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Slow Views

How the Greens go mainstream

Friday 30 July 2021

In the face of the climate crisis, Germany’s Green party has gone from being a fringe player to a real contender. Their positive, can-do campaign should be a lesson to others seeking office across the globe


When Germany’s Greens unveiled their top campaign messages for September’s federal election earlier in July, they didn’t feature dire words about the impact of climate change or what could happen to German society if urgent action to cut emissions isn’t taken. Instead, the slogans on their green-tinted campaign billboards, many thousands of which will go up around Germany in the coming weeks, are decidedly sunny: “Our country can do a lot if you let it,” reads one, over a black-and-white image of Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, the party’s dynamic co-leaders, smiling casually and calmly together. “Economy and climate without crisis,” reads another.

If there is one party in Germany particularly poised to benefit from the resonance that the climate crisis now has within the electorate, it is the Greens. Founded four decades ago as an anti-nuclear energy, peace-driven movement, the party has spent its entire existence warning about the potential impact of rising temperatures on Germany and the world. This summer, with deadly flooding across western Europe, unprecedented heatwaves in Canada and wildfires raging across California yet again, that impact feels more tangible than ever.

The Greens are indeed having a moment, one that has been in the works for three years. Although the party has served in various state- and federal-level governing coalitions (and currently even runs one of them, the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg), it had never seriously had a shot at running the country before. That changed this spring, when they nominated Baerbock as their first-ever chancellor candidate and, for the first time, even briefly topped Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in the polls.

Admittedly, it didn’t last. Recent weeks of campaigning have not been easy for Baerbock and the Greens, and the likelihood of their taking the chancellery now seems a fairly remote one: as the campaign got underway in earnest this spring, Baerbock seemed unprepared for the kind of scrutiny common for electoral frontrunners but wholly new to the Greens. She came under fire for a handful of avoidable issues including, among other things, plagiarising parts of her newly published book, failing to report ancillary income from the party, and making several mistakes on her official CV – all of which brought about a not-insignificant drop in the polls. (The party, polling at an average high of 25 per cent in late April, now stands around 19 per cent.)

Still, the Greens are on track to more than double the 8.9 per cent they received four years ago and will likely be part of the next governing coalition, a dynamic that is the culmination of many factors all coming together at the perfect time. Its current leadership duo, Baerbock and Habeck, have brought a pragmatic and centrist tone to the party’s rhetoric since taking over in 2018, carefully developing the party’s profile as one ready and capable to lead Germany. And of course, the increased focus on climate issues has made their policies more palatable to the political mainstream.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about the party’s current rise – and the one of which their counterparts across Europe should take note – is that it is based not on doom-and-gloom rhetoric about the dystopian future we face without urgent and serious action, but on a relentlessly positive and optimistic message of change. Despite often being referred to as the Verbotspartei of German politics – the party that wants to ban everything, from meat in school lunches to low-cost flights for holidays – the Greens have doubled down on a constructive vision for the future, all while deliberately avoiding the kind of personal attacks and swipes common among their political competitors. 

At a time when fear-based political rhetoric has garnered support across western democracies, and when saying what you’re against often feels more important than saying what you’re for, the Greens’ strategy is the polar opposite: a conscious rejection of the framing common in politics these days. That approach may well earn them a spot in Germany’s next government.

“Traditionally, the Greens have used more of a ‘loss’ framing than a ‘gain’ framing,” said Johannes Hillje, a political consultant who ran the Greens’ European Parliament campaign in 2014. “Their message today is much more optimistic, focusing on the opportunities of the change they advocate… with their new style of communication they have broadened the potential electorate of their party.”

***

Germany’s Greens were founded in 1980, the same year top candidate Annalena Baerbock was born. While some accounts of their current rise suggest this is the first time they’ve had any real chance at power, the party’s fortunes have fluctuated over the years: It was the junior governing partner in the federal government from 1998 to 2005, and is currently part of governing coalitions in 11 of Germany’s 16 states.

Still, while this is not the first time the party has surged above 20 per cent in the polls, it’s the first time its success has been so durable. Things began to change in mid-2018, shortly before Baerbock and Habeck took over the party. That autumn, state-level elections in Hesse and Bavaria brought the party to new highs; the following spring, it earned 20.5 per cent in the 2019 European Parliament elections. This spring in Baden-Württemberg, where the party has led a state-level government for the last decade, they won 32.6 per cent of the vote.

Baerbock and Habeck, who represent a new generation of leadership, have painstakingly crafted the image of a party that has grown up and is now ready to lead Germany into an uncertain future. Both come from what’s known as the party’s pragmatic realo wing, rather than the more left-wing fundis—and through their success made that internal debate, which has raged in some form within the party since the beginning, seem less relevant than ever. That shows in areas like foreign policy: Baerbock and Habeck acknowledge the importance of NATO and would take a harder line on authoritarian regimes like China and Russia than many other German parties, even as they stress human rights issues more strongly than their counterparts in Berlin.

Franziska Brantner, a member of the Bundestag from the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, said investors in the company-rich state were initially terrified of what the Greens might do if they actually took power there. Although she said many threatened to leave if they won back in 2011, none of them have actually done so, because the party operates more pragmatically in government—something it would presumably do at the federal level as well. “I think we have made clear that it’s not in our interest to be against them, but to transform our societies together so that we can have an economy that fits on that planet,” she told me recently. “And I think that approach of being a bridge, being open to new ideas and also to technology, has been key to our success.”

