BERLIN – Germany has voted for stability and consensus. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s position has been confirmed with a convincing result. She has been entrusted with power for another four years, and will continue to lead the country with her cautious, considered politics. Strategy and long-term success form the yardstick for her short-term tactics. It is not the means, but the end that determines her actions.
It is the politics of small increments, and Merkel's careful driving through the fog of our uncertain times is more sensible than careening toward the edge of a precipice.
The election results show how wide a consensus exists among the German public about important questions concerning the future. This is especially true when it comes to European policy.
The Alternative for Germany party, which promised a radical renegotiation of Germany’s role in Europe, and an end to the euro, gained a significant number of votes, but its status as a protest party means that many of these came from the critical, disillusioned, frustrated and disadvantaged from both ends of the political spectrum. Even with these protest votes, Alternative for Germany did not manage to break the 5% mark needed to gain representation in the Bundestag. That alone shows how incredibly strong the political center is in Germany and how weak the extreme fringes remain.
A single currency nation
Independently of political allegiance, there is broad agreement throughout Germany about the truly important questions of democracy, the rule of law, the market economy and European policy.
Of course many are angry that German taxes are paying for the carelessness of others. Nobody wants to see Germany supplying a bottomless pit of money or sharing the debts of other countries. Everyone wants the burden to be shared fairly. Nevertheless, the euro skeptics cannot convince 5% of Germans to support them in their call for a fundamental change of direction, a withdrawal from the euro and a return to the Deutschmark.
The fact is that the overwhelming majority of Germans want to stick with the euro. But it cannot be denied that this loyalty is shot through with worries, and is mainly due to the German public’s trust in Angela Merkel. With all due respect to the Chancellor, this is not a solid foundation on which to build a sustainable policy.
Whichever party goes into coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU would be well advised to put Europe at the top of the agenda. There needs to be a public debate about Europe, not only about the political aspects, but also the social and economic future of the continent. It would be naive to dismiss the euro skeptics as radicals and brush their arguments aside.
The coalition negotiations will need to include a debate about what Europe means for Germany and how Germany understands her role in Europe. The discussion must go far beyond simply weighing up the financial costs and benefits of saving the euro – the exact nature of these costs and benefits, the ways in which they are measured, compared and balanced, are anything but simple questions.
There are no exact truths
Cost-benefit calculations are tricky enough in any situation, let alone when it comes to European policy. Unlike in economics textbooks or scientific laboratories, in the highly complex jumble of the real world there are no infallible laws or exact truths.
When it comes to questions about fairness and participation, majority decisions and the protection of minorities, each society and age finds its own “right” answers. The Deutschmark supporters would do well to remember that when they demand an end to the still youthful euro because the economic balance sheet seems to have gone into the red.
Now that the national elections are over, Germany needs to develop a vision of Europe for the 21st century. Where should Europe go politically, socially and economically, and what role should Germany play? Do Germans want a United States of Europe or a Europe of nation-states? What should be organized centrally in Brussels and what should remain the domain of individual countries? As part of this public debate, Alternative for Germany should be shown under what conditions and with what costs the euro zone can be stabilized.
The vision for Europe should not mean a massive shake-up. Quite the opposite. It should be a long-term goal that allows the continent to orientate itself in the fog. If the new German government knows what its people want, it can begin taking the small steps on a long road to the kind of Europe its citizens want to see.
But (as Madame Merkel knows) there’s no rush: Germany and Europe should take their time.
The deadly stabbing of UK MP David Amess confirms this researcher's ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad.
The killing of British Conservative MP David Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on October 15, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councillor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.
This is to say nothing of the 2018 attack on the Palace of Westminster that left police officer Keith Palmer dead and MPs in a state of shock.
Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.
Between the divisive politics of Brexit and the growing polarization of British party politics, MPs currently work in a low-trust, high-blame environment. Even before the existential angst and subsequent politicking of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent Hansard Society audit of political engagement concluded that “opinions of the systems of governing are at their lowest point in the 15-year Audit series – worse now than in the aftermath of the MPs' expenses scandal."
