A leader elected to widespread acclaim a mere few years ago, empowered to make real change and sweep away a discredited regime — now on the ropes, a target of the party they had brought to success. Yes, Angela Merkel is having a tough time.
Having come in as the great alternative to a succession of statist and indistinguishable Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, having thoroughly bested the latter in the most recent poll, she is now the object of a deep dissatisfaction from the German public. The difficulty for Merkel is that there is no consensus on what exactly they don’t like about her any more.
Traditional SD union and left blocs have marched against the relatively mild inroads she’s made into the German welfare state — other groups have complained that she hasn’t done enough to change the culture. Pro-Europeans have slated her for dithering on a bailout of Greece; many others now hate her for ultimately agreeing to it. The recent Westphalia regional elections saw the CDU replaced as largest party by her free market coalition partners the Free Democrats.
Merkel is not alone in this despite. The condition is near universal in the West.
Nicolas Sarkozy, once the standard-bearer for European free-market reform is now widely dismissed as a time-wasting clown; Gordon Brown was escorted off the premises, without his opponents being given a commanding mandate; Barack Obama’s successes have been consumed by a strategy of hedging and caution; Japan’s political leadership has collapsed; Greece has dithered its way over the past decade to auto-destruction; the Swedes are likely to make the ‘right-wing’ reformer Carl Reinhardt a one-term PM in September; it’s proving all but impossible to stitch together meaningful governments in the Low Countries.
And then there’s this bloke in Australia…
All unhappy governments are unhappy in their own way, but beneath their very real differences, the predicament is the same. There is now a fatal disconnect between the perceived challenges faced by nations and the entire species, the political system and the leaders chosen by it. Governments that attempt to address structural weaknesses in the economy from the right, immediately attract opposition — often from people who voted them in to ‘do something’.
Those like Rudd elected to make social reforms from the left get opposed at every turn when they show the least sign of concerted effort and please no-one when they try a steadier and slower pace of change. Leaders of conservative parties such as David Cameron and Tony Abbott, in their very different ways, conversely find it difficult to be conservative in the genuine sense of minimising government action — and thus commit themselves to endless, opportunistic and disconnected ideas often taken from social democratic parties.
To quote George Orwell, Western publics resemble a sick man turning from one side to the other in bed every 15 minutes, in pursuit of momentary relief.
This sudden collapse of legitimacy has come at the end of a more stable period, in the anglosphere at any rate. Bush, Blair and Howard represented a shared approach to social life — an unleashing of untrammelled market forces, compensated for by a tightening of social and cultural repressiveness, and a projection of power (and problems) out to the wider world.
The public consented to this formula as long as the consumer and service economy, and the purchasing power within it, continued to grow. Once it hit a wall in 2008, that consent was withdrawn. What was revealed was not a happy public in tune with charismatic leaders who represented their values, but a disconsolate and dissatisfied public who were both aware that great changes are required, but unwilling to countenance a change in lifestyle.
They want strong leaders, but they don’t want the truth from them. They want their way of life to be restabilised, but they don’t want anything done. They want to be involved, but they don’t want to be led by do-nothings. And so on.
Part of that is due to the mendacity of a right-wing media which sells a toxic mix of pessimism and false nostalgia, but no-one can make bricks without straw. The neo-con trio of Howard, Blair and Bush may be the last for some time to enjoy the genuine sense of legitimacy — which for all of them had, in any case, evaporated some time before the end of their reign.
What is on offer now is a series of ad-hoc governments chosen with minimal enthusiasm and consent, and quickly turned on when it becomes clear that they are dealing with problems on a scale that stretches beyond the power of political frameworks inherited from the 19th century.