The future is a promise – not a threat.

Kurze Zeit vor den Anschlägen in Paris nahm ich an einer Konferenz des Policy Networks – eines internationalen sozialdemokratischen Think Tanks unter Leitung von Peter Mandelson – teil. In einer sehr spannenden Runde – darunter auch Premier Manuel Valls – debattierten wir über die Zukunft progressiver Parteien in Europa – natürlich auch unter dem Eindruck der aktuellen Flüchtlingsentwicklung. Aber tatsächlich fand eine Verunsicherung der Menschen bereits weit vor dieser Entwicklung statt. Davon – und wie die aus meiner Sicht einzige Antwort einer progressiven Bewegung ausfallen kann – handelt mein Beitrag. Weitere Informationen findet man auf der Seite von The Policy Network.

The future is a promise, not a threat – if progressives get the message right

Frank Stauss

At a time of widespread anxiety it is the responsibility of progressive leaders to promote a message of hope over fear.

People around the world are anxious about the future, and it does not matter whether their economy is in a current recession or performing quite well. Even the Germans – where in 2015 about 75 per cent of people according to recent polls consider their personal financial situation as ‘good’ or ‘very good’ – are anxious about the future. In their rather pessimistic disposition, they obviously do not see themselves as a nation that got out of the European crisis sooner than any other. The Germans see themselves as the ones closer than any other to the next crisis. Remember, currently about 2.9 million Germans are unemployed (6.9 per cent). During the climax of the crisis in 2005, the number totaled 4.8 million (12 per cent). Bringing unemployment down by 2 million took enormous efforts, tough cuts in the social system and a decade’s worth of work. Not exactly a quick fix.

But the state of the German mind might give us a head start of what to expect in other nations after an extremely long and deep period of crisis: confidence in the future will not be the same.

Anxiety about the future actually seems to be an overall state of mind no matter how good or bad the present is. In Germany this is confirmed by virtually all our focus groups, no matter the region in which people live, how old they are or whether they belong to the upper, middle, or working class. No one feels safe.

And why should they? They sense that the way we live, work, travel, communicate and participate is currently in the middle of a transition, if not a revolution. They may not be able to give us a detailed analysis of what the future holds for them but even well-paid workers at a Mercedes-Benz plant openly discuss whether their products will stand the test of the next two decades. This would have previously been an unthinkable thought in 1960, 1990 or even 2010.

The distance from anxiety to hope is a long way. The distance from anxiety to fear is markedly shorter.

But progressives can never be defenders of the past or preservers of the status quo. It is not how we operate. Standing still and defending old habits is the specialty of conservatives; they will always be better at that, and we will always feel bad trying.

Most of all, progressives will never be the party of fear. It is the territory of rightwing or leftwing populism and hate. Fear will never be a formula for success for progressives.

A time of progress must be a time for progressives. Change is inevitable – and who should be better prepared for change than us?

The time we live in is a chance of massive proportion for progressives to dominate the political, economic and social debate for decades. Are we ready to see and seize this chance? And are we willing and prepared to learn from past mistakes to frame the future debate according to our core values?

Framing a debate the ‘progressive way’ demands confidence in our beliefs, and our beliefs are almost never the beliefs of our opponents. We must not adopt conservatism and conservative solutions; we must frame the debate our way.

We embrace and are willing to design and define a future with more equality, more prosperity, more transparency, better health, better education, and more chances. We are the ones who always stood and fought for a modern economy, a modern society, modern families and a future that will always be better than the past or the present. So who should be better in shaping a good future but us?

To achieve this we cannot ignore risks and wrong turns. We must not follow every path opening before us; some of these paths will not lead to progress, but to a major backlash. Not everything that is new is also good. What is good has to be approved by our standards. Will it bring mankind ahead or will it just lead to lower wages, self-exploitation, longer working hours and less privacy? If the latter is the case, it is not a path we follow.

It is our job to distinguish between good and bad. We have to lead.
Voters are demanding a clear direction, because they will not notice any other.

When people are anxious or even afraid, they start looking for leadership. To provide this leadership, our signals have to be strong and clear.

