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Opinion Can Germany’s new leader teach Democrats to stop feuding?

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks at a news conference at the E.U. headquarters in Brussels on Dec. 10. (Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images)

Political parties that find themselves under stress in one country often turn to brotherly and sisterly movements in other countries for inspiration, ideas and hints toward a way forward.

Reading the outpouring of essays lately on what’s wrong with the Democrats, you’d imagine they had just lost a big election by a landslide. You’d never know that President Biden’s party is still in power.

A bit of free advice to the feuding factions blaming each other for the Democrats’ falling polling numbers: Parties that are bitterly and openly divided rarely win. And a friendly hint to Biden: Both ends of your coalition need a talking to — and a coherent approach to coming back together.

For intimations of what that might look like, Democrats might learn from what just happened in Germany, a country where the major center-left party was widely seen as out of touch and doomed less than six months ago. In becoming only the fourth Social Democratic chancellor since the end of World War II, Olaf Scholz defied the premature obituaries. In the process, he gave center-left parties, including the Democrats in the United States, not only hope but a philosophical game plan.

Scholz’s own obsessions in recent years have been concerns that ought to animate Democrats: how to protect democracy by turning back a rising far right; how to reconnect with a working class that often perceives educated progressives as belittling them; and how to offer realistic paths for economic advancement to left-out people and regions.

I interviewed Scholz last summer, partly out of respect for his work as Germany’s finance minister during the pandemic, and because of my broad sympathy for Social Democratic ideas. But I had also been persuaded by Wolfgang Schmidt, his longtime adviser who will now be chief of staff in Scholz’s chancellery, that the Social Democrats could prevail.

Long before election day, Schmidt offered a take on the state of German politics that proved almost unerring. Germany wanted change, he told me, but did not want to take too much risk. Many were entranced by the Green Party but would ultimately decide they wanted a seasoned leader in the top job.

And many traditionally Social Democratic voters who had drifted to the Christian Democrats out of respect for Chancellor Angela Merkel were ready to come home — as long as the SPD, as the Social Democrats are known, gave them a safe leader to vote for. The deeply experienced Scholz was safety incarnate.

In the interview last July, Scholz spoke as someone who had thought hard about what he called “a certain disintegration of the societies we live in.” He emphasized the urgency of finding an approach that “could join the people together again in a common perspective for their lives.” His keyword was “respect.”

“People don’t have the idea that they are acknowledged, that they are seen by others, that they get the necessary respect for what they do and what are their expectations,” he said. “And if we want to have a progressive answer to that, we must make the question of respect … one that is of the highest importance.”

Progressives, he said, needed to persuade voters that they sought a society in which “we are acting on the same level” and “not looking down on each other.” Respect is the virtue linking progressive imperatives that should not be in conflict: achieving racial justice and healing the injuries of class.

If there is a philosopher of “Scholzism,” it is Michael J. Sandel, the Harvard professor whose book “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?” Scholz regularly cites.

Sandel warned that an emphasis on “credentialism” (stressing formal academic degrees) and a belief that the successful earned their positions purely on merit devalued those who do society’s day-to-day work. The “hubris of meritocratic elites,” Sandel wrote, and the failure of their policies “produced the discontent that populist authoritarians exploit.”

Skeptics might point out that although Scholz’s party came in first by making substantial gains over its performance four years ago, it still earned only 25.7 percent of the vote in an increasingly fragmented system. Scholz leads a complicated coalition that also includes the environmentalist Green Party (it won 14.8 percent) and the market-liberal Free Democrats (who took 11.5 percent).

But such is the nature of multiparty systems, and Scholz’s success in building a heterogenous government is also a lesson to fractious Democrats. Progressive parties just about everywhere must win younger environmental and culturally liberal voters, but also parts of a more socially conservative working class and elements of a striving middle class as well.

Before they can recapture the initiative, Democrats need a politics of forbearance, an understanding that neither the party’s center nor its left can win and govern alone. They also need a larger purpose. Scholz’s sermons about a society built upon mutual respect suggest a good place to discover it.