BERLIN — Last December, as he was plotting what most considered to be a hopeless bid to become Germany’s next chancellor, Olaf Scholz interrupted his campaign preparations for a video call with an American philosopher.
Mr. Scholz, a Social Democrat, wanted to talk to the philosopher, Prof. Michael J. Sandel of Harvard, about why center-left parties like his had been losing working-class voters to populists, and the two men spent an hour discussing a seemingly simple theme that would become the centerpiece of the Scholz campaign: “Respect.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Scholz will be sworn in as Germany’s ninth postwar chancellor — and the first Social Democrat in 16 years — succeeding Angela Merkel and heading a three-party coalition government. Defying polls and pundits, he led his 158-year-old party from the precipice of irrelevance to an unlikely victory — and now wants to show that the center-left can again become a political force in Europe.
Mr. Scholz won for many reasons, not least because he persuaded voters that he was the closest thing to Ms. Merkel, but his message of respect resonated, too. For the first time since 2005, the Social Democrats became the strongest party among the working class. Just over 800,000 voters who had abandoned the party for the far left and far right returned in the last election.
President Biden’s political agenda in the United States.
For the center-left in Europe, Mr. Scholz’s victory comes at a critical moment. Over the past decade, many of the parties that once dominated European politics have become almost obsolete, seemingly bereft of ideas and largely abandoned by their working-class base.
The political energy has been on the right, especially the populist far right, with many American conservatives flocking to countries like Hungary to study the “illiberal democracy” of Viktor Orban, that nation’s far-right prime minister.
the lone defender of liberal democracy in an age of global strongmen, whether President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia or President Donald J. Trump. Yet Germany was not immune to populist fury, and the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, won seats in Parliament and became a political force in the country’s east.
“The biggest concern in politics for me is that our liberal democracies are coming increasingly under pressure,” Mr. Scholz says about himself on the Social Democrats’ website. “We have to solve the problems so that the cheap slogans of the populists don’t catch.”