Clay Risen -- Germany's Election and the Digital Dark Ages

By Clay Risen
Sunday, September 20, 2009

The most popular politician in Europe isn't Germany's Angela Merkel, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi or France's Nicolas Sarkozy. It's America's Barack Obama. Europeans love his image and charisma, but they especially love the way his 2008 campaign used the Internet to rewrite the rules of American politics.

The European political establishment has rushed to follow suit, convening conferences and working groups on how to re-create Obama's online energy. These days every politician has a YouTube channel, Facebook page, Twitter feed and blog. In May, more than 600 German politicos turned out for PolitCamp09, a crash course on campaigning Obama-style. "Obama has set the standard, and now every leading German candidate is falling over himself for a stronger presence on the Internet," wrote the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.

With Germany's national elections Sept. 27, the campaigns are in high gear. But for all the leading parties' talk of digital politics, their Web strategies are just that: talk. Their blogs are Potemkin Web sites -- the posts are just rehashed news releases -- and their Facebook groups often have fewer friends than the average American teenager. The parties still think that the Web is just an advertising tool, not a way to raise money, activate volunteers or create a movement behind their candidates. As one official from Germany's center-right Christian Democrats told me bluntly: "It's not for the voters. Most of it is just to show the newspapers that we're modern and relevant."

But if European politicians don't understand the political power of the Internet, others do. Fewer and fewer Europeans are involved in mainstream politics, and they are moving more of their daily lives online. The result is a gap between the public and the European political center, one that fringe groups are eager to exploit. Right-wing extremists are becoming increasingly sophisticated online organizers. They've made great strides in Germany and elsewhere using the tools of online culture -- song downloads, games, social networking -- to spread their message. Europe's digital generation might not like politicians, but that doesn't mean it isn't political. And if the mainstream politicians don't connect with young voters soon, someone else will.

To get a sense of why European politicians are so willfully blind to the Web, I paid a visit to one of Germany's most prominent political bloggers, the Internet consultant Markus Beckedahl. The biggest problem, he says, is that the main parties are massive, insulated bureaucracies that fear the kind of political risk-taking Americans take for granted.

"It is like comparing Kerry versus Dean in the 2004 American race," he told me. "They are afraid of losing control, so they have a broadcasting strategy instead of an incorporation strategy. Their Web sites are just virtual placards with boring videos and very few people who actually interact with users."

The fear of the mass-organizing power of the Web is well-founded. Postwar European political systems were rebuilt with substantial checks on the sort of populist energy that brought fascism and Nazism to power. Voters tend to elect parties, not politicians; party bureaucrats determine the actual representatives -- and the country's leadership. That's a good way to keep out populists, but it's also a good way to keep politicians from connecting with the voting public.

European politicians aren't just oligarchic; they're practically pensioners. It takes time to ascend the ladder, and there's no jumping in mid-climb, as sports stars and actors do in the United States. That might sound appealing to Americans tired of the Schwarzeneggers and Venturas, but it also means that party leadership is often clueless about new forms of political life. "They know almost nothing about the Internet," said Beatrice von Weizsäcker, a German journalist and author of the bestseller "Why Politics Doesn't Interest Me." "For them, the Internet is nothing else than a TV and a modern way to send letters. They have no idea of the applications Barack Obama used during the campaign."

The established European parties have an easy response. As one Social Democratic Party official told me, European parties are membership organizations with robust cultural and social roots that no American party offers. Local party halls, sports clubs, newspapers -- they have it all. But it's hard to find anyone younger than 50 spending their evenings chatting with their local rep, and membership is dropping across Europe.

What's becoming clear on the continent is that the all-encompassing party lifestyle, in which members not only voted but played, drank and traveled together, and which was such an advantage during the Industrial Age, is a detriment in the Internet Age. Today, people move in and out of political affiliations the same way they shift among social networks. Obama understood that; established European politicians, no matter how many blogs they have, don't.

I met Weizsäcker for coffee one recent morning in Berlin. The daughter of former president Richard von Weizsäcker -- an establishment figure, a sort of German George H.W. Bush -- Frau Weizsäcker is more like Arianna Huffington, the populist aristocrat, the rabble-rousing riche.

Weizsäcker's book is a rallying cry against the widening split between politics and the public in Europe. Today, according to Frau Weizsäcker's book, only 10 to 15 percent of Germans are politically active, as defined by participation in party activities. But that, she argues, is too narrow a measurement. "I'm convinced that almost everyone in Germany is interested in politics," she said. "We aren't sick of politics, but of our political parties."

Europeans, particularly the younger generations, increasingly express themselves through what Germans call ausserparlamentarische Opposition, a catchall phrase that means "extra-parliamentary opposition" but can include everything from online petitioning to right-wing violence. They're not demonstrating against the established parties as much as bypassing them. "The younger generation says, 'You don't even speak our language,' " Weizsäcker said. "We are developing into parallel societies, and we can't afford to wait until the younger generation is in its 40s and ready to lead."

That's good news for groups such as the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), which feeds on disaffected youth of all sorts. In a long report this year, Focus, a German news magazine, found a shockingly sophisticated far-right presence on the Internet, one steeped in user-generated, Web 2.0 content -- remixed far-right music videos championing the German "Volk," extensive chat rooms where users discuss the finer points of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, Flickr sets of far-right rallies and Erwin Rommel fan pages. "They use it for propaganda, recruiting and networking," the magazine said. "But there's of course no explicit strategy: Many of them can be found on apolitical sites like Facebook and YouTube, which are used by millions of people."

In a way, the European far right is perfectly structured for Internet politics: Because organizations and official membership are strictly regulated, groups such as the NPD are used to working through informal networks and encouraging supporters to create content. The formal political structures created by postwar European governments to keep out right-wing extremism are now preventing the political center from engaging with young voters, while the new, informal political structures made possible by the Internet are proving fertile ground for extremist activism.

Mainstream politicians have responded by pressuring service providers to shut down extremist sites and member pages. Although well-intentioned, that strategy is just further proof of how out of touch they are: As any record company exec will tell you, the Web is far too dynamic a place for blunt regulations. The only way to win over Europe's digital generation is to engage with it on its own terms, in its own media. European political parties need to realize that in the era of Internet politics, winning means ceding a little control -- otherwise, they might lose it completely.

Clay Risen is the managing editor of "Democracy: A Journal of Ideas" and a 2009 Arthur Burns fellow in Berlin.

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