The German Election Special

The Future of Democracy

Artwork by Alexander Glandien

Germany has voted. Yet fundamental questions remain open: How does democracy need to change in the face of the climate crisis? How can we create more equitable societies? What is a sustainable political framework for the 21st century? What are the big challenges? What is on the future agenda? We are pleased to offer insights on German politics and beyond, every Friday until a new government is formed – by some of the sharpest minds: THE NEW INSTITUTE collaborators and fellows Rahel Jaeggi, Philip Manow, Christoph Möllers, Jan-Werner Müller, Jonathan White and Lea Ypi. Stay tuned.

The New Government

“It is important to be constructive during this time, to look for alliances, to be close to change – and at the same time, to keep a bit of a distance and see the bigger picture.”

by Georg Diez


And welcome to this last installment of The Challenge Special on the German Election – I hope we provided you with valuable insight and inspiration in this brief interregnum, a period of openness that is rare and promising.

A lot of things seem possible when you take a step back – and we tried to map out what we think should be on the agenda for the new German government of SPD, the Green party and FDP in this crucial time of fundamental transition.

Because this is what the current moment is about: Can Germany reinvent itself, reimagine democracy in the digital age, reconstruct the market economy in the face of climate change and profound inequality, regain the trust of citizens in the process and institutions of the state?

Our fellows weighed in on some of these questions, the promise of Europe, the lasting German separation, variations of liberalism, the need for a value-based foreign policy, the question of work and the politics of Covid – and I want to thank them all for sharing their perspectives, opening new ways of thinking beyond the present moment.

The case of Germany serves as a concrete example for the necessary changes of democracy and economy in the 21st century – and the coalition agreement, 177 pages strong, gives a glimpse not of a new country, but of a new understanding of how politics and society have already changed and will need to change in the coming decades and beyond.

“Progress” (Fortschritt) is the word that the government of Olaf Scholz chose as the key term. “Mehr Fortschritt wagen” is the title of the coalition agreement, a direct reference to Willy Brandt and his dictum “Mehr Demokratie wagen”. And it remains a central question and challenge to define or redefine what “progress” means and move beyond anthropocentric egoism.

The same is true for other underlying assumptions of this oscillating political document. It is a start, not a bold statement; it tries to stay in sight of where people are at the moment, stressed, Covid-shocked, unsure of the future. It is important to be constructive during this time, to look for alliances to build on, to be close to change – and at the same time to keep a bit of a distance, see the bigger picture.

This was the aim of this newsletter, and we want to build on it. We aim to be a learning institution. What do you think about this moment, this time? What are you missing in the discussion? We would like to hear from you and learn, so please feel free to give us feedback and write to us at

We tried to contextualize what is going on, also through additional material. Lieke Fröberg selected the items in the Go Deeper section, in collaboration with Evgeny Morozov’s team at The Syllabus, and for this week she chose – in tune with the transformational mode – a short selection of constructive and inspirational videos, podcasts, texts.

As the young climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti says in the video that shows her at COP26, people need to “open their hearts to listen”.

In this spirit, we invite you along as we try to see what’s coming, what’s necessary, what’s possible.

Very warmly,
Georg Diez

Go Deeper

Video: Whether talking to world leaders at COP26 or the members of the new coalition, getting heard greatly depends on if the people in power ‘find the grace to truly listen’, as this Kenyan youth climate activist expresses powerfully.

Podcast: Evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks talks on the Two for Tea Podcast about our increasingly intimate relations with AI machines (of which sex robots are the least interesting).

Article: The COVID-19 crisis is a crisis of disability, and that has much to do with how we understand disability today, argues Margot Beavon-Collin.

Academic paper: Our fellow Jonathan White recently published on the normative and political aspects of sleep and proposes an approach to circadian justice.

Book: Kenneth Cukier, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, and Francis de Véricourt cooperate on a truly mind-bending book, that explains how we think in models and how we can change those frames to come up with the innovative solutions we so desperately need today.

The Politics of COVID

Democracies are not adequately equipped to deal with large-scale crises like the pandemic and climate change.

by Georg Diez

The pandemic has raised fundamental questions about the way our democracies work, ranging from the role of parliament, the relationship between science and politics, issues of executive overreach, and the fragmentation of public opinion. These questions will remain with us until they are addressed, and they pose a challenge to the new German government. To open pathways towards addressing these issues, THE NEW INSTITUTE maps some of the positions in this contested field of discourse.

The revival of the nation-state

The approach to the Covid pandemic by the European Union was neither coordinated nor effective. We saw the delegation of responsibilites to a civil servant in Sweden (expertification), a separate corona cabinet in France (executive centralization), and shift of leadership to the federal level in Germany (executive federalism). None of these strategies are satisfactory. Open questions remain: How are the role of parliaments to be defined? Is federalism, in Germany, part of the problem or the solution? What if the courts become political actors while the government tries to avert political responsibility? Moreover, as science has acquired an increased significance for politics, due care must be taken for the separation of these spheres.

The specter of climate change politics

Like Covid, climate change is a large-scale crisis for which democracies are not adequately equipped, not least in terms of their ability to adequately represent various positions in society. Apparent is the incapacity of multi-level governance structures or one can say the different temporalities within levels that often impede unified responses. Because of politically willful blindness, technocratic solutions are taking the place of more precise assessments and corresponding responses, to the detriment of all. Will states of emergencies become the general solution, within which exceptions to the rule become the rule (lobby-driven exceptionalism)? This is where right-wing populists come in: They are the anti-necessarians, reluctant to act, increasing in strength. The open question now is whether the pandemic will be exemplary for drastic action on climate change or the reason for inaction.

The silence on the Left

The Left has been strikingly absent as an opposition to state power, a position that has thus been taken up by the Right. Here are some potential reasons for the Left’s silence: it wanted to demonstrate that it can take on responsibility; it played out its critique at an epistemic level; it feared that its criticism of restrictions would be associated with the libertarian right. This is relevant on both theoretical and structural levels: What you say now about the emergency treads a path to what you will say about future emergencies. Where will the Left go in the post-pandemic world? Will it go to a party? Will it be revolutionary? Will it dissipate? Will the left-right divide change for good?

