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This article is part of a special report: Berlin in Brussels.
Michael Bröning is a political scientist, director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in New York, and a member of the Commission for Fundamental Values of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD).
A typical political debate in Germany these days is as predictable as a Sunday sermon, and at least as preachy.
Whatever the topic — climate change, European integration, defense, education, economics, responding to the coronavirus, and, of course, migration — differences of opinion quickly escalate into moral showdowns, in a way that’s not good for the country.
“For Germans, economics is still part of moral philosophy,” quipped Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti during the euro crisis. Today, it seems, rigid Teutonic moralism has expanded into nearly every topic of debate.
In domestic debates, elevating morality has been a gift for political contenders on the far right.
Propose child care subsidies for stay-at-home parents? You’ll be accused of attacking working mothers. Suggest that universities introduce internationally recognized degrees? Those are sinister threats to academic freedom. A fan of free-trade agreements? Why do you champion secret machinations to destroy environmental and labor standards?
This absolutist moral posturing is all well and good in a church hall or debate club, but it’s no way to chart a course for a country. In an increasingly complex — and morally complicated — world, in which Germany is playing an ever more prominent role, acknowledging the occasional nuance isn’t just justified. It’s necessary.
In domestic debates, elevating morality has been a gift for political contenders on the far right. After all, a significant lure of Germany’s right-wing populists seems to be based on the strategic violation of taboos, specifically provoking inevitable but welcome waves of moral indignation.
This allows the right to dominate the debate agenda, distracting segments of the left from addressing pressing but less prominent issues. It also makes voters more receptive to the populists’ message. In a recent opinion poll, an astounding 63 percent of Germans reported that it is impossible to express certain political opinions without suffering negative consequences.
A black-and-white approach to a world of grays is bad for policymaking too. All too often, German public discourse doesn’t address pragmatic pros and cons but rather the dangers of ever-looming slippery slopes.
Indeed, parts of Germany’s political class seem at times genuinely perplexed when confronted with positions different from their own — even if that position was itself a dramatic 180-degree shift from their previous position.
The truth, of course, is that in just about every policy area there’s plenty of room for nuance — and often a stiff dose of real-world hypocrisy.
The refugee crisis is a case in point. After the initial summer of Willkommenskultur, Germany’s political stance shifted. The country now effectively counts on Turkey and others to act as European gatekeepers.
The political shift, however, was secured in backdoor negotiations that never made it to prime-time rhetoric, where praise for open borders remains an everyday occurrence for some — despite the practical contradictions.
Even regarding climate change, words and deeds clash. Years after the ambitiously announced Energiewende, with political sermons touting Germany as an international beacon of sustainability, reality offers a harsh reminder of Germany’s rather ambiguous carbon emissions balance sheet.
Similarly, Germany’s stance on national defense celebrates the virtues of pacifism under the protection of the nuclear umbrella of NATO, while the country remains a leading exporter of military equipment.
A more recent example is the Franco-German plan for European recovery. The plan certainly has its merits, but it also has its flaws. And yet, even the slightest criticism of the proposal gets denounced as moral recklessness.
That will likely have negative consequences in the long term, if for instance Southern beneficiaries of the scheme chafe under the conditions that will likely be imposed, leaving German taxpayers wondering why their generosity isn’t better appreciated.
To be sure, not every double standard is deliberate. But a little moral modesty would allow us to better tackle every one of these challenges.
None of this is to suggest that German politics should turn its back on morals. Clearly, not every opinion deserves protection; calls of incitement to violence, for instance, do not belong on an op-ed page or in a market square but before a court of law.
A Machiavellian separation of ethics from politics would be fundamentally misguided. Given the country’s dark past, fencing in Realpolitik with moral checks and balances seems more than justified. After all, the preamble of Germany’s post-war constitution consciously evokes an ethical “responsibility before God and men.”
We must learn again to confront our political opponents with arguments not condemnation.
But what constitutes a healthy dose? And where does one draw the line between a moral compass and rigid moral dichotomies?
Many Germans themselves seem to struggle with this question. Public debates are increasingly stifled by overburdening notions of morality. “Ten Commandments? Thousands!” Bernd Ulrich, a well-known progressive intellectual, exclaimed in Die Zeit. “The realm of morality — that which is perceived as being under moral scrutiny — has rapidly expanded,” he writes.
Germans need to tone down the moral finger-wagging. The current shrillness threatens the parameters of constructive political debate. It stifles critical self-reflection and stigmatizes genuine political differences.
We must learn again to confront our political opponents with arguments not condemnation. Self-righteous moralizing spoils a Sunday sermon. It has no less a toxic effect on political debate.