Instead of being inspiring role models, German politicians lack the courage to express their visions, says political psychology professor Thomas Kliche. Great political figures have always embodied great ideas, he says.
DW: There have been exceptional political role models in German history, among them former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt. How do the politicians of today differ?
Thomas Kliche: Willy Brandt was a model for change. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her main election opponent, the Social Democrat Martin Schulz, on the other hand, have focused on consistency and on keeping things as they are, reflecting the majority in society who just want to be left in peace, and maybe enjoy a little more prosperity. Essentially, we're engaging in the depoliticization of political plans.
These two politicians are role models for a post-democratic world.
The people who we've historically remembered as great political figures have always been the embodiment of a great idea, a plan: Brandt, Mandela, Palme, Roosevelt, Lincoln. These were people who committed themselves to humanity's progress, to a new idea of how to live.
In the absence of such ideas, leaders who are moral, reliable and calm are good as interim solutions. But that doesn't make for good leadership in a time of crisis.
Today, we are faced with a number of overwhelming global problems. Does that make it difficult to come up with these grand ideas?
No, what's lacking is courage. We're under time pressure, and the solutions being presented by the political parties are clearly not viable. What they need, from a psychological perspective, is a way to communicate change.
Globally, we have a common task: We must tame capitalism, which is destroying our common property and economic security. With the welfare state, we have managed to tame capitalism on a national scale. But we need to do this internationally, or else the world will erupt with ever greater social inequalities and tensions.
With less than two weeks to go before the German election, have all the political parties already resigned themselves to new version of the current "grand coalition"?
That has become very clear. There has been no effort to bring about any other kind of outcome, or to develop a multifaceted and reasoned alternative to the grand coalition or Chancellor Merkel. This should have been a task for last year, above all a task for Martin Schulz. And that was a missed opportunity.
The Social Democrats (SPD) failed historically because they refused to come up with a viable alternative. Simply saying, "I want to become chancellor," is not enough. Successful policy making means finding enough willing coalition partners and supporters to back your plan for the good life and to overcome your opponents. Schulz has made no attempt to do that.
Taking a look at the election posters, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) campaign stands out. It has staged FDP Christian Lindner as a kind of James Bond, with artistic black-and-white photos showing a thoughtful Lindner looking offscreen, or staring intently at the camera. Does that sort of thing appeal to the public?
Yes, that was quite clever. Not so much as an effort to directly address voters, but more to help them forget. The FDP has a history of being bullied and has had a reputation for pursuing naive special interest politics, for being hard-hearted.
With the party's rebirth through Christian Lindner, this old reputation has been completely transformed and replaced by a sort of manly stength, a personification of assertiveness. The contents, the substance of the party's message, has been overshadowed. Lindner has become a sort of political model.
Political model — is this where the staging of a political ideal takes precedence?
Exactly. People become very uneasy when they have to face a future with economic crises, environmental catastrophes and unstable international relationships, without a plan for the future and without change-oriented leadership. They want leaders to guide them through these crises.
Politicians must embody this vision and offer a new path toward solving these problems. But because these plans for the future don't exist, it becomes more about a mediation of style and atmosphere than about political decisions and solutions.
Are such staging attempts easy to spot?
This political model breaks with the norm, the standard that presents us with such a unified format that we could simply swap out the party and reuse the posters. There has been an increasing overlap with how the major parties have been presenting themselves and their parties. The FDP has gone about it in a different way, and will benefit from that.
In such difficult times, isn't it best to simply look at things soberly and chose the best crisis manager?
From a psychological point of view, good managers have a certain repertoire: They all encounter situations, assign tasks and resources and react differently. They combine conventional and unconventional leadership approaches. At the same time, they also serve as role models, because they have plans for the future. Similarly, the leadership of people generally derives its power from the combination of vision and role model. Leadership serves us all as a form of problem solving. It has a social function. Good management cannot be separated from emotion.
Thomas Kliche is professor of education management at Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences. His main focus is political psychology.