With the rise of the internet and almost unlimited access to information for almost every person within the EU, campaigners once envisioned a new type of voter: the fully informed citizen, caring about society as well for their personal wellbeing, of the nation, the European Union and the world, getting up on election day, entering the polling station, and making a rational decision. What we observe is quite the opposite. The multichannel information opportunities are opportunities for disinformation, non-information and confusion.

We observe a massive information tune-out, with more and more people leaving the ground we once considered common knowledge. The gap between the highly informed elites and the vast majority of the people is widening – not closing. While more and more people are channeling the information they are willing to receive, knowledge about politics, economics and culture is losing the battle v entertainment, sports and special interests.

In times of a daily paper and only several TV and radio stations, a media consumer still achieved what I call ‘collateral knowledge’. Once you opened the paper with the sports section, you later moved on to local news, politics, economics and maybe even the feuilleton, simply because you paid for it and wanted your money’s worth of the paper; that is history.

In our recent campaigns, with limited resources (data access, money, people) compared to some massive US campaigns, we turned away from micro-targeting to ‘the big idea’, or, as George Bush Sr once called it: “the vision thing”. We did however send a strong emotional message: a message of hope v fear. A message, that the future will be better, not worse – if we take the right direction now.

When in 1875 the founders of the SPD came together in the city of Gotha, their aim was to make the lives of millions of workers and their families better. They cared not only for better conditions at the workplace but also for better education, better housing, better medical treatment and more. They founded their movement at a time when there was neither a democracy nor much hope to gain as much influence as needed to make their programme come true. At the heart of this movement was hope. Hope that things could be turned to the better, no matter how strong the opponents or how unlikely the chance for success.

Today almost no one in Germany has to be afraid of hunger and even the poorest are provided with good housing conditions. Education is accessible to everybody and, even if there are remaining issues of inequality by heritage, it is possible for every child to climb up the ladder with the help of free kindergarten to free preschool, free college and free universities.

Some even consider ‘the work done’, with the social democrats being victims of their own success. That could not be further from the truth. This is because in a dramatically changing world, almost nothing is more out of sync with what needs to be done but conservatism.

A world in motion is a world for progressives.

So what are the challenges of our times, besides the obvious like mass migration or ongoing wars in many regions of the world – even in Europe?

The challenges of our times are mostly all connected to the digital revolution. The digital revolution will change the way we live much more fundamentally than any of the previous revolutions. What has been labeled ‘Industry 4.0’ and ‘Work 4.0’ will inevitably lead to ‘Life 4.0’, and people are beginning to notice.

They are beginning to notice that we are not just talking about the comfort of a mobile phone, easy access to information and permanent working hours in a global economy. They are beginning to notice that every aspect of their life will somehow be changed with or through the digital revolution and global connectivity.

People experience the falling behind of regions without state of the art access to the digital world. They see mass migration to Europe based on information provided thorough the web and migrants staying in touch with their loved ones or getting the latest border information through their ever present smart phone.

Highly trained employees witness the falling behind of their premium companies when it comes to connectivity and digital progress. The cashier in the supermarket wonders about whether they will be needed five years from now – not 50. If companies like Nokia rise to global dominance and almost disappear within a decade, what is to say that will not nations rise and fall faster than ever before in history?

There are clearly so many questions, yet there are so few answers. Questions about how we work, questions of privacy v transparency, of family lives, of community, property, the distribution of wealth and knowledge, in some nations of diversity, demographic change and the necessity of migration.

One path into a better future certainly is the wrong one; the path backward.

Trying to find solutions for the future in the past never worked.

It is the job of progressives to define the future and to finally frame a debate ahead of the challenges. We can no longer abuse ourselves as the repair-unit of Europe.

But to be ahead of the challenges, we have to stay awake, be alert, stay curious and we have to permanently question our programmes. Are we still ahead of our time? Are we providing answers to current questions, or have we hidden ourselves behind solutions for a world of yesterday? If we want to beat conservatives and accuse them of being too slow for change, too negative about the future, too much defenders of the past, then are we ready to be the opposite?

Are we ready for the biggest battle: hope v fear?

