Switching to a greener society inevitably will require changes in our lifestyles. How do we win support for these changes without appearing as the prohibition party? By having confidence in our arguments and by trusting the wisdom of the electorate.
Hip metropolises like São Paulo and San Francisco have one. Over 30 German cities, from Juist to Straubing, have been practising and promoting them for a long time already: Veggie Days. In Germany, Thursdays are preferred. Internationally, the Beatle Paul McCartney has long advocated meat-free Mondays, and with success; but the Greens ran into trouble within the recent election.
So Veggie Day is already well established. And is well supported by the general population according to opinion polls – including during the election campaign, it’s worth noting. The level of support is regularly between 40 and 55 percent. However, during the election campaign, Veggie Day became a symbol of the Greens as a party of prohibition. The German tabloid Bild-Zeitung set off the press chase on 5 August with the headline “Greens want to ban meat”, casting itself in the role of champion of public resistance against the supposedly forthcoming banning frenzy. “A silly, stupid idea” was the headline in Die Welt. So the good citizens of Straubing and Deggendorf are all silly and stupid? They adopted Veggie Day – with the support of the CSU, of course.
Negative campaigning by political opponents is hardly new in election campaigns. And we have known since Jürgen Habermas’ “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere”, if not earlier, that – given its increasing power, and the dominance and multiple channels of influence of the mass media – the public sphere will always be used, and misused, as an instrument of control.
The crude media plot worked. In the Greens’ election manifesto, Veggie Day featured only as a marginal idea on page 164 – but it prompted our political opponents to reach immediately and totally unexpectedly for one of their biggest media guns – the threat to liberty. The CDU’s campaign director Hermann Gröhe saw in Veggie Day “a building block of the Federal Green Prohibition Republic”, and the deputy leader of the CDU parliamentary party went so far as to speak of ideological indoctrination. It was not just the usual tabloid suspects which from then on poured ridicule and scorn on Green campaigners. The broadsheets believed that behind the harmless call to eat less meat they caught the whiff of the pathological Green lust for prohibition. In the perception of the media, the Greens mutated into a party of know-it-alls keen to tell us all what to do. This what those in the media call setting the agenda. The debate around the Veggie Day proposal shows one thing clearly: the mass media dominate election campaigns, and in this campaign the Greens quickly lost control of the agenda and the debate on several important issues. Despite all their efforts, there was no coverage at all of the energy transition. But other parties fared no better with their own preferred issues.
An open goal for the opposition
Our political opponents gleefully accepted this open goal. That’s just how it is in elections. And that is how we should see it, rather than indulging in green self-laceration. The energy transition, and a similar transformation of agricultural policy, will require the Greens to be on the attack rather than defending. If the Greens make the label of ‘prohibition party’ their own, and if they persist in using it themselves, then it will be all the more difficult to shake it off. Nor is the label of a prohibition party rejected by everyone within the party. Amazingly, the negative campaign cooked up by our political competitors and by the media is barely questioned; instead, it is broadly accepted. Almost every internal Green campaign analysis points out that the Veggie Day debate damaged the party. That’s true – but does it mean that Veggie Day is wrong? For a long time now, eating less meat has been both recommended and a stimulus for more variety in our menus. Going along with this represents an individual choice to make a contribution towards a farming system with better animal welfare standards that is less ecologically harmful. Climate change, better management of declining resources and an agricultural transition are among the core ecological challenges we face. It would be disastrous if the idea established itself that prohibition could no longer form part of ecological policy because of fear of media criticism.
The challenge is to find the best possible combination of policy instruments – incentives, regulations and bans. An end to agricultural mass production and factory farming will be brought about only by new rules and – yes – by a ban on subsidies for industrial-scale animal sheds, or by new regulations governing the size of barns. This is one of the core principles of green and humane agricultural policy. Encouraging people to change their eating habits is a useful and necessary complement to this. Many German towns already started to move in this direction some time ago by introducing a Veggie Day for canteens. But the Greens were not just victims of the mass media. That would be too easy. After all, there are other topics which get wide media coverage but don’t become decisive factors in the election.
A striking example in this election was the NSA surveillance scandal. Why did the message about the ‘prohibition party’ achieve such resonance – even in our own ranks? A possible explanation is as follows. Firstly: the manner in which some political calls are voiced. Many people in Germany don’t like finger-wagging or a confrontational tone. Style, tone, body language – they often contribute more to how a message is perceived than political or factual argument. Secondly, the accusation of wanting to ban things sticks because the social and ecological transformation processes promulgated by the Greens provoke defensive and fearful reactions. Many people in Germany have known for a long time that ‘our’ energy transition alone won’t stop climate change. They know that serious change will not come about without limiting and reducing the consumerist lifestyle we have grown accustomed to.
Relying on the wisdom of the electorate
Eating organic food doesn’t make someone an eco-warrior. He or she may like to drive fast, so might not be in favour of speed limits or smaller, lower emission cars. It is precisely in such contradictions and conflicts that the so-called wider potential vote for the Greens may lie. So how can a political programme based on ecology and climate protection succeed, given that it cannot avoid prohibitions, but is likely to meet with resistance and will immediately be denounced as paternalism? In future, the Greens will have to work out this dilemma in much more detail, in terms both of their programme and their communications. Our political competitors, and large sections of the business community unsympathetic to the necessary transformation, will attack this weak spot again and again. If they didn’t know it already, they learned how to do this, and where the Greens are especially vulnerable, in this last election campaign. It is part of the origins and history of the Greens that their political discourse and demands have repeatedly altered received social norms and the political structures they supported. Those were hard fights. Without the social movements and the Greens there would have been no nuclear phase-out; Germany would not be a pioneer of renewable energy; there would have been less emancipatory progress on gender equality; and there would be less recognition of the importance of biodiversity. Fighting for these things always involves a balancing act between the need for new regulatory principles on the one side and people’s individual behaviour, desires and preferences on the other.
To construct rules and principles in such a way that they are capable of achieving majority support is the great challenge for Green politics in democracies; not governing from the top downwards, but relying on the wisdom of the electorate and trusting in the strength of our own arguments. Since their foundation, the Greens have stood for the idea that social progress always means change in both one’s own life and the political framework, and this has brought them success. ‘The personal is political’ was the earlier slogan for such thinking. Greens should in future draw consciously on these historical roots, rather than caving in straight away when the going gets tough under the pressure of concentrated (media) interests and covering themselves in sackcloth and ashes. The last thing we need is well-behaved and obedient Greens.
They should shake off the stigma of the prohibition party as soon as they can.