The Rise and Fall of Leftist Populism in Germany

What happened to Martin Schulz?

Election campaign posters show Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz side by side on the grass.
Election campaign posters show Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz in Bonn, Germany, onSeptember 7, 2017. (Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters)

After Germany’s Martin Schulz stepped down as president of the European Parliament in late 2016, he embarked on a nationwide tour of his home country. His aim, he said, was to better understand the concerns of ordinary Germans. In speeches before packed union halls, beer tents, and farmers markets, Schulz, a prominent member of the troubled Social Democratic Party (SPD), touted the classic values of social democracy—fairness and dignity. Such values, in his mind, translated into things like free education, a fairer unemployment-insurance system, and a progressive tax code.

While it was at first unclear whether Schulz sought to challenge Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel in this month’s elections, his fact-finding mission swiftly morphed into a frenetic campaign tour. Everywhere he went, he billed himself as the candidate of the little person. I am you, he said. “How can we mobilize billions to rescue banks, but the plaster in our children’s schools is crumbling from the wall? This doesn’t happen in a fair country!” he said in Berlin. Germans hadn’t heard this kind of rhetoric from the SPD in decades, much less from Schulz: He had, after all, made his name in Brussels as a statesman and centrist power broker.

By January 29th, Schulz had been named the SPD’s candidate to run against Merkel. By early March, he had brought the SPD neck and neck with her Christian Democratic Union party (CDU); for two full months, polls showed him as the Germans’ chancellor of choice over Merkel, stunning everyone, including the SPD.

Then, just as quickly, the freak storm that was Martin Schulz dissipated. Were the election held today, the SPD would only receive 23 percent of the vote (three percent less than four years ago) and 16 percentage points behind Merkel’s CDU. In a one-on-one debate with Merkel on September 3rd, Schulz tried to recapture some of his momentum, underscoring the precarious nature of today’s labor market and the plight of future retirees. But the missives sounded like platitudes, and fell flat.

In this way, and many others, Schulz seemed to succumb to the typical vulnerabilities of populists. In general, they are mavericks who posit the world in “us versus them” terms. They claim to be the ones who truly represent “the people” in the face of a corrupt elite, often relying on emotional appeals and simplistic explanations for complex problems.

While another Merkel victory on September 24th is almost certain, the winter of Martin Schulz raises tantalizing questions for leftist populists who seek to follow in his footsteps, both in Germany and across Europe. They can inspire and enflame with their language and messaging. But can they stick to their lofty principles, and translate those principles into actual solutions? And, of course: can they win?

Schulz, the son of a police officer and a book seller, had the pedigree of a natural populist. A product of public education and a soccer star as a youth, he joined the SPD as a teenager. His athletic prospects imploded with a knee injury when he was 19 years old, plunging him into depression and alcoholism. He eventually swore off drink, earned a marketing degree, and opened a bookstore in his native hamlet of Würselen. In 1987, he was elected mayor of Würselen; while he would win two more terms by wide margins, these are the only popular votes in German politics that he has contested. His 11 years as mayor were notably lacking in achievements, save for one: He helped lay the groundwork for a high-tech industrial park in the Rhineland, whose mining-based economy had been decimated by the drop in global coal prices in the nineties.

By 1994, Schulz had captured an SPD seat in the European Parliament, where he was known as a savvy orator and deft political operator; in 2004, he won the leadership of the all-EU center-left faction, composed of the continent’s social democrats. He pledged to make the EU more transparent, eschewing backroom dealing. And he called for deepening financial integration in the eurozone in order to shore up the common currency and aid troubled countries like Greece.

As an ardent defender of the EU, Schulz routinely scuffled with euroskeptical populist parties. From the right, there’s  Austria’s Freedom Party, France’s National Front, the Dutch Freedom Party, and the Italian Northern League. They deny the EU primacy over the nation, and infuse their illiberal programs with anti-immigrant tropes, Islamophobia, and law-and-order precepts. On the left, there’s the French Communist Party (PCF), the Dutch Socialist Party, and Denmark’s Red-Green Alliance, which deride the EU as an un-democratic, neoliberal fortress of privilege without explaining what could replace it. Likewise, in domestic politics, leftist populists promise voters bountiful welfare states without a realistic plan to pay for them. They sometimes test the waters of nativism, too, as the PCF did in France’s national vote in April, pitting French workers against immigrants. But parties like Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos, anti-establishment but not illiberal, offer a way forward for leftist populism in Europe. They have successfully campaigned against austerity and in favor of rebuilding the welfare state while rejecting xenophobia, arguing against Brussels’s neoliberal convictions but not the EU’s legitimacy.

When Schulz became parliament president in 2012, he failed to deliver on his promises to empower the body itself over its leadership, instead falling in line with the Merkel-led government, a grand coalition of Christian Democrats and the SPD. “The EU’s Social Democrats had to back down on their pledges [to offer debt-strapped Greece a lifeline] in 2015,” the left daily Die Tageszeitung’s Eric Bonse argued. “Under the leadership of [Schulz] their power-conscious comrade, they struggled futilely to put their own accent on eurocrisis remedies.”

