German conservatism is crumbling. Federal elections September 26 ended in a crushing defeat for the ruling CDU / CSU, which received a record low level of 24.1% of the vote. While coalition talks are still ongoing, the result already points to a deep crisis for Germany’s conservatives.
Part of the problem was that CDU / CSU candidate Armin Laschet, minister-president of Germany’s largest state, North Rhine-Westphalia, was simply not a convincing successor to Angela Merkel as chancellor. He was rightly criticized for his lack of personality and program. His campaign on key issues, from Covid to climate change, was considered short-lived by many.
But the crisis of German conservatism is deeper: when it comes to the challenges facing the country today, it has no answers.
Historically, German conservatism has been positioned as a force that balances the interests of capital and labor. After the end of the post-war economic miracle in Germany, there was a shift towards the radicalization of market capitalism, moderated in part by Christian social doctrine. But since Social Democratic Party (SPD) began implementing parts of this program in the late 1990s – and even adopted austerity as the dominant economic policy in Germany after the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent euro crisis – the CDU was a conservative project looking for a cause.
Result: the transition from material politics to symbolic. In 2000, the term leitkultur became the rallying cry of the conservatives. Its meaning? Western Christian culture is and must remain dominant in Germany. Identity politics, often condemned by CDU politicians today, began as a conservative project.
The economy has not disappeared because of the new emphasis on identity. He was infected with it. Merkel’s attitude to the 2008 financial crisis and, most importantly, the European debt crisis of the 2010s was permeated with moralism. The harsh, didactic rigor imposed on countries such as Italy and Greece was combined with a discourse that turned national prejudices into economic arguments: Germans are thrifty; The Greeks cannot be trusted.
As Adam Ace and others have shown that German policy in the eurozone has gone from cooperation to domination. Under Merkel, the CDU’s understanding of Europe has changed, from answering the question of how Germany could be reunited with the family of nations after the Holocaust, to an arena in which they could flex their muscles. Deprived of genuine ideas, power becomes the main goal.
In the early 2010s, when Merkel was competently at the helm, this loss of conviction was masked by a series of crises: the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in 2011 and the sudden abandonment of nuclear power in Germany, both welcomed and ridiculed; the treatment of the refugee flow in 2015 was again both welcomed and discouraged; the strengthening of the far-right AfD and a growing sense of economic inequality, insecurity and anxiety; and finally, climate change, the metacrisis of our time. It was clear that the Conservatives were doing something in the fight against these fires.
However, what it means to be conservative during a time of devastating change has become increasingly unclear – this dilemma seems to be shared by conservative parties in other European and non-European countries. How to deal with climate change? How to build a different economy? How to think about growth? How to create a more sustainable society? What to do about injustice and racism? The conservative toolbox of the post-war era no longer offers convincing answers.
Disconnected from the economy, conservatism has become an empty vessel. Many argued that Merkel imbued it with social democratic content. This could indicate her shrewd instincts; But above all, this shows that conservatism has exhausted its ideas and has lost its political project.
For the CDU, only two parameters remain that determine the economic policy that has always underpinned the German growth machine: persistent austerity through an amendment to Germany’s balanced budget, vaunted Schuldenbremse; and “market” in its most simplified and general form.
This is what Laschet suggested, from all ills, from climate change to social issues: smaller staff, less regulation, lower taxes – the failed promise of a trickle-down economy.
As a consequence, those seeking true market liberalism turned to the “party of freedom”: 1.3 million voters left the CDU / CSU and joined the Free Democratic Party (FDP). The biggest loss was for the SPD, which overtook the vote with 25.7%: almost 2 million former CDU / CSU voters saw Social Democrat Olaf Scholze as an opportunity for continuity and stability. Another 400 thousand voters chose AfD, a million – for the Greens, a million – abstained. (Another million people have died in the four years since the last federal election in 2017, indicative of a rapidly aging voter base.)
Thus, about 20 percent of voters who still support the CDU could form the core of crumbling conservatism. With a disappointing number of votes on the eve of the elections, panic ensued instead of politics. A Cold War zombie was exhumed in the final weeks of the campaign: a red panic projecting Scholz and the SPD – for that matter, in recent years it has been an overly reliable partner in government – who has opened the door to socialism or worse.
Thus, the conservative collapse poses a threefold problem: in Germany, as elsewhere, there is a growing sense of irrationality in public discourse. There is also a tendency towards radicalization, as marginal parties or party factions gather disaffected previously conservative voters. Finally, and most importantly, there is a lack of policy proposals.
The collapse of German conservatism is dangerous and destabilizing. It leaves a vacuum that creates an opportunity for reactionary or racist ideas to perpetuate, the Hungarian turn; or to reboot neoliberalism, Boris Johnson’s jive. It could also lead to a form of kleptocracy similar to what we are seeing in Sebastian Kurz’s Austria right now.
However, changing course remains a challenge. Criticism of existing markets, deregulation or fixation on shareholder value may seem like an imitation of social democracy. Appeal changing of the climate – necessary for the younger generation, only ten percent of which voted for the CDU – it is difficult to get back from the Greens. A rigid migration policy is detrimental to the problems of an aging population and a shortage of skilled workers.
More likely than a reanimated version of postwar conservatism is its demise, which meant a system change in German party politics. The Greens and the FDP, ahead of young voters, seem to be the new power couple in German politics, both of which represent in some way potential aspects of conservative thinking – for example, respect for the environment or a preference for market-oriented solutions over public ones. questions.
But this is still a loss for Germany. Conservatism seeking its own identity is far less important to the future of Germany – and in this respect Europe – than a set of parties that tackle the necessary transformations from different angles, but with a vision of a stronger society.