Sound Policies Not Enough to Fend Off Populist Challenge

Defeating reactionaries is going to require a full-throated defense of liberal ideas.

Angela Merkel Barack Obama
German chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with American president Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, May 2, 2014 (Bundesregierung)

After Donald Trump’s unexpected election victory in the United States, liberal-minded commentators (this one included) looked to Germany’s Angela Merkel to keep the barbarians at bay.

The centrist German leader gave some indications that she’s up to the task of defending liberal democracy and the liberal world order from the nationalist-populist challenge. She conditioned the future of the American-German alliance on shared Western values and urged Germans, after announcing she would seek a fourth term as chancellor next year, to unite and shape globalization “together with others” rather than fight it.

“Openness will bring us more security than isolation,” she said.

Did we read too much into this?

War? What war?

Anna Sauerbrey thinks so. An editor of Der Tagesspiegel in Berlin, she argues in The New York Times that Merkel is desperate to avoid standing against ideologies — or for them.

“Hillary Clinton made her campaign about defending America against the evils of populism and retrograde nationalism,” Sauerbrey writes; “Merkel will pretend there is no such war.”

Ms Merkel is known to be allergic to pathos and big words. She doesn’t want to be the “liberal West’s last defender”. […] She wants to be seen as the meticulous administrator of Germany’s security and prosperity, the Angela Merkel her voters used to like so much before they fell out of love with her during the summer and autumn of 2015.

That means backpedaling on an open-door immigration policy, developing meaningful retraining programs for native Germans who have lost their jobs to cheap Eastern European laborers, more transparent free-trade agreements and a European foreign policy that can prevent or contain future crises.

This is the smart move, according to Sauerbrey. Merkel the capable administrator is more likely to win reelection than Merkel the liberal champion.

The German exception

She may be right about Germany, where voters are unusually suspicious of big ideas.

But I’m not sure it’s a strategy centrists elsewhere can copy.

Clinton didn’t just campaign against Trump and what he stands for; she campaigned for practical, pragmatic politics. She expressed her wariness of sweeping reforms and her preference for incrementalism. That is what separated her from Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries.

Similarly, Britain’s proponents of European Union membership in the referendum this summer argued for the practical benefits of staying in the bloc: the single market, fighting transnational crime, etc. It were the outers who offered a (vague and misleading) vision of a Britain free of European influences.

In both cases, the ill-defined alternatives to the status quo prevailed.

Taken for granted

The reason, argues the Niskanen Center’s Will Wilkinson, is not just that voters were dissatisfied with the powers that be; it’s that they took liberal ideas and institutions for granted and weren’t as fearful of the alternative as they should have been.

Liberal norms and institutions are under constant corrosive pressure from natural, deep-seated illiberal tendencies that humanity has only recently managed to suppress, writes Wilkinson.

Freedom, openness and democracy won the Cold War, but that didn’t mean we could stop arguing for them.

If we fail to constantly refurbish the case for and commitment to liberalism, reinforcing it against the specific damage of the age, our institutions will drift toward generalized opportunistic corruption and declining popular legitimacy. Our culture will drift toward defensive avidity and mutual distrust. Our politics will drift toward primal zero-sum tribal conflict. All of which creates a fat political opening for would-be despots and ends-justifies-the-means zealots.

More restrictions on immigration or job retraining programs are not going to close that opening. Our times call for a full-throated defense of the ideals that have made us free and prosperous. If Merkel can’t, or won’t, make that case, somebody else must.