The most valuable thing a politician has is gravitas. Even a politician with a sense of humor cannot afford to look like a clown. It was partly because he forgot this that Peer Steinbrück, lead candidate of the German Social Democrats (SPD), suffered such a drubbing last week at the hands of the Christian Democrat (CDU) chancellor Angela Merkel. The SPD is not the country’s elite party, like the French Socialists or U.S. Democrats, but it is the main repository of hope on the center-left. Much of the media roots for it desperately. After a televised debate in early September in which Merkel and Steinbrück exchanged platitudes, devoting all of three minutes to the unfolding crisis in Syria, polls showed Steinbrück lagging 15 points behind, just as they had before the debate, and just as they would on election day.
Yet the papers were suddenly full of stories about how Steinbrück had “found his voice” and “turned a corner” and Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung arranged a magazine photo shoot to appear on the last weekend before the elections. Steinbrück was asked how he would respond to getting called “Peer-lusconi,” after the scandal-plagued former Italian prime minister. At this he made an obscene hand motion—der Stinkefinger, as it is called in German, although it is a gesture that knows no national borders and will be familiar to any American who has ever driven in traffic. It became the Steinbrück campaign’s symbol, practically its campaign poster.
Merkel’s reelection is among the most spectacular victories in German postwar history. In a country that hands out majorities sparingly, she came within a whisker of one, taking 311 of 630 parliamentary seats. That was her reward for an astonishing economic turnaround. Germany has won vast new export markets, particularly in Asia, at a time when the rest of Europe is undergoing a depression in all but name. In the past eight years, German unemployment has fallen from 5.2 million people to 2.9 million. Merkel will now form a coalition with either the Green party (itself a coalition of environmentalists and limousine liberals) or Steinbrück’s socialists (minus Steinbrück himself, who said he wanted no part in any such “grand coalition”).
Much of the credit goes to Merkel’s predecessor, Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, who passed welfare reforms in 2003 and 2004 that stripped an overgenerous state to the bone and made German labor costs competitive. But it is Merkel who has steered Germany through the world economic crisis since 2008, and through the crisis of the European currency, the euro, which started in 2010. She has staved off demands from other governments that German taxpayers fork over the money to keep their mismanaged welfare states solvent. These demands have often been cleverly disguised—unsurprisingly, since many of them originate in France. Sometimes France and its allies ask Germany for the pooling of liability through a so-called eurobond. Sometimes what they want is a common deposit insurance that would be called “banking union.” In all cases, the goal is to convince Germany to put its own assets at other countries’ disposal. When appeals to neighborly solidarity have not sufficed, moral blackmail has been used. Placards carried through the streets of Athens, showing Merkel with a Hitler mustache, are a way of saying that Germany’s standing as a civilized country is one that its European partners have the prerogative to revoke. Merkel, a mild-mannered provincial physicist, has the accidental virtue of not fitting into this narrative as a plausible villain. Mister Stinkefinger might have been different.
These bailouts of the European economy’s basket cases are more complex than they appear. There are two theories of the euro crisis, and no consensus among voters or economists on which is correct. On one hand, maybe Italy, Spain, and France are going broke—milder versions of Greece. If you think this, then backing their debt is throwing good German money down a rathole. But maybe they’re just out of cash, and there’s less shame in that. Germany, too, would be going bankrupt if it had to borrow at 10 percent, and defending neighbors to whom one is bound by treaty is the least one can do. Merkel must represent both these theories of the collapse, because Germans believe the first with their heads and the latter with their hearts. Germans are simply not willing to be the executioners of a European project that still presents itself as the continent’s best hope for peace and harmony. That is why frequent comparisons of Merkel to the late Margaret Thatcher are off-base. Merkel is always trying to harmonize, not (as Thatcher did) to polarize. In the early September debate, she made a remark that could have served as her campaign slogan: “Sie kennen mich.” You know me, she told voters.
Except that they don’t. And this is the great paradox of the German election. The largest victory for Germany’s “party of the right” in more than half a century signals the outright extinction of conservatism. For the first time since World War II, there is no conservative force anywhere on the political horizon.
Fukushima, Mon Amour
There are three reasons for this. The first is that Chancellor Merkel’s strategy has always been to deprive voters of any reason to vote for her opponents. Her preferred tactic is the one Bill Clinton used against Republicans: adopting her opponents’ positions. Her rivals find it frustrating. The only way to distinguish themselves from her is by radicalizing, and she may follow them even then.
For instance, Germany built a slew of nuclear power plants four decades ago, and these provide much of its energy. For years there has been a battle between Green environmentalists, who called for an “atom exit,” and others who feared the economic consequences. It was mostly fought to a draw. But days after the meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in the wake of a tsunami in 2011, Merkel announced that she was rallying her party to the Greens’ position. And she was not through. This spring, the Social Democrats, along with the post-Communist Left party, were calling for a national minimum wage. At any time in Germany’s postwar history, this would have received polite snickers from the CDU. But the party now supported it in principle, asking only that it be introduced piecemeal. The Left and the Social Democrats also decided to back nationwide rent controls. Germany’s relative prosperity is driving rents through the roof, and rent control is, for now, polling well. You don’t have to ask what Merkel did.
