Angela Merkel couldn’t have remained Germany’s chancellor forever. Even Helmut Kohl, who was chairman of the Christian Democratic Union and Germany’s longest-serving postwar chancellor, had to step down after 16 years. Kohl’s tenure ended in the usual way: In 1998, with unemployment and economic dissatisfaction rising, voters chose the left-of-center Gerhard Schröder over the right-of-center Kohl. But today, unemployment is at an almost historic low of 3.4 percent. Both youth unemployment and long-term unemployment, typical drivers of the anti-incumbent spirit, are low (though so is annual growth, at 2 percent).
Yet Merkel announced this week that she is stepping down as party chair, which strongly suggests she will not serve out the remainder of her term. She has been done in, above all, by the refugee crisis, for which a growing number of German voters have blamed her ever since she famously told them, in the late summer of 2015, “Wir schaffen das”(“We can do this”). Many of those voters want to reclaim what they have suddenly come to regard as an endangered identity.
The larger significance of Merkel’s fate is that the materialist assumptions of Western liberalism no longer capture the reality of Western politics and culture. It is in the nature of liberalism, a credo founded on rationalism, secularism, and utilitarian calculation, to regard material interests—i.e., your pocketbook—as real and the realm of values as ephemeral. That is why in What’s The Matter With Kansas?, the economist Thomas Frank could argue that Republicans had hoodwinked working-class Americans into voting against their true interests by seducing them with traditionalist values. That is also what Barack Obama was thinking when he said during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign that working-class voters “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
It is, of course, no coincidence that the wave of populist nationalism now breaking over the West began in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, when millions of working- and middle-class voters lost savings, jobs, and future prospects. But the wave engulfed liberal politics even where economic pillars remained intact. Poland was Eastern Europe’s economic engine—its Germany—when the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party defeated the classically liberal Civic Platform in 2015. Civic Platform Prime Minister Donald Tusk had described his platform as the maintenance of “warm water in the tap.” When I was in Warsaw the following year, Konstanty Gebert, a columnist and former Solidarity leader, said to me, “He thought that was enough, but he was wrong. People wanted history, they wanted glory, they wanted meaning. And PiS offered a meaning. Their meaning was, ‘We’ll make Poland great again.’”
What Poles seemed to want above all was the traditional identity they had, or imagined they had had, in the days before they joined their destiny to that of the secular, progressive, free market West. Different versions of this narrative played out in the wealthy countries of Northern Europe. Dutch politics, like German politics, had long oscillated between economically oriented left-of-center and right-of-center parties. The Dutch economy remained strong, but rising rates of immigration, which brought the population of the country’s four biggest cities close to majority-minority status, provoked an entirely new politics of Dutch identity. In the 2017 election, the right-of-center liberals staved off a challenge from the far-right, xenophobic Party for Freedom, though only by co-opting identity politics. So it went in Sweden, Austria, and elsewhere.