Blaming Merkel: Reflections on the Art of Scapegoating
Do those who demand stronger leadership from Angela Merkel miscomprehend the nature of democratic regimes in modern times?
July 19, 2011
The German and international media have a penchant for scapegoating German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The causes of the prolonged eurozone crisis? Why, it’s Mrs. Merkel’s fault. Lack of a German vision for Europe? Blame it on Merkel’s indecisiveness. High debt levels and a grim future for European societies at large? No tax cuts in the offing for upper-income recipients? Of course, it’s all because of Mrs. Merkel.
The faultiness of this all-too-convenient form of scapegoating can be proven by one simple thought experiment: Let’s hypothetically fire the lady. Does anybody really expect a sudden change in the resolution of many of these issues? Who could argue with any degree of certainty that her departure would make any difference? I doubt that Wolfgang Ischinger or Ulf Poschardt could do so, despite their recent animated protestations to the opposite.
It rather seems as if the lady is providing a convenient target for complaints — as it happens, of mostly male origin — about the state we’re in. But that isn’t Merkel’s fault. Rather, it’s a reflection of the fiendishly complex times in which we live. While adjustments have been made all along, the question now is whether any of that has really been enough — or whether we are facing a more serious point of departure.
If Mrs. Merkel can be blamed for one thing, then it is that she has very finely attuned antennas for what can realistically be expected of a populace. With good reason, she hesitates to press down the gas pedal firmly when people already feel overwhelmed. In a democracy, it is as such: The consent of one’s own fellows, the governed, is very much necessary — and ever harder to get.
All those who, intoning a great seriousness of purpose, demand “stronger leadership” from Mrs. Merkel miscomprehend the very nature of democratic regimes in modern times. Postulating grand, overly rigorous visions of the future triggers one of two consequences: It either just scares people, or they decide to tune out the truth in its entirety. In her 2005 campaign, Angela Merkel tried the truth-in-advertising approach. The result, even in sober-minded, generally fiscally prudent Germany, was that she almost wasn’t elected.
Now, one could of course argue in the abstract that she should throw any caution to the wind, try it again and hope for a better outcome. But that argument presupposes that the citizens really don’t know what’s up, that they need their glorious leader to dish out the truth. However, given the widespread availability of the information needed to arrive at that conclusion, and the fact that they hear it on the evening news every night, that’s hardly a realistic assumption to make. Let’s just say that (almost) everybody knows the mess we’re in.
What matters the most under those circumstances is to generate the collective will and readiness to act. Presupposing that it takes a great leader to open our eyes and get us there is plain wrong. We know that something must be done. The question is the where, when, how — and to whom?
A democracy these days, in an era when party affiliation matters less and less (that is to say, the belief that “the party” has an ability to resolve much of anything is vanishing rapidly), is but a mood-driven mechanism that, in certain unpredictable intervals, will hopefully arrive at moments of collective courage.
When such a triggering event, mood or moment occurs, what matters the most in politics today is to have a leader who knows not just when, but also how to pounce. And Angela Merkel actually has plenty of that agility. Yes, one can blame her for being mostly tactical. But using tactical formations to generate the collective will for strategic decisions is the hallmark of a great democratic politician in our era.
That’s precisely what Merkel did on the nuclear issue, where she had the courage to say that changed circumstances require a different decision, mere months after deciding to continue nuclear energy. The German chancellor, in other words, lives up to the maxim attributed to John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
In contrast, the times of yearning for the revival of another great Briton — the feisty, cigar-smoking Winston Churchill — are definitely over. It reflects an ill-guided and outdated belief in “Big Men,” a vice that even Africa, the continent that has suffered the most from that delusion, is beginning to leave behind.
Furthermore, “blood, sweat and tears” rhetoric may have been appropriate for Churchill’s era. But today, such a Churchillian, i.e., ritualistic, almost shamanistic recantation of the great dangers that lie ahead rings hollow.
The fact is that we know what’s coming. We just need leaders who facilitate our adjustment process in the rare moments when the gods conspire to give us enough courage.
Take the euro crisis. There needs to be a eurobond, a basic European fiscal transfer union, a European Banking Authority with real power over member country banks. Everything else will be even more expensive. We just need time to arrive at this insight consensually, which is made doubly difficult because of the complexity of the underlying issues from the perspective of a voter — and the fact that politicians for a generation have falsely pretended it wouldn’t come to this.
In the brave new world of instinctive democracy, the way we arrive at conclusions, quite collectively, is by working our way through the process of running out of other options. That is not a weakness of Angela Merkel’s. Rather, she is the perfect embodiment of this technique. And that she does it with a certain dourness, rather than some NBA-style cheerleading technique, only adds to her credibility.
All those who pretend that they are able to see further into the future either don’t have a proper appreciation for the de facto mechanisms of today’s kind of democracy, or claim an ability to see that borders on the superhuman.
That Angela Merkel’s skills in managing complexity go hand-in-hand with a certain natural reserve against those who claim to be the clairvoyant seers of our time might add to, not detract from, her credibility.
With the widespread reserve against leadership built up among citizens pretty much everywhere, not just in Germany, it is becoming ever clearer that societies, as adaptive learning systems, progress more by elimination of alternatives than by any grand designs, or visions of leadership. There are still people, among the elites, who clamor for it, but these aren’t the times for it anymore.
The fact is, nobody truly knows the key answers to the big questions of our time with any sufficient degree of assurance. Citizens know that instinctively. Accordingly, public support thus cannot be based on the fruits of the “scientific method.” This may then be the age of the blind leading the blind, but that’s the general condition we’re in.
Practicing and practiced politician that she has been for over two decades now, Angela Merkel knows one thing: A leader is only as good as the number of people who will actually follow him or her. That might not be particularly pleasing to hear for those with still-hallowed visions of leadership. But, if pressed hard in a private conservation, the German chancellor might slip in this observation: they also are of a different era than our own.
Using tactical formations to generate the collective will for strategic decisions is the hallmark of a great democratic politician in our era.
Nobody truly knows the key answers to the big questions of our time with any sufficient degree of assurance. Citizens know that instinctively.
In the brave new world of instinctive democracy, the way we arrive at conclusions, quite collectively, is by working our way through the process of running out of other options.
We know that something must be done. The question is the where, when, how — and to whom?