German Liberals’ Last Dance?
Will Germany have a nationwide CSU at last — in the form of the FDP?
- The FDP is a bit like the United States — exhausted, widely copied in its good parts, but without any fresh ideas with which to resuscitate itself.
- A formerly proud and modern liberal party now comes across as a party of bean counters.
- There is next to no one left in the top leadership of the party who has the brains, integrity and the capacity to even remember what it means to stand for a liberal position.
For quite a few decades, it was at times the conservatives’ dream — and at other times their nightmare. Nobody quite knew whether allowing an unashamedly conservative wing of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) — namely the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) — to stand as a candidate nationwide would be the best way to draw maximum voter support for Germany’s center-right.
Given all the mind games that have long been employed scoping out all the ins and outs of such a move, no one any longer counted on this maneuver actually being carried out. But now, it is happening before our very eyes, at a time when the 21st century is well underway. I venture to say that no one foresaw the rise of a Franz Josef Strauss in our time.
Executing that maneuver, however, is about the only way in which one can understand what the cohort of mostly young men at the top of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) leadership is up to. It is all the more puzzling when one realizes that the surprise resurrection of Mr. Strauss’s lifelong dream is being undertaken from what used to be seen as the left of the CDU.
Wherever one stands politically, it is nearly indisputable that a formerly proud and modern liberal party now comes across as a party of bean counters. Long gone are the days when that party stood for advancing the essence of economic integration and modernity.
If a party adopts euro-skepticism in a craven attempt to gain votes — as the FDP did in the run-up to the Berlin elections — then it must accept being criticized as an entity that is drifting anchorless and aimlessly in the ocean of political irrelevance, perhaps toward political oblivion.
With the exception of Christian Lindner, the FDP’s General Secretary, there is apparently next to no one left in the top leadership of the party who has the brains, integrity and the capacity to even remember, never mind articulate, what it means to stand for a liberal position.
In hindsight, it seemed almost predestined that the FDP, in turning away decades ago from the positions of Ralf Dahrendorf (a prominent European, international thinker and true liberal), abandoned a core part of the political territory — attracting voters who truly care about civic and civil rights — and henceforth left it to the Green Party to exploit.
And exploit it the Greens did. Just how the FDP has betrayed itself on even its most basic positions becomes clear when one realizes the Greens’ Jürgen Trittin, of all people — hardly known to be a man of liberal convictions for most of his political life — offers up more reasonable and constructive positions on European policymaking during the current crisis than the refusenik-like FDP.
In a way, these two parties’ respective roles are now reversed. While it used to be the Greens that were fundamentalist and immobile in their opposition (to nuclear power), so it is now the FDP on European matters. The Greens, meanwhile, are ever more widely lauded as pragmatists with principles.
Come to think of it, it borders on insulting the late Franz Josef Strauss, if one now maintains, as I do, that the FDP is rapidly completing its Kafkaesque, if not Karl Kraus-like, transformation into a nationwide CSU. Strauss was a solid conservative, one with an anchor and — in most cases —also his principles. Nobody in the FDP, certainly not Phillip Rösler and Company, seems to even know where the party’s anchor may be found these days.
They rather come across as kindergarteners toying with the idea of playing big-time politics. The limos and the suits are there alright, but the folks don’t really seem to fill them, or fit into their assigned roles.
It was just a few months ago that the FDP embarked on its experiment with Rösler, hoping he would turn into another “Wonder from Lower Saxony” — à la the erstwhile introduction of Gerhard Schröder into federal politics and his subsequent ascent to the German Chancellorship. The idea seems to have backfired badly.
“Trials, Tribulations,” to borrow from Fontane’s literary production, is still the nicest thing one can say about today’s FDP and its present course.
Perhaps the FDP’s decline is due to the fact that the other German political parties, with the exception of the Left Party, have all absorbed a healthy dose of standing for civil and civic rights, taking on overall liberal positions. That would make the FDP, in the bigger scheme of geopolitics, a bit like the United States in its present state: exhausted, widely copied in its good parts, but without any fresh ideas with which to resuscitate itself.
Or perhaps it is due to the fact that virtually all parties in Germany, again with the exception of the Left Party, can form coalitions with one another. Under those circumstances, every party that wants to survive the political ménage a quattre very much needs a clear political profile, or core, in order to be regarded as relevant, i.e., memorable in any fashion. Whoever fails to fulfill this requirement sails off into the good, eternal night.
And finally, who would have ever thought that the FDP, a 20th century success story of the Federal Republic, would turn backwards in such a spectacular fashion? On its present path, it seems hell-bound to relapse into German staid national (if not nationalist) liberal traditions, whether from Kaiser’s or Weimar times.
Back then, there were some not-at-all illustrious predecessors in the wider liberal camp whose policies deserve to remain on the ash heap of history, rather than being revitalized on the Bundestag’s, formerly the Reichstag’s, political stage. Transgressing what at least borders on nationalistic liberalism is definitely not the turn that was to be expected.
Worse, for all the criticism he has endured, one wouldn’t even put the blame for this turn of events onto Guido Westerwelle. Hard to imagine, but true.