Among the Green Parties of the world, the German Greens have always received special attention. Ever since its foundation in 1980, observers from abroad have become enchanted with the party and its fascinating journey. And the party surely had its charms. It had charismatic figures like Petra Kelly and Joschka Fischer who made a name for themselves far beyond Germany’s borders. It stirred up a somewhat complacent political system, being the first successful new party in Western Germany since the 1950s. And it changed the country: the phase-out of nuclear power, the push for renewable energy, gay rights – there are a lot of issues where the Green Party was in the vanguard.
But when you talk with a Green Party member about their proud tradition nowadays, you will likely get an evasive answer: “Maybe we can talk about this another time?”
The federal election on 22 September 2013 has left the Green Party in disarray, and once more, the reasons deserve attention. An obvious place to start is personnel. The founding generation is gradually leaving the stage. Claudia Roth and Jürgen Trittin, who had influenced the course of the Greens over decades, stepped down after the election; Joschka Fischer had previously retired from politics in 2005. The new faces are widely unknown, even within the party itself.
Another troublespot, and a particularly ironic one, is success. Many of the party’s original concerns are common-sense issues nowadays. The German decision to retire all nuclear power plants by 2022, taken in 2011 with broad support from all major parties, marked the disappearance of the last environmental issue that truly divided the electorate. A transition to renewable energy sources, formerly decried as a green midsummer night dream, is now government policy. In Germany, every sane politician is green, or at least knows how to act that way.
But then, the German Greens are not a party that is about to disappear. They would probably be content with their share of the vote – 8.4 percent – if they had not hoped for more. Some polls showed them claiming a quarter of the popular vote two years ago, and they clinched their first prime ministership in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg in 2011. Pundits had rhapsodized about the Greens dethroning the social democrats as the main opposition party.
In earlier times, the Greens had often thwarted similar chances through political blunders. They were eager to do better this time and show their professionalism. Their election platform was rock-solid, down to elaborate plans for tax reform. They sought to demonstrate that they were ready to govern, and they were proud of it. In his post-election speech at the Green Party convention, Jürgen Trittin took pride in noting that their platform provided an answer to every question.
But maybe that is the problem? In times of uncertainty, people tend to distrust people who have all the answers. It smacks of overconfidence and a maniacal desire for control. And even if the Greens have good answers – do they have the right questions?
Among the chief attractions of the early Greens was its open mind. They were different from the mainstream parties with their eternal themes and faces. They gave room to debates. And they offered food for thought.
Maybe the next generation should be more cautious than Jürgen Trittin. Today’s voters probably do not want their representatives to have all the answers, and they know for sure that we will not save the planet with one stroke of genius. They may be glad enough when politicians have the right questions, some ideas on how to reach answers, and intellectual humility to boot.
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