12 January 2015

In defence of German liberals and the FDP


Karen Horn delivers a sharp, acid and merciless critique of the German liberals’ attempt at initiating a revival after their disastrous defeat in the federal elections in September 2013. On the credit side, she discovers virtually nothing. Apart from the rhetorical talents of the party’s leader Christian Lindner, she discards the rest of the current party leadership either as figures that are largely unknown or deficient in character as Lindner’s deputy Wolfgang Kubicki, the only one she mentions at all. She calls him a “wealthy unscrupulous lawyer”, a remarkably sweeping personal judgment for a quality journalist with liberal credentials.

Never mind. The core of her critique focuses on the message of the traditional party convention on January 6 (Epiphany) in Stuttgart. To be sure, she was not personally present at the meeting, but followed it via live stream – like a sports reporter who watches an important football game on a tiny screen in her office: no feedback from participants, no contact to the people, no taste of the atmosphere, no feeling for the party mood, which was remarkably serious and upbeat in the overcrowded opera house and beyond.

Again, never mind. Karen Horn looks anyway not at the human side of the event, but at the political message. The problem is: she finds none, except a loud distancing from right-wing populism and a plea for a somewhat more centralized education, which she considers as not very liberal. For her, the rest of the speech was vagueness. The evidence she presents for her claim is a quote from Lindner’s speech: “We will make YOU big, not the state.” That’s much too thin for a liberal leader, she concludes.

Well, that conclusion would make sense if the quote had not been just one small brick stone in a much larger strategic approach, which Lindner sketched extensively in his one-hour speech. Karen Horn does not speak out a single word on this approach. So let us briefly sketch what its core content is.

Let us begin with a bird’s eye view on Germany as it is today: a country with a stable democracy, healthy economy, solid finances, low unemployment and many other characteristics that for the time being may be the envy of many in the world. However, the country has a hidden, but fundamental problem: its future. The country lacks entrepreneurial dynamism, a start-up culture, a vibrant innovative capacity. And that has obvious reasons: too many stifling regulations, an aging and shrinking population, an egalitarian education, not enough immigration of smart people. On top of all that, the political establishment in government and parliament has nothing else in mind than defensive welfare spending and redistribution instead of striving for excellence that adds to the national potential. Hence it is just a question of time that German economy and society will begin to stutter. Gone are the days of reform zeal, here is again a new wave of “German Angst”, with the ruling establishment being caught up in technological skepticism und anxiety vis-à-vis the future challenges, refusing all risk-taking from biotechnology and fracking down to competition for taxi-cartels by UBER and for jobs by immigrants, not to speak of transatlantic free trade with the US.

This exactly was Lindner’s diagnosis in Stuttgart. And this exactly is the place where he wants to see the Free Democrats in the future: as the party that removes the veil of “German Angst” und works hard for a “republic of opportunities” (Republik der Chancen). Unleashing individual creativity is the liberal aim, and in this sense, Lindner spoke out: “We will make YOU big, not the state.” In fact, Lindner did no less than call for a return to the courageous optimism that is the hallmark of liberalism since the 19th century. Not the Angst-driven Wutbürger (“angry citizen”), but the self-confident Mutbürger (“courageous citizen”) is to be the ideal of the Free Democrats.

By all means, this is a strong message, which Karen Horn misses completely. To be sure, it is not nearly a full-scale detailed party program. That will have to follow in due course. But under the cheerful support of more than 1300 enthusiastic party members and guests, who clearly understood and shared the message, this was at least a decent start in the right direction. It is also a remarkable achievement that, after a series of extremely poor election results, the party has now again a sense of positive direction and purpose, with no signs of internal decay visible. Of course, there is a long way ahead and no guarantee of success, but at least a good start is made for a revival. After all, a significant minority of many Germans – and notably younger ones – do share the fundamental diagnosis behind it. They form the potential of pragmatic liberal voters that Lindner and his Free Democrats are targeting at.

Note that, of course, a new sense of direction has consequences for the style of discourse and outer appearance. It requires no less than a turning away from ideological discussions behind closed doors towards a much more open form of exchange in society. In fact, the German Free Democrats and their intellectual cousins from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom have to become the pace makers and promoters of this potentially fascinating discourse in the future. In particular, they have to openly challenge the dominance of green ideas with their much too narrow focus on mere ecological aims to be achieved by paternalistic means. And that’s exactly the task that many not yet well-known party activists and liberal supporters, notably younger ones, will have to tackle. This is a gigantic effort, all the more because there are no elected Free Democrats in the national parliament to support it. But it is not impossible as others have proved before – provided there is a good strategy and a wave of enthusiasm to build on.

Here we have it then, the new role of the German Free Democrats – in a sense a return to its roots as a Fortschrittspartei (“Party of progress”), which was founded in the 1860s as the first German political party at all. Quite frankly, this new role is also inspired by the success of two liberal parties in neighboring countries, the D66 in Holland, which was thought of being clinically dead in the mid 2000s, and the Neos in Austria, which were then non-existent. Note that all this has nothing to do with the political geography between left and right, with D66 being somewhat more leftish and the Neos somewhat more conservative. It has much more to do with the deliberate aim to change society in an individualistic spirit – and to remove the ever guiding hand of any paternalistic government in whatever political colors: the German Obrigkeitsstaat.

And this is why, as a minor adjustment, the Free Democrats have added a shade of Magenta to its colors. Admittedly, it is the color of the Austrian Neos, and it may well become the dominating color of modern European liberals in the future. If anything, it conveys the message of an emerging start-up culture, and that is exactly what German liberals want. Karen Horn interprets this new color as “violet”, and then mockingly reminds the readers right at the start of her critique that, for aging frivolous women in Germany, “violet is the last try”.

Believe it or not, the liberals stand ready to live with this kind of joke. On the other hand, the joke itself may indicate something quite significant, namely the far distance of intellectual (and liberally minded) observers like Karen Horn from what the psychology of party politics means. After all, design and colors are not just trivial cosmetics or marketing tricks. They do – and should – convey a message, and after a while, they tend to merge with that message. In this sense, they are useful though, clearly, they should not be important enough to dominate the headlines. Incidentally, at the Stuttgart party meeting of the Free Democrats in the grand old opera house, the new colors were not even mentioned in any of the speeches. Only in Karen Horn’s report, they had the honor of emerging right in the first sentence.

Karl-Heinz Paqué is member of the federal executive board of the Free Democratic Party and vice chairman of the executive board of the liberally-oriented Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. He is dean of the faculty of economics and management at Magdeburg University, Germany, and a politically active liberal in Germany. From 2002 to 2006, he was state minister in Saxony-Anhalt.