What Can Proponents of a Green New Deal Learn from the German Presidential Election?

Gerhard Schick

As of Friday, July 2, Mr. Wulff became Germany’s new Federal President, the state’s highest office. The election electrified the German public even though the German President has little power and is chosen by the members of the German Parliament and representatives of each of the sixteen states rather than by public vote.

It has been a long time since the German public was as captivated as they were by Mr. Wulff’s opponent, Mr. Gauck.  Despite the great enthusiasm for his candidacy, he was, at last, defeated by the conservative majority of electoral delegates.  But one can learn a lot from Gauck’s one-month campaign: He was able to inspire people to become politically active.  Broad-based activism is needed to transform society and achieve a socially and ecologically sustainable economy.

But let us start at the beginning: The election of a new President had become necessary because the predecessor, Mr. Köhler, submitted his resignation, which was effective at the end of May. The liberal-conservative majority rushed to identify a candidate who would fit into their system’s internal balance of power.  Mr. Wolff – a conservative prime minister of the state of Lower Saxony who, until then, was not famous for charisma, rhetoric or inspirational ideas – fit their criteria.

In contrast, his opponent Mr. Gauck accomplished what many people in German society considered impossible.  That is, he inspired a broad swath of the population with his speeches; he garnered wide support from the internet community; and he enlisted a significant number of people – who previously had never been politically active – to canvass for support of his leadership.   Sound familiar?

Indeed, Mr. Gauck was compared to Barack Obama more than once, and if the Federal President could be elected by popular vote, surveys suggest he most likely would have won. In the former GDR, Mr. Gauck – a Lutheran pastor – openly criticized the regime.   Then, he entered politics during the peaceful revolution that swept away the communist government and, in the 90’s, he was the head of the authority that investigated the crimes of the GDR’s secret police. His main message   was the need to build stronger links between citizens and the political leadership based on an ethic of freedom and responsibility. This doesn’t sound like a great campaign, does it? Indeed, it was the exact opposite of the kind of populist campaigning that marketing experts would prescribe. But it gathered momentum.

A German Newspaper wrote that, after hearing Mr. Gauck’s speeches, even those who disagreed with the content of his messages were usually impressed and newly inspired. Therefore, he was able to rally members of different political parties behind his campaign that did not propose changes of policy as much as changes of political culture and a renewal of informed public debate.

To learn from this approach, the proponents of a Green New Deal need advocates to listen to public debate and inspire people to re-think their positions and actively participate in shaping the future of our society.   We need politicians who will encourage debate on the German lifestyle, including its patterns of consumption and production.  If we only count on experts, elites and technocrats to shape the future, there will be insufficient consensus or political backing in German society for proposals to undertake the necessary transition to a sustainable society.

In other words, populist short-termism is likely to defeat the initiatives of those political leaders who call for more assistance for developing countries, more environmental protection or stricter emission caps to guard against climate change, unless there is a vital public debate, strong participation of citizens in the formation of public opinion, and an inclusive style of policy making.

When people turn away from politics, we lose support for our struggle against large corporations that defend their short term profits at the cost of future damage for the environment and our society.

The Gauck campaign demonstrates that it is possible to renew German democracy in ways that are urgently needed. Of course, no single person can fulfill this process.  It is an arduous process to gain and maintain the kind of momentum and dedication that is needed to build a political base for   transformation of society.  But, we now see that this is possible.

Thus, seen from a progressive point of view, the result of the election is not a happy ending, but the election process represents a success in developing a large, politically active base. This is necessary in order to organize majorities in the society to back dramatic policy changes in order to combat the crises of climate, finance and poverty.

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