In the last few days I have watched some documentaries dealing with the topic of the greed and megalomania of German banks and large companies. Amongst others I watched documentaries about the West LB and the Bavarian Landesbank, Quelle (Karstadt) and Schlecker. In none of them was there a mention of the migration crisis. But even at that time the topic already divided society. Unnoticed. And the decline of social democracy began at that same time. Unnoticed. We have moved further and further away from being a humanist society. We need a new enlightenment.
“These days you have to be in the majority”
This true and weighty sentence comes from one of my favourite works by Leonard Bernstein “Candide”. Bernstein would have been 100 years old this year. He was a 1908 vintage, so in 1938 he was 30 years old. For someone like me, who has been studying Leonard Bernstein for many years now, this is a strange fact.
It is astonishing that after the elections on October 15 we will harvest what the black-blue government sowed in 2000-2006. Not diametrically but head on. We are witnessing the demise of the social democratic ideal, something which the great German liberal thinker Ralf Dahrendorf already foresaw in the eighties of the last century. Paradoxically this is taking place in their struggle against the “right”, aka the party decision against a coalition with blue.
Even the 5th series of House of Cards can no longer compete with this. American Realpolitik has now trumped the supposedly implausible manoeuvring of Frank Underwood. But the pleasing thing about this is that Europe is the benefactor.
After what feels like an eternity Austria finally has a new federal president. The timing could not be better for a liberal democrat to take up the highest office of the Republic of Austria, right in the heart of Europe.
Can you remember the “Shutdown”. That was in autumn 2013 when the Republicans voted to block the budget for 2013 in order to (amongst other things) derail Obamacare. In addition there was the risk of the global power USA going bankrupt because the right wing of the party, the so-called Tea Party, linked increasing the debt ceiling with the demand for delaying Obamacare. The US would no longer be creditworthy. A state bankruptcy threatened. 800,000 federal servants could temporarily not be paid. Washington shut down…..
2012 in Tokyo: at the annual meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the European debt crisis (and risk) was the focus. ECB members sat on the podium. They defended the eurozone and spoke of the rescue of Greece with a correspondingly rigid austerity programme. And especially: keeping the state and the banks separate from each other.
“The more frequently a politician contradicts himself the bigger he becomes.” Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The question I have been asking myself for weeks now is: has public office been damaged by the developments of recent years such that politics in the near future will only be dominated by populists?
It is like it always has been: a change of government leaves some government members without a job, from one day to the next. This is a surprise to some of them and they have no way to prepare. Werner Faymann himself is said to have taken a taxi home after his resignation press conference because use of the official car had already been withdrawn from him.
This happened maliciously “thanks” to strong social media involvement. The slow dismantling of Werner Faymann was just like it was one and a half years before when Michael Spindelegger held office and was slowly dismantled in public. There was no one who protected the office itself, to protect it in its dignity and importance before the attacks on the person.
No follow up?
There is no legitimate follow-up for politicians who voluntarily leave office.
Jobs in the private sector are dismissed as jobs for the boys, having NO job is interpreted as being a proven failure, and for engaging entrepreneurial activity you get a dressing down and are accused of using networks that would not have been available to you without your previous job.
This scenario awaits every leading politician who takes public office. It is practically part of the political CV. That is why it is not surprising that fewer and fewer people are willing to voluntarily forego privacy and personal freedom for long periods of time and to immerse themselves knowingly in a kind of image damage operation.
Respect for public office?
In Germany there is a different political culture. Former presidents and former Chancellors are provided with an infrastructure for the period after they leave office. This is offered without malice of the population and out of respect for the fact that these people have given a certain period of their lives to public service. They are used as political observers and analysts for big events without a hint of this merely being jobs for the boys. They are like ambassadors of their country who are handed responsibility for a period of time by the voters. The opinions and the views of these “elder statesman” are desired and sought after. Former American presidents have made this a business model with related community service in the form of foundations.
The populists profit
It is clear nevertheless that tangible policy making is essential and necessary. This is because it has never been so easy – especially through social media – to scrutinize policy and its actors, to take them apart and criticize without much background knowledge. This is a great moment for populists who through their activities paradoxically cause damage to the office to which they aspire. They do this perhaps in the knowledge that they might never be able to fill and shape the public office as their predecessors have done. Therefore the public office itself will systematically be damaged. And not just from its attacker but also by its defenders. The current US election campaign is an example of this. And the European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker is still struggling to build a respectful relationship with his office and the European Commission. The reasons for this are varied and often even self-inflicted when you think of TTIP, Russia sanctions, the EU-Turkey Agreement, aid to Greece etc.
The consequence of this is a massive anti-EU stance within the EU population taken by populists.
Austrian presidential election: the most recent Austrian example
The media proclaimed it to be a “partisan campaign.” This has led both sides presenting the Office of the President in the Constitution completely inappropriately and to put it in an improper light. The two candidates have been interviewed on issues that have nothing to do with the office itself. They were pressed into media confrontations that were not only unworthy but also harmed the office.
Political education 4.0
To once again learn how to maintain a respectful relationship with the office requires a massive increase in civic education. At the same it requires training in how to carry out the discourse with political office holders in the social networks. The willingness of politicians to communicate directly with the voters in these networks also requires respectful interaction. Just as politicians need to accept the will of voters and their opinions, so voters need to understand the role of political office and to deal accordingly and respectfully again with the person they are engaging with. This respectful interaction must be carried out in both directions and in all the direct and indirect relationships that exist between each other.
The conference organized by the Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs in Brussels was exciting. It dealt with structural reforms and the deepening of the economic and monetary union. Reforms! Said Draghi. Reforms! Demanded Dombrovskis. Reforms! Summed up Moscovici.
Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the EU Commission has a plan: the “Juncker Investment Plan”. With the help of leverage effects this means that more that €300bn should have been pumped into the European economy by the end of the project. The plan is slowly starting to work – just not in Austria.