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Merkel's new middle

The rejection of the supervised society needs a new self-confident middle class. By Paul Nolte

Does anyone remember? Just seven years ago victory was won by a Red-Green (SPD-Green Party) project for social liberalisation and ecological modernisation, committed to the joint agendas of the 68er movement and the new social movements of the 70s and 80s. But the victories of autumn 1998 and four years later were also won by a Gerhard Schröder and an SPD that had successfully pandered to the "new middle" of German society. Drawing inspiration from the British example, the Social Democrats courted the aspiring middle classes in a dynamic service and information society, the new high-ranking employee elite, and the league of IT engineers, graphic designers and teaching professionals. The green coalition partner, soon to be sneered at as the new party for top earners, was already well established in such circles. The programmatic term "new middle" aimed at winning voters from Helmut Kohl's conservative middle. But the SPD wanted more – namely to prove that hard-working and not poorly paid people ranging from young to middle-aged could be won over by progressive politics. And more still: they wanted to become the party representing a responsible society that was beyond just contentedly looking after its own interests.

This memory has not just faded, it has been eradicated. There's no point talking about the middle, either new or old, any longer, because there is no such thing, now that society has polarised so dramatically. That at least is the impression which has increasingly taken root in public debate and collective consciousness in recent years. Our description of the society we live in has changed enormously. Instead of being led morally and economically by self-confident middle classes, Germany, when it looks in the mirror, sees itself torn in two extremes. There seems to be nothing left except the unemployed and the 'locust' classes, and in the middle a gaping void. (SPD chairman Franz Müntefering recently caused a sensation by comparing international hedge funders to locusts.) Anyone looking at Germany from the outside must have the impression that people on unemployment money and people heading that way in the near future make up the majority of the population. So dark is the mood. What is going on? We should not just fixate on the possible cabinet of the future, without first asking some questions about the society looking to bring about this change of government.

There is one thing that without a doubt belongs on the credit side. In recent years the media and the politicians have stopped covering up and sweet-talking social conditions. The black square spanning job market crisis, family crisis, immigration and new mass culture is developing new zones of marginality, poverty and lack of opportunities. Mind you, these have nothing to do with the SPD-Green labour market reform programme, "Hartz IV". They have been developing for two decades or more. The going term to describe this is the "new underclass" and the problem is multi-facetted, with underclass TV being the latest aspect of it to spark heated discussion. Public attention has been so successfully turned around that we now only talk about our society in terms of poverty and under-classes here, and million incomes there. But one now wishes the government's recently announced second report on poverty and wealth would be accompanied by a middle class report, which would deflect attention back to the widespread and completely normal levels of wealth in the Federal Republic. The debate about Hartz IV took this distorted perspective to new levels. In a situation in which everyone firmly believes in mass poverty, the government is not even capable of coming up with an effective reply to the accusation that they are deliberately trying to impoverish vast swathes of the population.

The real dilemma, which is increasingly becoming a fundamental political problem of the first order, stems not from the diagnosis but from the treatment: it has to do with counter strategies, interventions into society. That one cannot tackle new forms of poverty, for example among the much referred to "less educated classes", with the classical instruments of redistribution is a lesson quickly learned. It is much more an issue of strengthening people – as the new SPD slogan says – and providing them as early in life as possible with the cultural resources that enable them to lead independent and responsible lives in the widest sense. These skills range from earning capabilities to raising children and being able to feed them properly. On the horizon we see a community-minded group of responsible citizens who don't need state care and supervision, and have the will and skill to ascend to the middle of society.

But unfortunately this state cannot come about on its own. No, first of all it seems to need, and this is precisely the problem, intervention in the form of state regulation, education and supervision. In the meantime we have pinpointed so many deficits and problem zones, from smoking teens to parents incapable of raising their kids, that the sum of the proposed solutions threatens to push ad absurdum the objective of a freer and more responsible society. Because the process of healing society with new forms of intervention has long reached far beyond the narrow slice of people who are dependent on support – the majority of society also has to approve the new forms of supervision and education. Even though personal responsibility has been proclaimed essential in everything from educational policies and consumer protection to health policies, it is no longer required. The citizens are no longer able to cope on their own, so it's up to the state to maintain the status quo. So everyone has to be told what food to eat, that they're not allowed to smoke, and the bizarre climax of the debate is that three year olds are legally required to attend school. Once upon a time Red-Green stood for a project of liberalisation. Are we submitting ourselves to the new project of a supervised society? And does this rhetorical self-impoverishment lead anywhere other than a dead end?

