Monday, September 23, 2013

What Happened to the German SPD?

The Germans call her "Mutti."  It's a diminutive of "Mutter" or mother.  So it means that Germans call their Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel "Mommy."  You can say this about Margaret Thatcher; nobody ever called her Mummy except her children.

But in the triumph of Mutti there is this to consider:  What happened to the SPD?  After all, Merkel's CDU/CSU union only got 41.5 percent of the vote.  So nearly 60 percent of the voters voted against her.

The answer is that the SPD did something in the 2000s that a left-wing party must never do.  It actually tried to reform the welfare state.  Under Gerhard Schröder the party deregulated the labor market a little, making it more flexible, and it lowered unemployment benefits.  This caused a split in the party and the growth of a new left-wing coalition, Die Linke, meaning literally "the Lefties."

So, in Sunday's election, the SPD got 25.7%, Die Linke got 8.6% and Die Grüne (Greens) got 8.4% of the vote.  In our US system, that would be as if the "progressives" in the Occupy movement and the enviros split off into separate parties from the mainstream Democratic Party.

Could it happen here?  Well it did happen in Canada, where the dominant Liberal Party got panicky in the 1990s and enacted sweeping cuts in federal spending do "do something" about the Canadian national debt.  Net result?  The Liberals lost their mojo.  In the latest election in 2011 the Liberal Party slipped to #3 in party strength behind the explicitly social democratic NDP.

There's a big lesson here, one that is difficult for your average conservative like me to understand.  The average center-left voters come to politics expecting to get their share of the loot.  For sure, they don't think of themselves as looters and plunderers.  They just demand their "rights" and they don't see beyond that reality to the bigger horizon of national solvency.

If their party takes away their "rights" to welfare and unemployment then they will take their vote elsewhere, to a party that really will "fight for the people against the powerful."

I like to explain all this as the divide between the modern People of the Responsible Self and the People of the Group Self.

The People of the Responsible Self first emerged in the Axial Age 2000-3000 years ago when the idea of an individual responsible to God was invented in the Axial Age religions.  That is the meaning of "individualism."  It does not mean pure egoism; it means individual responsibility for thought and action, as opposed to loyalty to the group self of the tribe and clan.

If you want to understand the People of the Group Self, a good place to look is Infidel by Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  In Ayaan's youth, her grandmother taught her the names of her parents going back generations.  For a Somali, that was your identity: the memory of the names of all your ancestors.  In that society it is unthinkable to go against the authority of the clan and the tribe.

In the modern era the cause of the Group Self is taken up by left-wing parties and their identity politics.  The parties of the left represent people still clinging to the old way of human community. Identity politics advances the group as the defining identity in race, class, gender.  Thus our US Democratic Party appeals to people by their group identity, as blacks, Hispanics, women, gays.  It stands to reason that the one thing you must not do, if you lead a left-wing identity party, is to weaken the sense of group identity and group "rights."

Maybe that explains President Obama.  He must know, either consciously or instinctively, that once he concedes the need for retrenchment or "austerity" the Democratic Party is toast.  That's why he's intransigent on all the domestic issues.  Because if the Democrats won't fight for the people and their "rights" against the powerful, its voters will find another party for their vote or just stay home.

Meanwhile "Mutti" Merkel has won a famous victory over her divided lefty opposition, and we wish Germany's first Bundeskanzlerin well.

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