This Sunday, Germany will hold a general parliamentary election. If this fact has escaped you so far, you’re not alone, for supposedly more than half of all young voters aged 18 to 29 have no idea that there is an election.
In spite of media attempts to milk some tension out of this election campaign and mini-uproars concerning Angela Merkel’s striking necklace in the colours of the German flag, which she wore for a TV appearance and which collected 5000 Twitter followers within a few hours (yes, Angela Merkel’s necklace has its own Twitter account) or Merkel’s opponent Peer Steinbrück giving (Merkel? The voters? Germany?) the finger, this has been the dullest campaign in recent memory. Even the TV election spots, usually a highlight of unintentional hilarity, particularly those for obscure small parties such as the Bibli-believing Christians or the Anial Protection Party, are dull this year and only for the big parties anyway. Angela Merkel is in the lead and though finger-flipping Peer Steinbrück has gained a few points on her, the man is about as charismatic as ton of bricks and just as clumsy.
What annoyed me most about this year’s election campaign is that the three left of centre parties, the Social-Democratic Party, the Green Party and the Left Party, are very much running a resentment campaign aimed at the evil and greedy rich, who are supposedly ruining Germany, have caused the income gap to widen and should pay a lot more taxes. The problem is that the “greedy rich” according to those parties are not CEOs, investment bankers and hedgefund managers earning ill-gotten millions (we don’t have a whole lot of those, since German banks and corporations rarely pay the exorbitant salaries common in the US and UK), but teachers, professors, small business owners, lawyers, doctors, middle management types, i.e. solidly middle class folks. What is more, the SPD, Greens and Left Party are also running a weird campaign against stay-at-home parents, which involves promising/threatening to get rid of programs and tax breaks benefitting stay-at-home parents and instead expanding public childcare and full-time schools.
Now I don’t actually disagree with the actual policies. I do believe that welfare payments should be higher, that temp agencies are exploiting lots of workers, that we need a minimum wage and that there should be options for full-time schools and childcare available for those who need them. However, I also believe that parents should be given the option to stay at home with their children, if they wish, and should not be called lazy and old-fashioned for wanting to be with their children. I also dislike resentment campaigns in general. The fact that this year most of the resentment campaigns have come from the left side of the political spectrum (though we do have xenophobic resentment campaigns from the right in the form of a party calling itself Alternative for Germany, which attempts to appeal to old people who want the Deutschmark back by complaining a lot about those lazy Greeks) doesn’t make the tactic any better. Resentment isn’t attractive, regardless what side of the political spectrum it originates from.
Besides, most of those social problems – low welfare payments, growth of low paid temp work, etc… – that the SPD and the Greens now decry were introduced not by any conservative government, but are the result of the welfare reforms implemented by the Social-Democratic and Green coalition government of Gerhard Schröder. And complaining about policies that one’s own party introduced is not just bad form but also playing the voters for stupid. Never mind that Steinbrück is badly cast as the defender of the poor, considering that he is one of the highest earning members of parliament due to demanding high fees for speaking engagements.
Oh yes, and anybody hoping that Peer Steinbrück would discontinue the austerity policies championed by Angela Merkel – best forget it! Steinbrück was secretary of finance in the great coalition government under Merkel and is very much in favour of austerity.
On the other hand, the conservative Christian Democratic Party, which used to specialize in resentment campaigns, is running a pleasantly resentment free campaign this year and instead focusses on things that are going right. In fact, Angela Merkel usually doesn’t even acknowledge the fact that she has an opponent. However, this doesn’t change the fact that there are still a whole lot of very conservative people in the CDU who oppose equal rights for GLBT couples, who would like to restrict abortion even more than it is already restricted, who want to force everybody to adhere to some nebulous dominant “Leitkultur” and who would love to see a less diverse Germany. Meanwhile, the liberal party FDP is plagued by internal squabbles, the Greens have seen more core topics disappear and the Pirate Party hasn’t been able to gain any ground after some initial successes two years ago.
Since I will be in the UK on election day, I already voted. Personally, I predict that Angela Merkel will continue as chancellor, but that the coalition government between Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party and the Liberal Party (liberal in the European, i.e. Libertarian in the US sense) FDP will not continue due to a persistent weakness of the FDP. I suspect in the end it will be another great coalition between the Christian Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Party. Which isn’t exactly good for democracy, but probably the best possible outcome under the circumstances.
