Merkel’s Diagonal Politics and the Green Revival

The CSU’s horrible autumn goes on. The party is now down to 33% in the polls, and its leaders are deep into the blame game. Bavarian minister-president Markus Söder is blaming “Berlin”, when he is not pretending to be Buzz Lightyear, and when he says it he means party leader and federal interior minister Horst Seehofer, who for his part announced that he is satisfied with his work in the job.

The beneficiary, though, looks to be the Greens. They are now on 18 per cent in Bavaria, overtaking the SPD. In Hessen, where they are in government and where elections are coming up this month, their co-leader and deputy minister-president, Tarek Al-Wazir, has the best personal rating of any politician. Der Tagesspiegel‘s Cordula Eubel puts forward five reasons for this.

The first is quite simply that they are the absolute opposite of the AfD. This is an important and interesting point. Since 2016, I have the impression that the only politicians who have successfully opposed populism are the ones who have chosen full-throated confrontation rather than compromise. Unlike the CDU, CSU, SPD, or the Left party, the Greens have never tried to compromise on migration or Europe.

A while ago I wrote this piece for POLITICO about Merkel’s choice to draw a new dividing line between globalists or Europeans on one side and nationalists or provincial particularists on the other and how it had both disoriented her opponents and put the Greens in the centre of politics. I wanted to situate this in a history of so-called diagonal politics going back to Bismarck, but oddly, the Pol editors chose to keep the modern dance references and cut the ones to Fritz Stern’s Gold and Iron. (The raw version is here.)

Defining the party landscape around this new organizing division has had interesting consequences for the Greens in particular. Where they were once undeniably part of the Left, competing with the SPD, they are now part of the broader European camp and as a result they can now compete with all the parties whose voters they would actually want. This is expressed in practice by the Greens’ willingness to operate in a wide variety of coalitions. Even though the 2017 federal elections were a poor showing, the party is represented in no fewer than nine state governments. An uncharitable reading of this would be that they would sign up with nearly anyone to get into office, but a more positive one would be that one of today’s most important divides is between the wonks and the trolls, and one side of that divide deeply values the willingness to take on responsibility and the capacity to exercise it.

Part of the story here is that the Liberals have vacated the centre and morphed into a populist movement for rich people. This isn’t going too well for them; at the federal level they are around 10 per cent, but in Bavaria and Hessen they are only just scraping over the 5% mark to get any representation at all. Richel, Stauss sums up the problem: the FDP core electorate is in many ways even more conservative than the conservatives, but it’s a tiny and shrinking group, and the party’s efforts to appeal to its conservatism are crassly incoherent with its tragic efforts to seem hip.

But there’s more here than mere centrism. Rather, successful centrism requires an awareness of where the centre actually is, rather than just behaving like either big party with 50% of the intensity. Historically, the party has been contained by a cultural barrier to its right and an economic barrier to its left. The cultural one was defined by its social policy and even more so by its style and tone. A major part of its 1968 heritage was its critique of bourgeois ways in general, while the CDU often seemed to be a positive temple of all things bougie. The problem for the CDU here is first of all that the Greens won the culture wars. Everyone who can afford to lives roughly like that, even if they consume media that endlessly mocks them for doing so. The FDP’s lame efforts at hipstership are a comic homage to this. Tellingly, this is not much different anywhere in the developed world.

The second problem for the CDU and CSU, which arises out of this, is that a lot of critics of the Greens always said their critique of the bourgeoisie was itself rather bourgeois. Wanting a less materialist, more culture-bearing way of life, respectful of children, concerned for the development of personal integrity and full citizenship, seeking a better relationship between women and men – all these things were themes of German intellectual, bildungsbürgerlich culture since the Romantic Era. Like a lot of things people denounce as terribly middle-class, there are good reasons why anyone who can afford to adopts them. The turn-of-the-century life-reform movements would have agreed in spades, and they deeply informed the American counterculture the Greens mined for inspiration. Ironically, in as far as this detracts from their radical pretensions it also lets them speak to values that resonate with a lot of middle-class Germans and especially with the Church.

The economic one was quite simply that it didn’t have much of an offer to workers as such, and occasionally it seemed to think they should be happy if their wages fell because they’d have to sing round the piano rather than buy stuff. Another important point Eubel picks up is that neither of the Green co-leaders has become involved in internal faction fighting. Although they both originate from the so-called realist tendency, they have avoided defining themselves by the fundamentalist side’s hostility, and in fact they have sought unity by adopting a more redistributionist economic and social policy. If this sticks it could be very threatening indeed to the rest of German politics.

Ironically, rather than creating a new docile junior partner for the CDU, Merkel’s redrawing of the lines may have unleashed a powerful competitor to both of the big parties – at least in the West. The next coalition might well be a black/green one, but its terms will be very different than anyone imagined in 2016.

2 thoughts on “Merkel’s Diagonal Politics and the Green Revival

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