Germany’s Social Democrats Understand They Need to Pick Side

The party has tried to please everyone for too long.

German Social Democratic Party leader Andrea Nahles makes a speech, September 24, 2014
German Social Democratic Party leader Andrea Nahles makes a speech, September 24, 2014 (SPD/Andreas Amann)

Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) recognize they should have picked a side.

In a damning analysis of the party’s dismal 2017 election performance — support fell to a postwar low of 20.5 percent — outside experts argue that the campaign lacked “substantive profile”.

The SPD has failed for years to find answers to fundamental questions and to position itself clearly and unequivocally. Whether on the issue of refugees, globalization, internal security or the diesel scandal: the party leadership always tries to please everyone.

The trouble with trying to please everyone, as I’ve argued before, is that you likely end up pleasing no one.

Social democratic struggles

Social democrats across Europe struggle to hold onto working- and middle-class supporters.

Campaign on liberal immigration laws, social justice and international engagement and you alienate blue-collar voters.

But campaign for border controls and deemphasize identity politics and you turn away college graduates.

Do both at the same time and you end up with with no supporters at all. Ask the Dutch Labor Party. Their support fell to 5.7 percent last year.

The alternative

Social democrats who pick sides do better.

Denmark’s and Sweden’s have stemmed defections to the nativist right by taking a hard line on law and order and defending the welfare state.

Italy’s Matteo Renzi and France’s Emmanuel Macron sided with the liberal middle class and also won. Renzi squandered the goodwill of voters by pursuing only tepid economic reforms. Macron isn’t making the same mistake.

Germany’s Social Democrats need to make a similar choice: go after voters of the far-right Alternative and far-left Die Linke, especially in the former East Germany, who feel left behind, or pry moderate and progressive voters away from the Christian Democrats and Greens. It can’t do both.

Tough

Andrea Nahles, the new party leader, has welcomed the report as “tough” but helpful. She admits that last year’s election campaign lacked clarity:

The SPD did not resolve its internal contradictions in areas such as labor-market and environment policy or migration policy.

The question is if it can do so while ruling in a national coalition with Angela’s Merkel Christian Democrats.