To frame the debate, progressives have to make one thing very clear: what we have achieved so far is not threatened by change, but by ignorance. Ignoring the changes around us takes away the ability to design the future. Neglect means taking the elevator down, not up. People do understand that very well. They are not stupid, but so far nobody is talking to them like they are adults. Most parties treat them like children who need to be protected from the crazy world outside of the kinderzimmer.

Let us begin by taking the voters seriously and by starting a debate on what they already know; ignorance is not the answer.

A narrative for progressives in a changing world:

Change is inevitable. Whether it is a change for the better or for the worse is ours to decide. We believe that the best is yet to come.

And we have proven in the past that the change progressives stood and stand for always was and is a change for the better. Most of all, we were always ahead of our time and not behind.

We have always looked to fight for better education for all children, while conservatives cared more about status, hierarch and inequality. We have always fought for better working conditions, greater distribution of wealth, the furthering of workers’ rights and stronger participation. We have always fought for more transparency, stronger democracy, greater equality and a cleaner environment long before anyone else did. And we have fought for women’s rights, equal pay regardless of whether you are a man or a woman, the rights of minorities, and a more diverse society as the direct source of a stronger sense of community, and a better use of talent.

With all of these fights, causes and progressions, we can say one thing for certain; history is on our side.

We were right, and they were wrong. But the world keeps on turning – and once again it is within our grasps and abilities to design the future.

We must fight for a modern society where no child is abandoned by the state, no matter the circumstances that that child grows up in, whether it be the ‘the classic family’, a patchwork family, raised by a single-parent, by homosexual parents or by heterosexual parents.

We must fight for societies with a fair balance concerning the distribution of wealth, because fair societies have proven to be more stable, stronger economically and to have a better sense of community. They also have proven to be stronger at innovating, and stronger in providing a better quality of life, something which is fundamental to society.

We must fight for a new digital society where 24/7 digitalisation goes hand in hand with the right to free time, privacy, improved working conditions, and where success is measured in living qualities. The future working place must be better than the ones of the past – and we must take care of that.

We must fight for a modern industry with more success through innovation and ecologically sound technology. Old industries fail in the long run, and state of the art production prevails.

We must fight for affordable healthcare, social security, affordable housing in ever-increasingly expensive cities, top quality infrastructure (including mass transportation and unlimited access to digital technologies).

With all of these causes that we must endeavour with, like the causes which we have championed previously and continue to champion, the future will prove us right.

All of this is crucial for a good society; all of this is crucial for a great society.

The road to success is a blunt and promising vision; ‘hope v fear’ is the battleground.

We will define the frame of the future if we are willing and able to take risks and to make decisions. We must decide what is good and what is bad according to our values and we must be ready to endure and fight the battles following our decisions.

Progressive parties – or some of them – behaved like cowards rather than leaders in the past; they lacked inspiration, defended the status quo, were lazy thinkers, adopted neoliberal laissez faire or socialist overprotection, and reduced themselves to micromanagement and daily business.

But who will follow a coward? Who desires for a living compromise? Who is willing to elect a repairman? Who is thrilled by an excel chart? Who will get overly enthusiastic about a natural number two?

No matter which position a progressive party is in right now, whether it be in government, in opposition, or in a governing coalition as the smaller partner, the next campaign has to be about the future and clear about the alternatives we espouse.

Conservatives in some countries adopted rhetoric of change while actually delivering gridlock, old recipes, nationalism or regionalism and fantasies of a world that could be designed as it were a century ago.

Change, as mentioned above, can bring out the best and the worst in politics. To fight the worst, we have to bring out the best in ourselves. Which is a positive look at the future.

The next campaign should not worry about target groups etc in the first place but about the main message: an invitation to all voters and even other parties to join our movement for change. Whoever wants to work on a positive future is our guest, our partner, our possible fellow and coalition companion.

I am sure that the majority of people would rather follow our path of hope instead of the path of fear. Uncertain times are times for leaders and clear leadership. We can take that lead.

To be blunt, we have to take over that lead. Progressive leadership is our heritage and our future.

Frank Stauß is managing partner of the agency BUTTER. Düsseldorf, Berlin. His book ‘Höllenritt Wahlkampf’ (‘Hell Ride Campaigning’) was published in 2013

Conference paper 10/2015; published in 12/2015