A Lobby for Liberty

16. März 2012 0

The Goals of the Gustav Stresemann Foundation

The German Gustav Stresemann Foundation as a lobby for liberty

The civil liberal political scene in Germany is fragmented and divided. In terms of party politics, existing organizations and as reflected in the media, it is in fact in ruins. This is accompanied by a more or less apparent erosion of the values of liberty and freedom in politics and public opinion. Could one go as far as to speak of illiberal times? Or has the time finally come for a strong advocate for freedom and liberty?

What does freedom mean today?

Liberal values among the population seem to be plagued by problematic processes. In the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism, surveys showed an astoundingly high regard for freedom. Everyone enjoyed the opportunity to travel freely throughout Europe, while East Bloc citizens discovered capitalism with its apparently boundless freedom, or so it seemed at least initially. But despite this era of flourishing liberty in Europe, freedom’s reputation has suffered in the past decade in favor of equality, security and justice. 1

At the same time, we observe that the FDP is perceived by most Germans as the undisputed liberal party in Germany, but that roughly half of voters for the Green, CDU and SPD parties also describe themselves as liberal – along with 40% of voters for the German Left Party. In other words, there is only a partial association between policies of freedom and political parties. This can partially be explained by the fact that the term liberalism is often associated with economic liberalism, largely due to the policies of the German FDP party, while the genuine political meaning (that of the personal responsibility of citizens in particular) is losing ground. In fact it can be observed that social redistribution of wealth and minimum wages are increasingly being described as desirable goals for a liberal party, when in fact these values have really nothing to do with liberal philosophy. 2

This confirms that Germans tend to conceive of freedom as freedom from social hardships. 3 This leftist ideological understanding of freedom also ultimately leads to the defamation of rightist liberals who place more importance on the personal responsibility of citizens. This development goes hand in hand with the opinion propagated by leftist intellectuals for decades that freedom means being able to assert oneself and holding power. But those who follow this definition of freedom open up the door wide for abuse of political power under the guise of freedom. The (former) socialist countries of the East Bloc should be more than ample warning. 4

Parties: fragmented and with blind faith in the state

The political parties in Germany directly reflect this situation while also acting as a source for the poor image of freedom among the general population. Under the leadership of former General Secretary Christian Lindner, Germany’s only (formerly) liberal party the FDP has cozied up to leftist liberalism and is losing more and more support from the population every day as a result. The party received more than 14% of votes during the last Bundestag election in 2009, but now has dropped to 3-4%.

An internal survey of party members conducted by Euro critic and Bundestag member Frank Schäffler regarding the “Euro safety net” in late 2011 indicated support for the policies implemented by FDP leadership as the junior partner in the coalition government with the CDU, and rejection of national self-determination. The FDP’s doctrine of being a Europe-friendly party has apparently blinded them somewhat to a realistic view of quasi-socialist EU politics.

Unfortunately, it must also be noted that the only rightist liberal organization within the FDP party, the Stresemann Club, is barely known outside the party and exerts hardly any political influence, despite a number of prominent members including former Chief Federal Prosecutor Alexander von Stahl. The Friedrich Naumann Foundation closely associated with the FDP does excellent work with the issues it tackles, but enjoys little recognition among the population. 5

At the same time, for decades now it has been impossible to establish a corresponding freedom-oriented party in Germany in the long range. All attempts have failed due to subversion, exceedingly fast growth, the egotism of those involved, but in particular due to differences in content and themes of its leadership. These kinds of party projects take place again and again when a critical mass of political activists coalesces around a common issue (for example Islam, the Euro, political paternalism). 6 But during the course of the collaboration, it typically turns out that fundamental values have not been clarified and as a result the form of collaboration cannot be satisfactorily defined for all participants. One of the main problems is fixation on the personality of a leader instead of on his/her leadership function. If the leader fails, the leadership in general also fails, because properly defined mechanisms for making decisions have not been implemented. 7

Uwe Jun, one of the most well-known political party researchers in Germany, provides a particularly accurate analysis of the civil liberal and conservative freedom camps. In 2010, he observed that the integrative societal function of the parties as mediators between civil society and the state has drastically decreased in recent decades. According to Jun, parties today can be understood primarily as fragmented organizations, formed from a variety of groups and subunits which are only loosely connected to one another. Diverse, heterogeneous, and even diametrically opposed interests, contrary and independent rationalities and actions make parties seem like a conglomerate of different organizational units, a colorful kaleidoscope of organizational realities. 8

Associations and initiatives are divided

This fragmentation applies in particular to associations, initiatives and NGOs. In recent years, protagonists have established themselves here with varying degrees of success to pursue certain individual interests but with very little in common with one another. There are also increasingly virtual types of organizations that develop as communities related to websites or online forums. 9

This fragmentation manifests itself especially in differences in content. Because the entire field of criticism of Islam has been denounced as rightist (see below), many critics of EU paternalism or the Euro single currency are not willing to work with such representatives, although both groups in fact carry out ideological criticism. And there are also great differences in the scene defined by criticism of Islamic ideology: participants here include devout Christians and Evangelicals, atheists and socialists, along with numerous organizations that can accurately be described as nationalist to right-wing extremist in nature and which only exploit the criticism of Islam to articulate their misgivings about foreigners. Liberal participants are not easy to recognize, partly because of all the different terms used to describe them including bourgeois liberals, national liberals, conservative liberals, liberal conservatives, etc. What values other participants represent and what motivations they have can hardly be ascertained from how they label themselves.

