February 24, 2022

Shining a Light on the “Other” America: In conversation with RLS fellow Stefan Liebich

Stefan Liebich was a member of the German left party Die Linke from 2009 to 2021 and, prior to that, a member of the Berlin House of Representatives from 1995 to 2009 for Die Linke and its predecessor, the Party for Democratic Socialism. He became a Rosa Luxemburg Foundation fellow in January 2022. He spoke with Federica Drobnitzky about his upcoming plans in the United States and Canada for his new project, Progressive America.

People in Germany are most likely to be familiar with you from your former role as a member of the Bundestag and a foreign policy expert. Before we come to the main questions, would you mind briefly introducing yourself?

I was born, grew up, and went to school in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). After completing an integrated degree program in business administration with IBM, I was, much to my surprise, elected to the Berlin House of Representatives for the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS)—one of the founding parties of Die Linke. I was a representative for an electoral district in the Marzahn area of Berlin that had never traditionally voted left.

Former Die Linke member and now RLS fellow Stefan Liebich speaks with Federica Drobnitzky about his upcoming plans in the US and Canada for his new project, Progressive America.

My time as a member of the state parliament for the PDS and district chair coincided with the first red-red coalition government in Berlin, which was formed between the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the PDS and lasted from 2001 to 2011. I was involved in coalition agreement negotiations and helped shaped left-wing politics from a governmental perspective and later as chair of our parliamentary group.

In 2009, I was elected to the Bundestag for the first time for my electoral district, which encompasses Pankow, Prenzlauer Berg, and Weißensee. I received the most votes for that district, so was elected directly—something I’m still very proud of to this day. Being able to defend the electoral district for Die Linke twice, over three elections, was particularly special for the party. In the Bundestag I was also a member of the foreign affairs committee, and also held the roles of spokesperson for our parliamentary group and vice-chair of the all-party USA parliamentary group. Considering the transatlantic relationship from a left-wing perspective has always been of interest to me.

During your time as a member of the Bundestag, what were you able to achieve on a political level?

At federal level, Die Linke sat in opposition during my 12 years in the Bundestag. The German political system is structured in such a way that motions tabled by the opposition very rarely end up being carried. I nevertheless attempted to introduce topics and stances from a left-wing perspective in order for the left to exert some degree of political influence.

Which political issues particularly affected you during your time there?

Two thing that really affected me are still strongly etched on my memory. There is an ongoing violent conflict in Cameroon between the country’s French-speaking and English-speaking regions. One morning, my colleagues and I found out that German special forces had been training Cameroonian security personnel as part of a mission entitled “Western Lion.” The atrocities committed by the security personnel there were publicly reported that afternoon. I found it inherently wrong that German special forces were training security personnel in a country plagued by civil war. By asking lots of questions and collaborating with journalists, I was able to play a part in bringing this controversial training mission in Cameroon to an end.

I was also particularly affected by the case of Namibia, which was under German colonial rule from 1884 to 1915. The most horrific atrocities were perpetrated there, especially during the suppression of an anti-colonial uprising between 1904 and 1908. Tens of thousands of members of the Herero and Nama ethnic groups were killed by German soldiers. I successfully lobbied for the establishment of a Goethe Institute in Namibia.

Last year, following 25 years in left politics, you decided to resign your seat in the Bundestag. What was the reason for your decision?

I am political and left-wing to the core, and always will be. Twenty-five years is a long time. When I was elected in 1995, I never thought I’d be in office this long. Over the past few years I became increasingly aware that I wanted to do something different. My experience in foreign affairs awakened in me a particular interest in the idea of living in a different country. Although I traveled to many places during my time in office, it was often only in the form of short, two-day delegation visits. I’m now looking forward to the opportunity to spend several months abroad and get to know progressive people in their local areas.

You’ve been a Rosa Luxemburg Foundation fellow in New York for transatlantic issues since 1 January, meaning that you will continue your previous role as a political “bridge builder” of sorts. Where will you be reporting from for the foundation in the coming months, and on what topics?

Europeans have heard about a number of things happening in North America in recent years that have provided ample grounds for criticism. They know all about Donald Trump, the virulent racism and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This, however, has also led to the country developing an image that is almost universally perceived as negative. During my time as a politician on the Left, I was always a big proponent of the idea that you can’t be for or against a country, but should instead support the people there who are fighting for their right to things like peace, gender equality and a healthy environment.

