How Millennials Are Changeable German Politics

You have possibly never heard of Kevin Kühnert, the 28-year-old head of the Social Democratic Party’s youth organization. But he newly burst into the news after leading an internal revolt against his party’s plans to enter a “grand coalition” with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party.

The revolt is likely to fail; coalition talks will wrap up this weekend. But remember Mr. Kühnert — if he loses the battle, he and his generation may yet win the war over the future of German politics.

Much has been written about the public’s developing fatigue with Ms. Merkel and about the chancellor’s own weakness with her position atop the German government. But it is not just Angela Merkel who looks weary. After four months of coalition talks, Germany’s policy exclusive altogether see, well, bad.

The most telling moment was when Martin Schulz, the 62-year-old head of the Social Democrats, and Mr. Kühnert clashed at a recent Social Democratic show. Mr. Schulz, who was advocating a coalition (and his continued leadership role within it), stuck to the script, unimpressed.

Mr. Kühnert’s response, however, was ardent and convincing, and made his point clear. He assailed Mr. Schulz’s leadership as “Spiegelstrich-Politik” — bullet-point politics. The term, Mr. Kühnert’s invention, cleverly captures the pragmatic, unideological, unconvincing style of the Merkel and Schulz generation. While the rest of the world is in tumult, in Germany it still feels like the end of history: Germany is economically strong and politically stable, and politics reacts to maintenance.

In contrast, Mr. Kühnert’s generation longs for a cause, a task bigger than, say, tweaking how much employers must contribute to their employees’ insurance. Nils Heisterhagen, a 29-year-old Social Democrat, has been leading a push for the party to embrace its left-wing roots.

This generational angst spans the political spectrum. Alexander Dobrindt of the Christian Social Union, the sister party of the center-right Christian Democrats, recently published an essay calling for a “conservative revolution” promoting a “Leitkultur,” or “leading culture” — a common term in German for a politics focused on assimilating immigrants and promoting the nuclear family, among other things.

And Christian Linder, 39, head of the pro-business Liberal Party, backed out of coalition talks late last year, accusing Ms. Merkel of favoring process over principles. “No ideas whatsoever,” he complained newly. “Just Merkel’s technique. Any compromise, just to get by.”

At the same time, the new generation’s stance is various from the identity politics of many young American political activists; if anything, these young Germans agree with Mark Lilla’s argument that liberalism has slipped “into a moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity” that prevents it “from becoming a unifying force able of governing.” Instead, they long for a “unifying” policy approach that focuses on the economic grievances of the masses — or their stated need for cultural homogeneity.

After decades of postmodern politics, they long for grand narratives, on both sides. Call it solidarity in partisanship — a longing for clear lines that cut across policy problems, rather than a wet blanket of accord that covers over sociopolitical fractures.

But is it what voters want, too?

It is conventional wisdom that the consensus politics of Ms. Merkel, Mr. Schulz and their generational peers strengthened the political fringes, especially the far right. That’s not entirely true, though: Polls display that Germans, even if they’re tired of Ms. Merkel, still value consensus.

“Germans are generally oriented toward compromise, not polarization,” said Andrea Wolf, a board member of Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, a major German pollster.

Though Ms. Merkel’s poll numbers dipped during the refugee crisis, they have rebounded. “I doubt that the policy approach of the younger generation of policymakers is what voters really want,” Ms. Wolf said. “It’s probably rather just what they want.”

Real politics ever consists of bullet points. You want to lift up the lower middle classes? You have to pass tax relief, restructure social security contributions, bolster the education budget — which is what the next grand coalition will vow to do, if the negotiations are successful.

The challenge for German politicians, moving forward, will be to appear up with a narrative big enough to make a sense of direction, of being based on values more fundamental than raising the gross domestic product a few percentage points, but avoiding the sort of utopian visions that German voters correctly distrust.

If they succeed, they could set free a new era of political energy. If they fail, we could look a dark turn toward the sort of fractured, incoherent politics haunting the rest of the world, full of holes that the far right can move through. There’s a trap, however. In raging against the slow and boring politics of adjustment, the members of the new generation are joining the very populist chant they are setting out to defeat.

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