The Good Fight

Leading From Below

How populists can transform governments—even when they don’t lead them.

German chancellor Angela Merkel and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May are seen during a press conference at Lancaster House on Tuesday in London.
German chancellor Angela Merkel and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May are seen during a press conference at Lancaster House on Tuesday in London.
Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images

With far-right leaders firmly ensconced in the seats of power from Italy to Hungary, and from the Philippines to the United States, it is hard to focus on anything other than the most immediate threats to the survival of democratic institutions. But because the rise of populist presidents and prime ministers has taken up so much attention, another development that is nearly as worrying has largely gone ignored: Even countries in which moderates still have a governing majority have been thrown into unprecedented chaos by the rise of the populists.

Take the case of Germany. Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here lampooned Americans’ belief that their country was immune to the authoritarian temptation; fascism, he showed, could rise even in the United States. By the beginning of the 21st century, many Germans had come to resemble the smug Americans depicted by Lewis. Germany, they insisted, had thoroughly imbibed the lessons of the past. While authoritarian populists might be able to make inroads in Brussels, Budapest or Buenos Aires, they would never be able to find a foothold in Berlin.

Three years ago, this optimism about Germany’s future did not seem to be entirely unfounded in fact. Angela Merkel was extremely popular. While some insiders were quietly starting to speculate when she might step down, they all believed that “Merkelism—a cautious leadership style that waits for a social consensus to emerge on the most important questions of the day, only to follow it with a vengeance—would be there to stay. Local commentators and political scientists spent most of their time arguing about the pros and cons of the “post-ideological age” Merkel had supposedly ushered in.

Even at the time, I gingerly pointed out that Germany’s newfound confidence in its political superiority was overly self-congratulatory. It simply replaced the old story about the German Sonderweg, according to which the country’s unique history predestined it for fascist doom, for an inverse story—one in which the country’s unique history made it safe for democratic triumph.

Whenever I aired my scepticism, Germans would offer the same, perfectly reasonable response: While far-right populists had already entered the parliaments of most other European countries with a system of proportional representation, they had not yet penetrated the Bundestag. Cold, hard election results seemed to prove that Germany really had learned the lessons of its ugly past.

Three years later, that argument—and the optimism it fed—no longer looks nearly as dispositive. In national elections in the fall of 2017, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a xenophobic movement very much in the mold of other right-wing populists across Europe, took 13 percent of the vote, becoming the strongest party in large swaths of the country. Even then, many senior politicians I spoke to predicted that it would quickly fade; instead, it has kept rising in the polls and now outperforms Germany’s main center-left party, the Social Democrats, in some recent surveys.

But if the rise of the AfD has been dramatic, the wider transformation of German politics it has brought about is even more astounding. Throughout postwar history, the liberal Free Democratic Party has had an outsize influence on German politics by serving as the junior partner in government after government, usually in coalition with the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). But while the party has traditionally been to the left of the CDU on social issues, Christian Lindner, its new leader, positioned the party to the right of the CDU during the last election campaign. When his attacks on Merkel and her refugee policy delivered an unusually good result for the party, Lindner feared that his rising star would begin to fade if he helped her govern—and vowed to stay in opposition.

The transformation of the Christian Social Union (CSU)—which has traditionally functioned as the Bavarian wing of Angela Merkel’s CDU even though it is formally a separate party—has been even more astounding. Guided by the belief of its long-time leader, Franz-Josef Strauss, that “to our right, there should only be the wall,” the CSU had always been more conservative than its national counterpart. And yet, the party had rarely indulged in authoritarian rhetoric. Despite occasional spats, the alliance between the CDU and the CSU had never seemed in doubt.

But since 2015, that bond has become much more tenuous. Bavarian leaders have continually attacked Merkel and forged a close alliance with Viktor Orban, the authoritarian leader of Hungary. A few weeks ago, Horst Seehofer, current leader of the CSU and the country’s minister of the interior, went so far as to engineer what has widely been described as one of the most dramatic government crises in living memory. Worried about rising competition from the AfD, he threatened that he would leave the government unless Merkel promised to send migrants who reach Germany from safe countries like Austria or Hungary back at the border. For a few days, it looked as though Merkel’s coalition would lose its majority—and no plausible constellation of parties stood ready to take its place.

