Today’s interesting read is from Paul Hockenos, an expert on German politics, in the Nation.* Titled “Merkeldämmerung [Merkel-twilight]: The Transatlantic Right Has Germany’s Chancellor in Its Sights,” it focuses on the conflict between the anti-immigrant hard right, represented by Donald Trump, and Europe’s mainstream politicians, pre-eminent among them German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Like much that you find in the Nation, it’s absorbing but a little alarmist. While Merkel’s position is certainly difficult, I don’t actually think her internal enemies are (yet) serious about trying to overthrow her.
Nor are they yet ready to co-operate with the neo-fascists in Alternative for Germany (AfD). Hockenos says that AfD “now polls 16 percent nationally, up from the 2017 election’s spectacular 12.6 percent result, the absolute highest conceivable tally that any of us could fathom—at the time.” In fact, however, it was consistently polling close to 15% through much of 2016; its 2017 result was a comedown from earlier expectations.
But Hockenos makes important points about the way that the Trump administration has aligned itself with the European enemies of democracy and cosmopolitanism. His support for the far right is probably still less important than that given by Vladimir Putin (a point the Nation is disinclined to stress), but it’s catching up.
(In that context, readers might enjoy a recent poll from Monmouth University, which shows that “when asked to come up with the world leader who has the best relationship with Trump, 27% of the American public name Putin as that person” – far ahead of any other option. Only 1% nominated Merkel.)
One point, however, needs to be examined more carefully. At the end of the article, Hockenos claims “There is no evidence that an incumbent can win back voters from a populist outsider by accepting the outsider’s premises. Given the choice, the voters inclined to racism and conspiracy theory will vote for the real thing.”
Earlier, in reference to Bavaria, he says the strategy of moving rightwards is “In defiance of all evidence to the contrary (see Austria, Italy, and France)”.
I agree that it’s generally best for centre-right parties to resist the temptation of appeasement. But it’s not true to say that there’s no evidence that it sometimes works, as Hockenos’s own examples show.
At the beginning of 2017, Austria’s far right Freedom Party was recording a third of the vote in opinion polls. Then, in May, the centre-right chose a new leader who took his party to the right, particularly on immigration. The Freedom Party vote plunged, and at the election in October it managed only 26%.
Similarly in France: the National Front’s weakest period in recent years coincided with the ascendancy of Nicholas Sarkozy on the centre-right, who echoed many of its themes and stole some of its thunder. (John Howard did something similar in Australia with One Nation.) Conversely, a more moderate centre-right leadership in 2016-17 saw the far right scale unprecedented heights.
It’s not that the evidence is unequivocal; there are certainly other cases that point the opposite moral. (If political science was easy, everyone would be doing it.) But I don’t think we can rely the comfortable assurance that the centre-right’s self-interest will always point towards standing up for decency.
* Hat tip to Race Mathews for drawing it to my attention.