Counterexamples: Structures that work

At the same time, two successful phenomena independent of one another can be observed in Germany’s political landscape. The Freie Wähler (Free Voters) is a group of voters with different organizations and minimal internal consensus 10 that has nonetheless proven highly successful in municipal elections compared to other freedom-oriented parties. Whether they can prevail at the national level will not be clear until federal parliamentary elections in 2013. But the most important characteristic here is that various personalities join forces to achieve something none of them can attain on their own: candidacy for election. 11 There is certainly something to be learned from this model.

The Pirate Party has also enjoyed great popularity throughout Germany, especially after winning seats in the Berlin Chamber of Deputies in autumn 2011. According to current surveys, they enjoy between four and eight percent of the vote, approximately the same as the Left Party and several percentage points ahead of the FDP.

But the success of the Pirates cannot be explained by their platform, which is too similar to other leftist parties in many points and is characterized by a certain blind faith in the state (minimum wage, etc.). The enthusiasm generated by the Pirate Party must then be related to its form or structure. Its (at least publicly proclaimed) internal grassroots democracy and high degree of transparency seem to appeal to a population extremely disillusioned with political parties. Despite significant differences between the Pirate Party and liberalism, of particular interest here are the mechanisms which can be useful tools for liberal political activists as well.

Summary

To reiterate, Germany’s political landscape can be summarized as follows:

  • Values of freedom are not particularly important in the public discussion; terms such as liberalism are associated exclusively with economic liberalism and are increasingly losing their real political meaning.
  • The liberal camp in its broadest sense (parties, NGOs) is highly fragmented and divided on core issues.
  • The example of the Free Voters however shows that cooperations between various individuals with very little consensus can function at critical times or in critical activities without forcing everyone into an ideological and organizational straitjacket.
  • The Pirate Party proves that transparency and participation in politics can actually mobilize voters.

We relied on these insights to derive the essential purpose of the Stresemann Foundation: first and foremost, it should be a lobby for liberty. It aims to promote the values of freedom in society and serve to network and support the members of the liberal political camp. The foundation will use its expertise to advise and mediate between associations, initiatives and parties and bring them together on key issues. It will also carry out documentation projects and issue publications analyzing and clarifying societal debates.

Notes:

  1. Felix Strüning (November 24, 2011): 2011 Freedom Index Germany. In: Citizen Times, available online: http://www.citizentimes.eu/2011/11/24/freiheitsindex-deutschland-2011/ (Feb. 05, 2012).
  2. Thomas Peterson (Jan. 25, 2012): Allensbach Umfrage: Der geteilte Liberalismus. (Allensbach survey: liberalism divided.) In: FAZ, available online: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/allensbach-umfrage-der-geteilte-liberalismus-11622356.html (Feb. 05, 2012). For a discussion of the results of this survey, please refer to: Felix Strüning (Jan. 26, 2012): Freiheit, Liberalismus, FDP? (Freedom, Liberalism, FDP?) In: Citizen Times, available online: http://www.citizentimes.eu/2012/01/26/freiheit-liberalismus-fdp/ (Feb. 05, 2012).
  3. Ulrike Ackermann (2008): Eros der Freiheit. Plädoyer für eine radikale Aufklärung. (The eros of freedom: a plea for radical enlightenment.) Stuttgart.
  4. Friedrich August von Hayek (1983): The Constitution of Liberty. Tübingen.
  5. The Friedrich Naumann Foundation did not even make the top ten list of recognized names of German foundations in 2009, unlike the CDU-affiliated Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) in second place and the SPD-linked Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) in fourth place. See also: KAS belegt 2. Platz beim Bekanntheitsranking für Stiftungen (KAS places second in name recognition for German foundations) available online: http://www.kas.de/wf/de/71.7170 (Feb. 05, 2012).
  6. André Freudenberg (2009): Freiheitlich-konservative Kleinparteien im wiedervereinigten Deutschland. (Small conservative liberal parties in reunited Germany.) Leipzig.
  7. Felix Strüning (Dec. 15, 2011): Der (An)Führer als Person oder Funktion. (The leader as a person or function.) In Citizen Times, available online: http://www.citizentimes.eu/2011/12/15/der-anfuhrer-als-person-oder-funktion/ (Feb. 05, 2012).
  8. Uwe Jun, Benjamin Höhne (Hg.) (2010): Parteien als fragmentierte Organisationen. Erfolgsbedingungen und Veränderungsprozesse (Parteien in Theorie und Empirie, Band 1). Opladen.
  9. For the Islam-critical scene in the broadest sense, this is detailed in: Felix Strüning (Nov. 22, 2010): Bürgerliche Islamkritik in Deutschland. Grundlegung eines Forschungsprogramms. (Civil criticism of Islam in Germany. The foundation of a research program.) In: Citizen Times, available online: http://www.citizentimes.eu/2010/11/22/burgerliche-islamkritik-in-deutschland-grundlegung-eines-forschungsprgramms/ (Feb. 05, 2012).
  10. Their platform is nothing more than a two-page list of keywords. See also: Politische Ziele der Bundesvereinigung (Political goals of the federal association), available online: http://www.freie-waehler-deutschland.de/uploads/media/Politische_Ziele_der_FW-Bundesvereinigung_01.pdf (Feb 05, 2012).
  11. See also: Felix Strüning (Dec. 23, 2011): Freie Wähler als Vorbild? (Free Voters as role models?) In: Citizen Times, available online: http://www.citizentimes.eu/2011/12/23/freie-wahler-als-vorbild/ (Feb. 05, 2012).

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