs of public spending forced by the pandemic. Many dilemmas for a government that is repeatedly described as an experiment despite the fact that the German system of co-responsibility has produced more than six decades of coalition governments since ‘zero hour’.

Of all the challenges that accompany the Scholz, described as the personification of boredom, one of the most interesting and transversal – since it affects

to almost all Western democracies – is to demonstrate whether it is possible to win back the working class seduced by the extreme right. And to what extent can the model of social democracy, as discredited as it is overwhelmed, be revived to raise an effective battle against the ravages of national populism.

Last year, when Scholz was not the favorite candidate to succeed Merkel, the Social Democratic leader began to do his homework to explain why the center-left parties have suffered a drain of resentful votes in favor of toxic populist options. And incidentally, trying to reverse the growing irrelevance of social democracy, which in the process of promising so many things to so many people has ended up losing a good part of its political significance.

In search of answers to relaunch a party like the SPD with 158 history, Scholz focused mainly on the United States. And he got to connect by videoconference with the philosopher Michael J. Sandel, Harvard professor and author of “The Tyranny of Merit.” After a lengthy conversation, no doubt inspired by the corrosive Trumpism debacle, the new German Chancellor decided to incorporate the concept of ‘Respect’ as the centerpiece of his winning campaign against all odds.

‘Respect’ has been a way of acknowledging the disgusting excesses of the caviar left, starting with all that grinding posture of moral superiority. However, in the case of Scholz, the respect that Aretha Franklin asked for goes beyond ideological settling of accounts to enter the essence of the specter of political disaffection that runs throughout Europe: growing economic inequality, the negative impact of globalization, the stagnation in social mobility and the distancing of political elites from the real problems of all those who suspect that their best days are in the past.

It is true that a large part of Olaf Scholz’s electoral success has consisted in offering the greatest continuity and stability, striving to be the candidate most similar to Merkel even in gestures. However, all this mimicry is not incompatible with the fact that the new chancellor is a convinced Social Democrat tired of all the political energy accumulated by the right, especially the populist right, in the last decade to make possible the ‘illiberal’ model of Viktor Orban in Hungary.

So far, Respekt’s message has resonated in Germany. To the point that the SPD has managed in the last elections, for the first time since 2005, to become the political party with the most votes for the German working class. This has seen the return of almost a million voters who had abandoned the Social Democrats for much more extreme options, both on the left and on the right.

For Professor Sandel, this worrying process of disaffection in favor of the extreme right began when the Democrats in the United States and the Social Democrats in Europe began to share with conservatives the triumphalism of the markets. With the implicit message that the lower classes were responsible for their low economic expectations. As a result, the center-left began to be identified with more elitist and globalist interests.

In this sense, during the last Social Democratic government in Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder reformed the labor market in favor of flexibility to reduce an unemployment rate that exceeded five million in the largest European economy. Unemployment was reduced but in exchange for ‘mini-jobs’ and precariousness, creating all the necessary uncertainty for the advancement of options such as Alternative for Germany.

Although Angela Merkel has functioned in recent years as a lone defender of liberal democracy – in times when, as Anne Applebaum would say, authoritarian baddies are winning the game – Germany has had no immunity from populism. As Olaf Scholz himself explains on the SPD website: «The biggest concern in politics for me is that our liberal democracies are under increasing pressure. We have to solve the problems so that the cheap slogans of the populists do not spread.