The democratic challenge

Given these multifaceted, urgent, and transnational challenges, moving forward requires redefining and adjusting how democracies function. We can start by trying to answer the following questions:

  • What picture of the political landscape do we arrive at when we add up the handling of the pandemic with the likely effects of climate change on societies?

  • What political lessons can be learned from the pandemic for climate change?

  • How can democracies be prepared to deal with large-scale crises?

  • What kind of democratic institutional setup is most feasible in light of the declining trust by citizens in current arrangements?

  • How can the diminished democratic space between technocratic governance and the libertarian or populist right be reclaimed?

  • What has led to the decline of this space in the first place?

  • How do we explain the alienation within the acquiescent citizenry from political institutions and the decline of a vibrant civil society?

  • What changes within political institutions and beyond are required to adequately represent, reengage, and include citizens?

    Go Deeper

    Paper: Jens Meierhenrich uses the concept of constitutional dictatorship to shed light on constitutional violence, which has played a role in the management of the pandemic, and links it back to colonialism.

Podcast: Why did rich countries intervene extensively to manage the pandemic, but not enough to address climate change? What can we learn from the history of communism? Andreas Malm discusses his latest Verso Pamphlet on this podcast.

Article: With the outbreak of the pandemic, politics developed a new relationship with science. Jana Bacevic asks whether we have entered a post post-truth era, with experts regaining center stage.

The Question of Work by Rahel Jaeggi

“Neoliberalism’s persuasive power has come to an end.”

By Rahel Jaeggi

It is week four of the coalition negotiations in Berlin – and work, a central topic both in ecological and social aspects, seems to be at the margins. Why is that?

This silence is astonishing. Nevertheless, it reflects a widespread silence in society. For example, with respect to the situation in intensive care units, isn’t it clear that we are facing a serious crisis here – a crisis of care work (Pflegearbeit) – that can only be solved by radically improving the working conditions in the health care sector? However, what would count as an improvement is discussed only very superficially or on the basis of criteria that are external to the work process: better pay and more staff.

The situation is similar with respect to the question of precarious and low-paid jobs in general, where the situation is reduced to the question of the minimum wage. Now, wage and the “density” of work, the stress resulting from understaffing, are undoubtedly important issues. But the problems lie deeper in both fields. The criteria for work to be “good work” are more demanding than insinuated here. The merciless economic logic of the market has not only colonized the health and care professions to such an extent that their very substance is threatened; it has also allowed the feeling of precarity to grow far beyond the low-wage sector, thus blocking debates about democratization and political control of work for at least two decades (Hartz reforms).

Work used to have an emancipatory ethos in the SPD, as a means for social integration, participation, and elevation - has the party given up on this?

Social democracy has not completely abandoned this concept. But it seems to be at a loss when it comes to analysing the obstacles and limits for this project. Social democratic parties (even outside Germany) still regard advancement through education as the royal road to social integration. However, this paradigm is losing its persuasive power for two reasons. A look at Southern Europe shows that the paradigm can fail because of its success. There, well-educated academics cannot find jobs that match their level of qualification, shimmy from internship to internship and still have to live with their parents in their mid-30s. On the other hand, a look at the growing low-wage sector shows that the promise of education can quickly become a promise of the future - a future that will never happen for part of society. So instead of focusing on integration through social advancement, we should be talking about the distribution of society's wealth. While social democratic models of advancement are still about meritocracy, i.e., about earning the good life through special achievements, such a redistribution would be about finally giving adequate recognition to the everyday and ordinary achievements – care work in a broad sense – without which no society can exist. And, as Thomas Piketty has pointed out: there is an increasing disproportionality between income generated through work and income generated through wealth. In order to overcome the dramatically growing inequalities in our societies as well as to address the crisis of work, one has to confront this problem as well.

Is this change of the role of work reflecting a change in the nature of capitalism?

That depends very much on how one understands the nature of capitalism. Here it is important to have a look at the different stages capitalism is going through and the different faces that its attempt to balance social contradictions can take on – as well as the narratives that accompany them. Maybe a certain period of (so-called) neoliberalism is in the process of exhausting itself. If the persuasive power that the welfare state developed in the first three postwar decades had faded out and was replaced by the neoliberal rhetoric of individualistic freedom and responsibility, we might right now be confronted with a similar phenomenon with respect to neoliberalism: its persuasive power has eroded or come to an end. This includes the understanding of work that corresponded with this narrative. We are witnessing, thus, the beginnings of a debate about the end of neoliberalism and the paradigms that might replace it.

What are the positions of the Greens and the FDP vis-à-vis the question of work?

The FDP still seems to hold the old myths that everyone is better off when profits rise. This not only fails to recognize the conditions of the functioning welfare state in the trente glorieuse, which were precisely not determined by constantly falling taxes. It also fails to recognize the conditions of contemporary (digital) capitalism and the causes for social inequality. With respect to the Greens, the situation is unclear. At least some of the Greens seem to follow the SPD in their socio-political demands (but see above). But they are not as “anchored” in social democratic positions and the centrality of labor (reflected in a traditionally close relation to the unions) as the SPD. The centrality that a concept like the Unconditional Basic Income has had for (again, at least a considerable group within) the Green party in the past seems to indicate a move away from the classical work-based approach towards social inequality and the so-called social question. Whether the Green party will find a convincing position and an adequate role in addressing the “new social question” (the social question as it is transformed in light of contemporary tendencies) is an open question.

What would be an adequate policy regarding the nature and future of work? Where do you see concrete problems, fault lines, conflicts – and solutions – in the next four years?

The challenges of the next few years will be to reverse the devastation that the economic paradigm (marketization and commodification) has caused in many areas of work. This can only be done – if at all – through political frameworks. On the other hand, whatever policy is possible and desirable here will be challenged by the fact that ecological transformation means massive deindustrialization in many areas. The task of transforming these industrial jobs into more ecological forms of employment is by no means trivial.

Go Deeper

Video: SRF Kultur interviews Jaeggi (in German) about her collaboration with our founder, Erck Rickmers, what is (still) new about Marx, and the crises of capitalism.

