Variations of Liberalism

Photo ba Sabine Vielmo


Variations of Liberalism

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

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.


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.


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