When I worked as a trainee in Berlin years ago and got to know the nuts and bolts of the German parliament, I was invited to have beer and unhealthy food with a group of liberals from the FDP (Free Democratic Party). That evening differed from meeting members of other parties in Berlin. Everyone i talked to there was a businessman or self-employed, I learned. The guy responsible for aerospace actually had an engineering company. The guy responsible for real estate laws actually had a real estate company (the smell of beer mixed with a whiff of conflict of interest). This was a different kind of people than the civil servants, teachers and lawyers that make up the bulk of German parliament. This was something else.
You might have noticed: The FDP is not liberal in the American sense. In the United States, liberals are people who believe that the state has to play an active role in peoples’ lives and in using that state to promote equality of women and minorities. They are also the nemesis of conservatives, something summed up in an anecdote by Philosopher Robert Talisse, which i found in this Philosophy Bites podcast last week: When he mentioned in a speech the value of cleaning up litter in a public park, someone from the audience shouted: “That’s liberal!” - meaning as much as: It is the devil’s work (at 15:35, i recommend the whole short episode
on “Overdoing Democracy”).
That strange use of the word always irritated me when i was first living in the States. For me, the word liberal had always meant pro-business, small government, as-little-rules-as-possible politics. That is, FDP politics. The party does not believe in improving society top-down, but mostly in leaving companies and people alone, especially rich people. In the 90s, a FDP Politician dubbed his party the “party of high-earners”, a phrase that has damaged its image among regular-earning people for a long time.
After not being part of a national government for eight years, the FDP is about to be kingmaker again. On Sunday, the party under its leader Christian Lindner received the fourth-most votes (11.5 percent) of all parties. Now they are talking to the Greens (14.8 percent)- the party that could be considered the German equivalent of American liberals. The Greens are something like the nightmare of a Donald Trump supporter: feminist, statist, habitually using words like PoC (or its German equivalents) and presumably all dressed in organic cotton.
But both parties have an interest in finding common ground to then choose one of the two parties with the biggest votes as their partner in the new government: Conservatives or Social Democrats (which have much better chances to lead the coalition, being the strongest party with the strongest candidate, as i outlined in the last issue
). On the weekend, the two smaller parties are going to to talk to the big ones one after the other in order to find the right mix for a coalition. Since the image of the CDU has been suffering constantly since its losses on Sunday and the party is perceived as more pathetic every day, a coalition of SPD, Greens and FDP at this time seems almost inevitable.
Playing both sides
To understand the FDP is to understand the complexities of the German political spectrum. Historically, the party has oscillated between left and right, something one could easily forget considering the free-market fetishism that has been its trademark since the 80s.
The party had been part of almost all early post-war governments led by the CDU. But beginning in 1969, it threw its weight behind the SPD for more than a decade. This red-yellow pairing modernized the stale and culturally suffocating German post-war society, especially with regards to education and women’s rights. Until 1977, German law allowed women to work only “as far as this was compatible with her duties in marriage and family”. Abortion was a crime until 1975. The coalition’s foreign policy was included of a bold move in the middle of the Cold War: a less confrontational approach towards Germany’s communist neighbors in the East.
By abandoning social democratic chancellor Helmut Schmidt in 1982, the FDP again moved over to the right of the political spectrum. They closely attached themselves to the CDU to form the center right-block that then dominated German politics between 1982 and 2013 (interrupted by a red-green government and one “grand coalition” of CDU and SPD). This ended with the election of 2013, when the party did not reach the 5 percent threshold and had to leave parliament after 64 years. Too many people were turned off by cases of obvious lobbyism for certain businesses and the chaotic appearances of the party establishment.
Changes of direction are part of the party DNA. After the Second World War, the FDP united two movements that both centered their worldview on individual freedom and individual property: social liberals, who accepted the state as helping to create a more just society, and national liberals, who focused on the German nation, its unity and culture. They had been vital to the formation of German statehood in the 19th century.
After the war, the nationalist wing made the new party susceptible to much darker elements of German society. It was the FDP that became attractive to former Nazis who tried to infiltrate it in order to smuggle Nazism back into mainstream German politics. The plan, masterminded by a former high-level-official of Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda, was foiled by British occupational authorities in 1953, who arrested the conspirators.
Lindner first, ideology second
While this was an extreme case in the aftermath of the German dictatorship, faint echoes of the liberals’ flirt with nationalism can be heard still today. Party members regularly give in to the temptation of toying with nationalism, for example by demanding strict - and not very liberal - limits on migration. Another temptation remains hyper-individualist libertarianism, on display just days before the election, when popular FDP politician Wolfgang Kubicki admitted to visiting a bar while it was forbidden during the lockdown.
The goal is to win disappointed conservatives and sympathizers of the nationalist AfD who are convinced that any change in the way they live (by strict climate rules) or talk (by language sensitive to minorities) is going to bring about a new German dictatorship (which does not keep them from simultaneously supporting xenophobic AfD positions). More left leaning civil rights liberals see this pandering to AfD voters with horror.
However, party chief Christian Lindner has taken care that his party never appears too close to the nationalist right. Ideology takes the backseat to Lindners personality, anyway.
The 42-year old has managed to capture especially the votes of the young despite opponents mocking him as a yuppie caricature for years. He does not like to talk about his private life, but publicly admitted he had had a hair transplant. His slogans might be unintentional humor, but are definitely highly meme-able (classic Lindner phrases include “problems are thorny chances” or “digitalize first, concerns later”, which made him sound like he considers critical thinking to be lunacy).
This lack of humility might actually be exactly what many of his young voters like about him. Many of them are from conservative families, but who only cringe at the thought of voting for the old-fashioned CDU. One theory is that they have ascribed to a get-rich-quick-mind set propagated by Youtubers and other influencers who simultaneously reject “green” subjects like less consumption, feminism, and that especially carters to young men (a good thread on the FDPs social media strategy can be read here
But the ambitious Lindner does not want to become a mere meme for kids. He wants to become Minister of Finance. For this, he might have to move his party over to the left again, aligning it with the red and green winners of the election.