Election 2004 – Ripple Effects

There’s an interesting article in the current edition of The Economist on German politics. It seems that Germans are weary of number-crunching secularist wonks, and would rather talk values instead.

Since the article is for subscribers only, I’ve reprinted in in the extended entry.

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It’s values, Dummkopf!
Nov 25th 2004 | BERLIN
From The Economist print edition

Weary of number-crunching wonks, Germans want to talk values instead

AS EVERY lover of Bach or Beethoven knows, a Leitmotiv is a dominant theme in a piece of music. What, then, is Leitkultur, the new buzzword in German debates? Roughly, it means the guiding or dominant culture, or set of values, in a society. A growing number of Germans think their country needs one.

The very fact that people are discussing values more, including patriotism, is a big and recent change. For most of the past two years, politicians and pundits were talking technicalities; they sparred over arcane proposals to fix the economy. Since mid-November, however, there has been a palpable shift away from this dull techno-talk. Pragmatic approaches are being played down in favour of ethical ones.

This site posts debate about Leitkultur. Der Spiegel publishes an article (in German) responding to Gerhard Schröder’s comments on the issue. The OECD reports on Germany. Germany is hosting the 2006 World Cup. See also the Chancellor’s homepage, the SPD, the CDU and the CSU.

Managers are criticised for lacking patriotism when they transfer jobs abroad; families and children are back in the headlines; even religion is staging something of a comeback. Germany’s leading tabloid, Bild, for instance, has started selling a special edition of the Bible – and its editors got an audience with the pope to launch it.

Some symptoms of this shift are rather superficial. For example, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder has been showing more of his human side. In a recent talk show, he spoke of what it meant to him to have adopted a child from Russia. He has denounced his critics as unpatriotic, a new line of attack. His government is also working on a huge media campaign in the run-up to the 2006 soccer World Cup, which Germany will host. The object, aside from boosting Mr Schröder’s election chances that year, is to improve the country’s image abroad as well as the mood at home. Germans are being told to believe in themselves and the things they stand for, rather than fretting over fiscal drag and social-security payments.

Among the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU), too, there are signs that moral issues – including matters that might hitherto have been private – count more. In Baden-Wurttemberg, the contest between two CDU candidates to be the next state premier has turned very personal. One of them, Annette Schavan, issued an angry denial on November 23rd of rumours that she was a lesbian.

If values are in and economic technicalities out, some of the reasons are obvious. In America, George Bush has surprised Europeans by showing that it is possible to win elections by focusing more on moral issues and less on monetary ones. And in Germany, as everywhere in Europe (see Charlemagne), the challenge posed by immigration and political Islam is forcing people to think about the axioms a liberal democracy must uphold. There is much discussion about how immigrants should be helped to accept German Leitkultur.

Perhaps more than anyone else, it is Angela Merkel, the CDU leader, who has sensed, and driven forward, the public demand for the politics of values. For nearly a year, she toyed with modelling herself on Margaret Thatcher and her radical economic reforms. But in her most recent speech, she tried to underpin her reform plans with talk of ethics and the nation. At a party congress in December, she will offer a homily on “German interests”, shifting her focus to loftier matters than inflation and well-funded pensions.

One reason for the emphasis on ideals is prosaic: Germany’s economic reforms, at least for now, have run their course. Mr Schroder has for some time thought Germans are tired of big structural changes and need a break. Ms Merkel’s reform plans have also hit a roadblock. A quarrel about health-care reform between the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), ended with an incoherent fudge. This wrecked her plans for taking power with a big reformist bang and has forced her, and the CSU leaders, on to softer ground.

Politics aside, there may be something deeper at work. Germany has always boasted a peculiar mix of liberal and conservative values. Particularly since unification, it has by American standards been quite a secular country, though less so than other west European countries. Only a third of Germans deem it necessary to believe in God to be moral (see chart). Institutions such as family, marriage and the nation resonate less among younger Germans. At the same time, most Germans have looked to government to protect the environment and guarantee a social balance. However, this mix seems to be changing – and becoming more “American”. People are less inclined to see government as the solution to most problems, and traditional values and concepts are coming back, says Paul Nolte, the author of an influential book on the metaphysics of economic reform.

National identity is only one of the issues regaining salience, he adds. Having children is again considered important, though not necessarily in a traditional family; people are increasingly unhappy about egotism in society and irresponsible behaviour by the mass media; and even leftists now recognise the role of religion in society. Some of this reflects insecurity in an era of rapid change. But Warnfried Dettling, another pundit, sees a different reason. The government can no longer make much difference in big questions of foreign policy and the global economy. So people want it to focus on things nearer home, such as education and immigration.

It is still an open question whether Germany’s politicians will simply use value-talk as a handy electoral tactic – or integrate it into their long-term strategy, and ultimately put new values into practice, says Matthias Machnig, a political consultant. Perhaps, as with many other things, a development that starts big in America will eventually, and in a more moderate form, happen in Germany too.

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