September 28, 2017 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - Is the Center Holding in Europe?


The center held, it seems. First Emmanuel Macron won in France and now Angela Merkel did the same in Germany. Both leaders bested upstart, far-right challengers in the National Front (FN) and the Alternative for Germany (AfD). So, too, did Mark Rutte in the Netherlands in March and Alexander Van der Bellen in Austria in December. One might conclude, then, that the rightward turn toward nationalist populism, the kind typified by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, is an affliction limited to the Anglosphere. Continental Europeans have been wise and prudent.

If only that were the case. The real story in each of these elections is less about a shift rightward (or not) on a stable political spectrum, and more about a full fragmentation of the political space. There was a time, called the twentieth century, when politics gravitated around more-or-less fixed points. Labor vs. capital, progressive vs. conservative, society vs. the individual — each overlapping pair gave the universe of politics form and coherence. Left was left, right was right. Yet now, the political space more closely resembles a supernova as newer, smaller, fiercer parties emerge every which way.  

In France, Macron’s En Marche isn’t yet two years old, and remains a progressive and technocratic oddity still finding its way. Neither the durable center-left Socialist Party nor an established center-right party made it to the second round of the presidential election this year. That hasn’t happened in decades. Also this year nearly 9 percent of second-round voters cast a "ballot blanc" for neither candidate. That hasn’t happened in the history of the Fifth Republic.  

In Germany this weekend, the two main parties — the Christian Democrats (with their Bavarian cousins) and the Social Democrats — received the lowest combined share of the vote since reunification. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s they could, together, count on 70 percent of the votes. On Sunday, the amount was just over half. It’s difficult to overstate how seismic this shift is. As political scientist Jan-Werner Müller has noted, “If one had to choose one movement in ideas and party politics that has created the political world in which Europeans still live today, the answer has to be Christian Democracy.” How long can that influence hold in a world where the AfD, founded in 2013, is entering the Bundestag as the third largest party?

The center-left is even worse off. Social democrats or socialists were part of the government in two-thirds of the countries that made up the European Union in 2000, including France and Germany. Today, out of 28 EU member states, center-left parties are part of less than a third. Nor is it a vote of confidence that many of the remaining center-left governments, in countries such as Malta, Portugal, and Romania, are on the European periphery.

In place of the established parties, upstarts are emerging, and not only on the right. Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, the Greens in Austria, the Five Star Movement in Italy — each has notched a victory of one kind or another in recent years.

When realignment and consolidation has come in the past, politics has coalesced around two opposing sides. As far back as 1789, at the start of the modern state, one nobleman sat in the French National Assembly and noticed how supporters of the king began huddling in the right of the room to avoid "the shouts, remarks, and indecencies that were happening in the opposing party." He explained, "we began to recognize each other." This was the unceremonious start of left-right politics.

The twentieth century found a similar — stronger, even — left-right stability in the faceoff of workers vs. capital and its various iterations. On this rigid-enough base, strong political parties grew, won, and governed. Nothing yet offers a similar frame in today’s world, with its fragmented and changing economy.

We are witnessing a dealignment in European politics, with political parties spinning off and multiplying, to try and capture votes of a splintered and increasingly polarized electorate. It will take time for all of this settle down, for a new realignment and consolidation to emerge.

This Week’s Reads includes more on the German election, as well as on other important issues of the week. As always, I welcome your comments and reflections.

Germany’s Far Right Complicates Life for Merkel, and the EU

Steven Erlanger/The New York Times

All eyes were on the German election and that country’s leader, Angela Merkel, over the weekend, but the best analysis might have come from President Emmanuel Macron of France. He warned that, as Steven Erlanger sums up in the New York Times, “a failure to reform the European Union, better secure its borders, and fix the euro currency will only further feed the far right.” Germany’s far-right AfD party took an astonishing 13 percent of the vote in the election, in what is seen as a shot across the bow of traditional parties in both Berlin and Paris. Worse, France and Germany are out of sync in terms of how to move forward with EU and eurozone reforms. Macron seems to be on the rise. Merkel is strong, but has been weakened. So, who leads? 

