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The Twilight of German Conservatism

Why Angela Merkel Presides Over a Movement in Crisis

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the chancellery in Berlin, August 2014 Markus Schreiber/REUTERS

Much ink has been spilled on the collapse of European social democracy, and Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) provides a perfect case study. Once a proud political heavyweight that raked in upward of 40 percent of the vote, the SPD still governs the country as part of a coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, but now polls at a meager 16 percent, the same as the environmentalist Green party and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The German left’s fall from behemoth to sideshow has provided fodder for endless commentary: Did it fail to address the ills of globalized capitalism? Are all of its policy solutions obsolete?

Much less talked about, but just as brutal, has been the decline of German conservatism. For a long time, there was little to complain about: Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have been in power for the last 13 years. Merkel herself is on track to become the country’s longest-ruling postwar chancellor, tied only with her onetime mentor Helmut Kohl. But her party is hovering at an all-time low of 26 percent in national polls, with poor prospects in two crucial state elections and deep internal rifts. Merkel seems increasingly embattled, and many speculate that her reign as the eternal chancellor is nearing its end. What this means for Germany or for conservatism as a whole is unclear. But coming at a moment when the aggressive nationalism, racism, and xenophobia of right-wing populists has put liberal values on the defensive across Europe, the crisis of German conservatism spells trouble for the continent’s project of transnational unity.

TRUE COLORS

Polarization has not reached the same fever pitch in Germany as it has in some other Western societies. Instead, much of the discontent with Merkel appears to have sprouted within her own party, where many have long questioned her credentials as a true conservative. Critical backbenchers accuse Merkel of pushing the CDU leftward, turning it into

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