The drubbing inflicted on Germany’s Christian Democratic Union in the country’s recent elections is a sign that, alongside Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 16-year stint in power, something larger is coming to an end.
Aside from NATO, the Christian Democratic Union is the most venerable postwar political institution in continental Europe. It has led Germany, usually in coalition, for all but 20 years of the country’s post-Nazi political history. Focused on economic growth, Christian traditions, anti-Communism and maintenance of the Atlantic alliance, the party was a guarantee to Germany’s allies that Europe’s largest, richest country would be stable and dependable. With the measly 24 percent of the vote that Ms. Merkel’s successor, Armin Laschet, managed to win, the C.D.U. can no longer play that role. A pillar of the European order has collapsed.
The C.D.U.’s decline has been underway since at least the turn of the century. While Ms. Merkel managed to disguise it, she showed little aptitude for reversing it. In the five elections since 2005, when she took power, her party’s vote share fell in all but one.
Perhaps not every country needs a “people’s party” of the center-right. Big gainers in this election included Greens worried about climate change and Free Democrats worried about supply chains — two preoccupations that didn’t exist at the time of the C.D.U.’s founding. But there has always been more at stake for the party than an up-to-date servicing to voter preferences. In light of Germany’s Nazi past, it fell to the C.D.U. to play a moderating role — to speak to the patriotic longings of ordinary Germans in a way that would dissuade them from drifting to the political fringes.
This role was almost constitutional. Half a century ago, Franz Josef Strauss, leader of the C.D.U.’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, justified his own rock-ribbed conservatism by saying it came with a guarantee that “no legitimate political party” could exist to his party’s right. Many felt they could trust Mr. Strauss to police the country’s rightmost ideological boundary.
But in electoral politics, or game theory, or whatever you want to call it, there is a fallacy in such an arrangement. Ms. Merkel was not slow in discovering it: If there really were no legitimate viewpoints to the right of the C.D.U., then the party’s optimal strategy would be to move ever leftward, which it could do with no fear of an alternative right-wing party ever outflanking it.
And this is what Ms. Merkel did, whether out of idealism or calculation. In the wake of the Fukushima meltdown of 2011, she announced an exit from nuclear power, long sought by the Greens. In 2015, she joined Social Democrats in passing a minimum wage. In 2017, she secured a vote legalizing gay marriage (without voting for it herself). Most crucially, in 2015, she announced that Germany would welcome hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing the war in Syria, creating a continentwide political crisis that, among other consequences, arguably drove Britain out of the European Union.
The effect on German politics was unnerving. The Alternative for Germany party, up to that point a wonkish group obsessed with the European Union’s monetary policy, changed its focus to immigration in July 2015. The following March — eight months before Donald Trump’s election — the party harvested 13, 15 and 24 percent of the vote in state elections. In 2017, Alternative for Germany, now well-established on the C.D.U.’s right, not only sent nearly 100 members to the Bundestag, it also became the leading opposition party. It appeared that Ms. Merkel was heedlessly allowing votes to “drain” out of her own party into an American-style populism.
Ms. Merkel, of course, is not the first conservative politician to poach voters from her progressive opponents. But certain problems come predictably with this strategy. The leader benefits more than the party’s rank and file, because the landscape of progressive issues is foreign territory to them. In last month’s rout, things that Christian Democrats might ordinarily have talked about and rallied kindred spirits around — Covid-19, migrants, the euro — were suddenly off limits. The rank and file fell silent. In last week’s rout, the C.D.U. lost half its voters from the previous election. Fewer than 3 percent defected to Alternative for Germany. The lion’s share went to the Social Democrats, the Free Democrats and the Greens.
Now German politics has become less predictable. The Green delegation in the Bundestag has nearly doubled. Many of the newcomers are people who have never been in elected office before, giving them something in common with upstart European parties, like the Five Star Movement in Italy and LREM in France, and with Democrats in the United States on the arrival of their progressive wing after 2018. The Social Democrats are young, too. This year they took Ms. Merkel’s seat, which will go to Anna Kassautzki, a 27-year-old self-described feminist and environmentalist who wasn’t born when Ms. Merkel was first elected.
Certainly some traditional German conservatives deplore Ms. Merkel’s legacy. But there was one sense in which she was mostly in continuity with her predecessors — her resistance to utopianism. Germany’s society, economy and (since Covid-19) health care system have lately performed more efficiently than those of its neighbors. The great achievement of Ms. Merkel was to understand that in the global economy, efficiency is often a synonym for vulnerability. Like a lot of its best machinery, Germany is both high-functioning and delicate.
Many Germany watchers forget this. Ms. Merkel pushed her country’s relatively generous “social market economy” to do a lot more — to offer a reasonable minimum wage, to accept the burden of educating and assimilating millions of desperate immigrants from the Syrian war, and to do those things while promising to forgo the relatively cheap energy that nuclear power provides. She assented to the creation of European Union bonds — a perennial taboo in her party — to finance an emergency Covid-19 package.
She was conservative mostly in what she did not do. She realized that Germany does not have the resources to do everything. It cannot underwrite the debts of other European countries, as many of Germany’s southern neighbors assume. It cannot dismantle its existing carbon-based energy system as quickly as Greens would wish — that would pose significant direct transitional costs and indirectly undermine the auto industry that is the linchpin of its manufacturing system. It cannot sever all contact with economies that American boycott enthusiasts deem boogeymen. It cannot say no to Nord Stream II (the pipeline that permits cheap energy from Russia) nor can it revisit its manufacturing arrangements with the “illiberal democracies” of Poland, Hungary and Slovakia.
Overindulging a country’s virtues can be as dangerous as overindulging its vices. More than her predecessors Ms. Merkel ran the risk of exposing Germany to instability — in her case, to an American-style class conflict between the beneficiaries and the outcasts of the global economy. She avoided the worst. But she had some close calls, and the shrinking of Germany’s great, stabilizing bourgeois party is bound to reduce her successors’ room for error.
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