Felix Stossmeister studied Political science and History at Martin-Luther Universität Halle-Wittenberg and North American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. In the fall, he will begin a Ph.D. in American History at Ohio University.
Germany | May 19, 2020 | Analysis Article
Angela Merkel is a rational, competent and diligent politician. As an old hand in both domestic and international negotiations, she enters meetings well prepared and takes her job very seriously. Public servants need all these qualities. To many, they seem to shine particularly bright in times of crisis and in comparison to other world leaders, especially Donald Trump. During a pandemic, Merkel’s doctorate in physics only furthers this reputation.
In part, such high regard is both merited and understandable, yet, in addition to her undoubted qualities and skills, Angela Merkel´s political style and substance also have significant drawbacks. While they are not unnoticed, they often remain neglected as far as an international audience is concerned. Her policies obviously deserve criticism as well, but this article is about her rhetorical style.
Democratic societies generally need both, the grinding search for common ground, compromise and incremental improvement as well as soaring visions for a better future that inspire hope and make lively, sometimes combative, debate possible. Ideally, this provides the citizens with an idea as to what direction the country is or ought to be taking and may inspire better solutions for the future. It is difficult to say what is more important at any given moment, but it seems certain that Angela Merkel, to a fault, embraces the first necessity over the latter. In the following lines, I will explain both what shape this focus takes rhetorically and what adverse effects it had on German democracy.
The Chancellor´s rhetorical style
Angela Merkel´s statements, with her very friendly position towards the Iraq-war in an op-ed for the Washington Post as a notable exception, often serve a very particular purpose. It is usually her goal to preserve her ability to smoothly change her position later on without having to pay the typical political price for doing so. Therefore, when the political pressure concerning any given problem becomes too high for her to remain silent, she will frequently give a statement in which she vaguely gestures at a position without actually subscribing to its nevertheless implied substance. That way, when pressured about it later on, depending on how the situation developed until then, she can credibly claim to always have meant the statement in the way that seems most useful in retrospect. In a great philosophical analysis that should be read in its entirety, Nils Markwardt calls this “a politics of the as if” , writing, in my own translation: “Merkel´s alleged pragmatism then, is not about weighing possible consequences of actions and transparently claiming as true those assumptions which are simply incalculable, but communicating one´s actions so vaguely that in retrospect, a third party will always have the possibility to interpret them as though they actually were the product of pragmatic assessments. […] It is less geared towards goals and more towards interpretations. What drives her, are not motivationally powerful convictions, but precisely their smooth absence.”
One particular example which has gained notoriety among German political journalists is her habit of assuring beleaguered ministers who are pressured to step down of her trust. Notice how trust is a personal category, not a political one, and how the chancellor doesn’t say that she wants to continue working with her colleagues and will fight to keep them in office. Also, should they eventually have to step down, it still doesn’t mean that they lost her personal trust. Politics simply got in the way and it is impossible to say that Chancellor Merkel contradicted her position.
The politics of this style
During campaigns, this personal rhetorical style gets translated into a strategy of asymmetric demobilization. This means that Merkel and the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) don´t aim for high turnout among their own voters, but instead seek to avoid antagonizing the other parties’ voters. They do that by stubbornly eschewing clear positions on the issues, lest they receive criticism they´d have to defend themselves against. In addition, they gesture at positions which, at first glance, seem to be similar to those of their competitors. For example, when the SPD (Social Democratic Party) campaigned for the establishment of a national minimum wage, while the CDU did reject the measure, it also floated the idea of banning “morally low wages” or “sittenwidrig niedrige Löhne“. It´s not the same as a matter of substance, but to the casual listener, the CDU takes social concerns seriously.
The example of full marriage equality
One fairly recent case of this strategy occurred during the 2017 campaign for the 19th Bundestag (German parliament) on the issue of marriage equality. At this point, after several piecemeal reforms by previous administrations, gay and lesbian couples were treated as equals in all regards except when it came to full adoption rights. In 2013, when asked by a voter during a televised townhall event, the famously rational Merkel talked for four minutes straight without every taking a reasoned position, merely saying that she had her personal difficulties with the issue while vaguely gesturing at possible concerns of the well-being of children. This position would become infeasible, because over the summer, the Green Party, the FDP (Free Democratic Party) and the SPD all publicly made it clear that they would only govern with the CDU/CSU after the next election of full marriage equality would be instated. At this time, a whopping 56,4% of Germans were strongly in favor of adoption rights for all and another 19,4% generally favored such a measure with only 14% strongly opposed.Given that the CDU would under no circumstances govern with die Linke (Left Party) and the AfD (‘Alternative for Germany’ Party) was not even in parliament yet, this seriously put Merkel on the spot. Continuing her favored approach of asymmetric demobilization and mindful of liberal CDU voters in urban centers, Merkel proceeded to carefully calibrate her position. During a townhall-event that came only three days after the last of the mentioned declarations in favor of full equality, Merkel, at the height of the campaign, bemoaned the alleged politicization of the issue and ultimately said, and again, the translation is mine: “[…] and that’s why I would like to guide the debate more in a direction of some kind of conscientious decision.” Because the German parliament consists of factions which usually vote along party lines, with conscientious decisions reserved for ethical concerns, for example on certain sensitive medical issues, this was immediately seen as a shift on Merkel’s position. Only a few days later, the Bundestag, with Merkel casting a no-vote, granted lesbian and gay couples full marriage equality.
Was this Merkel´s intention all along? Did she once again shrewdly rob the competition of an important issue during a campaign? Or was she really overtaken by events this time? That is difficult to say but also not important for the argument I´m trying to make. Because again, notice how Merkel didn´t even change her position on the substance of the issue, but merely on the political procedure with which it might be treated. Whether you are in favor of marriage equality or against it, Merkel has no arguments for you, only administrative maneuvering. The liberal urban voters get what they want and the conservative stalwarts can’t claim that Merkel abandoned them. There was a lively debate on marriage equality, and Germany’s most important politician flat out refused to engage in it.
However, it should also be mentioned that in addition to this deliberate strategy, the very structure of a coalition between SPD and CDU/CSU favors Merkel´s party, because while the SPD was often the engine for popular policies such as the minimum wage, they were frequently associated with the Chancellor who, of course, never failed to take credit once the heretofore rejected projects were enacted.
Angela Merkel has been the Chancellor of Germany since 2005. The past fifteen years are full of such stories, large and small, from the usual opaque press statement to refusing to publicly explain and defend her position on the crisis-ridden eurozone. While good Republicans of all political persuasions don’t necessarily need an articulate leader with public intellectual convictions, and debates in science, law and other sectors of society also run smoothly without interference from politics, the central and powerful position of the Chancellor in the German political system means that a Chancellor who refuses to engage in debate hurts the democratic culture in the long run. As a positive counterexample in style, even though one might disagree on substance, take Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, who openly fought for ambitious reforms of the welfare state and didn’t shy away from telling people things they didn’t want to hear, especially parts of his party´s base. While also often erring on the side of caution, Barack Obama comes to mind as well, because on top of stabilizing an economy in a severe recession and against the council of important advisers, his administration decided to nevertheless also fight for the ACA, bringing healthcare to at least 20 million more Americans in 2016. Of course, such reforms also always cause a backlash, but, to make a grand statement of opinion: A politician who doesn’t know what he or she would be willing to lose an election over should not be in politics to begin with and a consistent notion of what´s good for the people should be more important than the hoped for longevity of one’s carrier.
Angela Merkel disagrees. To the extent that the Chancellor could shape political debate, Germany is all the poorer for it.
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