Excuse me, Mr. President, why are you not happy?
In the previous week, German president Joachim Gauck said that he was “very thankful” that a “populist party” like the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) was not able to overcome the five percent threshold and enter the Bundestag. The chairman of the AfD, Bernd Lucke, promptly reacted to this by pointing out that such political position taking by the German head of state was both unheard of and inappropriate. While there is no constitutional requirement for the president to be above party lines, as a convention and gentlemen’s agreement, political neutrality is expected by the president.
The derisive comments of Gauck were therefore unusual and more importantly damaging to the AfD. Keep in mind that the AfD is a nascent party, not even a year old. Thus such contemptuous remarks by the president can be very harmful for the prospects of the AfD. Noting that in the aftermath of the election to the Bundestag, the German state-media increased its attacks on the AfD as well, the reaction of Lucke becomes therefore quite understandable.
However, a critique of Gauck merely on the grounds that he trespassed on a convention is not a satisfactory argument. A convention, especially a political one, is not written in stone. Instead, it is an arbitrary convention, agreed on in past times. Thus, if one’s argument is that the president should not make such comments, another person could easily assert the opposite opinion. “You say the president should keep his opinion to himself. I don’t think so.” Who is right, who is wrong? The answer is, no one. In the end, a political convention is merely based on opinion and is therefore alterable.
A much more sophisticated response to Gauck would have been to devalue his remarks and show that they had no intellectual merit by themselves. Gauck is happy that the AfD is not in the Bundestag. Good for him. And I am not happy that the Greens are in the Bundestag. So what? An opinion is not an argument. Without substantiating it, the value and validity of the opinion cannot be established. In the notorious (and in this case actually apposite) words of Merkel, Gauck’s opinion is “überhaupt nicht hilfreich;” it has no utility. Lucke should have turned on this weakness of Gauck’s remarks.
If Lucke had challenged Gauck to explain himself and state why the exclusion of the AfD is beneficial he would have started a debate. Thus, Lucke would have put Gauck on the spot rather being the one on it. Furthermore, a debate is something that can be won by arguments. It requires thought and refutation of thought. Thus it is the opposite of simple (and unproven) assertions. Assuming that there is no merit to Gauck’s assertion other than a general antipathy towards the AfD, Lucke could have set the record straight by engaging Gauck.
Consider that Lucke’s reproach of Gauck for speaking in a manner that he is not supposed to does not constitute a refutation of Gauck’s claim. The audience (=electorate) does not hear if what the president said was manifestly wrong or not. They only hear that Gauck was not supposed to say what he said. It might appear obvious that the latter implies the former, but public opinion is not formed on the basis of reason and logic.
Lucke should have directly addressed Gauck in public and asked “why Mr. President are you happy that the AfD is not in the Bundestag? What is it that bothers you that more than two million Germans voted for us? What are your reasons?” “Why do you label us derogatorily as a populist party?” This way, he would have made Gauck explain himself and engage in a conversation, which Lucke would very likely have won. The goal must have been to refute Gauck by not (only) stating that his comments were inappropriate but wrong.