The crisis of German conservatism

German conservatism is imploding. The federal elections on September 26 ended in a crushing defeat for the ruling CDU / CSU, which received a record low of 24.1% of the vote. And while coalition negotiations are still ongoing, the result already points to a deep crisis for Germany’s conservatives.

Part of the problem was that the 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 lacking personality and program. His campaign’s performance on key issues, from Covid to climate change, was seen as lackluster.

But the crisis of German conservatism runs deeper: When it comes to the challenges facing the country today, it has no answers.

Historically, German conservatism called itself a balancing force between the interests of capital and labor. After the end of the postwar economic miracle in Germany, he moved toward the radicalization of free-market capitalism, tempered with a modicum of Christian social doctrine. But since the Social Democratic Party (SPD) began implementing parts of this program in the late 1990s, and even adopted austerity as the dominant German economic policy after the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent euro crisis, the CDU has been a conservative project seeking a cause.

The result: a shift from material to symbolic politics. In 2000, the term culture guide it became a rallying cry for conservatives. Its definition? There is a Western Christian culture that is and must remain dominant in Germany. Identity politics, frequently criticized by CDU politicians today, started out as a conservative project.

The economy did not disappear with the new focus on identity. He was infected by it. Merkel’s handling of the 2008 financial crisis and, more importantly, the European debt crisis of the 2010s, was steeped in moralism. The rigid and didactic austerity imposed on countries like 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 Tooze and others have shown, the politics of the German eurozone shifted from cooperation to domination. Under Merkel, the CDU’s understanding of Europe was transformed: from an answer to the question of how Germany could rejoin the family of nations after the Holocaust to an arena in which they could show their strength. Deprived of genuine ideas, power itself becomes the primary target.

In the early 2010s, with competent Merkel at the helm, this loss of conviction was masked by a series of crises: the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 and the sudden exit from atomic energy in Germany, simultaneously hailed and ridiculed; the handling of the refugee influx in 2015, again praised and rejected simultaneously; the rise of the far-right AfD and a growing sense of economic inequality, insecurity and malaise; and finally climate change, the meta-crisis of our time. In fighting these fires, the Conservatives could be seen to be doing something.

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Yet what it means to be a conservative in a time of disruptive change has become increasingly confusing – a dilemma that conservative parties in other European and non-European countries seem to share. 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 with injustice and racism? The conservative toolkit of the postwar era no longer offers convincing answers.

Disconnected from economics, conservatism became an empty vessel. Merkel, many have argued, has filled it with social democratic content. This could attest to your shrewd instincts; However, above all it shows that conservatism has run out of ideas and lacks a political project.

For the CDU, only two parameters remain to guide economic policy, always at the heart of Germany’s growth machine: permanent austerity, through the amendment of Germany’s balanced budget, the much vaunted Debt brake; and “the market”, in its most reductive and generic form.

This is what Laschet proposed for all ills, from climate change to social problems: a smaller state, less regulation, lower taxes – the failed promise of the trickle economy.

As a consequence, those seeking true market liberalism turned to the “party of freedom”: 1.3 million voters left CDU / CSU for the Free Democratic Party (FDP). The biggest loss went to the SPD, ahead in the popular vote with 25.7 percent: nearly 2 million former CDU / CSU voters saw in Social Democrat Olaf Scholz an opportunity for continuity and stability. Another 400,000 voters elected the AfD, one million went to the Greens and one million abstained. (Another million had died in the four years since the last federal election in 2017, a testimony from a rapidly aging voter base.)

The 20 percent of voters who still support the CDU may therefore constitute the hard core of a collapsing conservatism. As the poll numbers settled ahead of the election, panic rather than politics followed. During the final weeks of the campaign, a cold war zombie had been exhumed: the red scare, projecting Scholz and the SPD, if anything, an overly reliable partner in government in recent years, as the door to socialism, or worse.

The conservative collapse thus creates a triple problem: there is, in Germany as elsewhere, a growing sense of irrationality in public discourse. There is also a trend towards radicalization, as fringe parties or party factions rally disgruntled voters who were previously conservative. Finally, and most importantly, there is a lack of policy proposals.

The implosion of German conservatism is dangerous and destabilizing. It leaves a void, which creates the possibility of reactionary or racist ideas taking root, the Hungarian turn; or by overloaded neoliberalism, the jive of Boris Johnson. It could also lead to a form of kleptocracy similar to what we see happening in Sebastian Kurz’s Austria right now.

However, reversing the course is still a struggle. Criticism of existing markets, deregulation, or fixation on shareholder value may seem like an imitation of social democracy. Tackling climate change, essential for the younger generation, of which only ten percent voted for the CDU, is hard to claim from the Greens. Tough migration policies are detrimental to the problems of an aging population and a lack of skilled workers.

More likely a revived version of a postwar conservatism is its demise, which will mean 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, and both represent in some way potential aspects of conservative thinking: respect for the environment, for example, or preference for market-oriented solutions for society. questions.

But that still represents a loss for Germany. A conservatism in search of its identity is much less vital for the future of Germany, and in the case of Europe, than a group of parties that are facing the necessary transformations head-on, from different angles, but with a vision of a more modern society. strong.

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