The result is a real confusion about what the respective parties stand for. A week before the election, Merkel’s CDU mentor Helmut Kohl appeared at the side of her Free Democratic party (FDP) rival Rainer Brüderle to give a semi-endorsement. Bored one afternoon before the election, I filled out a questionnaire that the Süddeutsche Zeitung was running on its website. It promised to match your political opinions to the votes of the various parties in the Bundestag. It turned out I should vote for Merkel’s CDU—they agreed with me 70 percent of the time. But then I took a second look. My overlap was 69 percent with the free market FDP, 65 with the socialists, 64 with the cyber-radical Pirate party, 63 with the environmentalists, and 62 with the Communists.
German politics is moving left for a second reason: shifts in the size and strength of the parties. Taken together, the opposition SPD and Greens gained seats in last week’s election, despite a dismal showing by the latter. That is because the Christian Democrats’ favored coalition partners, the Free Democrats, were driven out of the Bundestag altogether for the first time since the 1940s.
The Greens are the top party among rich people and young people. If the Hollywood and Manhattan wings of our own Democratic party could be carved out into a splinter group, it would resemble the Greens. They are certainly the most modern party, the party of the information-economy elite. But this year they nominated as their top candidate Jürgen Trittin, an old hardliner who evokes the antiestablishment, antinuclear, and anti-American radicalism of the party’s early 1980s origins. Since Trittin could not be denied the nomination and voters could not be persuaded to vote for him, the party nominated a second top candidate, the thoughtful and attractive Katrin Göring-Eckardt, a member of the Protestant church synod.
It fooled no one. The Greens quickly started several political conversations that smacked of Maoist zeal. Their national election program called for a compulsory meatless day in state cafeterias. The Green mayor of Freiburg called for a ban on public drinking. (That may sound reasonable in the dry counties of the United States, but it is electoral rotgut in Baden-Württemberg.) And their Berlin representatives called for banning cars from certain streets and banning guestrooms and the building of extra bathrooms (for fear of “crowding”) in the chic neighborhood of Prenz-lauer Berg.
This, alas for the party, was not the only reminder of 1980s enthusiasms. Back in Trittin’s salad days, when he was green in more than party affiliation, the Greens had seen themselves as the defenders of radical politics of all kinds and had come to the defense of so-called Indianer-kommunen. These groups were dedicated to protecting “children’s rights,” and one right above all: the right of children to have sex with the adults who wanted to have sex with them. Göttingen, where Trittin collaborated with a gay-rights group to write the program urging the decriminalization of certain adult-child liaisons, was a hotbed of such activity. One can argue—and the Greens eventually did—that such ideas were more mainstream back then than a lot of people find convenient to remember today. The Free Democrats’ youth group also discussed decriminalization of sex with minors three decades ago, and so did groups in the Evangelical church. But that mattered little in election season. The public saw the Greens as representing two principles—authoritarianism and pedophilia—that have not recently been big vote-winners.
Other than that, Merkel’s second term has been marked by a steadily waning conservatism in the public at large. Last winter a group of macroeconomists founded a new party, Alternative für Deutschland, for voters who refused to take that lying down. The party founders’ primary obsession was the euro bailouts. They wanted strict enforcement of the 20-year-old Maastricht treaties, which, among other things, created the euro. Germany, they said, should not have to cover the debts other countries racked up. As conservative ideologies go, this one was mild enough, simply making the principled case for the policies Germans want Merkel to carry out in practice. “Conservatism is not a forceful position in German society,” said the AfD’s lead candidate Bernd Lucke in mid-September. “Some conservatives will support us. But conservatism alone is not sufficient.”
Still, this kind of talk tended in the direction of calling for more national sovereignty for Germany, a subject hedged with taboos. So the AfD was tarred as a German nationalist party, a right-wing wolf in sheep’s clothing, compared even with Communist splinter groups of the 1960s. Such tut-tutting was probably unwarranted. The party members I met at a conference to celebrate the economist Friedrich Hayek did not seem nationalistic. They were more concerned with hard money than with whether the government it served was in Brussels or Berlin. One of them did describe the AfD as “the CDU without the Euro-fanaticism” of Merkel’s Europe-friendly finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. The AfD just barely missed getting into parliament, earning a sliver less than the 5 percent threshold for representation. But it took enough votes away from Merkel’s coalition partners, the Free Democrats, to bump them from parliament altogether. The FDP lost all 93 of its seats—considerably more than the 72 seats Merkel gained.
The Left that Came in from the Cold
This overwhelming victory for Merkel is a Pyrrhic one. There are now just four parties in the Bundestag. The three that are out of government—the socialists, environmentalists, and Communists—all call themselves parties of the left and form an obvious coalition-government-in-waiting. If they are not being considered as a potential government right now, it is mostly because Steinbrück promised during the campaign to rule out a pact with the Communists. This is SPD tradition, but it is far from clear that Steinbrück represents his party’s most advanced thinking on the matter. Steinbrück is a member of the Schröder-era left, the “Third Way” people who traveled to London to get tips from Tony Blair, the welfare-state reformers, the courters of businessmen and bankers. He was a Social Democrat of a very conservative kind, conservative enough to serve as finance minister during Merkel’s first term. It was a common complaint on the left that Steinbrück was a mismatch with his own party’s program.
He will be replaced at the top of the SPD by thinkers who are more amenable to looking left than looking right—like party chairman Sigmar Gabriel, perhaps—and who are more inclined towards a pact with the Communist Left. Like the United States after 2004, when a shaky-looking executive won a victory that was never as solid as it seemed, Germany may be sailing out of the calm before a big ideological storm.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.