Book: In conversation with Nancy Fraser, Jaeggi takes a fresh look at the commonly held assumptions of what capitalism is, and how it can be critiqued, in German and English.

Podcast: Feminist economist Jayati Ghosh argues how unrecognized caregivers (not incidentally disproportionally women) provide the basis for our economy.

Journalism: Aaron Benanav provides a countercurrent to our understanding of work and how to make a living, drawing inspiration from our past.

Academic: This literature analysis by Dominique Méda considers the future of work in 3 scenarios, drawing on the history of the concept of work over the centuries.

The European Perspective by Jonathan White

“The continuation of austerity policy would be a threat to European unity.”

by Jonathan White

What should Europe expect from the next German government?

It’s a defect of how European politics is organised that so much depends on the actions of a few national governments. Key decisions about the future of Europe are taken in the European Council where the biggest countries carry the most clout. The best thing one could seek from the next German government is an effort to reduce what hangs on the German government. That means denationalising EU decision-making – strengthening the European Parliament and supporting any progressive proposals that come out of the ongoing “Conference on the Future of Europe”. Without change to the EU’s structure, the continent depends on the enlightened attitude of a government that only some can elect.

What can it expect?

European politics was not a central issue in the German election, so probably not too much can be expected. The absence of Europe from the election campaigns has an important implication: it means no-one has made any promises. This leaves, first of all, more room for discretion later on – German policy will be what its representatives choose as they go along. Second, it cultivates the idea that EU politics is less about programmatic commitments than about pragmatism and necessity – about handling situations when they arise. The EU is often seen by its citizens with a sense of fatalism – as a world of powerful transnational forces, a place where emergencies arise (eurozone, migration, Covid-19) and decisions are taken on a reactive basis. That sense is compounded when the major actors are unwilling to lay out their plans and priorities in advance.

Would a continuation of the German austerity policy be a threat to European unity or economic recovery?

The continuation of austerity policy would certainly be this, but its discontinuation would not be enough in itself. You could permanently relax the EU’s spending rules and still be left with major inequalities between states and within them. The challenge is not just to avoid increasing debt burdens but to radically reduce what already exists. It’s not just about avoiding further cuts to public services but rebuilding those that have been diminished over many years and extending them into new domains. “Next Generation EU” is much touted as a new departure in EU policy, but in its current form it just scratches the surface. Abandoning austerity would be a start (we’ll see if it happens), but it should only be viewed as a beginning.

What was the lesson of Covid in the EU context?

Critical assessment of the EU’s handling of Covid-19 has tended to dwell on effectiveness. On the economy, borders or vaccines, officials are judged on their capacity or failure to get things done. The risk of assessing the EU by its outcomes is that one downgrades the importance of how things are done. For me, one of the lessons of the period is the extent to which the EU relies on emergencies and unscripted modes of rule to keep the integration process on course.

As in the eurozone crisis, summit meetings and informal forums have offered national governments plenty of scope for working around the EU’s core institutions, while decision-making within supranational authorities (the ECB and Commission) has tended to take irregular forms and draw power into the hands of leaders. In the name of speeding up decision-making, Draghi, Lagarde, Juncker and von der Leyen have generally made decisions with a small team of confidants and through informal networks. There’s a kind of “de-institutionalisation” of power that accelerates in emergency contexts.

Technocratic or emergency rule seems the order of the day - what is the consequence of this shift away from parliamentary control?

It’s tempting to say: let’s judge technocracy and emergency rule by its results. It may be a bit irregular and unaccountable, but if it gets things done then it’s worth it. If it helps the cause of further integration and allows steps to be taken that would otherwise fail, then crisis decision-making is something to embrace.

There are two problems with this though. First, one of the reasons transparency and accountability matter is to allow a wider public to shape which outcomes are considered worth pursuing. There are always value choices to be made, even in a crisis. Which matters more – the integrity of the common market or the quality of public services? Upholding the debt regime or redistributing wealth? Deciding things informally means leaving such matters to the discretion of the few, who in turn are more vulnerable to the pressure of private interests. Second, embracing emergency politics is typically bad strategy. There’s the risk of a backlash, as those who object to the means – concentrated executive power, irregular methods, the denial of choices – end up also resisting the ends pursued and the authority that pursues them.

How does the EU need to change in the face of the imminent crisis like climate change?

One of the lessons of Covid-19 is that countries with strong parliamentary systems have tended to do relatively well. I think that will be the case with climate change too. Talk of crisis tends to encourage an emphasis on executive power, as the actor most able to be fast and decisive. But faced with extreme circumstances, especially a “chronic emergency” like climate change, the key to governing is not speed but consent – debating the options and making a case. Not only does this improve the prospects of compliance, but it offers a way to gain public support for the structural changes needed.

The 2018 IPCC report said limiting global warming to 1.5°C this century “would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” That’s not something for executive discretion. It needs public debate and participation. That’s what parliaments have traditionally been for, and the EU could better reflect that. I think stronger parliaments – national and supranational – remain crucial. But even if they’re necessary, they’re not going to be sufficient. A lot of people are alienated from political institutions in general. If parties and movements can’t draw them in, climate-change action will fall to the technocrats and civil servants, and that will leave it further exposed to rebellion.

Go Deeper

Paper: In this article on de-institutionalisation of power, Jonathan argues that the step back from institutions should not be touted as flexible problem-solving but rather seen as a challenge to accountable rule.

Book: In ‘Politics of Last Resort: Governing by Emergency in the European Union’, Jonathan investigates the nature, rise, and implications of emergency measures as they appears in the transnational setting.

Paper: Jonathan studies how European integration is intertwined paradoxically with ideology, by both rejecting and embracing it; and finds that the ideological hegemony of the recent decades has broken down.

Report: Think tank Dezernat Zukunft shows how the current German “debt brake” is not meeting its objectives and outlines what a new fiscal policy for Germany might look like.

Podcast: Diana Ürge-Vorsatz and Sebastian Levi discuss the decarbonizing of Europe: who factually reduces emissions and how?

A New Foreign Policy by Jan-Werner Müller

“The destruction of democracy in the middle of the EU cannot be understood without the role of German industry.”

by Jan-Werner Müller

What should be the foreign policy agenda of the new German government?