In case you want to know which party best matches your preferences, here is a website called the Wahl-O-Mat, which gives you a number of policy statements with which you can agree or disagree. Afterwards, it tells you which party is closest to your views. It’s usually pretty accurate and tends to predict fairly well, which party I end up voting for. Occasionally, it’s off by one or two points and recommends a party that might be a good fit, but that I simply don’t like and usually don’t vote for.
Alas, the Wahl-O-Mat is only available in German, quite possibly because the makers don’t expect that people who don’t speak German might want to give the thing a try. Though personally, I always like playing with similar programs for US and UK elections, even if they regularly decide that I am a Scottish Socialist or should vote for US fringe presidential candidates I’ve never even heard of.
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What is more, the SPD, Greens and Left Party are also running a weird campaign against stay-at-home parents, which involves promising/threatening to get rid of programs and tax breaks benefitting stay-at-home parents and instead expanding public childcare and full-time schools.
I’ve been reading some disturbing recent posts about the German govt going after parents who homeschool and who move around too much. (One family are taking refuge in Poland after “kidnapping” their daughter from the authorities, and are now mounting a legal challenge against unlawful government detention.) Now this. What’s going on, Cora? Are you guys starting up a Fourth Reich or something?
Homeschooling has never been legal in Germany – you have to enroll a schoolaged child/teenager in a public or recognised private school. The idea behind this law is to ensure that every child is educated. Besides, when the compulsory schooling law was introduced in the 19th century, homeschooling wasn’t yet a thing, so the fear was that if people did not send their kids to school, they would simply send them out into the fields to work. Of course, nowadays homeschooling is a movement and there occasionally are court cases involving parents who refuse to send their children to school, either for religious or personal (kid was bullied, kis has special needs that the parents fear the school won’t address, parents believe the local school is just plain bad) reasons. Most of the time, the cases drag on for years and are eventually resolved one way or another.
Lately, there was a case in the media involving an ultra-fundamentalist Christian cult who refused to send their children to school and were also found to be physically abusing them. These people had their kids taken away by the authorities, which IMO was justified, because this group was seriously abusive. As for kids being taken into custody by the authorities, that’s usually a judgment call made by an individual (and usually overworked) social worker based on reports made by concerned neighbours, teachers, etc… (who might get things wrong), so there are plenty of mindbogglingly wrong decisions, such as kids taken away from perfectly loving and caring parents for trivial reasons on the one hand and kids left with abusive or flat out incompetent parents, often with fatal results, on the other hand. The bad decisions get a lot of press and obscure that there are plenty of cases where the social worker makes the right decision to have a kid taken away. I had kids in my class who were in foster care or otherwise did not live with their parents (in one case a much older brother was the caretaker, in another a grandmother) and all of those kids came from sad and seriously broken family backgrounds and are probably better off where they are now, even if the foster parents aren’t adequate either (e.g. a couple of seventysomething foster parents stuck with a moody and troubled teen girl).
This current campaign against stay-at-home parents from the political left involves a scheme cooked up by Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party. Now West Germany always had and still has a high ratio of stay-at-home mothers, at least in the early years, and many people believe that a child needs a stay-at-home parent in order to thrive properly. As a result, plenty of women felt the need to choose either kids or career and wound up chosing career. Cue falling birthrates (though they’re not nearly as low as the panic propaganda would make us believe) and massive panic. So politicians came up with all sorts of financial and social incentives to persuade people to have more kids, usually with very little success. One of those schemes was guaranteeing public childcare for all children over one years of age. Another was expanding full time schools (school traditionally ends around one o’clock in Germany, earlier for younger kids). Then some politicians of the Bavarian Christian Social Party pointed out that spending a lot of taxpayer money on expanding public childcare was massively unfair towards stay-at-home parents who were asked to subsidize programs they do not use. So they cooked up something called the caregiver premium, a sum of 100 Euros per month paid to parents of young children who do not use public childcare. This program caused a lot of outrage, both among feminists and the political left (“They are paying women to stay at home. It’s the Middle Ages.”) as well as – ironically – among older women who had been stay-at-home mothers and pointed out that no one needed to pay them to stay at home with their kids. There was also the claim that no one outside Bavaria needed that program, since women in more progressive parts of Germany are all working (which is flat out wrong, I know many stay-at-home mothers and even some fathers). There is also some blatant xenophobia mixed into the opposition to the caregiver premium, since immigrant families, particularly muslim families, have a higher rate of stay-at-home mothers. And while the caregiver premium is far from ideal, it is law and running a campaign promising to dismantle a program designed to support families in their personal life choices is just plain stupid IMO. Did they honestly think that parents would vote for a party that tells them, “We promise you guaranteed public childcare, but tough luck if you want to take care of your child yourself, you lazy person”?