Most people I’ve spoken to within the party cringe slightly when they hear their approach described as “pragmatic,” because that word implies a certain level of cynical compromise in order to get one’s way. Brantner, for her part, prefers the phrase “radical realism.” In German, she said, the word “radical” isn’t necessarily as negatively connotated as it can be in English; it is more a reference about getting to the root of a problem, rather than drastically throwing out the current system. “If you look at the challenges of the world, you need to be radical these days,” she said. “But you need to ground it in realism on how to get majorities since this change won’t be possible against the majority of the people.”

That messaging might be a helpful hint for other Green parties across Europe. Although many have seen their support grow in recent years, they have yet to gain the kind of electoral foothold Germany’s Greens have. “It’s a very interesting lesson to the progressive parties elsewhere in the world, particularly in Western industrial societies,” said Bastian Hermisson, director of the Washington office of the Heinrich Böll-Stiftung Foundation, the Greens’ associated political foundation. 

Hermisson noted the new rhetoric includes not just general positivity and optimism, but also a deliberate use and reframing of traditionally right-wing concepts. In the last few years, the party has been “using terms that are usually considered conservative terminology and saying, ‘We’re not going to leave that to the right wing – we are going to define those terms in a more inclusive manner, and positively,’” he said. 

The most notable of those is the German term Heimat, which means “home” or “homeland” but also comes with deep connotations of belonging and comfort. Because it has a hefty history of being instrumentalised by far-right forces – including the Nazis and the current far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) – many left-wing politicians argued it should be abandoned completely. But the Greens disagree. During a state-level election campaign in the central German state of Hesse back in 2018, the party used a campaign poster featuring a black hand holding a white one. “Heimat?” the poster said. “Of course!” It went on to offer up a more inclusive and inherently multicultural version of the loaded concept: “Everyone wants to feel at home. And every person has the right to have a home… A Hessener is whoever wants to be a Hessener.”

All this culminated in April’s announcement that Baerbock would be the party’s first-ever candidate for chancellor. The flawlessly executed statement and the media storm that followed made it seem as if Baerbock – hands posed on her hips and a confident smile on her face as she graced the cover of the news magazine Der Spiegel with the headline: “The Woman For All Situations” – could do no wrong, and was on her way to the chancellery.

Of course, glowing coverage almost necessarily sets a candidate up for a fall; Baerbock was no exception. The party, unused to its top candidates being the target of consistent attacks, was unprepared for the things that came Baerbock’s way in the last few months. The fact that many of them had to do with her personal qualities as a politician and leader – her failure to properly cite things in her new book, or the perception that her CV somewhat inflated her experience – has caused significant damage to her credibility.

For a party trying to convince voters it’s ready and grown-up enough to run the country, the mistakes came at exactly the wrong time: Baerbock’s stumbles have muddled the party’s narrative clarity. With less than two months to go until election day, she and other top leaders need to move past them and regain their narrative. “Of course, there were mistakes made,” Brantner told me. “The question is, how do you put them into perspective, and how do we manage to get back to a debate about what we need to discuss?”

***

In mid-July, the campaign dynamics shifted fundamentally yet again. Massive floods tore through western Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, destroying entire communities and leaving more than 200 people dead. The haunting tales from survivors and images of utter devastation drew attention to the kind of extreme weather events that promise to only become more frequent and more catastrophic – and immediately brought climate change to the forefront of the election.

Reinhard Bütikofer, a former Greens co-chair who now represents the party in the European Parliament, made it very clear when we spoke recently that they are not campaigning on the flooding disaster. But in a way, they don’t have to: everyone is thinking about it already, meaning the Greens’ core message feels more relevant than ever whether they explicitly draw the link or not. “The dire realities do bring the issue of climate change to the forefront in a dramatic way that almost everyone is aware of, which wasn’t the case before,” he told me. “We had heard over and over again about huge forest fires in California and floods in China and extremely high temperatures in Sweden. But now it’s happening to us at home, too.”

The day news of the flooding broke, Habeck, the co-party leader, was in the midst of a two-week campaign swing in Germany’s north. Speaking to a few hundred supporters and voters gathered on the cobblestone town square in Friedrichstadt, Dutch-style row houses silhouetted in front of him, Habeck somberly expressed solidarity with the victims and worked to put the disaster in the context of the broader impact of climate change. 

Still, he purposely ended his speech on a positive note: from financial means to technical capabilities to an understanding of its place in history, he said, Germany has all the tools it needs to combat climate change. It just needs to take the leap and actually do it. “The argument, ‘Everything is falling apart, please vote for the Greens,’ isn’t very successful,” he said. The party, and by extension Germany, will benefit “if we do not concentrate on considering what is bad … if we do not insist on thinking about the worst-case scenario, but instead about the best possible scenario.”

The next two months will show whether that message resonates enough to bring the party into the next governing coalition – and whether Baerbock, its top candidate, can avoid further missteps that detract from it. As the most powerful Green party in Europe, others would do well to watch them closely.

Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist, based between Vienna and Berlin. She writes primarily about German and Austrian politics and the rise of populist far-right parties across Europe. Previously, she was a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs.