By Alexander Görlach
Angela Merkel, The New York Times claims, is the last remaining sane leader in the West. It is she who is now in charge to save the liberal order. Here is what she needs to embrace to be successful in this recovery.
After Donald Trump’s stunning election last week, Merkel, according to editorials, is said to be the free world’s last remaining head of government that still stands for mindful governance. This is mostly true. But what does it say about the free world if only one person remains to stand for the values of the “former” West?
The agenda of the West is on the brink. Achievements of humanism and Enlightenment are at a disposition, but at its core, the world order that was established after the World War Two is threatened. Recent political events threaten what brought freedom and prosperity to the West (and beyond), namely parliamentary democracy, secularism, free trade, freedom of travel and social status. In the 70 years that the post-WW2 Western order has existed, political and economic promise have been linked; economic prosperity has been linked to a maintenance of parliamentary democracy. Though this seemed sound for a long time, it was never compelling.
In the first decades of the new world order, many states consumed lavishly, particularly the US and Great Britain. In West Germany, both SPD and CDU chancellors, constrained by an overbearing social state, held the poor and hungry at bay, at a distance from societal discourse. Hence, the welcomed Hartz IV social reforms left the now reunited German population mentally unprepared. Even with high national and private debt after WW2, the prevalent welfare state and generous pensions must have made the global West appear to be a kind of paradise! Yet much of it was only due to economies that thrived after WW2.
Over the last 20 years, we have noticed that this relative prosperity can not and will not continue forever. Globalization has made it clear that economic development since World War Two does not lead to a lasting new millennium. Despite all its wisdom, the political establishment failed to prepare for the darker part of the road ahead, the consequences of which now dominate our discourse.
Meanwhile, a different generation has grown up, the so-called “Millennials”, who developed with the understanding that their lives would be different kind of course to that of their parents. Many see this truth as unjust, not because they are pampered and soft, but because their parents raised them with a conviction that in economic strength and prosperity lies the confirmation of the political system in which we live. As parents, the baby boomer generation are even less aware of this change while their offspring, instead, have accepted it for a long time. This is the case in Southern Europe, Spain and Italy, but also in France, in a much more painful way than currently in Germany.
This is why many of these baby boomers today shout “Merkel must go” or “Lock her up” (Hillary Clinton, that is). They feel the anger arising through political and economic ideas, as well as the disappearing promises of liberal democracies, and unload them on the political system and their co-culprit, the media ( “Lügenpresse”). It is not surprising that the UK and the US have been the first to be overrun by this wave and threaten to become semi-totalitarian structures; they are two countries with an extremely high budget deficit and average private debt.
Analysts and pundits are both surprised by this. They do not understand the current crisis as a generational conflict, but much rather still look at a black-and-white factual, that of political discourse. In Germany, the outbreak of this struggle is best defined by Stuttgart 21, a costly, yet useful plan to rebuild Stuttgart’s central train station under ground. At the time of its conception, German Newspaper ZEIT made a sharp analysis of why Youth loved the idea; it was the old generation who took to the streets to demonstrate their anger against the project.
Unbelievably, the generational conflict has never become a major issue in politics. Not in Germany, not in Britain, and not in the US. It is still fair to explain the outcome of US elections using arguments such as income inequality or racial tension. But that analysis would be incomplete, because it ignores generational shifts. Had it been only the Millennials voting in the US or the UK, Britain would still be part of the EU, and Hillary Clinton, with a landslide 95% vote, would be president-elect of the United States of America.
Acknowledging all merits – reasonable understanding and approachability – Merkel does not have generational conflict on her radar as of now. After all, she has been forming cabinets and governments with countless members of this ageing generation for the past 11 years. This issue urgently needs to be put on the agenda for the imminent Bundestag election campaign. And even better, Ms. Merkel should call the Democrats in France and tell them about it for when France falls next – their election due next spring – and Madame LePen becomes Prime Minister, Europe will be finally broken. The next Bundestag election campaign must be centered around the issue of generational justice (perhaps we also start with generational perception) and the future of government and economies from the perspective of the Millennial. This is the only way to reconcile the political, the economic and the social-state within the framework of a liberal democracy.
The popularity of Bernie Sanders in the US campaign is proof: many observers were wondering why this funny old geezer was so popular with the Youth. The answer is clear: because he has understood how to think and argue like them. When Merkel was interviewed by blogger LeFloid, Germans saw a clash of two fundamentally different worlds. Borderline cringe-worthy, it was a peaceful exchange, yet one that did not happen naturally at all.
Angela Merkel is liberal democracy’s last hope in the West. She needs to run again, otherwise everything will fly apart. But this time, her agenda needs to be different. Her cabinet, too. Otherwise the radical destroyers and annihilators – Trump, Farage, AfD – will also take over in Germany.
Header photo: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0