The old parties of the FRG are becoming less and less popular, especially in the middle of society. Because they don't unite, says Robert Vehrkamp.

Many people walk through a pedestrian area.

More and more people make their voting decisions based on the reality of their lives. A scene in the center of Munich. Photo: Matthias Balk/Picture Alliance

taz: Mr. Vehrkamp, ​​the government's approval is really bad, but we know: polls are just polls and the political situation fluctuates more and more. So why should we care about approval numbers?

Senior advisor of the “Democracy and Cohesion” program of the Bertelsmann Foundation and visiting professor at the Institute for Research on Democracy at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg.

Robert Vehrkamp: Because they are no longer a reliable predictor of future voting behavior, but they still show moods that can solidify and then shape political thought and action and, ultimately, voting behavior as well.

What do you read from the current sinus studies you just evaluated?

Our central finding is: we have a recognizable problem in the middle of society. The middle layers of society are losing confidence in the future and are therefore becoming more receptive to populism and increasingly moving away from established democratic parties.

At the taz we like to deconstruct the so-called middle.

It is true that the old middle class as we knew it no longer exists. The new medium is more segmented and divided into a nostalgic medium and a pragmatic medium. More and more people make their voting decisions based primarily on the realities of life around them. Strong partisan ties are declining. Therefore, the explanatory value of environments for voting behavior continues to increase.

And the centrist parties no longer want this new divided center?

Support for the Bonn parties is concentrated in the upper middle and upper classes. The lower-mid environments feel noticeably disconnected.

The traffic light lost a little more than other coalitions at this point in the legislative period. But only a small part of the traffic light losses is credited to the account of the CDU and CSU, and a much larger part goes to the account of the AfD and the Wagenknecht alliance. If you add the parties of the Bonn Republic, that is, Union, FDP, SPD, Greens, those from the two middle circles only obtain 50 percent approval. And non-voters have already been taken into account. Currently, only one in three voters would choose one of the traffic light parties or the Union. It is a dramatic uprooting. At the same time, we again see a significantly stronger line of social conflict: support for the Bonn parties is building up in the upper-middle-class and upper-class milieus. Lower-mid environments feel noticeably disconnected.

The traffic light as an elite event. How could that happen?

Bleak outlook Only one in four (26 percent) of people in the nostalgic bourgeois milieu, the traditional middle class threatened by fears of decline, are optimistic about the future. The loss of trust since 2022, both there and in the adaptive pragmatic environment, the young and determined middle, is around 20 percentage points, double the average.

Loosen the debt brake Most people with average incomes would be fine with taking on more debt, but only on the condition that this money is used for future-oriented investments, such as schools, local public transport or better climate protection. According to the data, 73 percent of those surveyed would be in favor of taking on more debt.

No majority for traffic lights Of the “nostalgic bourgeois,” at the end of February only 17 percent voted for the traffic light parties. 28 percent would vote for the CDU and CSU, 34 percent for the AfD and 9 percent for Sahra Wagenknecht's new party (BSW). In the case of the “adaptive pragmatic milieu” that is willing to change, the traffic light would reach 26 percent, the Union at 30 percent and the AfD at 27 percent. If a federal election were held now, the BSW would only get 4 percent. (taz, with dpa material)

In a crisis, the elite falls more weakly than the middle class and the socially precarious milieus. But the traffic light is also responsible for things it is not responsible for. This government cannot prevent Russia from invading Ukraine, but it fully feels the general irritability after the coronavirus, exacerbated by inflation and other consequences of the war. This would not have happened otherwise to a Union-led government.

They describe a division similar to that of the United States: decoupling, populist tendencies. Haven't many political observers clung for months to sociologist Steffen Mau's comforting analysis that social division doesn't really exist?

We're not America, but I read Mouse's book “Trigger Points” a little differently, not as trivial as some have interpreted it. The authors certainly point out that trigger points exist and should be avoided, especially when it comes to divisive issues like inequality, migration and climate. And if the parties do not pay attention to this, divisions can occur. The public discussion of the book was too dismissive for me.

so..what does it matter?

About the constructive solution to the problems that condition people's daily lives, that bother them and they do not have the feeling that the parties care enough about them. Therefore, our thesis is that democratic parties working together would be better than mutual blockade and constant discussions. The above conflict strategies – within the traffic light, but also between the traffic light and the opposition – reinforce the impression that the parties are self-centered and removed from everyday life. This is especially beneficial for populist and right-wing parties.

What would be the alternative?

Interest rates and energy prices are falling, inflation has stopped, and the economy could be significantly better next year than this year. Democratic parties should take this opportunity to change the mood in the middle circles again. But the government must do something about it, and the democratic opposition would also have to do something about it if it wants to benefit more from the government's losses than it does now. An important reform package is needed again with investments in schools, transportation, hospitals, that is, in areas that shape the reality of people's lives. But for this to happen, the debt brake needs to be relaxed. This is only possible with the Union.

The presentation of a study on the environment with the title

Do you believe in that?

No, that's why the traffic light has to manage on its own to combine another big reform package with the 2025 budget. It may be its last chance, but it's one!

Don't we have to get used to more democratic disputes? Weren't the Merkel years quite controversial?

Yes, this will also become the “new normal” in Germany, and will be no different in the future, perhaps with a Union-led government. In any case, a Merz as chancellor, with Söder and Kühnert in the cabinet, for example, would be no more conflict-free than the current traffic light. In multiparty coalitions, parties have to do among themselves what the old popular parties used to do within the party. The traffic light showed how this can work in its coalition negotiations. The successful negotiation process and excellent coalition agreement speak for themselves. But the traffic light did not adequately translate this into his coalition's day-to-day government practice. His coalition management is still too similar to the government practice with which Helmut Kohl ran his coalition of black-yellow camps in the 1980s and 1990s. But that no longer works.

What do you have in mind? Parties instead of a coalition committee?

Exactly! And then, a study on the effect of cannabis release on coalition climate. (laughs). But seriously: the traffic light parties should dare to form a little more of a coalition. The departmental and coalition coordination committees coordinated in the Chancellery are simply no longer sufficient to orchestrate complex multiparty coalitions. Coalition structures would have to be much more parliamentary. Government factions need to have more relationship with each other, work on common issues and feel joint responsibility for common issues. A model for this would be interfaction “mission committees,” in which the coalition factions are institutionalized, that is, they continually work on their most important common concerns.

From the ongoing conflict, many have come to the conclusion that it depends on the Chancellor: he is responsible for using words of power.

This is Adenauer nostalgia or Schröder myth, as the case may be! There can no longer be Basta chancellors in a polarized multiparty coalition. Political competition has long become a moderation competition. The Chancellor only makes policy decisions when coalition partners basically beg him to, as is the case with the phase-out of nuclear energy. Multi-party coalitions function very differently than single-party governments or field coalitions. Scandinavian countries have had a lot of experience with this type of structures for decades. This also includes governing with flexible majorities, which we always misleadingly call “minority government” and are therefore badly talked about from the beginning.

So would it be better to have a red and green minority government than traffic lights?

Not necessarily, but we should learn to use loose majority government as an instrument in majority coalitions!