Cultural divides as a political challenge Take Heart, SPD!

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What has gone wrong here? It’s easy to pose the question in such a simple way. But if there were a quick and efficacious fix, the problem would long ago have ceased being a problem. That is especially the case because the question has been recurring with increasing urgency for decades. In any case it certainly has come up again now because the German Social Democratic Party has provided the chancellor for over two years, yet its approval ratings have been tanking, with those of the chancellor leading the way down. And all of the possible explanations for the drop, whether they concern matters of personnel, programs, or poor communications, miss the mark. 

Whatever has gone wrong here also has deeper social and cultural causes that filter into what we call everyday politics. But perhaps the causes of the SPD’s malaise are too deep-seated to play a direct role in everyday affairs or even to be perceived consciously. To begin with a quite superficial observation: Why do parties, not excluding the Social Democrats, tend to pick colorless, uncharismatic, and sometimes apparently narrow-minded characters for even the top leadership posts? That is a systemic problem and not merely a topic for quotidian debates.

Melting pot for different subcultures

At least since its pragmatic pivot of 1959, when it adopted the Bad Godesberg program, the SPD »system« has been about building bridges and moving the country forward. For decades the classical social milieus have been melting away or at least becoming more internally diverse. That includes the working-class milieu, the Social Democrats‹ traditional voter base. Once the process of diversification had gone far enough, the party became a melting pot for different subcultures. This was especially true in the late Sixties when young, left-wing students joined the party, leading initially to the now legendary  yet wildly exaggerated conflicts over programs. 

One – and surely not the least – consequence was a broadening of the spectrum, especially due to the success of the SPD’s school policy in encouraging upward mobility through education. At the same time, this broader spectrum meant that cultural bridges had to be built even within the SPD, not just when party programs were discussed at party conferences, but when questions of style and taste were involved. Once the Green Party was founded by the »green generation« in the Eighties, older, more tradition-minded SPD members began to complain that, when in doubt, the younger generation of party officials might feel greater affinity to the green cause (or at least to what was thought of as green back then) than they would to the party stalwarts in the old neighborhoods. And of course, this was happening at a time when the old guard’s interests, a narrow range in any case, were becoming less important to society as a whole.

Meanwhile, these cultural divides have become sharper still across the entire society but especially in relations between city and country, leading to feelings of intense mutual estrangement. In other words, the party of bridge-building is irreplaceable yet constantly being called into question. Expressed in an image: When a fault line grows wider over time, foundations threaten to crumble and the bridges over the widening chasm may collapse. In the political sphere, the well-meaning and committed then perceive all this as highly unfair--maybe downright inexplicable--because they themselves have been fighting against such polarization.

The prevailing emotional tone

That has a lot to do with the prevailing mood today – at any rate if one does not seriously believe that waning approval ratings after only two years of the traffic light coalition [SPD, Free Democrats and the Greens, ed.] can be explained merely by noting how well or poorly political decisions have been communicated to the public or by the strengths and weaknesses of specific individuals. There is such a thing as a prevailing emotional tone in society, a holistic image, a feeling that one belongs – or doesn’t belong; a problematic of proximity or distance to concrete politics, from which people’s thresholds of frustration arise. The problem is this: Generally speaking, the fuses that connect the source of frustration to the impending emotional explosion have become extremely short. Just think of the farmers‹ protests over the government’s plans to cut subsidies on diesel fuel used in agriculture.

This is far from being an issue that touches only the Social Democrats. All of those who are trying to locate society’s center know the problem. Soon enough, the same thing will happen to the new party formed by Wagenknecht and Lafontaine, which hopes to hit the mark of popular opinion by its right-left-right oscillations. And here we are faced with questions in relation to which the classical understanding of sharply differentiated right-left categories no longer makes as much sense as it used to. For example, left-wing labor union positions and anti-woke campaigns are not mutually exclusive. Nor are neoliberal faith in markets and cultural cosmopolitanism.

»The distinction between structure and culture provides additional help«

The distinction between structure and culture provides additional help. Attitudes toward the major structures and systems of society (the economy, the state, property matters, tax policy, war and peace) can be quite independent of the cultural loyalties that shape their lives. That is all the truer as the asynchrony between urban-modernist and rural-immobile milieus continues to intensify to the point (one dictated by structural conditions) where that they barely acknowledge each other’s presence in society anymore. Here, in particular, systemic change due to digitalization makes itself felt: the general privatization of communication and opinion-formation, of encounter and experience.
The young urban, educated middle class, for whom the climate catastrophe is the crucial issue and gendering as well as anti-racism count as components of a taken-for-granted lifestyle, very quickly identifies tradition-minded reflexes in the contrary direction as indicating little but fellow-traveling with right-wing extremism. And in many rural areas people see in the green nanny-state as the image of the enemy pure and simple. There, men are especially attracted to anti-positions who feel that their traditional modes of behavior, culture, and forms of everyday life are under siege. More recently, they have discovered that this great cultural disorder is now apparent even in the political sphere, including chronic state failure.   

