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.
Scholz, a Social Democrat, wanted to talk to the philosopher, 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."
Scholz is 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.
For the center-left in Europe, 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 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."
Last year, in the middle of the first Covid-19 lockdown, Mr. Scholz read Professor Sandel's latest book, "The Tyranny of Merit" in which the Harvard philosopher argued that the meritocratic narrative of education as an engine of social mobility had fueled resentment and contributed to the rise of populists like Mr. Trump.
"The backlash of 2016 vividly expressed that simply telling people, 'You can make it if you try,' was not an adequate response to the wage stagnation and job loss brought about by globalization," Professor Sandel said in an interview. "What Social Democratic elites missed was the insult implicit in this response to inequality, because what it said was, 'If you're struggling in the new economy, your failure is your fault.'"