I am hoping that talk of a more “values-based” agenda – primarily by the Greens, and to some extent also the FDP – will not remain an empty promise. Saying this in Germany incurs immediate charges of Gutmenschentum – moralistic preaching that fails to understand the complex realities of world politics. But what we had up until now, supposedly Merkelian realism, was sometimes actually quite unrealistic. Just one example: the incessant call for more dialogue with the Hungarian and Polish governments ended up buying aspiring autocrats more time to consolidate their regimes. And in the end it did not avoid an enormous conflict which right now is shaking the very foundations of the European Union.

How would a Green foreign policy be different from a FDP or SPD version?

The Greens have positioned themselves most clearly as champions of an approach that makes fewer concessions to the dictatorship in Beijing and the electoral authoritarianism in Moscow. They have also been most active in the European parliament when it comes to securing democracy and the rule of law in EU Member States. I don’t mean to malign the other parties, though; they also have politicians who can credibly pursue a “values-based agenda.” But then again, the larger among them also has figures who always seem ready to call for more “dialogue” with Putin no matter what.

What mistakes do you see in the foreign policy of the Merkel government and most recently Heiko Maas of SPD?

For one thing, it’s important to remember just how much Merkel centralized decision-making: it was she who tried to keep the EU together during the Eurozone crisis; she formed a coalition in Europe to put sanctions on Moscow (to her credit); she was the one who undertook the failed gambit of a European investment deal with China, etc. Again, at the risk of, God forbid, “moralizing": an early phase when Merkel did bring up human rights with rulers who absolutely didn’t want to hear about them, the business of German foreign policy was largely business. The de facto appeasement of Viktor Orbán and the destruction of democracy in the middle of the EU cannot be understood without the role of German industry and the benefits it derived from Budapest rolling out the red carpet for car manufacturers in particular.

But it’s easy to talk about values. What should the EU, and Germany in particular, actually do, for instance in the face of defiant governments in Warsaw and Budapest?

EU leaders – including at the Commission – often make it sound as if the problem were a lack of adequate “mechanisms” or “instruments” (note the revealingly technocratic language). But the problem has always been a lack of political will. To be fair, at the height of the Eurozone crisis, it would not have been easy – especially for Berlin – to be seen as dictating both state budgets and the shape of political and judicial systems. But we are now paying a huge price for EU inaction and Merkel’s de facto acquiescence of rising authoritarianism: after some years, when we were always told that Orbán was just “one bad apple” and that the situation would rectify itself, it turned out that Orbán provided a model for autocratization (now being copied in Poland and, to some extent, Slovenia -- and, by the way, Kurz also gave it a bit of a try). Now these governments can help each other in the European Council. Still, cutting funds is a real possibility for the EU Commission and there is, at this point, no reason why it should not be done.

But will that not tear the EU further apart?

This has always been the threat of the aspiring autocrats: if Brussels is seen as too harsh (and if autocrats succeed at telling the story that a “distant liberal bureaucracy” is attacking the nation, of which the ruling parties are the only authentic representatives), then the EU might face a Polish exit or Huxit, for that matter. But the EU remains very popular in these countries, and there has not been a long-standing desire for “independence” as in the UK – on the contrary, “leaving Europe” would be seen as an enormous blow to post-1989 achievements. So the threats are largely empty. And less obviously: doing nothing is not neutral. It’s in effect saying to all Hungarians and Poles who thought that, with accession to the Union in 2004, democracy and the rule of law were also secured, that we West Europeans are phonies, that we never meant it.

The humbling of the West is real – what does this mean for the mission and reality of German foreign policy within this larger Western framework?

About twenty years ago there was talk of the EU as a global “normative power”: whereas the American invaded countries to democratize them, Europeans peacefully transformed countries from within without firing a shot: they could make an offer of membership in the Union which no one would refuse, or at least have other beneficial effects on their immediate neighborhood. If you look at Turkey or Belarus today, or think about the hollowing out of the EU from within, again, it’s important to see that Orbán and allies have a larger project of making the Union a mere common market, pretty much like what some soft British Eurosceptics always wanted. It is hard to see where the normative power is.

But where does that leave Germany in particular?

Clearly, foreign policy did not play much of a role in the elections, and I think it’s fair to say that many Germans would be comfortable with a continuation of Merkel-style mediation among different interests and muddling-through. But there are also calls for what some term a post-dependent Atlanticism, that is to say, a united Europe with more independence from the US. And there are some – again, the Greens above all – who have not forgotten that Emmanuel Macron has been waiting for an answer from Berlin to his ambitious European agenda since 2017, an answer that would also have to not be cynical about climate and migration (remember, we are paying an authoritarian in Ankara to warehouse refugees). Again, to be fair, Merkel did build up significant trust and credit in the last four years in particular, so a new government might have some room for maneuver— if it has the political will and ideas, that is.

Go Deeper

Article: In this piece from December 2020, Müller argues that German chancellor Angela Merkel's legacy will depend on whether she faces down Europe's illiberal saboteurs.

Book: Published this year, Müller’s Democracy Rules emphasizes that next to liberty and equality, uncertainty is a fundamental characteristic of democracy, which allows for creativity.

Video: Müller shows (in a presentation and in dialogue with Tobi Müller) that we need to re-empower citizens by giving new strength and meaning to the media and political parties.

Academic paper: Rebin Fard analyses the geopolitics of German foreign policy and sketches a profile of Germany’s current foreign policy.

Book: In Power and Leadership in European Foreign Policy, Liz Aggestam compares the last two decades of German, French and British foreign policy to discover how these countries converge and diverge in the framing of their own role and the role of the European Union.

Variations of Liberalism by Christoph Möllers

“Greens and FDP together in a government – that’s a new version of a Grand coalition”

by Christoph Möllers

The new power couple of German politics is not SPD or CDU but the duo of Greens and FDP – which more or less can pick their partner in government. What is the meaning of this shift?

I am not sure that they are free to pick. It is rather that they are doubly bound: their constituencies pull them in one direction, while the need for cooperation in another. They both have recognized that they can only solve this through some kind of good will towards each other. Yet, it still seems possible that the SPD comes out as the powerful moderator.

