Much ink has been spilled on the collapse of European social democracy, and Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) provides a perfect case study. Once a proud political heavyweight that raked in upward of 40 percent of the vote, the SPD still governs the country as part of a coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, but now polls at a meager 16 percent, the same as the environmentalist Green party and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The German left’s fall from behemoth to sideshow has provided fodder for endless commentary: Did it fail to address the ills of globalized capitalism? Are all of its policy solutions obsolete?
Much less talked about, but just as brutal, has been the decline of German conservatism. For a long time, there was little to complain about: Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have been in power for the last 13 years. Merkel herself is on track to become the country’s longest-ruling post-war chancellor, tied only with her onetime mentor Helmut Kohl. But her party is hovering at an all-time low of 26 percent in national polls, with poor prospects in two crucial state elections and deep internal rifts. Merkel seems increasingly embattled, and many speculate that her reign as the eternal chancellor is nearing its end. What this means for Germany or for conservatism as a whole is unclear. But coming at a moment when the aggressive nationalism, racism, and xenophobia of right-wing populists has put liberal values on the defensive across Europe, the crisis of German conservatism spells trouble for the continent’s project of transnational unity.
Polarization has not reached the same fever pitch in Germany as it has in some other Western societies. Instead, much of the discontent with Merkel appears to have sprouted within her own party, where many have long questioned her credentials as a true conservative. Critical backbenchers accuse Merkel of pushing the CDU leftward, turning it into a center-left party virtually indistinguishable from the social democrats. Common complaints include that the chancellor’s liberal position on social issues such as gay marriage has scared away culturally conservative voters, and that her childhood in communist East Germany has always made her an imperfect leader for her party’s largely West German base.
Some of these concerns are valid, but most of them are not. Merkel is an enigmatic figure in part because she refuses to engage in arguments along openly ideological lines. Before you buy the idea that Merkel is a closeted liberal, recall her tough stance during the European Union's financial crisis, when her hawkish austerity policies defied the logic and advice of economists and foreign politicians alike. Recall, also, her claim in 2010 that multiculturalism had “utterly failed.”
At her best, Angela Merkel has proven a pragmatic ruler in unruly times, even though she tends to hold back until she knows in which direction the wind blows. At her worst, she makes rash, bolt-from-the-blue decisions. The latter tendency was on display in 2011, when Merkel pushed for an end to nuclear energy following the Fukushima disaster, surprising her own government and sending the German energy industry scrambling. In the same vein, her decision not to close Germany’s borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2015 caused a backlash inside her party and earned her the scorn of powerful tabloids. Merkel’s initially open embrace of refugees also hastened the rise of the right-wing AfD—unabashedly anti-refugee, openly xenophobic, and now leader of the opposition in parliament.
But even if Merkel’s unorthodox decisions were a boon for right-wing populists, the recent rise of the AfD reveals a deeper tension within German conservatism as an ideological movement. Merkel favors fiscal and economic orthodoxy but remains open to liberal internationalist or “globalist” policies, such as supporting the EU and the IMF. In this way, she is the direct successor of Helmut Kohl, CDU chancellor in the 1980s and 1990s and in his day a driving force behind European integration. A more aggressive and sometimes destructive conservatism, by contrast, has arisen in recent years. This conservatism is driven by concerns about the preservation of values and national identity, and it harks back to the counterrevolutionary zeal of thinkers such as Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre.
The U.S. political theorist Corey Robin has written that “reactionary populism runs like a red thread throughout conservative discourse from the very beginning.” In Germany, that thread is increasingly visible—running not only through the AfD but also through the rhetoric and policies of the CSU, the CDU’s offshoot in Bavaria, which has strong ties to the increasingly illiberal governments of Austria and Hungary. Take Alexander Dobrindt, a prominent CSU politician and former member of Merkel’s government. In an essay published earlier this year in the conservative newspaper Die Welt, Dobrindt invoked the Weimar-era notion of a “conservative revolution” and the need for a strong state to protect the moral fabric of society against the emancipatory gains and pluralist spirit of the 1960s.
The strategic question now facing German conservatives is whether copying the language and the policy solutions of the far right pays off or serves only to boost extremists at the expense of the center. At the moment, the latter looks to be the case. The CSU's leaders, for instance, did their best to outmatch the AfD in populist and nativist rhetoric, but they were still routed in Bavaria's regional election on Sunday, October 14, losing ten percentage points and coming in at an all-time low of 37 percent. The AfD, meanwhile, gained ten points. The CSU’s gamble did not pay off.
EUROPE'S HOLLOW CENTER
Rather than reflexively vilifying or sheepishly copying far-right rhetoric, Merkel and her critics should reflect on the common origin of conservatism and far-right radicalism. The uncomfortable truth they will uncover is that the current crisis is only superficially connected to Merkel and her legacy. On a deeper level, it is inherent to the conservative project, always torn between the simple preservation of “traditional” values and a more ambitious project of national grandeur and cultural homogeneity. The hope that Merkel’s eventual abdication will clear the way for some unifying conservative force or profile, often expressed through the rallying cry “Merkel must go!,” is wishful thinking. There is no credible replacement for Merkel in sight, much less a vision for the future of conservative politics in a modern Germany.
Perhaps the gravest consequence of this crisis at the heart of politics, in the most powerful country in Europe, is that it has led Merkel to turn inward and focus on domestic politics, dampening any hope for a reform or reinvention of the European project, so long held dear by German conservatives of earlier generations. The memory of World War II, and along with it Germany’s sense of solemn responsibility within Europe, is fading. The identity crisis of German conservatism is leaving a vacuum at the center of Europe—one that bodes ill for the continent as a whole.
Georg Diez is an editor for Der Spiegel and the author of Das andere Land (Another Country), about the rightward shift in German politics and society.
This article was originally published in Foreign Affairs.