In the space of a few months, Olaf Scholz completely reversed the decline of the Social Democrats for a decade. By spreading a message of dignity and respect for all workers, the party has adapted to the present moment and has succeeded in turning voters away from almost every other party.
MUNIUCH – Olaf Scholz and the Social Democrats topped the German federal elections with 25.7% of the vote, narrowly ahead of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her sister Bavarian party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which received 24.1%.
This is a stunning victory for a party that voted around 14-15% just four months ago, when Scholz proclaimed his intention to become Germany’s next chancellor. At the time, his announcement seemed rather bold, if not fanciful, given that the SPD had come to be seen as an irreparably damaged and diminished party. For years the party had increasingly undermined its traditional working and middle class base. Now some of those losses have been reversed.
How did Scholz manage this electoral surprise? A partial clue can be found in the SPD’s crisp campaign slogans: “Soziale Politik für Dich“(” A social policy for you “) and”Respekt für Dich“(” Respect for you “). In the party’s online debates on its platform, the general message that emerged was that Scholz had a” plan for the future “and knew how to win back the voices of the populists. will focus on “respect”, “dignity”, the “future” and a “sovereign Europe.” This is not for those “who think they are better”.
Among the sources of inspiration for the party’s platform is Harvard University philosopher Michael Sandel. In his recent bestseller, The Tyranny of Merit, Sandel argues that education has become the greatest source of division in society. Certainly, education was once a top progressive priority and was part of the DNA of any self-respecting Social Democratic party. The idea was that if you work hard and educate yourself, you can rise in society. But as Sandel argues, meritocracy has a dark side, as winners tend to despise those who don’t achieve the same upward mobility.
Even though winners owe their success in large part to luck, an expressly meritocratic system allows them to say that they deserve their winnings, because they are all on their own initiative. It also leads to the conclusion that the less well off deserve their rank, as if they just haven’t put in enough effort. According to Sandel, meritocracy – and the attitudes it instills – has made the elite an arrogant club, while robbing many others of their dignity.
The meritocratic narrative that Sandel criticizes ignores the fact that not everyone has the same chance to “win”. In Germany, only 15% of students from households without a university degree obtain a bachelor’s degree, compared with 63% of students from more educated households. This is an important reason why Germany lags behind most other OECD countries in terms of social mobility.
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Scholz’s campaign was successful because he recognized that Sandel’s ideas applied almost perfectly in Germany. The SPD regained votes on its traditional base, where many had felt betrayed and thus turned to the left-wing party Die Linke. Due at least in part to Scholz’s clever message, Die Linke’s share of votes has dropped by 50% from its 2017 level. It is now barely doing, falling below the 5% threshold but now his presence in parliament by having directly won three constituencies.
Perhaps more surprisingly, the Social Democrats also seem to have siphoned off the voices of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. Indeed, the SPD is now the most powerful party of all the East German states except Saxony and Thuringia, where the AfD dominates. Apparently, the SPD’s “respect” campaign attracted Germans who felt a loss of dignity in the years following the fall of communism and reunification.
The SPD also seems to have regained the votes of the center-right CDU / CSU. In the last election, many SPD voters defected from the CDU in support of Merkel, who represented the safe and stable center of German politics. But now that Scholz is leading the SPD, they again see their former political home as moderately acceptable.
Finally, the SPD may also have won some votes from the Greens, a party which increasingly came to represent the social democratic position in the last elections.
Scholz’s dignity campaign yielded a fascinating result. The question now, of course, is how the revived SPD program will translate into a new government and then into new public policies.