We see two variations of liberalism in Greens and FDP: Can you describe their differences and/or similarities?

Yes, they are contemporary versions of right- and left-liberalism: the first stresses property-rights and critiques covid-measures, while the second focuses on human rights-humanitarianism. I think it is accurate to describe them as "liberal", but not to forget that the right/left divide may be stronger than this common liberalism. To have them together in government is a new version of a Grand coalition.

Where do you see the internal contradictions of Greens and FDP?

Well, the problem may even be that there are not enough to become flexible enough. Internal contradictions can be an advantage for a party if it gains discretion towards its own membership through them. Both parties have a relatively well-defined milieu of militants and a relatively consistent world-view. That may be a danger for a coalition.

What are the opportunities of this liberal alliance on a federal level?

There is a good chance that it can move past the stasis of the last decade, the belief that the most successful plan to stay in power is to do as little as possible. Even though the SPD was also complicit in this, they introduced more political projects than the extremely passive CDU. One reason for the fact that Merkel is so adored lies in the fact that she did not challenge German society. This will hopefully come to an end.

What Germany – and for that matter most countries – needs to change massively in the face of the climate crisis: Are these two parties well equipped to promote that change? Do you see transformative ideas?

The Greens seem to be quite well prepared to address this. They are a party full of nerds that are interested in regulatory details. This is a good thing as we probably need many small to medium range solutions rather than grand schemes.

Which party do you think will be able to advance their interests more in the coalition negotiations? And why?

I actually have no idea. Threesomes are complex. Much depends on the relation between the external relationships within the coalition, and even more on the question of how far each party can tame its base. As I said, Greens and FDP are not as flexible as they claim to be. SPD has a new, quite leftist caucus in Parliament, and most of them are no natural allies of Scholz.

What is the international perspective on this? What is the overall state of liberalism?

The political project of liberalism, broadly understood, is obviously relatively successful in Germany, because some core liberal values are almost universally shared. It is not entirely clear that liberal parties are needed to make them politically relevant.

Go Deeper

Book: Translated from the German "Die Möglichkeit der Normen", Möllers’ work is considered a key contribution to the literature of normativity and norms.

Podcast: A conversation between Möllers and Daniel Binswanger (in German) on Möllers’ new book "Freiheitsgrade" (Degrees of Freedom).

Podcast: Stephen Holmes discusses his book) "The Light that Failed: a Reckoning", which explores the fate of liberalism as it became the hegemonic ideology in the decades that followed the fall of the Berlin wall.

Academic paper: Felix Creutzig critiques the liberalist ideology on its core assumption of autonomy for the individual, its empirical grounds, and its track record.

Academic paper: Ira Katznelson gives a historical account of when and why liberal democracies became normatively appealing.

The German Separation by Philip Manow

“Voters are more volatile in the East, due to lower degrees of party identification. Small events can provoke relatively large voter movements.”

by Philip Manow

What is the main takeaway of this election regarding the internal state of Germany?

Perhaps the election overstates the degree of internal separation. That the Christian Democrats experienced a landslide defeat in East Germany had perhaps more accidental than systematic reasons: among others, first, they had a candidate who could not have been more ‘western’, a prominent Christian Democrat, officially in charge of the integration of the ‘new states’, and who thought it would be a good idea to give his verdict on his co-citizens being all ‘diktatursozialisiert’ (socialized under a dictatorship). Second, the restrictive management of the pandemic triggered anti-government (re)sentiment that many East Germans share. All in all, voters are more volatile in the East, due to lower degrees of party identification. Small events can provoke relatively large voter movements. This time, the right-wing populists and the Social Democrats benefitted, whereas the Christian Democrats suffered.

The result of AfD in the five Eastern German states was staggering: 19.1 percent, second only to SPD with 24.2 percent. One in five - how do you explain this?

That is not a new phenomenon. Already in 2017, the share of populist voters was on average 10 to 11 percent higher in the East than in the West. For one, this is a long-term consequence of the harsh effects of the radical transformation of the society and the economy after 1990: broken biographies, experiences of very high uncertainty, mass-unemployment, etc. This time, the East-West difference might have been strengthened by ‘accidental’ factors’ such as the ones I listed above. But all in all, the AfD seems to have become the new regional protest party of the East, in this role succeeding Die Linke – which had its own, quite substantial problems of mobilizing its electorate.

The result of the other parties was also distinctly different: CDU and SPD performed slightly lower than in the West, the Greens and FDP clearly lower, and the Left party was almost three times as strong. What is the political reality behind these numbers?

Neither the Greens nor the Liberals had ever been strong in the East. Perhaps that’s no surprise when one considers that they, in different variants, voice the interests of the relatively well-off. So again: not much of a surprise here. After the election in Saxony-Anhalt in the early summer of this year, where the Greens barely managed to surpass the five percent threshold, it was clear that the party’s spectacular rise in the opinion polls did not translate easily to the new states.

Will these differences eventually create a problem for the system?

If an ‘Ampel’-coalition will form, i.e., one between Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals, then it will be the duty of the SPD to represent eastern perspectives and interests – something it is capable of doing, not only because of its success in the federal elections in the north of the east, i.e., in Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Pomerania, but also because the Social Democrats govern those two states. A coalition between CDU, Greens and FDP would be much more an exclusively western project.

There is also a divide on the issue of climate versus social security: 27 percent of voters in the West and 30 percent in the East stated that social security was the most important topic, while 24 percent in the West and only 17 percent in the East mentioned climate change. What are the consequences of this?

Of course, different backgrounds and different grievances lead to different policy-saliences. Where economic wellbeing in the past could be less taken for granted, or where continuous growth has been less of an experience in the last 50 to 60 years, post-materialism is not as pronounced. Any party that wants to challenge the AfD’s position as the new protest party in and of the East, will have to take this into account.

Go Deeper

Book: Philip Manow provides a historical account of German capitalism within a comparative framework in "Social Protection, Capitalist Production".

Academic paper: This paper by Eckehard Olbrich and Sven Banisch visualizes the rise of German populism and how it changed the German political space.

Academic paper: Political economist Matthias Diermeier researched how German parliamentarians interact with fake news and found that the far-right populist AfD tailor the truth strategically and with a lesser drive for the ideal of good democratic representation.