It is a commonplace in Germany that elections are decided by the middle. By that is meant the pragmatic liberal in-between zone that tends either a little to the Left or a little to the Right, depending on the prevailing zeitgeist. Whether we are now seeing a new conservative mood is questionable. Angela Merkel's CDU is not as alluring to voters as Helmut Kohl's was in 1982. And there is no longer a clearly defined conservative wing in the Union – the lines of conflict are now differently drawn. Yet the upcoming federal elections will certainly be fought out in the middle: for the terrain of the social middle so successfully wooed by Schröder and Fischer in the early years of SPD-Green leadership.

That is why it is illusory to think that in order to win on September 18, the parties will have to outdo each other in reaching out to the underprivileged, the long-term unemployed, the great new underclass. The real dynamic comes from the middle classes, as was impressively demonstrated by the recent elections in North-Rhine Westphalia. While public attention was focused on the state's crisis zones, on the Ruhr Area - the former industrial heart of Germany - and on the attractiveness of the CDU for disappointed workers, the fate of the state, and with it the Red-Green coalition, was decided elsewhere: outside the Ruhr Area and outside the big cities, in the affluent and growing suburban sprawl along the Rhine, as well as in Eastern Westphalia. In the Neuss and Mettmann districts to the west and east of the state capital Düsseldorf, and in the prosperous districts of Gütersloh and Rhine-Sieg, the CDU made above average gains of around ten percent among middle class swing voters.

A decisive question is what the parties will offer this group of voters. The SPD will have the hardest time of it. For although people do not want to reject the Red-Green project outright, they are also fed up with a stagnant society increasingly looking like a sad bunch of losers whining for more state paternalism, instead of finally taking the bull by the horns making real changes. But how should chairman Franz Müntefering's SPD rejuvenate its concept for a new middle in coming weeks? The Greens have it easier, being the party of the altruistic middle-class whose hands are unsoiled by the affairs of the business world. They have been able to ride the remarkable twin horses of appealing to wealthy voters as a party of the weak and socially disenfranchised. Yet as the vote in North-Rhine Westphalia shows, that will no longer suffice to win over undogmatic younger voters who didn't benefit from the classic Green socialisation experiences of student revolt and the peace movement.

Still, it will not be easy for the opposition parties to win over the middle classes. A battle has already begun and insinuations are flying that the group which best serves the naked interests of the wallet will have its nose in front. It is imperative to reorient the German political model more firmly toward the middle classes, the active, relatively well-educated and well-situated majority. But that by no means implies that these groups believe a new government will bring them relief above everything else. For them the touchstone will be a serious tax policy whose first criterion must be: no sleazy promises of tax cuts! For while the brunt of the income tax burden will be borne by them - even after the tax reforms of the Red-Green government - the predominent mindset of these potential swing voters vis-a-vis the state is not one of disdain. Because there is more at stake here than the numbers on a payslip. Also at stake is the search for a social model that could replace that of Red-Green.

So the question of the middle involves more than the strategic question about majorities, or the next majority in Germany. It aims to find a strategic concept for society. Should this concept aim at the social margins, or take root in the middle and radiate from there? For the long-neglected middle classes it represents a chance, but also a challenge. Because they have made themselves comfortable in the slipstream created by the public polarisation. But their responsibilities will include more than (hopefully) paying taxes, cultivating their bodies and keeping their cars and gardens tidy. No reform will be successful unless Germany can shake off the torpor, in which a passive population expects the state to provide everything and sloughs off all responsibility onto the politicians. If the new middle does not take on an active role in a responsible and mature society, very little will be gained even with a change in government.


The article originally appeared in German in the Tagesspiegel on May 29, 2005.

Paul Nolte is professor of modern history at the International University Bremen. He is author of "Die Ordnung der Deutschen Gesellschaft" and "Generation Reform", both published by C. H. Beck Verlag.

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