“The Centre Cannot Hold”
This famous line from Yeats’ poem on Ireland’s War of Independence reflects a felt concern among Europeans today.
Populist parties (previously called “extremist”) are superseding the “center-left” and “center-right” coalitions that once shepherded prosperity and peace in Europe’s liberal democracies. The supposed consensus behind these coalitions has been exposed as an illusion by their mounting election losses.
This concern, that the political center is splintering to the left and right, assumes that the “center-left” and “center-right” coalitions represent the political centers of the eurozone countries. But do they? Did they ever?
Picture Angela Merkel as the virtuous statesman, appealing to reason and justice to keep peace in our dark and tangled world. For Merkel to triumph, she must defeat every obstacle she encounters on her moral quest, whether convenient or not.
One obstacle to Merkel’s visionary future is demographic. With its falling birthrate, Christian Europe cannot reproduce itself, and this fact has crystallized into pessimism. Europe’s cultural intellectuals have no answer to this pessimism. They have given up, and so has Merkel — but the European voters have not. Every European body politic still believes in the nation state.
There is another obstacle to Merkel’s goal. Merkel may feel that her high-minded openheartedness is being frustrated and misunderstood by those she seeks to improve, so she has to improve them despite their objections. But Germany is a democracy.
Merkel’s purity of heart, if that’s what it is, may make for good deeds as a private citizen, but only in a dictatorship is the policy of a nation held accountable to a single man (or woman). In a democracy, the government is responsible to its own citizens’ interests. It is an instrument of the people, with constitutionally prescribed limitations.
A democratic government’s duties towards other nations is limited by its obligations to enhance its citizens’ mutual security and advance their common good. A democracy cannot demote its own electorate. When a country’s leader chooses the gratification of her idealistic impulses over her duties to her country, she is not acting morally — only irresponsibly and autocratically.
The fact that the self-described moderate parties are so far out of touch with popular needs and concerns shows that they are not now, and maybe never were, the political center. Like the neocons in the US, they sold a bill of goods that turned out to be rotten, and not the will of the people at all.
Angela Merkel’s effort to remake Europe never did represent the “center.” The new Europe Merkel envisions is a political outlier, a utopian nightmare of ethical intuitionism, and a feral threat to the very stability she is supposed to protect. It is the populists — the AfDs of Europe — who, far from being extremist, represent the prudent, traditional, constitutional states that the vast majority of Europeans desire.
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And if you want to see the Angela Merkel Snake Dance, check this out!