German Results Reflect European Unease Over Identity, Economy

Marcus Walker/Wall Street Journal

The view from Berlin became a lot less clear this weekend, writes Marcus Walker in the Wall Street Journal. Going forward, the country will likely become more difficult to govern for Chancellor Merkel, he writes. The surprisingly strong showing of the right-wing AfD continues to chip away at the postwar taboo against expressing German nationalism. Meanwhile, if Merkel continues to govern from the center without making select overtures to politics further afield, then fringe parties could get a shot in the arm from new supporters tired of her no-politics politics.

Syrian War Drags On, but Assad’s Future Looks as Secure as Ever

Ben Hubbard/The New York Times

Mubarak was ousted from Egypt in weeks, Ben Ali was out from Tunisia in days. But years on from the Arab Spring in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad survives. That is the grim conclusion of Ben Hubbard’s new piece in the New York Times, updating us on the long war that has roiled not only the country, but the entire region and beyond. While the Syrian regime has retained power, it has retained little else. The war continues; the staggering toll in life, security, and wealth increases; and Assad has firmly cemented his international reputation as a pariah.

Rocket Man Knows Better

Blaine Harden/The New York Times

"The Trump administration needs to keep Kim family history in mind," writes Blaine Harden in the New York Times. The history of the Korean War, and the North Korean leader at the time, Kim Il-sung, offer important insights into how the current leader, Kim Jong-un, will likely react to threats. Above all, the Kim dynasty prizes survival, and survival necessitates acting a certain way. "For all its Orwellian blather," Harden explains, "the Kim family dictatorship has survived this long by being coldly rational, even as it projects wild-eyed belligerence." This essay is a smart, well-written reminder of that fact. 

Letter from North Korea: What Life Looks Like as Nuclear Crisis Mounts

John Lyons and Jonathan Cheng/Wall Street Journal

Reporters from the Wall Street Journal traveled to Pyongyang in mid-September and the impressions they came away with, recounted in this long essay in the publication, are revealing. It is a rare and detailed look inside the Hermit Kingdom which has dominated headlines in recent weeks but which has also been something of a mystery from the outside. The essay is equally a bizarre travelogue and a smart analysis of the provocations that have brought North Korea and the rest of the world closer to war.   

Will Mark Zuckerberg 'Like' This Column?

Maureen Dowd/The New York Times

Maureen Dowd has taken on the impossible task of explaining the state of technology today, especially as it relates to our elections and to the spread of fake information and to artificial intelligence — as well as the rumors Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg might run for president. She succeeds in making a convincing case that it all boils down to Zuckerberg, the tech Pollyanna, vs. Elon Musk, the tech Cassandra. Dowd seems to side with Musk, and as she sums up about our Frankenstein-like future, “Yep. Very scary.”

Trump Embraces a Post-American World

Fareed Zakaria/The Washington Post

"Mishmash" is how Fareed Zakaria describes President Trump’s speech before the UN General Assembly on September 19. The president began by saying that he does not want to impose the American way of life on anyone, but then seemed to do precisely that by castigating North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba for their political systems. Even so, there is an unequivocal takeaway to draw from the speech, Zakaria writes: “Trump is tired of being the world’s leader.” The nationalism he professes to champion is, in fact, a call for the country to step back from global leadership, creating a vacuum that China will eagerly fill. 

The Dying Art of Disagreement

Bret Stephens/The New York Times

I disagree with every word of this speech by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. Of course, I don’t really, but he might appreciate the argument. The speech, given recently at the Lowy Institute in Australia, is a strong and smart call for an improvement in how we disagree with one another. There is no shortage of bitter disagreement today, either in America or abroad, but it would be difficult to describe much of it as intelligent, or even useful. "Our disagreements may frequently hoarsen our voices," Stephens says, “but they rarely sharpen our thinking, much less change our minds." Read the full speech, even — no, especially if you disagree with its argument.


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