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The Collapse of German Centrism

Rhetorical Concessions Alone Won’t Swamp the Populists’ Momentum

Police and far-right protesters in Chemnitz, eastern Germany, September 2018 Kevin Voigt / Xinhua / eyevine/ R​edux

In the late summer of 2015, when it seemed that the flow of refugees into Europe might never abate, German Chancellor Angela Merkel held a press conference. She’d just visited a refugee center near Dresden when she uttered what she surely thought was a throwaway line. “Wir schaffen das,” she said, or “We’ll manage this.” In its banality, the phrase seemed equally far removed from Barack Obama’s “Change We Can Believe In” and Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” Whereas politicians in the United States traffic in the aspirational language of marketing, political debates in Germany are couched in the language of trivial chores. You could say “Wir schaffen das” about the laundry, the grocery shopping, or taking out the trash. The phrase was typical of a politics that has long tried to bury ideology under layers of administrative detail. 

Merkel’s detractors, however, pounced on the quote, which they argued betrayed a dangerously casual attitude toward the risks of mass migration. The fiercest criticism came from the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, whose co-leader Alexander Gauland angrily declared, “We don’t want to manage it at all.” What had been a nod to Merkel’s core virtue—competence—soon became an ironic slogan that her enemies hung around the chancellor’s neck like the proverbial albatross. 

In the four years since Merkel’s press conference, German politics has drifted steadily to the right, and a pat narrative has emerged holding her immigration policies to blame: Merkel’s generous asylum policy alienated many of the center-right voters who formed the traditional base of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and drove them into the eager arms of the AfD. For the CDU—or indeed any centrist party—to stanch the flow of voters to the AfD, the argument goes, it will have to shift rightward itself, especially on issues of immigration and culture. But such a strategy is unlikely to succeed. After all, the AfD has itself moved

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