Under her chancellorship, Germany has seemed immune to the kind of disruptive populism that has empowered Donald Trump on the other side of the Atlantic and Jeremy Corbyn across the English Channel. It isn’t.
Germany is sleepwalking into a populist backlash against a system that has made many Germans feel powerless. While U.S. democracy is too polarized to function well, the opposite is true in Germany. When Merkel and her opponent Martin Schulz, held a televised debate last week, it featured lots of nodding and a few minor disagreements. That’s great for Merkel but bad for Germany.
Liberal democracies are resilient because they offer voters competing solutions. Voters need to be able to differentiate between political parties. They need to have the impression that their vote can genuinely change the way their country is governed. Too many Germans don’t believe they can make a difference because both main candidates basically want the same things.
That has never been on display as clearly as during the recent TV debate. Schulz, a Social Democrat, wants to terminate E.U. accession talks with Turkey. Merkel, a Christian Democrat, wants to suspend or terminate them. She opened German borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees, he would have wanted her to do it after coordinating more closely with European allies. Differences exist, but they are barely visible to ordinary voters.
Merkel has systematically made opposition policies her own. She broke with a long-held policy of her party and decided to end nuclear power in Germany. Her government ended military conscription. Although she was personally opposed to it, she paved the way for gay marriage. Under her, Germany introduced a minimum wage. None of these ideas are traditionally conservative. Merkel adopted them to disarm her opponents. If Merkel seems invulnerable, it’s because she rarely allows her adversaries to pin her down. The chancellor has moved the Christian Democrats to the left. To compete for the center, Social Democrats have moved to the right.
The country has been governed by a “grand coalition” consisting of the two largest parties for eight of the past 12 years. The governing parties hold 502 out of 630 seats in the national parliament. The grand coalition has been reasonably good at managing the status quo, but it has failed to prepare Germany for the future. Everything is a compromise of a compromise. Being a part of the grand coalition makes it far harder for the Social Democrats to criticize the chancellor where differences do exist. To win against the incumbent, they have to attack her record. Unfortunately for them, her record is mostly also their record. The proposed policies are often indistinguishable.
Merkel is unbeatable. She is so good at her job that her chancellorship seems as natural as the laws of nature. She’s so far ahead in the polls that nobody seriously doubts that she will win yet again.
As voters feel increasingly powerless, they look for more radical and simplistic alternatives. This year, around a fifth of voters are set to vote for radical parties on both left and right. There is a real chance that the far-right Alternative for Germany, poised to enter national parliament for the first time, will come in third place. It consists of anti-European, hate-mongering conspiracy theorists riding a wave of resentment against Merkel’s refugee policy. Their lead candidate, Alice Weidel, reportedly once wrote an email complaining about the ongoing occupation of Germany by the Allied Powers victorious in World War II. Any news not to their liking is “fake.” The sheer existence of their party is a national tragedy. If these people get votes in a Germany that is doing exceptionally well, what happens when it isn’t?
Germany is in a comfortable position now, but that can’t be taken for granted. With meager broadband access and poor mobile reception, the country is ill-prepared for the digital revolution. Germany has the third-oldest population in the world. Fewer workers will have to take care of more seniors. Traditionally strong German businesses, such as the automotive industry, are changing rapidly, and it’s far from guaranteed that BMW, Mercedes and VW will come out on top. Even if they do, hundreds of thousands could lose their jobs to ever more powerful artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, the migration crisis is far from over. These challenges will exacerbate existing divisions. None of the politicians appear to be offering sustainable solutions.
For now, German democracy is robust. To prevent it from falling to the forces that have brought us the Trump disaster and the Brexit mess, German politicians need to avoid a third grand coalition at all costs. Social Democrats need to move left, Merkel’s Christian Democrats to the right. Voters will find it easier to differentiate between the two. Extremists will lose out as ordinary Germans win. A little polarization is a good thing.