The Future of the Society, Culture & Politics Program

Senior Fellow and Director of the Society, Culture & Politics Program Dr. Eric Langenbacher lays out his vision for the future of the program.

I am thrilled to join the team at AICGS as Senior Fellow and Director of the Society, Culture & Politics program. It is also a great honor to follow Dr. Lily Gardner Feldman who directed the program so magnificently for many years.

I would like to take this opportunity to share some thoughts about the direction of the SCP program going forward. I intend to continue the important policy work that AICGS has done in many areas such as migration and reconciliation, but also want to take the program in some new directions. The following are some of the foci that I would like to emphasize in the future.

Demographic Change

Populations are evolving considerably and quickly on both sides of the Atlantic. Most importantly, both Germany and the U.S. are being transformed by migration. Over 20 percent of the German population currently has a migration background (23.6%)—a proportion that will continue to rise in the next years. In the U.S., the non-white population is approaching 40 percent and the portion of the population that is foreign-born hovers around an all-time high at about 14 percent.

Perhaps as important, both societies have experienced low birth rates and are aging. Nevertheless, the impact of these structural factors is quite variable. Cities (like Frankfurt am Main or Houston) and more dynamic economic regions (Bavaria or Georgia) are much younger and more diverse than rural or economically challenged regions (such as Ohio or Saxony-Anhalt).

These structural shifts mean that the societies and cultures are changing in response to the contributions of the newcomers. Although many citizens welcome and even celebrate these changes (Berlin’s Karneval der Kulturen comes to mind), many others are disoriented and unsettled by them. Especially the surge of migrants coming into the country around 2015 was a challenge. One response to these changes has been a return of more nationalistic, xenophobic, and even racist politics, exemplified by the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Similar tendencies have been observed in the U.S. with the alt-right and other actors. Understanding the multiple facets of demographic change is one of the most important tasks that AICGS is currently undertaking.

Learn about the AICGS project Social Divisions and Questions of Identity in Germany and the United States: Consequences for Politics and Society. An Exchange Outside of the Metropolitan Areas.

Electoral Politics

Key factors behind any public policy are the actors wielding power and influence over the content. Some of the most important of these actors, especially in a “party-state” like Germany, are the elected representatives at all levels of governance.

German electoral politics was stable, even hyper-stable, for decades during the Cold War. The two people’s parties (Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union, CDU/CSU, and Social Democratic Party, SPD) dominated from the early 1950s onward with the smaller liberal party, the Free Democrats, often holding the balance of power. The entrance of the Green Party in the Bundestag in 1983 did not really change these dynamics. Governments were long-serving and political change was almost glacial in its pace. From 1949-1998, the Federal Republic had only six chancellors (the U.S. had ten presidents over the same period).

Reunification altered this dynamic, at first only marginally (the rise of the former communist Party of Democratic Socialism, now the Left), and in the last few electoral cycles more dramatically. Electoral volatility has increased markedly since the mid 2000s. Currently, there are six fractions (and seven parties) in the Bundestag. If public opinion polls are to be believed, no party commands more than about 27 percent of the electorate’s allegiance. Coalition governments have long been the norm, but the country will now face more complex governing combinations with three or four parties. Moreover, about a quarter of the Bundestag belongs to koalitionsunfähig, or unacceptable coalition partner parties, making the process of cobbling together 50 percent of the seats even harder. A previously unthinkable minority government is also a distinct possibility. Electoral and coalition politics at the state level are even more complicated—also affecting the composition of the Bundesrat.

Important developments include the decline of the catch-all parties, especially the SPD and the rise of the Greens and AfD. Structurally, the old left-right socio-economic cleavage (CDU-SPD) is being augmented by a new values-based one (Greens-AfD). More specifically, the long tenure of Chancellor Angela Merkel will come to an end in the near term—no later than after the 2021 Bundestag election. Her successor will have to grapple with the policy challenges and the complexities of the expanded multi-party system. Explaining the short-term and structural changes of the German political system will remain a central task of the Society, Culture & Politics program.

Regional Issues

When AICGS was founded in 1983 two German states existed. Interacting with Germans from both Cold War Germanys was a core goal of the Institute. After reunification almost thirty years ago, one of the most salient issues to understand Germany was the lingering East-West divide and the so-called Mauer im Kopf (wall in minds). Around the turn of the century, this issue faded somewhat from the agenda. Perhaps analysts believed that the cleavage had been overcome or that a rising generation was unified culturally and politically.

Recent years, however, have shown that the East-West divide persists. In any socio-economic map of the country, the old border is immediately visible. The eastern regions suffer acutely from out-migration, aging, lagging incomes, and more unemployment with the exception of the larger cities like Leipzig and Dresden and the “bacon belt” around Berlin. Many easterners still feel like second-class citizens. Unfortunately, many eastern regions are also more xenophobic than the western ones, exemplified by the resilience of the Pegida movement in Dresden. Extremely fragmented partisan preferences, very high volatility, and, more recently, disproportionally high support for the right-populist AfD (and the Left Party) are all consequences of the lingering challenges in the eastern region. Once again focusing more on eastern Germany in the next few years will be necessary.

A large and complex country like Germany has many other regional fissures. Already before reunification and more so since, a north-south divide has emerged in the country. Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, and Hesse (at least the part around Frankfurt) seem to go from strength to strength. Meanwhile, North Rhine-Westphalia and other regions in the north (excepting Hamburg) struggle to overcome their “rust belt” reputation. Of course, such larger regional differences and policy responses to various challenges also play out within the borders of the sixteen federal states. Attention must be devoted to this level of governance, especially in a strong federation like Germany.

