Why Germany’s leading political parties should seek votes from the “in-betweens”

By Jan Eich­horn.

Far from being polarised, research by the Open Soci­ety Euro­pean Pol­i­cy Insti­tute and dpart shows sur­pris­ing nuances in people’s atti­tudes towards open and closed soci­ety values.

The in between­sPo­lit­i­cal par­ties have long used eco­nom­ic sur­veys to frame pub­lic atti­tudes in terms of Left and Right. But this Left-Right con­fronta­tion tends to over­look val­ues, and does lit­tle to help under­stand the devel­op­ment of polit­i­cal opin­ions and choic­es. Germany’s polit­i­cal par­ties have begun to under­stand this and are now try­ing to engage poten­tial vot­ers on cul­tur­al issues.

CDU and CSU politi­cians are argu­ing for a so-called ‘Leitkul­tur’ (a lead­ing cul­ture) and the Ger­man Min­istry of the Inte­ri­or has been pro­mot­ing the con­cept of ‘Heimat’ (the roman­tic notion of homeland).

These debates cen­tre on the inward-look­ing nature of a closed soci­ety, while oth­er par­ties are cham­pi­oning open soci­ety val­ues. The SPD’s elec­tion man­i­festo advo­cat­ed a ‘mod­ern Ger­many open to the world’, and sug­gest­ed that open soci­ety val­ues are under threat. The par­ty empha­sised the need to ‘fight for the free­dom for every­one to voice their opin­ion and pub­lish it.’

After eight years of coali­tion gov­ern­ments (2005–2009 and 2013–2017) and now in anoth­er so-called ‘grand coali­tion’, the two par­ties appar­ent­ly want to define their dif­fer­ences along open and closed soci­ety lines.

This polar­i­sa­tion encour­ages polit­i­cal argu­ment and debate, but it also con­veys a sense of insur­mount­able, per­haps irrec­on­cil­able, dual­i­ty. This sug­gests that on the one hand there are those who care deeply about Ger­man tra­di­tions and cul­ture, and on the oth­er there are more glob­al­ly-mind­ed Ger­mans who want to help refugees and ensure respect for human rights.

These polit­i­cal par­ties each shape their strate­gies with their dif­fer­ent mes­sages. They tend to assume that vot­ers’ atti­tudes are at oppo­site ends of the scale. Yet our research rais­es sig­nif­i­cant doubts about the valid­i­ty of this bina­ry con­cept of Ger­mans’ polit­i­cal and social attitudes.

Fig­ure 1: The impor­tance of open and closed soci­ety eval­u­a­tions in Ger­many (scat­ter­plot)

We have used data from a sur­vey con­duct­ed in Ger­many in Feb­ru­ary and March 2018 to chal­lenge this long-estab­lished approach. We asked par­tic­i­pants to assess the impor­tance of sev­en open soci­ety and sev­en closed soci­ety views.

We then com­put­ed the two scores to mea­sure the over­all impor­tance that peo­ple attached to each area (method­olog­i­cal details are in our note about the sur­vey). Fig­ure 1 shows the dis­tri­b­u­tion of both scores joint­ly, and is impor­tant in that it reveals the absence of any clear trend. While some of the peo­ple held strong closed soci­ety views and dis­liked the val­ues of an open soci­ety, and vice ver­sa, many were equal­ly attached to both open and closed soci­ety val­ues. The weak rela­tion­ship between the two scores meant that for many peo­ple the two opin­ions are not at oppo­site ends of the spec­trum. Many who gave a high rat­ing to open soci­ety attrib­ut­es sim­i­lar­ly gave a high rat­ing to those of a more closed society.

Fig­ure 2: Choos­ing between two open and closed soci­ety options (Some respon­dents skipped the question)

We then looked at con­crete exam­ples in which peo­ple were asked to choose between a spe­cif­ic open soci­ety attribute and a spe­cif­ic closed soci­ety one.

Fig­ure 2 cov­ers two of the 14 choic­es that were offered. Respon­dents were allowed to say whether one option was more impor­tant than the oth­er, but they could also say that both were equal­ly impor­tant. Many chose the latter.