When real economic and cultural trends converge

As time goes on, all of those tendencies become ever more entrenched whenever real economic and cultural trends converge. Rural regions are losing population and those who are left behind – at this point often just the elderly – want to pin the blame on politicians. In cities the Abitur, a highly coveted secondary school degree, has become something like an entry ticket into a normal, post-material way of life. By contrast, in the more precarious milieus where migrants often live, opportunities for advancement are slipping away. In the countryside, apartments and houses stand chronically vacant as economic prospects grow dimmer even for those who own their own homes. For city dwellers, the crucial problem of urban economics is the housing shortage.

»Rifts are widening in every nook and cranny«

A scarcity of doctors in rural areas; very little associational life left in the cities; almost everywhere, a chronic failure of public agencies to deliver services; deep disagreement over priorities when it comes to issues of mobility; sharply divergent perceptions of the work ethic. Rifts are widening in every nook and cranny of society. Those divides are becoming especially irreconcilable when they are enacted in unambiguously symbolic ways, such as with linguistic gendering. The emotional element in relations between eastern and western Germany is being felt more keenly now, and to some extent that is a function of the socio-cultural divides in a society that is becoming ever more inscrutable. In the West, even remote areas where farming is still a way of life may share a social space with smaller growth centers. By contrast, in places like southern Thuringia people have almost no experience with metropolitan areas in which cultures meet and overlap. Besides, the parties committed to democracy in that region have very few members.

That means structural and cultural links are not automatically experienced as related phenomena. Sometimes they are perceived as flat-out antipodes – and the right-wing populists exploit the feelings of homelessness thus engendered. They offer closed rules of life and, in consequence, world views that defiantly reject cultural bridge-building. 

How to overcome cultural distance

So, then the grand strategic question is how these growing cultural distances might be bridged, given the need for Realpolitik-based compromises among all the parties and the personnel in place at this time. That is, how do we elicit positive attractive forces and do so over and over again? But posing the question in such an absolute, apodictic way might really lead us down the road to ruin, because it would be asking too much of us. By the same token it would be of little help to respond in a quasi-journalistic spirit by trying to blame the malaise on certain of our mistakes and call out the individuals responsible for them. Nor should we, motivated by feelings of weakness, keep on flinching when it comes to the topical political issues of the day, criticizing our own people as soon as any noisy protest takes place somewhere. Think of Berlin’s permanent crisis in this context.

»It’s time to tell the story of the whole country again«

Something else can be of help. Instead of always taking partial looks at isolated topics, it’s time to tell the story of the whole country again. All things considered it is a success story, yet it’s also a story that may not be perceived as such in everybody’s concrete living environment.  It is a story of the need to make action by the state reliable and predictable again without constantly inventing new rules. It is the story of a new enthusiasm for dialogue beyond the boundaries of one’s own milieu. In every respect it remains a tale about the power of cultural diversity, not about walling off a milieu. But at the same time, we must avoid the tendency to overestimate the role of minorities in the discourse and/or allowing ourselves to be drawn into cultural rift zones any more than is necessary.

In the coming few months many will feel the pull of a simple temptation: resorting to verbal radicalism in an effort to highlight their own pragmatism vis-à-vis the (presumably unpragmatic) next-higher level of governance in which others, not we ourselves, make the decisions. In the runup to the scheduled European elections, both right and left have already begun noisily trying to outdo each other in distancing Germany emotionally from the EU. Here again, this is a divisive scheme. It is designed to define one’s own identity (in this case national) by delimiting it sharply from the identity of the other. That is how the poison works: to stabilize one’s own way of life by curling up in a ball with quills pointed outward like a hedgehog.
What has gone wrong here? All too often, power struggles inside free societies are being contested in the wrong forums. And it is not hard to deliver the prognosis: social-democratic parties will succeed only if and to the extent that they succeed in offering a plausible, positive alternative to cultural polarization. Take heart, SPD! It all starts with finding common ground and displaying mutual respect. Wherever cultural rifts tear politics asunder, the quest for political power through democratic channels will decide which understanding of political culture prevails in the end. 

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