Academic paper: This study by Evelyne Huebscher, Thomas Sattler, and Markus Wagner shows that austerity policies influence voter behavior in favour of small and radical parties in Germany.

The Promise of Europe by Lea Ypi

“We need institutions for transnational democracy.”

by Lea Ypi

What is the main takeaway from the German election?

There is a French saying: “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose”. The German election showed that we have a big gap in representation. And this is true for all of Europe: important decisions are not made under national scrutiny, such as during elections. All crises are international and require coordinated responses, where institutions like the European Union (EU) provide some kind of coordinator response. Those institutions, on the other hand, are not responsive to citizen scrutiny – they lack mechanisms of legitimacy.

When you say gap in representation, you are actually saying: democracy doesn't work anymore.

I don't think it ever really worked. But there are moments when this becomes more transparent as a result of pressure from below – moments where democracy becomes completely isolated from the people. Today, political parties are responsive only to capital.

Status quo versus change?

I remember seeing a poll before the election that asked citizens: do you want change? And everyone said, yes, we want fundamental change. But then they picked parties that don’t represent change in terms of how they interact with citizens, how they communicate their messages or the ideas they promote. I feel that an election like this is just rubber stamping for what parties have been doing all along. I just couldn't see what the big differences really were. It all seems very superficial.

What would a different democracy look like?

One of the main things that needs to change is how we conceptualise democracy at the intersection of the national and the international level. Institutions like the EU are important – but the EU really needs to be re-politicised. At this moment, decisions are made apart from citizens. We need a debate about what the EU is and how it works and how it can be made responsive to politics. We need institutions for transnational democracy.

The process of democratising the EU has stalled for years, if not decades.

Something fundamental needs to be done. Let's start with a debate around the nature of the necessary changes, what it will take and what the costs are. We have perspectives from the right, from the left, from the center of the political spectrum. But how can we have a transnational debate around these ideas? People need to know in order to care for things that are really important to their lives.

Europe was glaringly absent in the debates before the election and in the discussion since.

This is really disappointing. Elections are turning into a farce. Every four years you vote for a chancellor, but every chancellor is like the other chancellor. Scholz has a chance of being chancellor because he's like Merkel. There just isn't enough scrutiny and criticism of the old way of doing things, or opening up to new ways of doing things.

What is a path forward for Europe and the EU?

We need to rethink European citizenship to make it more open to politics. A lot of people say the EU that we now have is skewed towards neoliberalism, that it has embedded neoliberalism in its foundations. I feel there may be ways in which we can work with some of the institutions and revise other parts – and turn them into transformative projects by just asking questions: What do you want this institution to do? And how can it change? This could be a progressive cause for a lot of progressive parties.

This would mean European parties.

Exactly. Right now, the main divides are national because elections happen at the national level. We just don't have any mechanisms for making democracy transnational. What is needed are ideological allegiances that cut across national boundaries and parties, coordinating programs with each other and coming up with candidates that don't represent national constituencies.

As a student of Kant and Marx, would you say that we are living in reactionary or in revolutionary times?

Well, we only know the answer to this once things have happened. I think there is hope because there is a crisis. And whenever there is a crisis, there is the possibility for fundamental and radical change. On the other hand, we can't just wait for the crisis to unfold.

We need to act.

A crisis needs agents who are able to articulate grievances – to give these reflections a constructive spin in terms of connecting the problems to visions of change and to alternative ways of thinking about the system. But unfortunately, I don't think we have agents on the left or in the progressive movements who are able to capitalise on this crisis.

Go Deeper

Book: Uncovering the personal in political theory, Lea takes us through her coming of age during the fall of communism in Albania in her new book Free.

Book: Diving into Lea’s careful and original interpretation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, her other soon-to-be-published book is a must-read.

Podcast: Political Scientist Lucy Kinski talks about the European democratic deficit and whether the European Parliament should be the one to fill it.

Journalism: Alberto Alemanno (Professor of European Union Law and Policy at HEC Paris) is optimistic that European democratic innovation is possible – from top to bottom.

Book chapter: THE NEW INSTITUTE’s Fellow Jonathan White analyses Europe’s response to the COVID-crisis as a continuation of emergency policies that are centered on the structures of the European Union.

The Role of the SPD by Philip Manow

“Let’s talk about taxation!”

by Philip Manow

What is the main lesson of the German election?

There are two: the personalization of politics and the stunning volatility of parties’ approval ratings. Of course, both phenomena are interrelated.

What is the relationship between the market and democracy in the evolving German economic setup?

The three or four main topics of the campaign were socio-economic, not socio-cultural: social equality, safe pensions, good employment, and ecological transformation. No surprise that the “old left”, aka Social Democracy, fared better than the new. It is my impression that debates about redistribution are far less aggressive and divisive than those about identity. Maybe public discourse needs a break – so let’s talk about taxation a little longer!

What is the role – or ability – of the SPD to shape that change?

The profound malaise of German politics, at least in my perception, was caused by the lack of a viable alternative to a CDU-led government since 2005. It is a disaster for democracy if the democratic mechanism of alteration no longer functions. The big, extremely important contribution of the SPD for the future functioning of Germany’s parliamentary democracy has been that it can now credibly offer a real change in power (for the first time in 15 years!). Perhaps the rules governing German politics from the 1950s to 1980s can somehow be re-installed. Back then, the liberals enabled a shift in power from the CDU to SPD and back again. Now the Greens and liberals are together the new “king-makers”. Maybe if they enter an “Ampel” now, then they can travel to “Jamaica” in four years? This option alone frees Germany from the totally depressing outlook of an eternal CDU-technocracy.

What are the main tasks for the new government? And what is the best coalition to achieve this?

Its main task is to end the nearly two-decade long political paralysis of German politics. A red-green-yellow coalition would be the best to achieve exactly that.

The Rise of the Liberals by Christoph Möllers

“There is an amazing consensus about ends – but a clear conflict about means”

by Christoph Möllers

What is the main lesson of the German election?