There are also calls from the left part of the political spectrum to make full-time schools mandatory. Now most schools, including the one where I teach, offer voluntary afternoon programs and have for years. And due to ill thought out education reforms, afternoon lessons already are a reality for many teenagers. So mandatory full-time schools are really not necessary, because there already are plenty of options available for those who want or need them. So why are some parties pushing for mandatory full time schooling and expanded public childcare? There is definitely an element of social control involved there, because there are concerns about feral latchkey kids hanging around on the streets (I knew plenty of latchkey kids growing up and none of them were feral). There is also concern about immigrant families opting not to use public childcare and afternoon programs and instead raising their kids in their own culture and language. Finally, wealthier parents are far more likely to opt out of public childcare and after-school programs, since they can afford to pay for private tutoring, music lessons, etc… and have a parent stay at home. But the kids of wealthier parents are wanted in full-time schooling, so they can “civilize” the kids from more deprived backgrounds. Supposed experts actually say these things in TV talk shows, if you actually bother to pay attention. Never mind that a far bigger problem is wealthier parents opting out of public schooling altogether and sending their kids to private schools. Coincidentally, the expansion of full-time schooling is also dismantling all sorts of youth programs run by sports clubs, churches, music and arts schools, the volunteer fire brigade, etc… that existed successfully for decades and are now experiencing declines in participation, since the kids just don’t have the time anymore.
So in short, there is a mix of good ideas such as giving parents access to childcare and enabling mothers (and fathers) to work full-time, if they want to, and seriously bad ideas such as not trusting parents to bring up their kids as they see fit.
Thanks for the explanation. I find I don’t disagree with any of your opinions but this, combined with a recent visit from a friend who is also a professor at a German university, does tend to highlight, as you say Cora, a level of “social control” in the country that I am not personally comfortable with. Not to say that I’m one of those raving libertarians; in fact, I think I’m further to the left than you are, but there appears to be an impetus to produce and maintain a “balanced” society, regardless of reality! And I agree with the underground racism evident in policies that discriminate against certain minorities.
I am actually all for regulation in most spheres, your example of the abused children within a Christian cult is one I completely agree with, but the general policies appear to err on the side of assuming that the citizenry tend to stupidity rather than common sense in any given situation, and I wonder at the attitude of ministers/decision-makers who have such a view of their own constituents. If you think your citizens are stupid, will they turn out that way? An interesting philosophical question.
Thanks for the discussion. Good stuff. 🙂
Oh, I’m pretty far left, actually. I’m just not at all happy with the way the three left parties are currently presenting themselves. And trust me, it’s kind of disturbing to find that I actually prefer a CDU chancellor.
The emphasis on social control and conformity is a pretty big problem here in Germany, e.g. the way that the neighbours scrutinize each other in rural or suburban neighbourhoods and spread malicious gossip about anyone who does not properly maintain their garden or who does not work normal hours or works from home.
