Liberty muted by lost German loyalties

In Germany, as much of the Western world, allegiance to political and other groups is dissolving. It's not clear how such societies can move past superficial decision making to productive government.

If you ever wanted to see a German church moderately filled, you will now have to wait for another year. With the possible exception of natural disasters and other emergencies, Christmas is the only time you struggle to find a seat on a church bench.

Just over 40 per cent of all Germans claim to attend a church service at Christmas. On ordinary Sundays, fewer than 1 in 20 Germans can be found at church – down from 1 in 4 in the 1960s.

Maybe atheism or non-church forms of religiousness are on the rise in Germany, just as organised religion is on the way out in many other developed countries. But perhaps the German's slowing allegiance to public organisations – seen in the decline of churchgoing and in many other areas – is just one aspect of a much wider social trend: Western social structures are falling apart.

Germany is a good case study of this process. It is not typically seen as a country with massive economic problems or prone to social upheaval. Quite on the contrary, from the outside Germany appears like a haven of stability. It is widely regarded as Europe’s growth engine. Its products are renowned for their quality. The Germans may not enjoy the best reputation for their peculiar sense of humour but at least they are considered respectable, disciplined, if only a little dull and self-righteous.

In summary, Germany is not the first country that comes to mind when thinking about failing states or a fragmenting society. However, judging by a range of social indicators there must be doubts over the cohesion of German society.

Churches are not the only institutions that have lost the ability to retain loyalty among their followers. Other social groups are experiencing exactly the same problem, including political parties.

From the foundation of the Federal Republic after World War II until the early 1980s, membership of political parties continued to increase. In 1984, almost two million West Germans were members of one of the mainstream political parties. Today, with an increased population due to the country’s unification, this figure has declined to just over 1.3 million party members.

It’s not just less attractive to be a member of Germany’s political parties. It’s also less attractive to vote for any of them. Electoral turnout in federal elections is down from a peak of 91.1 per cent in 1972 to 70.8 per cent at the last election in 2009.

The trade unions had to deal with an even worse decline. Despite an increase in the number of people in paid employment, trade union membership has almost halved over the past two decades: According to the Confederation of German Trade Unions, the figure has fallen from 11.8 million registered trade unionists in 1991 to just 6.2 million members in 2011.

If active participation in churches, political parties and trade unions is declining, it is perhaps less surprising that also passively following daily affairs is a dying pastime. In 1992, the four main TV news programmes were watched by 21.1 million people every day. Today, this figure is down to 13.4 million (out of a total population of 82 million). Over the same period, the number of daily newspapers has also collapsed from 27 million to 18 million, leading to a dying of many established mastheads (The Times, it is a changin', 29 November).

What is described here is not just a German phenomenon; it is a common story in many Western European countries. The times when societies got together in large groups, organised themselves in the same clubs and parties, read the same news and watched the same TV programs are over.

In times past, chances were that students going back to school on Monday would have talked about the same weekend TV programs that their parents also talked about when they returned to the office. Nowadays, not even two students of the same age may live in the same world. Their media consumption does not necessarily overlap much.

Of course, this fragmentation of society can be interpreted in two ways. It could be seen as the triumph of individualism and liberty. Thanks to new technologies, we may all live our lives according to our own preferences without the need to engage much with others, let alone join formal groups. There is certainly something liberating about not having to rely on just a few national broadcasters for your news when alternative viewpoints are just a click away on the internet.

On the other hand, it is not clear how such societies work and govern themselves. There are vague promises of ‘crowd-sourcing’ political decision-making to online platforms and notions of ‘liquid democracy’. But is this the realistic future of political participation? At the same time that people care less and less about politics, as evidenced by declining news consumption, why should they suddenly be interested in making political decisions themselves – let alone informed political decisions?

Under such circumstances the prospects for parliamentary democracy do not look good either.

Previously, big political divisions were the characterising features of the major parties. Their manifesti could be expressed in a few bullet points. For centre-left parties: Increased redistribution and more public services. For centre-right: Lower taxes and introduce more business friendly legislation.

Responding to growing political apathy, the parties have thrown such ideological beliefs overboard. Major parties of the left and right are hardly distinguishable in many countries. The issues on which there remains disagreement are few and technical, and it would take a passionate interest in public policy to detect them. Many voters don’t even try to do so anymore. Base voters, whose loyalties always remain with the same party, are also hard to find these days. The traditional sociological milieus which breed such voters are breaking down.

As a result, big political debates are a thing of the past. Instead, parties are now selling themselves to the electorate as if they were a new brand of detergent or toothpaste.

In the strange economic world of the global financial crisis, the complexity of our problems is enormous and the challenges are manifold: public debt, unsustainable welfare systems, ageing societies – to just name a few. These would be difficult enough to solve in societies in which broad political discussions still happened and involved large parts of the population.

In today’s society, on the other hand, in which organised groups have lost a large part of their influence, what are the chances that economic reforms will still be implemented? For their long-term success such reforms usually require some sort of wider social support. But where should this still come from?

Perhaps we should pray for a bit more community spirit. Just don’t do it in church. You may be on your own.

Dr Oliver Marc Hartwich is the executive director of The New Zealand Initiative.