She’s running again. Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced that she will once again lead her party, the center-right Christian Democrats, in Germany’s national election next September. If the party wins, she will capture a fourth term, running a country increasingly rived by populism and xenophobia.
But in starting the battle, she has also, in a way, called it off. Hillary Clinton made her campaign about defending America against the evils of populism and retrograde nationalism; Ms. Merkel will pretend there is no such war. As her campaign, just a week old, has already made clear, she will do everything she can to avoid standing against ideologies, or for them. And this might be a very smart move.
After the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States, commentators and policy makers in Germany have been busy creating oversize word-paintings of the European electoral struggles to come. In those “Ölschinken” (an untranslatable German word for kitschy oil paintings), the German national election is portrayed as part of the Great War of our times, the next battle between liberal cosmopolitanism and nationalism, along with the elections in Austria, France and the Netherlands. While there is truth in this apocalyptic vision, the more dramatic the play of light, the worse things will get for liberal politics.
It’s easy to say that voters are angry; in reality, they’re tired. They’re tired of the orthodoxy that globalization — and with it mass migration, wage flight and deindustrialization — is inevitable. What scared Germans the most during the crazy summer and autumn of 2015, when 10,000 refugees arrived every day and towns were rushing to transform school gyms into temporary housing, was the feeling of loss of control, and the message from their leaders that anything less than mute acceptance was tantamount to racism.
As in the United States, populist politicians have emerged, proposing their own versions of Mr. Trump’s wall — even though, in today’s Europe, those ideas are still more fanciful. Ms. Merkel’s brilliance is to see a third way — to dispose of ideologies on both sides and to shoot for a pragmatic compromise.
That means, for example, developing meaningful migration laws and social benefits and training programs for Germans who lose their job to laborers in Romania or Bangladesh; a more active European foreign policy to prevent or contain future crises; and transparent free-trade agreements.
Such a reconciliation will also mean dropping the language of the battle. In 2015, Germans were quick to trade in their post-Hitler hair shirts for moral superiority. Progressive policy makers and commentators have lacked the compassion to see any other side than their own and have allowed the far right to portray doing the humanitarian thing as an unaffordable, elite project.
Even now, after Brexit and Mr. Trump, commentators are heaping praise (and expectations) on Ms. Merkel as the last strong leader of the liberal West against the forces of darkness.
Her campaign strategy, then, seems to be to tamp down that sort of talk, without rejecting her commitment to liberal values. In a speech last week at the Bundestag, she ran through an annoyingly comprehensive list of things this country needs to address, from education to budget consolidation, only to slip in a clear, but pragmatic, commitment to globalization and to Germany’s taking responsibility in the world: “I say, we have to go for collective efforts, for multilateralism. We have to try to shape globalization along with others. That’s what I’m advocating.”
Ms. Merkel is known to be allergic to pathos and big words. She doesn’t want to be the “liberal West’s last defender,” a title bestowed on her by The New York Times and repeated extensively in Germany and beyond. She wants to be seen as the meticulous administrator of Germany’s security and prosperity, the Angela Merkel her voters used to like so much before they fell out of love with her during the summer and autumn of 2015.
Her strong stance for accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees was laudable, but it hurt her politically. Once the epitome of the broad post-ideological German consensus, Ms. Merkel quickly became Germany’s most polarizing figure. After the wave of sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne and other cities, attributed to recent migrants, her popularity dropped sharply, with only 46 percent of the voters saying they hoped she would run again.
Time, and a slowdown in migration, seem to have buoyed her prospects; last week, 64 percent of voters polled said they were glad she had decided to go for a fourth term. But now she will face attacks from the far right, and she will need to show voters that their favor is warranted.
It won’t be easy. Europe is turning on itself; political and economic crises could break out in Italy, Britain and France. She will need to be creative in her policy responses, a quality she is not exactly known for.
And yet who if not she, so skilled at compromise, the anti-drama queen, could reunite Germany? And which country, if not Germany, the home of the social market economy, could be a better place to develop a blueprint for social progressivism, for a restrained, pragmatic way of embracing globalization?
Liberal progressive politics will survive the populist resurgence only if liberal progressives give up their claim to moral superiority and elitist policy making. The election of 2017 is about reconciling Germany with globalization, and marrying progressive politics to conservative positions. It’s about calling off the Great War. It might prove the only way of winning it.
Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and a contributing opinion writer.