The ramifications of governing in such an age of distrust are significant for the mental health and wellbeing of politicians. With colleagues, I've argued that such visceral and endemic distrust is a key stressor in political life. People are not simply wary or skeptical of politicians, they now routinely criticize their personalities and dismiss their good intentions. At its most severe, this “distrust stressor" manifests in the growing threat of physical violence faced by politicians.
Unfortunately, the distrust stressor is commonplace in the febrile climate of post-millennial UK politics. Serious cases of stalking and harassment have become a “common experience" for MPs. In the UK general election of 2017, for example, 56% of surveyed parliamentary candidates expressed concern about the levels of abuse and intimidation they had received and 31% said they had felt “fearful" during the campaign. Misuse of anonymous social media accounts has intensified these problems and created a toxic environment for elected politicians that regularly exposes them to online rape and murder threats.
Governing under threat
As part of an ongoing study of trust and governance in five democracies around the world, I recently carried out more than 50 in-depth interviews with junior and senior politicians in national legislatures, including questions on the stresses and strains of political life.
Reflecting on the ramifications of simply doing their job, one Conservative MP commented:
There have been votes that have been controversial, and you can then get a lot of abuse as a result of picking a side. My office has been vandalized, I've had stuff sent to me in the post, I've received death threats. And you do build up a very thick skin doing this job, there's no shadow of a doubt. Because one week in it, if you're not able to roll with the punches, you won't see through a whole term.
Almost 40% of interviewees were able to cite more than one instance of serious abuse or threats of physical violence. Not only are these experiences felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK, but they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile. As one MP in New Zealand told me:
I've had some pretty horrible death threats and I've had a lot of abuse, particularly through social media. But also, funnily enough, in writing and phone calls. Unfortunately it's becoming more part of our political life.
Another, this time in South Africa, said:
What [this group of constituents] were saying is that if the water supply was not fixed by a certain time, they were going to kill me. And what they did is they took a tyre and said that this tyre was going to go around my neck and they're going to light it and that was going to be my demise. Listen, when you see your life flash before your eyes… you start to question whether it's worth it.
In the UK, analysis of data from the Representative Audit of Britain (a survey of all parliamentary candidates who stood in general elections between 2015 and 2019) suggests that the harassment, abuse and intimidation of elected and aspiring politicians is also highly gendered. Women politicians, and black and minority ethnic women in particular, experience a disproportionate share of sexualized abuse online. They also receive more aggressive and sexualized threats offline.
Contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation.
It is relatively easy to understand why all this would be detrimental to politicians' professional competence and their sense of personal worth and wellbeing, but it is harder to find solutions to this crisis.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has called for increased security measures in the wake of Amess's death. This is welcome but it's an instrumental response which might not be easy to implement. Political contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation – and it is unlikely that most MPs will agree to suspend constituency surgeries or fill their offices with armed guards at a time when governor-governed relations are already so strained.
New Zealand's parliament in Wellington
Compassion and education
While specific issues around MPs' security and training are grappled with, we also need a call for conscious restraint and compassion in political discourse. When some politicians themselves resort to dog-whistle populism, verbal abuse and infighting, it broadcasts an image of politics as an arena for incivility. At the same time, it perpetuates a binary worldview that crowds out the possibility of empathy and compromise.
Alongside this, we need to overhaul the media coverage of politics. Increasingly intent on personalizing the political and politicizing the personal, a 24-hour news media too often drip feeds blunt stereotypes about politicians' personalities and motives. In contrast to much news coverage of politicians, my own research with hundreds of elected MPs and councillors has shown that the majority enter politics with an extraordinary dedication to improving the lives of others that is rarely perceived or appreciated by those they govern.
A deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible.
Equally important, nations around the world must commit to fully funded and well-resourced programmes of democratic education. Politics is messy and full of contingencies, and a deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible or desirable. In turn, this breeds disappointment and lowered self-efficacy, which together disrupt the positive potential of deliberative participation.
Ultimately, there is no place for political violence, harassment or intimidation in a functioning democracy. At the very least, politicians are ordinary humans attempting to undertake an extraordinary job on behalf of everybody else. Whatever their political views, nobody who has the courage to "step into the arena", to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, deserves to fear for their life in the pursuit of public service. To say that we need to rediscover civility and respect in our politics is once again an understatement of a devastating truth.
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