In the end, Merkel and Seehofer managed to work out a temporary compromise. But the leader of the CSU has already vowed that he will leave the government if the compromise proves unworkable because countries like Austria and Hungary refuse to take migrants back—which seems more likely by the day. For now, the oldest political alliance in German politics stands, and the established parties retain a majority in the Bundestag. But as an old German saying goes, “Aufgeschoben is nicht aufgehoben”: A crisis delayed is not a crisis averted.

If Germany’s ability to govern itself is severely undermined by both the rise of populists like the AfD and the “populistification” of established parties like the CSU, the crisis of the British political system is even more acute. In 2015, the first signs of trouble were already on the horizon. The U.K. Independence Party was making inroads in local elections with a rhetoric that fused opposition to the European Union with hostility to immigration. Within the Conservative Party, a small band of euroskeptics was scapegoating Brussels for all of the country’s problems. And yet, the country looked very stable. David Cameron had just won re-election on a moderate center-right platform and was riding high in the polls. The Labour Party was gearing up for a leadership contest that promised to be rather sleepy. Very few people seriously believed that the country’s membership in the EU was in any real doubt.

Within the next year, an astounding conflagration of unlikely events shattered any semblance of normality. First, Jeremy Corbyn—whose views bear far greater resemblance to the politics of Jill Stein than they do to that of Bernie Sanders—took over as leader of the Labour Party. Second, David Cameron attempted to assuage the euroskeptics in his party—and “lance the boil”—by calling a referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union. Third, seeing an opportunity to stick it to the political establishment, Brits narrowly voted to leave the European Union. And fourth, Cameron was replaced as prime minister by Theresa May, an extremely cautious politician with little support from her own party.

What ensued was a period of embarrassing weakness and extraordinary vacillation on all sides. Instead of setting out a clear vision for Britain’s future outside the EU, May spent the better part of the past two years trying to reconcile the warring wings of her own party—mostly by keeping her intentions so vague as to be essentially meaningless. The opposition, meanwhile, has been totally missing in action. While most of his young supporters staunchly support continued membership in the EU, Corbyn has long been hostile toward Brussels and resolved to mention the most important issue facing the nation as little as he possibly could.

Last Friday, the period of universal vacillation finally seemed to be coming to an end. More than two years after the Brexit referendum, May finally got her ministers to agree on a plan of action. The great show of unity lasted a whole of 48 hours. Then David Davis, who led the newly created Department for Exiting the European Union, and Boris Johnson, the country’s foreign secretary, resigned in short succession. They are likely to vote against any deal Theresa May might negotiate with the European Union—and to challenge her leadership if the opportunity presents itself.

As a result, the country has once again been thrown into utter uncertainty. Since European leaders have repeatedly warned May that they would be unwilling to grant Britain a free trade agreement in some sectors but not others, it is completely unclear whether anything resembling the document she set out last Friday will survive contact with her negotiating partners. And even if she does manage to strike a deal with the EU, it remains equally unclear whether she could cobble together a majority for it in Parliament.

In retrospect, it is obvious that the question posed in the Brexit referendum was irresponsibly vague. Since leaving the European Union could mean just about anything from continued membership in the single market to a radical curtailment of commercial relations with the continent, the Leave vote did precious little to express an affirmative preference on behalf of the British population. But a functional political class would have used the past two years to think seriously about how to do justice to the popular wish to leave the European Union without damaging the country’s economic prospects or running the risk of crashing out without an agreement. Instead, May, Corbyn, Davis, and Johnson have all failed to put forward a minimally coherent vision for the future. As a result, two years from the referendum, the country faces even more uncertainty than it did in its immediate aftermath: At the moment, every outcome from continued membership in the EU on the one extreme to a “no-deal Brexit” on the other appears just about equally likely.

Germany and Britain are among the most extreme cases. But they are closer to being the rule than the exception. From Sweden to Spain, the rise of the populists has rendered governments less stable and made traditionally moderate parties more extreme.

We live in an incredibly volatile political age. The most obvious danger of this volatility is that it allows authoritarian populists like Donald Trump to take power. But sensational and terrifying though their rule may be, it would be a grave mistake to overlook the more subtle ways in which the rise of the populists has disfigured politics around the world. As the rapid deterioration of the political system in Britain and Germany reminds us, even in countries in which the populists have not yet taken power, the lived reality of liberal democracy is increasingly dysfunctional.

Full disclosure: The author is the executive director of the Renewing the Centre team at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.