Does German Conservatism Have a Future?

Jens Spahn at the Bundestag in Berlin last month. Having served in the Ministry of Finance, Mr. Spahn has a keen sense for Germany’s economic, political and financial entanglement with the world. Credit Clemens Bilan/European Pressphoto Agency

Ever since Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats lost five million voters to the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany in September, mainstream German conservatives have been in a panic. This is not just the usual blame game after a major electoral setback. It’s a long-simmering crisis finally boiling over — and Ms. Merkel is at the heart of it.

The past decades have put conservatism in Germany to an existential test. The grand currents of contemporary history in the Western world have smashed the shrine of its principles. Globalization and migration challenged the Christian Democrats’ embrace of a German “Leitkultur,” the notion that there is a single, coherent “leading culture.” Urbanization has threatened its traditional rural strongholds. Secularization and ethnic diversity called into question the privileges of Christianity in public life. And trends toward gender equality and gay rights and the rise of the post-nuclear family have undermined the party’s emphasis on traditional social values.

Mrs. Merkel’s answer to the many challenges during her 17 years as the party’s leader was if you can’t beat it, embrace it. She has allowed influential women in the party to modernize its view of the family. She overhauled the party’s course on nuclear energy after the Fukushima disaster. She cautiously modernized the party’s view on immigration and supported a greater public acceptance of Islam.

Ms. Merkel’s centrist course never went uncontested. Factions within her party, such as the so-called Berlin Circle of politicians, warned that conservatism was losing its substance. But they were muted by the obvious success of Ms. Merkel’s strategy, and the lack of a true alternative. And the modernizers around Ms. Merkel argued that conservatism is not necessarily a bulletpoint list of tangible policy issues, but rather a method of policy making. Doing it the conservative way meant to “do the necessary to protect what you hold dear,” as the party’s secretary general, Peter Tauber, once put it; it meant moving forward without losing sight of what’s worth keeping.

In the face of the worst result in the party’s history, however, many feel conservatism as a method, rather than a set of principles, is no longer enough, and that Merkelism has lost all meaning. Especially in light of the rise of the far right, they want to reclaim their party’s focus on national identity and Leitkultur. The postelection crisis of German conservatism amounts to these questions: How “deutsch” does conservatism have to be to win back voters from Alternative for Germany? And at what cost?

To understand where German conservatism may be headed, look at Jens Spahn. A Christian Democrat in the Bundestag, Mr. Spahn is not a nationalist, but he believes that a certain dose of nationalism could have healing powers — healing for both public insecurities and his own party’s misery. He is young, eloquent and ambitious, and an openly gay resident of Berlin. Political insiders consider him a potential successor to Ms. Merkel as the head of the Christian Democrats, if not as chancellor. He is too smart to indulge in the blunt copying of Alternative for Germany slogans that others in his party have taken to after the election. But he is aware of the power of political symbols and has supported a ban on wearing a burqa in public, as well as a ban on dual citizenship.

Having served in the Ministry of Finance, Mr. Spahn has a keen sense for Germany’s economic, political and financial entanglement with the world. But though in many ways a member of the cosmopolitan German in-crowd, he is aware of its elitist tendency and its potential to divide the country.

Unlike many politicians, he avoids easy answers. Campaigning for the Christian Democrats gave him plenty of opportunity to study Germany’s state of mind, and in particular what one might call the need for cultural security. He favors a strong state that guarantees order and security, both in a tangible and “cultural” ways. People are sick of being judged for feeling afraid of cultural change, he recently said in a speech: “We have to say, “We understand.’ ” In an interview he criticized the party leadership’s plan to focus on social welfare as a response to the election rout: “Does anybody here really believe we lost 12 percent in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg” — a wealthy southern state — “because of issues like care for the elderly?”

Mr. Spahn is right. Conservative German voters increasingly want a stronger state, one that sets clear boundaries on immigration and change, a state that follows the rules and makes everybody who lives here follow them too. Rules mean predictability. The average conservative voter wants that — and in recent years Ms. Merkel has given them anything but that.

If German conservatives could convey that they take this need more seriously in the future, their crisis may well turn into an opportunity. The question remains, though, whether the rest of the country — the 45 percent who did not vote for a conservative party this year — will follow suit, or whether a renewed embrace of Leitkultur on the right will create new divisions among German voters. In an increasingly multicultural, globalized country, there’s every reason to believe it will. In other words, Mr. Spahn may save German conservatism, but at what cost for Germany as a whole?

Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and a contributing opinion writer.

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