Europe

It has long been a mantra that Germany’s relationship with the European Union is not a foreign, but rather a domestic policy concern. Even if the claims that 80 percent of the rules and regulations in Germany today originate at the EU level are over-exaggerated, it could be as high as 40 percent, and more in policy areas like finance and agriculture. Moreover, the days of the EU being low salience to voters (the much vaunted “permissive consensus”)[1] are long over. “Europe” in all its guises—migration, regulation, currency—is a concern of many.

Although Germany has thus far been spared a powerful Euroskeptic party (it bears mention that the AfD was founded in part because of this sentiment), it most certainly must deal with these forces in other member states. Brexit—if it actually happens—will have negative effects on the German economy with all sorts of unforeseen socio-political consequences. The Euroskeptic Italian government could be even more destabilizing.

And we ought not to forget that the Eurocrisis was only ten years ago. Many of the “necessary” fixes to the problems that gave rise to that near-extinction event have not come to pass and vulnerabilities still exist. When and even if reforms to the EU’s and euro’s institutional infrastructure occur, as well as the consequences for the German political system, are some of the most important issues in the medium term and AICGS will be there to cover them.

The Politics of Memory

Finally, the SCP program at AICGS has long focused on efforts by Germany to address the burden of its Nazi past, especially in terms of pursuing reconciliation with countries and peoples previously victimized by that regime. This substantive concern will continue, albeit with a slightly modified focus.

My vision of memory politics starts by assuming a modicum of societal pluralism and political freedom; human communities are characterized by multiple collective memories, vying for political influence and cultural hegemony. Dominant memories—shared interpretations of a particularly poignant past with a high degree of affect, the “living past” not the cold dead facts of history—help to determine “the authoritative allocation of values,” as David Easton once defined politics. Indeed, influencing, sustaining, and reinforcing the values people hold dear has a pronounced effect on actual political policies and outcomes. This is to say that due to this impact on actual outcomes, there is always a dimension of power involved.

And because of this power and the affective, identity-validating dimension of memories, there are incentives for various social, cultural, and political actors to represent their preferred memory and to compete with others for influence and hegemony. Analysis must assess how many memories are competing at a given point in time, how widespread they are among the population, and the degree of hegemony any one memory has in relation to other contenders. In the German context, competing memories have included the memory of German crimes epitomized by the Holocaust, the memory of German suffering (bombings, flight, and expulsion), the variable memory of East Germany, and more recently the memory of ’68. In addition, memory and historical politics also includes the more remote past (the Kaiserreich, Prussia) and the ever-present possibility of forgetting.

I have done extensive research on the dynamics of collective memory in contemporary Germany and how memory impacts political life in the present. For instance, I have delved into how collective memory affects German foreign policy and the transatlantic relationship in particular. Currently, I am engaging in research that attempts to analyze the AfD’s memory politics. I will work at AICGS to continue a broader examination of the impact of memory on political attitudes and outcomes in Germany and beyond. There is still a plethora of issues to examine: How do Germans with a migration background internalize these debates and the much-vaunted German culture of memory? How will the institutions that support memory reach out to younger generations, ever more distant from the generative historical events? What European and transnational influences affect domestic debates about memory?

These are just some initial thoughts. One of the great advantages of an institute like AICGS is our ability to respond in real time to the concerns of the day. Few people were actively talking about nationalism and right-wing populism ten years ago. Migration, integration, and multiculturalism have long been important concerns, but we are talking much more about those coming from places like Syria and sub-Saharan Africa. At the height of the Red-Green government, few would have predicted that the SPD would struggle to get 15 percent of the electorate to contemplate voting for one of the oldest parties in the world. As much as we will continue many of these conversations, the critical topics of the day in 2025 or 2030 will surely be different once again. I hope to be around for many years to help guide the discussion.


[1] Clifford J. Carrubba, “Electoral Connection in European Union Politics,” The Journal of Politics, Vol. 63, No. 1 (2001), pp. 141-158.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Eric Langenbacher

Senior Fellow; Director, Society, Culture & Politics Program

Dr. Eric Langenbacher is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Society, Culture & Politics Program at AICGS.

Dr. Langenbacher studied in Canada before completing his PhD in Georgetown University’s Government Department in 2002. His research interests include collective memory, political culture, and electoral politics in Germany and Europe. Recent publications include the edited volumes Twilight of the Merkel Era: Power and Politics in Germany after the 2017 Bundestag Election (2019), The Merkel Republic: The 2013 Bundestag Election and its Consequences (2015), Dynamics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary Europe (co-edited with Ruth Wittlinger and Bill Niven, 2013), Power and the Past: Collective Memory and International Relations (co-edited with Yossi Shain, 2010), and From the Bonn to the Berlin Republic: Germany at the Twentieth Anniversary of Unification (co-edited with Jeffrey J. Anderson, 2010). With David Conradt, he is also the author of The German Polity, 10th and 11th edition (2013, 2017),

Dr. Langenbacher remains affiliated with Georgetown University as Teaching Professor and Director of the Honors Program in the Department of Government. He has also taught at George Washington University, Washington College, The University of Navarre, and the Universidad Nacional de General San Martin in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has given talks across the world. He was selected Faculty Member of the Year by the School of Foreign Service in 2009 and was awarded a Fulbright grant in 1999-2000 and the Hopper Memorial Fellowship at Georgetown in 2000-2001. Since 2005, he has also been Managing Editor of German Politics and Society, which is housed in Georgetown’s BMW Center for German and European Studies. Dr. Langenbacher has also planned and run dozens of short programs for groups from abroad, as well as for the U.S. Departments of State and Defense on a variety of topics pertaining to American and comparative politics, business, culture, and public policy.