On the one hand, there is a high degree of consensus: the CDU, SPD, FDP and Greens stand relatively close together compared to other countries. But there is also a keen sense for defending their differences, which makes it hard to form a government and will make it even more difficult to govern in a meaningful sense. People perhaps have a bit narrow idea of how political representation works and this sense is nourished by the form of proportional representation. And there is still a divide between right and left, but no majority for one camp.

The FDP surged: What does the election mean for liberalism in Germany and beyond?

Well, did they surge? They won 0,7% where the SPD and Green each won more than five. And they always win when the CDU is weak. They are the backup option for conservatives. To be sure, they had a good result four years ago and this they kept. They have a solid basis, which represents a rather neo-liberal version of liberalism that still believes in austerity. But they do not seem interested in enlarging their scope of ideas and, with it, their electorate.

What are the sources of the present liberalism? What are its conflicts and contradictions?

Liberalism in the wider sense is a political philosophy that has spread out over the party systems: there are left-liberals, neo-liberals, and even remains of old 19th century national liberalism. The FDP won some profile in the Corona crisis for its moderate critique of the measures taken against the pandemic. The question is: will they be able to think individual freedom broader than property rights? Today we know that the development of individual capabilities depends on a project that needs a supportive community. This is the way we have to think about liberalism. But will the FDP develop in this direction?

Is liberal democracy the best tool to achieve meaningful change in the face of the climate crisis? How would it need to change to be more adaptable or actionable?

I still think that the justification of liberal democracy must be normative – not instrumental – even in the face of the deadly climate crisis. It is true that in the German case there are many veto players, coalition partners, the Bundesrat, the chamber of the states and so on, which makes decisive action difficult. The same, even more so, is the case in the EU. But this is about democratic reform, not about the substitution of democratic governance with something else.

What are the main tasks for the new government? And what is the best coalition to achieve this?

There is an amazing consensus about ends: climate politics and modernization of digital and analogous infrastructures are the tasks. I’m happy the country can define them so easily! But there is a clear conflict about means: is this to be financed through more taxes or more austerity? That depends on your political preferences. Even from a conservative point of view, the CDU seems to be worn out after 16 years of governance. If this is the case, there is, faute de mieux, only one coalition left: the SPD, Green, and Liberals. The question will be how the liberals can cope.

The Future of the Left by Rahel Jaeggi

“We should better not expect too much change from established politics and rather count on social movements”

by Rahel Jaeggi

What is the main lesson of the German election?

There is an old anarchist slogan attributed to Emma Goldman: “If elections would change anything at all, they’d make it illegal.” But the lesson is not to turn to a kind of romantic anarchism or to give up on party politics completely. Instead, we should better not expect too much change from establishment politics and rather count on social movements. They are the ones to push forward the topics that we as a society need to confront. Fridays for Future had an immense impact: thanks to them, every party in Germany (with one exception) now pays at least lip service to the necessity of an ecological transformation. At the same time, no party program was endorsed by the movement as sufficient for the Paris Climate Goals. We will require ongoing efforts to drive climate policy forward.

Any other insights?

Another important and impressive example of social movements is the victory of the petition “Deutsche Wohnen enteignen” in Berlin. This initiative managed to bring the “right to city” and affordable living back on the political agenda, problems that are part of what one could call “the new social question”. It put on the table the even broader question of property and the limits of the market. The one million votes in favour of expropriation are one of the rare political success stories to build hope on, even though here too there will be resistance from the new city government led by Franziska Giffey of the SPD. And just like the climate movement, here the future lies in continuing to pressure for change and implementation.

What was the role of capitalism during this election campaign?

Capitalism was the elephant in the room. As usual we were faced with two stories: According to the first, capitalism is part of the solution; according to the other, it is part of the problem. However, these issues are rarely discussed in the open and they are not discussed thoroughly enough. Take for example the question of whether the ecological question can be solved technologically and by means of market mechanisms or whether it requires a more profound restructuring of our economic system, and, as it is, our form of life. This is obviously at the heart of current political conflicts as well as of the choices of direction that lie ahead of us.

What do you suggest?

It seems obvious to me that we are in a situation that requires a fundamental and radical rethinking of the way we live together, the way we work together, the way we consume, own, think, and the way we organize our society and economy. This applies to the ecological question as well as to the different types of “social questions” we are confronted with. It is especially true for the interrelation of the two. Regardless of what happens in the upcoming weeks, it is not likely that the radical transformation our society so dramatically needs will be part of the story. Rather I fear that it will be a tame “let’s go on like this with a little difference.”

In this Gramscian moment: Why is it so hard for the new to be born?

Marx says that a new society can be found in the womb of the old. Either this is not true as of yet or we’re facing a difficult, obstacle-ridden birth and we are in need of some well-equipped and experienced midwifes. I might sound overly pessimistic, but from my perspective we have reached the moment that shows that a crisis does not necessarily lead to a turning point. As we have been witnessing, a crisis can perpetuate itself, resulting in a tenacious situation of indecision and inaction. As the German author Thomas Brasch has written: “The old does not work anymore, neither does the new.”

The Collapse of Conservatism by Jan-Werner Müller

“Polarization is a populist strategy; it is not the same as conflict”

by Jan-Werner Müller

What is the main lesson of the German election?

There might be more than one important lesson, but, then again, there’s a limit to how much one election can teach us. First, democracies are not fated to have all elections turn into culture wars. It is still possible to have a classic center-right versus center-left contest, partly prompted by the socio-economic problems that have become even more visible during the pandemic. And second: this is, by and large, not the kind of contest that favors the far right. It is still deeply concerning that a far-right party polls in excess of ten percent, but given the discontent with the management of the pandemic, conventional wisdom would have suggested their share of voters would be much higher.

What are the reasons for the collapse of German conservatism?

That’s a really good – which is also to say difficult – question. Here conventional wisdom tells us Merkel hollowed out the CDU ideologically. While not completely untrue, this diagnosis overlooks two things. First, her style of mediating among different interests was actually the classic approach of Christian Democrats (going all the way back to Catholic social doctrine aiming at a harmonious society, as opposed to socialists who supposedly only want sharpened class conflict). Second, no one else has really been able to fashion a coherent vision for the center-right, which, I would say, has lost its compass in many European countries and therefore is so often willing to yield to the temptation to offer itself as far right lite.

