Guest article by Gabor Steingart: From citizens’ income to immigration: How the SPD became a former workers’ party
Exactly 50 years ago, the SPD celebrated its greatest triumph. With a turnout of 90 percent, 45.8 percent of voters voted for the Social Democrats and their then chancellor, Willy Brandt. That meant – to use the language of the stock exchange – the historic all-time high of the SPD.
If the current chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who arouses much less euphoria, wants to content himself this morning with the explanation that times have changed, he can confidently lie back. The three-party system at that time, which has now turned into a six-party system, is to blame, they like to say in the SPD. Or to put it another way: in the past you had visions, today you have excuses.
But if Scholz is interested in investigating the cause that digs deeper than the SPD’s journalistic ground troops did in the Süddeutsche Zeitung at the weekend, we can help him. Here are the top six reasons for the historic decline of the SPD:
1. Willy Brandt SPD wanted “prosperity for all”
The Brandt-SPD was a rising party that wanted to keep Erhard’s promise of “prosperity for all” right down to the level of skilled workers. This focus on the little people who still wanted to move up to the big people was the USP, the unique selling point, of the SPD at the time.
This focus was lost even before Scholz. But with no decision in recent decades has the SPD distanced itself further from working people than with citizen income. In this way, social democracy distances itself from wages and performance as the central concepts of bourgeois existence. It breaks with the political ethos of a workers’ party.
2. Calculations for citizens’ income only politically correct
The SPD, under its chancellors Brandt, Schmidt and Schröder, was aware of political correctness, but did not surrender to it. The fact that in the bottom third of the wage pyramid the tendency to do undeclared work is naturally more pronounced than in the top ten percent is deliberately ignored today. You fear the shitstorm more than anything else.
That’s why it’s not talked about – and that’s why all calculations for citizen income are politically correct, but mathematically wrong. Because: Even with a small amount of undeclared work, we are talking about an economic sector that turns over around 326 billion euros per year, the state service recipient trumps the private service provider. This is not respectful in the eyes of hard-working people, it is frustrating. The hard-working and at the same time tax-honest worker or employee is suddenly the stupid one.
3. Skilled workers are milked
In terms of tax policy, the skilled worker is no longer spared, but rather milked – which is clearly different from Willy Brandt’s time. With a top tax rate, which starts at 58,597 euros for a single, the SPD grabs the udders of their very own clientele. The average wage and the beginning of the top tax rate are getting closer and closer. The SPD is no longer the patron god of skilled workers, but the milker with cold hands.
4. Less and less net from gross
The constant increase in non-wage labor costs – by 50 percent since the Brandt era – also ensures that less and less net remains from the gross. Basically, every increase in social security contributions acts like a special tax on small wages. Because of the monthly contribution assessment limit of EUR 4,837.50, high incomes are affected to a much lesser extent by the increase in social security contributions.
The wealthy are completely free and the civil service has in any case ducked into private health insurance and state pension payments. That is the opposite of solidarity. The SPD cannot plausibly explain this situation to their milieu – because it is not plausible.
5. Demonstrative disinterest in increasing immigration
With its demonstrative disinterest in the increasing immigration, the SPD has forfeited a lot of sympathy among workers and small self-employed people. Although immigration eases the demand for services in the upper middle class, it intensifies wage competition in the lower third of the labor market and the struggle for affordable housing in the housing market. In her book “The Self-Righteous”, Sahra Wagenknecht writes exactly what happened:
“Today, in the left-liberal mainstream, even addressing the connection between migration and wage dumping is considered indecent.”
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But it is, she continues, “no coincidence that those who already work for low wages rate immigration differently than higher earners who are happy about a cheap nanny and a cheap plumber.”
She says: The migrants did not migrate – “as the left-liberal story would have us believe” – into an open society, but into a socially deeply divided one.
6. Departure from the former core target group
Added to this is the cultural departure of today’s SPD from the former core target group of its electorate. Once upon a time, the inhabitants of the workers’ settlement and the people in the suburbs, where it smells of combustion engines on weekdays and pork neck steak on weekends, were the heroes of the SPD. Today people are embarrassed about this origin. The SPD of the present wants to please the milieu of the big cities, where even membership in the IG Metall is considered uncool. In these circles you are a creative person and not a metal worker.
Any minority in the USA or in the forests of the Amazon is more important to the SPD today than the classic industrial worker. He feels this deprivation of love, which has lasted for decades – and pays back to the SPD on election day. He votes right or green – or not at all.
Conclusion: Of course, the SPD can continue to deny its proletarian origins and thus its innate down-to-earthness. But basically she is burying a piece of herself.
Incidentally, your journalistic critics, perhaps that would already be the beginning of self-healing, should the SPD see itself as a critic again. And not as an opponent. Willy Brandt knew why: “Journalism can abdicate if it becomes harmless.”
Gabor Steingart is one of the best-known journalists in the country. He publishes the newsletter The Pioneer Briefing. The podcast of the same name is Germany’s leading daily podcast for politics and business. Steingart has been working with his editorial team on the ship “The Pioneer One” since May 2020. Before founding Media Pioneer, Steingart was, among other things, Chairman of the Management Board of the Handelsblatt Media Group. You can subscribe to his free newsletter subscribe here.