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Olaf Scholz resurrected Germany’s Social Democrats – what are the lessons for progressives elsewhere?

Ian Russell
partner at Beacon Media, a progressive media and digital campaign firm in Washington, DC

After a decade and a half in the political wilderness, German Social Democrats (the SPD) made a dramatic comeback in Sunday’s election and have the opportunity to define Social Democracy for the 21st century. Now the largest party in the Bundestag, they are strongly favoured by voters to form the next government. Their resurgence is directly attributable to their selection of a chancellor candidate in Olaf Scholz who campaigned with a laser-like focus on competency in facing Germany’s challenges and respect for its citizens. While no campaign can be divorced from its specific context, Scholz’s victory has many lessons for progressives going forward.

In 17th century France, Cardinal Mazarin noted (in a quote that is often misattributed to Napoleon) that one must not ask of a general “Is he skilful?” but rather “Is he lucky?”. Scholz’s SPD was both. The candidate and his key advisors – including top aide Wolfgang Schmidt and SPD general secretary Lars Klingbeil – developed a theory of the case early in the campaign: with Angela Merkel leaving the stage, a pool of voters would become available who had voted for Merkel in past elections but had no lasting loyalty to her party (the conservative Christian Democratic Union, CDU, and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, CSU). They dubbed this voter bloc ‘Merkel SPD voters’, a play on the ‘Reagan Democrats’ of the 1980s.

They believed that Olaf Scholz, the vice-chancellor and finance minister in the outgoing ‘grand coalition’ government, was uniquely suited to win over these voters. As finance minister, Scholz had exuded calm competence as he led the effort to shepherd Germany’s economy – the largest in Europe – through the Covid-19 pandemic and spearheaded the development of the EU-wide rescue plan as well. He had learned from the failure of past progressive leaders to effectively address the crisis ravaging the personal economies of working families during the last recession and was determined to not make that same mistake on his watch during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Before his time in the federal government, he served as the mayor of Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city, where he earned a reputation for being practical and proficient. While progressive, he didn’t seek to score points, he rather focused on delivering. On the campaign trail, he reassured voters that his proven track record made him the one candidate they could trust to handle the challenges of the future.

Scholz centred his campaign around the theme of ‘respect’, regardless of class, race, or region. His campaign platform – focused on clear-cut ways to improve people’s lives like raising the minimum wage, building more affordable housing, protecting pensions, and addressing climate change – shows that he has clearly grappled personally with the challenges of redefining Social Democracy for the modern era. This means that his likely ascendancy to the chancellery will provide a roadmap for progressives to follow. 

The results on Sunday vindicated Scholz’s theory of the case: the SPD picked up 2 million voters who had supported the CDU/CSU in 2017, and the 7 per cent two-party swing from the CDU/CSU to the SPD was the largest in the German republic’s history. He and his party now face the task of negotiating a so-called ‘traffic light’ coalition with the Greens and the free-market liberal Free Democrats. Scholz also faces the challenge of rebuilding trust in the SPD brand: while the final polls before the election showed that around 47 per cent of voters preferred Scholz to be the next chancellor, the SPD only received 25.7 per cent of the party vote (Germans have two votes on their ballot, the first for directly-elected members from each of the 299 constituencies and the second for overall party control of the Bundestag). Scholz has put his party back in the game, but the game is far from over. He must deliver for those who put him into government while persuading those who told pollsters they trust him to be chancellor, but couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the SPD. If he can do this, he will be a transformational figure – both in Germany and beyond – because he will show progressives how to win: have a plan to improve people’s lives and, most importantly, show them respect.

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