What are the consequences of the collapse of German conservatism? Where is German conservatism heading and where can new ideas come from?

I can speculate a bit about consequences, but not about ideas, since I’m not in the business of producing programs for Christian Democrats. The fact that the rightward signals by figures like Merz – not to speak of Maaßen who tried to fashion a kind of AfD lite – have not yielded results should make conservatives think twice about the kind of strategy that so many center-right parties have adopted in Europe, namely, mainstreaming far-right talking points and programmatic commitments. As there might still be voices calling for such a strategy, it is important to point out why it’s wrong – normatively deeply wrong. And as just suggested, it also does not work in practice: citizens often go for the original, rather than vote for a pale copy.

Why is German party politics less polarized or populist than in other democracies?

There are many reasons, but let me highlight one. Polarization is a populist strategy; it is not the same as conflict, even sharp conflict, which is entirely legitimate and ideally even productive in a democracy. Populists consciously try to divide citizens into homogenous blocks and then insinuate that only some citizens should count as “das Volk”, or what populists often call the “real people.” The AfD has been trying this, but to be really successful, the strategy needs more traditional elites accepting populist claims – think about established Republicans’ support for Trump – and also a strong presence in the public sphere – think Fox. So far, we do not have that kind of constellation in Germany.

The Life of the Party by Jonathan White

“There is no reason to be sanguine about a coalition of misfits.”

by Jonathan White

What is the main lesson of the German election?

What stands out to me is the extent to which Germans don’t expect much ideological coherence from the composition of their future government. Few of the coalitions that could emerge in the coming days and weeks are easy to define or defend in programmatic terms. A “traffic-light” coalition of the SPD, Greens and FDP, a prospect that seems the most likely to many, is distinctly hard to get a grip on. The tensions are obvious – promoting both social justice and neoliberalism at the same time, while also hoping to be a platform for environmentalism. More than just a compromise, it cuts across the great political divides of the age. The name is a good one: if a traffic-light shows red, yellow and green simultaneously, you’re going to have problems on the road.

The same difficulties apply, though not necessarily in greater measure, to the idea of another Große Koalition as well as other variations on this theme (“Kenia”, “Deutschland”). Such formations make little sense, other than as a way to divide up the spoils of office. At least “Jamaica” or “Red-Green-Red” have a touch of ideological plausibility.

Under Merkel, tensions of this kind could be overlooked. Her strong reputation and “pragmatic” credentials meant people could ignore them. She embodied the unity of the government. Whether such tensions will be more consequential in the next government remains to be seen. But it is striking how normalised they are in political commentary, no doubt one of the legacies of the Große Koalitionen.

I don’t see this as evidence of a decline of ideology; on the contrary, it is because the parties have some ideological substance that the potential coalitions look so contorted. It’s more a story of political fragmentation – the weakening of the old Volksparteien and the spread of support across others. These strange coalitions become thinkable because it seems ever harder for one or two parties to command a large share of the vote on their own.

Is the party system still the best way to organize democratic politics?

I think it is, but this pattern of odd alliances puts a strain on it – more than we tend to acknowledge. It makes it much harder for parties to uphold the commitments they define themselves by. It challenges their capacity to maintain clarity in what they stand for and to act on it.

Some might say: that’s not a problem. This is proportional-representation. The point is to give voice to diverse opinions. Who wants ideological politics anyway? Responsible government is about pragmatism and compromise rather than principle and consistency. But I think that’s the wrong way to see it. First, it makes it hard to break from the status quo. Anyone who cares about rising inequality or climate change, and many Germans do, is going to be disappointed by a coalition that pairs incompatible parties and is thus likely to frustrate efforts at change. “Polarisation” has a bad name – it tends to be invoked to describe everything that’s risky about a Red-Red-Green coalition – but polarisation is in some ways the essence of democracy. It’s what happens when people try to take on the status quo and change things for the better. And it’s hard to achieve meaningful polarisation if the government is a coalition of incompatibles.

Second, odd alliances dilute what parties stand for. When a party enters a coalition it inevitably gets coloured by its partners – it ends up putting its name to policies at odds with its electoral program. The sharper the compromises, the higher the stakes. If voters become convinced that parties have little commitment to the goals they espouse, the legitimacy of the system is weakened. Whether disaffection takes the form of rising non-voting, or the embrace of movements that define themselves by their hostility to everyone else, there are some long-term risks for democracy.

You make the case for minority governments: Why?

Minority governments, where the party or parties in charge don’t command a majority of seats, tend to be viewed sceptically. People associate them with instability and weakness (not just in Germany). It’s fair to say one would not choose them over a cohesive majority government. Compared to a coalition government composed of ideologically mismatched parties, they have some attractive features.

First, they are likely to do less damage to the ideological profile of the parties involved. With majorities sought around specific issues, there is less pressure on parties to support what they cannot coherently support. These are coalitions of the willing. Whether to approve or reject a set of proposals will be something that opposition parties can decide with reference to their commitments, and justify to their members and supporters in these terms. Given the likely distribution of seats in Bundestag, a wide range of such temporary coalitions would be possible. So a party’s capacity to maintain its principles is stronger.

Second, such an arrangement means clearer lines of responsibility. Law-making proceeds on a case-by-case basis, which means how party representatives choose to align themselves on the difficult decisions that require compromise will be evident at the moment of voting. Thirdly, this also means a stronger legislature. The size of the German government’s majority in recent years has often allowed it to take contentious decisions without much debate (e.g., during the eurozone crisis). A minority government would have to argue its case all the way.

What are the main tasks for the new government? And what is the best coalition to achieve this?

These election results permit more than one kind of minority government. Leaving aside a very minoritarian arrangement – i.e., the SPD alone – one is probably looking at the SPD and Greens (possibly plus Left) on the one hand, or the CDU/CSU and FDP on the other. Both would seem relatively coherent formations. I know which I would choose, but it’s not my business. In any case, I don’t expect to see a minority government – it seems less likely for now than in 2017. I will reiterate the more general point though: just because Germany has had a string of Große Koalitionen (indeed, especially given this point of departure), there is no reason to be sanguine about a coalition of misfits.

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