When choos­ing between free­dom of reli­gious expres­sion and respect of shared val­ues, about a third select­ed each of the two options respec­tive­ly, and anoth­er third the in-between option. These thir­ty-four per­cent of the Ger­mans sur­veyed saw no prob­lem in find­ing both options equal­ly impor­tant, and the same holds true for the sec­ond exam­ple. In this, peo­ple were asked whether pro­tect­ing minor­i­ty rights was more impor­tant than pro­tect­ing the inter­ests of the major­i­ty. Twice as many peo­ple favoured the major­i­ty (40%), but near­ly the same per­cent­age (38%) said the two were equal­ly important.

What this sug­gests is that 59 per­cent would either empha­sise the pro­tec­tion of minori­ties or say that this pro­tec­tion was as impor­tant as the inter­ests of the major­i­ty. Ignor­ing the in-between group and assum­ing a strong dual­i­ty of open and closed soci­ety views adds up to a sub­stan­tial dis­tor­tion in our long­stand­ing per­cep­tion of Ger­man pub­lic opinion.

Fig­ure 3: Val­ue choic­es com­pared with par­ty choice (most com­mon­ly select­ed option in 14 eval­u­a­tions of open and closed soci­ety pairs of attributes)

These insights are par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant for the main polit­i­cal par­ties, as illus­trat­ed in fig­ure 3. This shows the most com­mon­ly cho­sen option across all 14 sets of choic­es (two exam­ples fea­ture in fig­ure 2). Unsur­pris­ing­ly per­haps, the fewest in-betweens, or those who do not favour closed over open soci­ety val­ues, or vice ver­sa, are among AfD vot­ers (10%). They are also rare among FDP vot­ers (21%), who have the sec­ond high­est lev­el of vot­ers empha­sis­ing closed soci­ety choic­es (44%), after the AfD (54%). The high­est lev­els of open soci­ety choic­es are among vot­ers for the Green Par­ty (43%) and the left­ist Die Linke (37%).

The two biggest par­ties, the CDU/CSU and SPD, dif­fer marked­ly in terms of their open and closed soci­ety atti­tudes. While 34 per­cent of SPD vot­ers tend to make open soci­ety choic­es, only 19 per­cent of CDU/CSU vot­ers do so. Con­verse­ly, 38 per­cent of CDU/CSU vot­ers have a closed soci­ety pro­file, while this only applies to 19 per­cent of SPD voters.

This might lead us to think that the two big par­ties would be right to devel­op bina­ry nar­ra­tives on val­ue-based issues, as out­lined ear­li­er. But that would ignore the large group of peo­ple who gave equal impor­tance to open and closed soci­ety choic­es – 36 per­cent of CDU/CSU vot­ers and 40 per­cent of SPD vot­ers. In the SPD’s case, it is the most com­mon profile.

These par­ties in par­tic­u­lar should con­sid­er the wants of these “in-betweens”. In the case of a large part of the pop­u­la­tion, it would be wrong to assume that those peo­ple who are con­cerned about “Ger­man” val­ues — the posi­tion of the major­i­ty and the sta­bil­i­ty of the sys­tem — nec­es­sar­i­ly dis­ap­prove of pro­tect­ing minor­i­ty rights, or of being an open, glob­al­ly-mind­ed country.

Lay­ing empha­sis on the extremes there­fore risks fur­ther alien­at­ing peo­ple from the two main par­ties that claim to cap­ture broad groups of the pop­u­la­tion (as so-called ‘Volksparteien’). Address­ing these “in-betweens” could help both the CDU/CSU and SPD to reach some of the vot­ers they lost in the recent elec­tions. In oth­er words, they need to appre­ci­ate that for many Ger­mans, open and closed soci­eties are not opposites.

Dr Jan Eich­horn is the research direc­tor of d|part and over­sees the work on the Voic­es on Val­ues project. He also teach­es Social Pol­i­cy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Edinburgh.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

Related Posts

Leave Your Comment