Friday, August 9, 2013

Germany's slow drift to the left

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, though nominally a conservative, is above all a wily and pragmatic politician who has seized the middle ground of German politics. So success for her Christian Democrats (and allied parties) in next month's elections should not necessarily give comfort to mainstream conservatives, especially if long-term trends are taken into account.

According to the highly regarded polling organization, the Allensbach Institute, over the last forty years the political views of the German people have shifted to the left.

'Each year,' writes Quentin Peel in the Financial Times, 'Allensbach asks people to place themselves on a scale of 1 to 100, from left to right. Most are in the middle, and the bell curve gets flatter towards the edges. But in the mid-1970s and earlier, the chart was skewed to the right: the average score was 56-58.'

Today, two decades after German unification, the curve has, according to a senior researcher at the Institute, Thomas Petersen, "... got much more symmetrical, and now the middle point is just to the left of centre."

And, after 70 years of peace ('the longest such period in German history') and in the wake of a largely successful reunification process, levels of anxiety, as measured by Allensbach, have fallen.

A number of questions come to mind – not least concerning the meaning and value of such self-assessments. But assuming the drift to the left is a reality, is it replicated in other Western countries? What are the likely causes? And will these trends persist?

My sense is that it is a general Western phenomenon, and that it has been caused in part by a slow but relentless breakdown of shared cultural traditions, particularly over the course of the last half century or so. Mass immigration has certainly changed many European countries dramatically, and, by all accounts, the drift to the left in America is driven largely by demographic change.

But assigning causes to such phenomena is always going to be difficult and contentious. And the last question – concerning the future – is, of course, impossible to answer with any confidence.

But my guess is that the combination of high unemployment and spiralling public debt levels in many European countries (Italy, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Ireland and, more recently, France) is setting the scene for trouble ahead, increased anxiety levels and (quite possibly) an increasing polarization of political views in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.