Ross Douthat: Merkel's failure might be what Europe needs


Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times.


By Ross Douthat
The New York Times

Thursday, November 30, 2017

In an unpredictable world, it’s always a pleasure to claim vindication for one’s own prophetic powers, and the political crisis in Germany — the inability of Angela Merkel to form a coalition government that keeps her country’s far right sidelined — could easily inspire an “I told you so” from those of us who have criticized the German chancellor and doubted her leader-of-the-free-world mystique.

That mystique is undeserved because it is too kind to her decision, lauded for its idealism but ultimately deeply reckless and destabilizing, to swiftly admit a million-odd migrants into the heart of Europe in 2015. No recent move has so clearly highlighted the undemocratic, Berlin-dominated nature of European decision making and the gulf between the elite consensus and popular opinion. And no move has contributed so much to the disturbances since — the worsening of Europe’s terrorism problem, the shock of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, and the growing divide between the EU’s Franco-German core and its eastern nations.

So it’s fitting that the immigration issue has finally come back to undercut Merkel directly, first costing her votes in Germany’s last election, which saw unprecedented gains for the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, and then making a potential grand coalition impossible in part because the centrist, pro-business Free Democrats now see an opportunity in getting to Merkel’s right on migration policy.

Yes, thanks to the continued fallout from her rash decision, and just as her critics predicted, Germany stares into the abyss of …

… well, actually, no, it doesn’t really stare into the abyss at all. It just has to choose between a new election, which would probably deliver the same divisions but would still leave the nationalists stuck at 10-15 percent of the vote and Merkel’s party with a plurality, and a minority government led by Merkel herself, which would be a novelty in Berlin but which is normal enough in other stable Western countries.

Both options promise problems that Germany hasn’t had to deal with in its modern and unified shape, but also problems that are quite routine for developed-world democracies. Neither option is going to suddenly elevate the AfD to power, unravel the European Union or bring National Socialism lurching back to life. As political crises go, the one Merkel has brought upon her country isn’t exactly a Weimar moment, or even a Trump-scale shock. And for all the pleasures of “I told you so,” those of us who never bought into the Merkel mystique should not pretend that she’s delivered some sort of catastrophe just yet.

Instead, what she’s delivered is an opportunity for leaders in Germany and in the wider West to learn from her mistakes. For all the understandable talk about the crisis of Western liberalism, the political chaos of the last few years has also demonstrated that many supposed agents of post-liberalism are unready to really push the liberal order to the breaking point.

President Donald Trump is a political weakling, not a Caesar; Marine Le Pen can’t break 35 percent of France’s presidential vote; the Islamic State has all-but-fallen. Which means that the custodians of the liberal order, the kind of people wringing their hands over Merkel’s present struggles, still have an opportunity to prove their critics wrong, to show that their worldview is more adaptable to changed circumstances than it has seemed.

I’m not sure they’re ready for that adaptation; instead, my sense of the state of Western elites after Trump and Brexit is similar to the analysis offered recently by Michael Brendan Dougherty in National Review. Dougherty has been circulating in high-level confabs since Trump’s election and reports a persistent mood of entitlement and ‘90s nostalgia — a refusal to take responsibility for foreign policy failures, to admit that post-national utopianism was oversold, to reckon with the social decay and spiritual crisis shadowing the cosmopolitan dream.

Indeed, all the high-level agita surrounding Germany’s political crisis — good heavens, not a minority government! — suggests a basic deficiency of elite imagination that will be one of the things that brings down the liberal order if it does eventually fall.

But while it’s possible that a Bourbon Restoration scenario awaits, in which our overclass learns nothing and forgets nothing during the Trumpian disruption, there is something mildly encouraging in the willingness of Merkel’s competitors in the political center, not just on the extreme right, to act as though they’ve learned lessons from her high-minded blunder, and to campaign and negotiate as if the public’s opinions about migration policy should actually prevail. Better that kind of crisis-generating move by far, in fact, than a grand coalition of parties united only in their anti-populism, and perfectly designed to ratify the populist critique that all the elites are in cahoots.

What will save the liberal order, if it is to be saved, will be the successful integration of concerns that its leaders have dismissed or ignored back into normal political debate, an end to what Josh Barro of Business Insider has called “no-choice politics,” in which genuine ideological pluralism is something to be smothered with a pillow.

In Angela Merkel’s Europe right now, that should mean making peace with Brexit, ceasing to pursue ever further political centralization by undemocratic means, breaking up the ‘60s-era intellectual cartels that control the commanding heights of culture, creating space for religious resistance to the lure of nihilism and suicide — and accepting that the days of immigration open doors are over, and the careful management of migrant flows is a central challenge for statesmen going forward.

But a necessary first step, in the country that really rules the continent, would be for more people to recognize that if Merkel’s long rule is threatened it need not be a sign of liberalism in crisis, but rather an indicator that it could yet be restored to health.