The Rise of the Liberals

Photo by Sabine Vielmo


The Rise of the Liberals

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

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.


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