The schools also used to be big on conformity. Kids that don’t fit the norm for whatever reason (different cultural background, different life experiences, just plain doesn’t fit in) are not very welcome. I was a quiet, harmless, geeky kid, yet I was bullied at school – sometimes by the teachers! – for not fitting in. My crime was that I had a Dad whose job required him to travel a lot, which meant that I had lived in the US, Singapore and the Netherlands by the time I was 12, that I spoke both English and German when I started primary school and – worst of all – that I talked about my experiences. My parents were also reasonably well off, which was yet another sin. Add to that that I didn’t follow trends but was generally my own person and you had a kid who was deemed a spoiled brat who likes to brag all the time. It didn’t help that I had a seriously toxic and jealous “best friend” for much of my teen years. It wasn’t just me either, the schools didn’t like any kid that did not fit some arbitrary norm, whether it was the kid from a family of fairground people (they got rid of him in first grade – I still see him at fair time, now running the family fish roll stand), the kid of a struggling single mom (tried to send him off to a special school for mentally disabled kids – The mom fought back and now he works as a bus driver) or the rebellious son of a respected prosecutor (I had sort of adopted that boy and am still angry about the bullying he got at the hands of teachers). Lucky for me, I was smart and always got good grades, so they couldn’t get rid of me like they tried to get rid of the others. But being a kid, I internalized this crap and it wasn’t until I was an adult and thought, “Wait a minute, I got less pocket money than most of my classmates, I never wore brandname clothes and never had a walkman or any of the other necessities of the era, so why the hell was I spoiled?” that I realized how badly my schools had treated me. I still rarely talk about my experiences abroad, since I always figure that it will only put people off. Coincidentally, not all experiences abroad were bad. There was a girl in my class whose parents were some kind of aid workers and had lived in India. Those people were some of the worst sort of do-gooders I ever met – they loved India, because there were so many picturesque poor people and lepers there, but thought Singapore was horrible, since there were no slums and no leprosy. Yet somehow that kid and her authentic experience of the Third World were okay, because they conformed to prevalent stereotypes, and she was encouraged to share her experiences.
The schools are a bit better about diversity these days and official curricula emphasise multilinguality and diversity. But there are still many kids who fall through the educational cracks, because they don’t fit some preconceived notion. I taught a bunch of them in my remedial English classes.
As for not trusting people to exercise common sense, I don’t think Germany is all that unique in that regard. At least, we don’t have warning signs like “Careful, coffee may be hot” like in the US, though we’re definitely prone to overregulation. As for homeschooling, the easiest way to legalize it would be to require homeschooled kids to do an annual test and maybe a personal interview to check whether they have the basic knowledge expected of someone their age and whether they have any weird ideas implanted by parents. If issues crop up, the family is put under closer scrutiny and ordered to send their kid to a recognised public or private school, if the kid’s education is found to be deficient. That way, nutty fundamentalists will be caught out and regular parents who homeschool will be left alone.
Another German friend (not the professor I mentioned) had to get his family to pitch in to help him buy an Audi because, in his managerial position, it was deeply frowned upon if he arrived at work in a cheaper car, even though he was quite happy with his old junkheap. I thought these were all fairy tales but I see you’re confirming the general societal bias.
Do you have any insights into how this kind of conformist society affects adults who work abroad? Do such Germans come home and write essays or articles on how the world really is different to what they imagined? While I have h-u-g-e reservations over general US patterns, I have to admit that, in general, USAians are very good when it comes to admitting and revising their prejudices. In a related note, Australians who work overseas and then come back to Australia find that they cannot tolerate the narrow views that they were brought up with and usually end up emigrating for good. We catch up with a few of those from time to time.
There is a bit of pressure that if you have a certain position, you should have a certain lifestyle. You can always resist, of course, and many people do, but you may be considered weird. For example, when one of the Albrecht brothers, joint founders of the discount store chain Aldi and the richest men in Germany, was kidnapped in the 1970s, the kidnappers demanded to see his passport, because they could not imagine that such a rich man would wear such a cheap suit.
Regarding cars, when I still had my old VW Jetta (which finally rusted to bits under me at 28 years of age) and had an interpreting gig that involved ferrying some foreign business people around, the company that hired me actually rented a different car for me, because my Jetta was deemed inacceptible.
As for whether Germans who have been abroad revise their prejudices, I’m probably not the right person to ask, because I never had those prejudices in the first place. And in cases where I had picked up prejudices from the media, I quickly revised them on contact with the reality, e.g. I pretty much threw out all of my Edgar Wallace flick derived prejudices about Britain after a week or so. However, I have relatives who have extensively traveled and still hold on to every stupid prejudice they ever had. I guess some people see the world as it is and some people only see what they want/expect to see. I only put up with those narrow-minded people when I absolutely cannot avoid them and delight in pointing out when they’re wrong.
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