The Collapse of Conservatism

Photo by Sabine Vielmo


The Collapse of Conservatism

Polarization is a populist strategy; it is not the same as conflict.

What is the main lesson of the German election?

There might be more than one important lesson, but, then again, there’s a limit to how much one election can teach us. First, democracies are not fated to have all elections turn into culture wars. It is still possible to have a classic center-right versus center-left contest, partly prompted by the socio-economic problems that have become even more visible during the pandemic. And second: this is, by and large, not the kind of contest that favors the far right. It is still deeply concerning that a far-right party polls in excess of ten percent, but given the discontent with the management of the pandemic, conventional wisdom would have suggested their share of voters would be much higher.

What are the reasons for the collapse of German conservatism?

That’s a really good – which is also to say difficult – question. Here conventional wisdom tells us Merkel hollowed out the CDU ideologically. While not completely untrue, this diagnosis overlooks two things. First, her style of mediating among different interests was actually the classic approach of Christian Democrats (going all the way back to Catholic social doctrine aiming at a harmonious society, as opposed to socialists who supposedly only want sharpened class conflict). Second, no one else has really been able to fashion a coherent vision for the center-right, which, I would say, has lost its compass in many European countries and therefore is so often willing to yield to the temptation to offer itself as far right lite.

What are the consequences of the collapse of German conservatism? Where is German conservatism heading and where can new ideas come from?

I can speculate a bit about consequences, but not about ideas, since I’m not in the business of producing programs for Christian Democrats. The fact that the rightward signals by figures like Merz – not to speak of Maaßen who tried to fashion a kind of AfD lite – have not yielded results should make conservatives think twice about the kind of strategy that so many center-right parties have adopted in Europe, namely, mainstreaming far-right talking points and programmatic commitments. As there might still be voices calling for such a strategy, it is important to point out why it’s wrong – normatively deeply wrong. And as just suggested, it also does not work in practice: citizens often go for the original, rather than vote for a pale copy.

Why is German party politics less polarized or populist than in other democracies?

There are many reasons, but let me highlight one. Polarization is a populist strategy; it is not the same as conflict, even sharp conflict, which is entirely legitimate and ideally even productive in a democracy. Populists consciously try to divide citizens into homogenous blocks and then insinuate that only some citizens should count as “das Volk”, or what populists often call the “real people.” The AfD has been trying this, but to be really successful, the strategy needs more traditional elites accepting populist claims – think about established Republicans’ support for Trump – and also a strong presence in the public sphere – think Fox. So far, we do not have that kind of constellation in Germany.


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