By Alexander Görlach, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs & TES Contributor
Voters in western democracies situate themselves differently today than just a few years ago. There is talk of an “axial shift.” The axis that for decades divided party systems into “right” and “left,” “conservative” and “liberal,” “Christian” and “social democratic” is obsolete. In the United States, you can see this in how first the Republicans with the Tea Party, and then the Democrats following the 2016 presidential elections, saw spin-offs from their parties that are leaving the traditional party organizations lying lifeless on the ground. Discussions about the future of the party are taking place in new power centers. The Republican Party has meanwhile moved so far to the right that its “refounding” – as I would call the marriage of the GOP to Donald Trump – can no longer be located on the original “conservative – liberal” axis.
The movement centering on Senator Sanders (“Feel the Bern”) in the 2016 election was the first sign of something that now can no longer be denied: The Democratic spectrum is splitting into two groups along a new axis. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represents the first group, while Joe Biden represents the second. In the media, the two politicians are still categorized in traditional terms, with Biden as a “centrist” and AOC as a radical leftist. But this classification is inadequate.
A look at Germany shows why. In three of the four ruling coalitions since 2006, the Christian Democrats have governed together with the Social Democrats. What were once two opposite poles, “right” and “left,” have moved so close to each other and even fused that in the perception of voters, they now appear increasingly similar. This has strengthened the other democratic parties: Political discourse in Germany now revolves around a new axis comprised of the Green Party and the Free Democrats.
If you take a close look at these two new political powers, what stands out above all is that there are no longer any social policy disputes like those that characterized the old axis. Both parties are fundamentally in agreement about immigration, education policy, digitalization, family policy, gender equality and marijuana legalization. There are differences over how those things are to be achieved, but there is no normative debate as to whether a particular policy such as LGBT equality or abortion should be constrained by reference to some overarching set of values such as Christianity. On its old battlefields, the culture war has been called off.
The new battlefields are environmental and economic policy. For the Free Democrats, environmental policy was traditionally treated as a subtopic of economic policy, while for the Greens it was just the opposite. For the Greens, everything else is derived from their concept of the environment, and any new economic order comparable to the Green New Deal proposed by AOC would have to be subordinate to it. The Free Democrats on the other hand see in an ecologically-oriented economy Germany’s key future opportunity as an export-oriented country. The differences in this case are not only semantic. In the judgment of the school students who led the “Fridays for Future” demonstrations, the two parties were so far apart that one could almost speak of a culture war.
The results of the most recent European election show that voters in Germany now tend to agree with the Greens’ perspective. The Free Democrats’ standing in the polls is currently more than twice as strong as the Greens. The ideological opponents of the Greens in day-to-day politics are neither the Social Democrats nor the Christian Democrats, but the Free Democrats led by Christian Lindner. This too aptly describes the supposed new axis and provides evidence for its actual existence.
For the Greens, scoring points against Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat/Christian Socialist union is irrelevant. And the Social Democrats have already been defeated by the Greens along a broad front. Traditionally, the Social Democrats have been the party of the urban areas where more liberal people live, similar to the United States where city governments tend to be Democratic. In the 2018 Bavarian state parliament election, however, every city went to the Greens. So the Greens no longer need to worry about the Social Democrats. But the Free Democrats, who favor internationally coordinated solutions to the climate crisis, directly contradict the approach of the Greens, who instead call for first reshaping Germany in order to then have an impact on the rest of the world. The Free Democrats emphasize freedom, collaboration, and international institutions, while the Greens focus on top-down change with a splash of moralistic-normative directive, which is toxic to the Free Democrats.
This development came into view in 2015 when Chancellor Merkel gave an interview to the German YouTube star known as LeFloid. In the interview, something was already becoming apparent that is affecting election outcomes today. In their exchange, Ms. Merkel rejected an immigration law as clearly as she did marriage equality, and she had just as little enthusiasm for legalizing marijuana. The young [voter?] LeFloid couldn’t get over his astonishment at Merkel’s traditional conservative positions. Before the European elections this year, several YouTube stars issued the conservative Christian Democrats a rejection of their own. Meanwhile, the Social Democrats experienced their worst ever results in the European elections. For the young generation in Germany, the old “right – left” axis has become completely irrelevant.
In the United States, the Democratic candidate will determine in what direction the gradation of the new axis will run. Over here, the shift has already begun.
Prof. Dr. Alexander Görlach is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.