So, under the heading Progressive America, I’m seeking to provide an account of the “other” America. During the course of two extended stays in the country—from February to April and from September to November of this year—I will travel through the USA and Canada on behalf of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s New York Office. I’ll be meeting progressive people throughout my travels, such as socialist local representatives who want to promote left-wing alternatives, trade unionists in industrial regions who are fighting to strengthen trade unions, and people who are campaigning for the Green New Deal or for the Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate movements.

My goal is not to systematically map out the US political left. It’s much more about illustrating progressive approaches through individual stories in order to offer a variegated picture of North America. My reports will be published on the foundation’s website and social media channels and on my blog. I’m also in communication with left-wing media outlets.

In light of the US midterm elections, which will be held on November 8, 2022, will you be taking a closer look at progressive campaign debates?

Definitely. As I mentioned earlier, I want to use the first three months of my trip to profile the people I meet and give an account of the culture and history of the left in the US and Canada. During the second stage, I intend to focus closely on the midterms. Where are the most exciting and fiercely contested election races and campaigns taking place? Which candidates are interesting and progressive? I’ll be exploring these and similar questions.

The midterms offer some cause for concern with regard to democracy and social policy…

An important part of my work is to communicate to the public and to established transatlantic institutions that democratic structures in the USA have changed in the past few years—for both better and worse. On the one hand, progressives in the US have gained a lot of influence. In Germany, Bernie Sanders is known as the guy who sat there wearing mittens during Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony. But few people know that as chair of the vitally important US Senate budget committee, Sanders is able to force votes on Medicare for All, the bill that aims to provide health coverage to all American citizens, and on military budget cuts.

Similarly, many people are unaware that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) is no longer a lone fighter on the left, and that progressives now make up almost half of all democratically elected seats in the House of Representatives. On the other hand, progressives have also come up against opposition from within their own ranks, as was recently seen in the case involving senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin. They blocked their fellow Democrats from passing new federal voting-rights legislation, thus paving the way for a further tightening of voting rights restrictions in Republican-controlled states.

It’s not often so clear to us in Germany that democracy is currently in critical danger in the US, and that Republicans at times adopt positions that we would see as similar to those propagated by the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The same public condemnation and isolation that the AfD justifiably experiences in Germany is rarely directed at Republicans in either the US or Germany.

Stefan Liebich at a meeting with Québec Solidaire members Marie-Josée Béliveau, André Frappier and party chair Alejandra Zaga Mendez. 

As you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, during your time in the German Bundestag, you were among other things a member of the foreign affairs committee and vice-chair of the German–US Parliamentary Friendship Group. You were also the first Die Linke politician to become a member of Atlantik-Brücke, the private nonprofit association to promote German–American understanding. At the same time, you grew up in the GDR in a family that viewed the prevailing state ideology positively. Where does your keen interest in US politics come from?

Growing up in the GDR, I accepted that there was a wall and that there were countries I couldn’t visit. I never really questioned this at the time. When the wall fell in 1990, I was very skeptical of German unification, but of course I, like everyone else, had the opportunity to broaden my geographical horizons.

I went to New York for the first time in the summer of 2002—a city that at the time was deeply affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the volatile atmosphere created by the war on terror. This trip awakened my interest in progressive US politics. When I entered the Bundestag in 2009, I became the resident expert on the US, simply because I was the only one in my parliamentary group at the time who was willing to address the topic.

What did you take away from your Atlantik-Brücke membership?

Atlantik-Brücke is a justifiably controversial organization. When I was a member, however, I had the opportunity to offer a left-wing perspective during discussions against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). During the 2016 US elections, I was also able to write a comprehensive piece on Bernie Sanders and distribute this through the Atlantik-Brücke newsletter.

Many Europeans on the Left have looked to progressive US politicians such as Bernie Sanders and AOC for inspiration over the past six years. Do you think the Biden administration has brought the burgeoning progressive movement to a standstill?

No. The 1980s Reagan era made things much more difficult for progressives in the US than they ever had been before. And then the collapse of the socialist world system also presented an additional challenge, because the idea of socialism was discredited altogether. The Congressional Progressive Caucus was founded in 1991 as a response to neoliberal growth, with the aim of promoting cooperation between progressive members of Congress. At the time, the US Left was on its knees. The Left did exist within academic circles, but there was no real progressive movement to speak of.

The emergence of Occupy Wall Street around ten years ago brought about substantial change. American progressives began to take to the streets once again and campaign for tighter banking and financial sector regulation, for the economy to have less influence on political decisions, and for the reduction of social inequality between rich and poor. The presidential election campaign run by Bernie Sanders in 2016 can’t be commended highly enough. Sanders publicly declared himself a democratic socialist at campaign rallies that sometimes had more than 50,000 people in attendance. At the time, that was totally unheard of—for US standards at least. In my opinion, it was precisely during this time that a strong progressive movement emerged—and that movement has yet to come to a standstill. The fact that an initially small group like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has been able to increase its membership tenfold since then, and that today there are candidates in all states who say they are democratic socialists, is also new.