Yet when Schulz returned to Germany this past winter, he wasted no time slamming Merkel’s domestic record. While his detractors accused him of painting a skewed picture of a hard-hearted government, today, the richest 10 percent of German households boast more than half the country’s net worth, while the entire bottom half of the population possess just 1 percent. Richer Germans pay considerably less tithe than they did 15 years ago while mid-income employees bear an increasing burden. And despite just 6 percent unemployment—half that of the post-unification 1990s—real wages among 40 percent of all employees are lower than they were in the 1990s.

Schulz was just the right Social Democrat for the moment. Almost every other SPD politico was tainted either by their years in the grand coalitions or by the free-market economic reforms of the aughts. It was Gerhard Schröder, the Social Democrat chancellor from 1998 to 2005, who introduced the labor and tax policies that whittled down Germany’s social-welfare system. Facing record unemployment and a stagnant economy, he instituted wide-ranging neoliberal reforms to kick-start the economy, making it easier for employers to hire and fire, while paring back welfare benefits. The dramatic “New Economy” reforms, much like those of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, proved his undoing, contributing to his loss to Merkel in 2005 and setting the SPD on its steep decline. (Today, many observers credit these reforms for Germany’s currently booming economy, an anomaly in post-financial crisis-ridden Europe.)

“There was this feeling that Schröder betrayed the working class and that Schulz [would] roll back Schröder’s reforms and make the SPD great again,” Alan Posener of Die Welt, a conservative daily, said. “Schulz was on to something with the overworked, underpaid individual and stressed-out working parents,” Stefan Reinecke, an expert on the German left, told me. “Many Germans don’t want more Merkel. Schulz … was a kind of projection screen for their wishes.”

By March 9th, only one percentage point separated Schulz and Merkel, the closest the SPD had come to the CDU since the early aughts. But it would come no closer.

As it grew clear that Schulz lacked both a plan and much in the way of demonstrable political wins for the common folk, his luster wore off. “All the hype ... came from the deep frustration of the party’s members who missed the SPD as they once knew it,” Klaus Linsenmeier of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a think tank close to the Greens, told me. “But the party miscalculated. It gradually became obvious that Schulz wasn’t really any different than the others,” he said, referring to today’s Social Democrats and their abandonment of the party’s values. Neither Schulz nor his Social Democrat allies would risk embracing a more controversial agenda—throwing their lot in with the country’s leftist parties, for instance—that could have mounted a real challenge to Merkel.

While Schulz’s winter ascent began with the sort of rebelliousness and bold thinking that distinguished the party of Willy Brandt from Germany’s conservatives and free-market liberals, he retreated to the moderate, equivocal truisms that make up the SPD’s program. The closeness of the CDU and SPD programs were on display during the lackluster debate between Schulz and Merkel, in which Schulz struggled to find and emphasize differences between the two. In a savvy shift to the center, Merkel’s CDU has adopted an array of signature SPD demands—from a legal minimum wage to exiting nuclear power—and turned them into law. “What’s the point of voting Social Democrat when you have Merkel’s CDU?” Kai Arzheimer, a political scientist at Mainz University, told the Financial Times. “All the left’s demands … have been implemented by a CDU-led government.”

Through the spring, the SPD took a beating in three regional elections, suggesting that the Schulz phenomenon had no carryover effect. National polls soon turned around too. “There simply wasn’t enough substance there to back him up,” an SPD insider in Berlin told me. “We wanted to capitalize on the moment but we moved too quickly, and it backfired.” Schulz, Reinecke said, “only named the problem, he didn’t propose any credible solutions … When he eventually did, they were really quite timid, the kind even Merkel could go along with.”

By June 1st, polls showed 24 percent more Germans trusted the Merkel they knew rather than the Schulz they didn’t. Nearly half of those asked said they’d expected more from Schulz. The fertile soil of discontent from which populisms feed was missing, too. In early summer, 72 percent of Germans credited Merkel with the robust economy, and roughly the same number felt she best ensured stability in an unstable world. (Interestingly, almost 60 percent also said Merkel’s best years as chancellor were behind her.)

If populism is to be viable for the European left, it will mean taking on the interests of big business and the current political elite, as argue the followers of the political scientists Chantal Mouffe and the late Ernesto Laclau. “Europe’s recent success of populist forms of politics is the expression of a crisis of liberal-democratic politics,” Mouffe argued. The way to beat the far right, she claimed, is with “a progressive populist movement that is receptive to democratic aspirations and orientates them toward a defense of equality and social justice.”

Instead, Schulz and the SPD played it safe. In the end, it will probably just land them in another grand coalition with Merkel’s CDU, and Martin Schulz as Germany’s new foreign minister. Germany’s leftist potential will go untapped, again. And the longer the SPD opts for the grand coalition led by the conservatives, the trickier it will be to distinguish itself from the CDU. The prospect of the SDP or another leftist party ever coming to power in Germany will fade into the indeterminate future.