The problem, as Andreas Günther, head of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s regional office in New York, aptly put it during a recent discussion with me, is that the “strength of the American left is not yet paying off.” The Left is strong, but Congress is still dominated by a handful of influential, conservative Democrats.

Does this mean that the two-party system is effectively putting a brake on the development of progressive politics in the country?

The Democratic Party encompasses a wide spectrum of ideologies. If we were to translate this spectrum into German politics, it would span from Die Linke to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). This also explains why the US Left is not yet capable of forming a majority.

However, my impression is that there are significantly more—and more wide-ranging—progressive movements across the country than there were before. Just look at the unionization efforts in Starbucks chains. There was even an initial attempt to organize a union at an Amazon logistics center in Alabama, which was ultimately unsuccessful. However, the National Labor Relations Board ruled at the beginning of December that a new election should be held due to illegal interference by Amazon.

It is of course true that movements such as these might not yet impact the bigger political arena of the White House and Congress. But when measured against the Left’s position ten years ago, this is also a rather bold expectation.

During the 2020 presidential election campaign, AOC said that in any country other than the US, she and Joe Biden would not be in the same party.

That’s certainly true. But when progressive North Americans say they would prefer a proportional representation system like we have in Germany, in order to have their “own” party, I counter this by saying that this does not automatically translate to greater political influence. I’d been hinting at this from the very beginning—that in the German voting system, you might vote for a Social Democrat or Green candidate, but in the end, the governing coalition could also include the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the CDU.

Having to agree on issues as a progressive in a room full of Democrats certainly must be frustrating. A voting system like Germany’s, where—despite its political wings—Die Linke is more homogenous than the US Democratic party, is not necessarily any better, since Die Linke has no governmental power.

Which progressive stakeholders have you been in touch with so far?

I’ve already mentioned my interview last week with Andreas Günther. I spoke with Christiane Meier, head of the ARD studios in New York, and asked about her perception of US politics, and I also had an interesting discussion with Judith Goldstein, a professor of political science at Stanford University. She expanded on the historical reasons why the Democratic and Republican parties have evolved in the way they have.

What are your future plans?

I can’t really say for sure yet—I think a degree of spontaneity is important.

My next stop is Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I’ll meet with the “Lancaster Stands Up” organization, in which young people campaign for affordable accommodation and universal healthcare, and against racism. In Philadelphia I’m planning to meet with trade unionists and members of the Philly DSA and talk to them about the possibilities for socialist politics within the state. My focus in Chicago will be to gain a deeper understanding of the history of the labor movement. The date of May 1, on which we celebrate International Workers’ Day, was chosen to commemorate workers’ protests in Chicago. In California, I am planning to meet representatives of the newly established works council at Google, who are focusing not only on employee rights but also on the ethical responsibility of employees working with data.

And I will also be talking to a former Republican representative whom I know from my time in the Bundestag. Despite the fact that he’s a staunch Republican, he numbers among those who opposed Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican party and the anti-democratic principles espoused by it. These are just a few of the stories that I’ll be reporting on in the coming weeks and months.

In view of the international situation in which the Left currently finds itself, what do you think progressives in Germany and the US can learn from one another?

If we want to enable a climate of mutual learning, we need to begin by taking a greater interest in each other. I often feel that some members of the German Left write off the US Left—and vice versa. Instead, the movements in each country focus on social struggles at home. It’s a pity.

Just by looking at the cases of New York and Berlin, where affordable accommodation is becoming more and more scarce, we can see that similar battles are currently being waged in both cities. Left-wing strategies and approaches resulting from the campaign in Berlin to expropriate apartments owned by corporate landlords, as well as from efforts within parliament and government by senators such as Katrin Lompscher and Sebastian Scheel, should receive greater support in the USA. This is already happening, thanks to efforts by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

At party congresses, we regularly sing “The Internationale,” an anthem that’s over 150 years old. Historically, internationalism has always been an element that has connected the Left. That’s why it is my wish that progressives on both sides of the Atlantic take a greater interest in each other, as well as in their shared social challenges.

Stefan Liebich was a member of the Bundestag for Die Linke from 2009 to 2021 and is currently traveling North America as an RLS fellow. He publishes reports and essays on his blog, Progressive America.

Translated by Gráinne Toomey and Louise Pain for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

This Interview was first published on rosalux.de. Interview by Federica Drobnitzky.