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8 December 2021

Angela Merkel’s most important legacy: her civility

When politics becomes war, democracies stop working.

By Jeremy Cliffe

BERLIN – In June 1978, while running for Congress, Newt Gingrich gave a speech to a crowd of College Republicans in Atlanta. He warned them and the wider party: “You’re fighting a war. It is a war for power… What we really need are people who are willing to stand up in a slug-fest.” When he arrived in Washington, DC, the following year this approach was beginning to spread.

Gingrich accused Democrats of seeking to “destroy our country” and called Congress “corrupt” and “sick”. Over the following decades, this “politics as warfare” became the Republicans’ dominant strategy, write political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their 2018 book How Democracies Die. A straight line runs from there to Donald Trump, and whatever follows.

There are many ways of describing Angela Merkel’s politics, but to call her “the anti-Gingrich” would be a reasonable one. Today (8 December), she has been replaced by Olaf Scholz and his centre-left coalition (read more on Germany’s new chancellor and the coalition deal). The Merkel chancellorship is over, an entry in the history books. The policy record of her 16 years in power is mixed, as I discussed in my recent cover feature. But where it is most praiseworthy, and arguably most significant, is in her personal civility and humility – her inexhaustible resistance to treating politics as a bloodsport, or her opponents as enemies.

Merkel rarely used polarising or dramatic language. “I avoid the term [refugee crisis] on principle,” she said in a farewell interview last month, “because a refugee for me is not in themselves a crisis but a person.” She was rarely confrontational. In an academic study of one TV debate during the 2013 election, she was found to have spent only 112 seconds of the 90-minute show attacking her opponent. Time and again, strongmen – from Trump to Vladimir Putin – and domestic populists have tried to rile her, to jolt her into anger or impatience, and failed. “I understand why he has to do this: to prove he’s a man,” she said after one meeting with the Russian president.

In place of conflict, she used humility as a tool of power: making it her business to pour the coffee when at meetings, taking the trouble to introduce herself to the staff of her international counterparts at summits, keeping her options open by declining to pick sides.

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A testament to the civility of the Merkel era, but also the German political system in which such a character could become chancellor, has been the remarkably good-natured handover of power in recent days and weeks. Even during the election campaign, the three viable chancellor candidates were pictured joking and chatting in the aftermath of the TV debates. At her farewell last week Scholz, who had recently defeated her party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), at the polls, tweeted: “Angela Merkel was a successful chancellor. Tirelessly she worked for our country and, over 16 years in which much changed, stayed true to herself.” Similarly warm sentiments were returned to him from across the political divide. “I wish the incoming federal chancellor Olaf Scholz and the new government all the best, success and a fair wind for us all,” tweeted the Christian Democrat grandee Ruprecht Polenz. “You are my government”.

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More of this was on display in the Bundestag this morning, at the vote officially making Scholz chancellor and at his swearing-in. On arriving, Merkel received a standing ovation from MPs of all parties but the far-right AfD (a stagnant and sidelined force in German politics). Scholz fist-bumped with Armin Laschet, the CDU chancellor candidate whom he had bested at the election only in September. Such scenes would be hard to imagine in the more polarised political environments of the UK and US.

There are two main ways to dismiss all this. The first is to claim that getting things done in democratic systems requires incivility: “to make an omelette, you have to break some eggs”. From this perspective, the cosiness and chumminess of mainstream German politics during and perhaps after the Merkel era betokens stodgy stasis, governments too nice to achieve anything.

That stands to reason, especially in the political mythology of the Anglo-Saxon world, where transformative governments required figures such as Nye Bevan (the founder of Britain’s NHS, who called the Conservatives “lower than vermin”), Margaret Thatcher (with her division of the world into those who were “one of us” and the rest) and indeed Newt Gingrich, whose hyper-adversarial politics is credited with much Republican success in the years since.

Yet even these examples of politics-as-war are more complex than they appear. Thatcher was a more compromising and emollient leader than the myth she, her most die-hard allies and worst enemies created. Gingrich’s contribution to Republican success in the 1980s is dubious (he loathed Ronald Reagan, the president who led the Republican revolution, and who returned the sentiment with interest). Britain’s transformative postwar Labour government may have been marked by Bevan but was led by Clement Attlee, a man who prized civility and severely rebuked his then health minister for the “vermin” comment.

That is without taking into account the fact that the UK and US political systems are unusually adversarial. Both have very pure forms of majoritarian politics that tend towards confrontational two-party systems. In the UK this reality is even expressed architecturally, with opposing political forces facing each other across the benches in Westminster like armies on the morning of battle. Much more common around the world are hemicycle, horseshoe-shaped or circular parliaments, designs routine in proportional systems where parties often have to form coalitions. Many such countries are among the most prosperous, developed and sophisticated in the world – the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand – which, though not demonstrating causality, clearly puts any supposed correlation between effective government and adversarial, winner-takes-all political cultures in doubt.

The second sneer at civil, respectful discourse is that it is merely a “nice-to-have”, the effete preoccupation of bourgeois commentators with too little at stake in the democratic contest for resources or power to understand the need for aggression. Yet this grossly underestimates the importance of civility to the effective working of democracy. It is not sufficient by itself of course – constant, robust debate and challenge are also essential – but it is necessary. That is because democracy runs not just on the casting of ballots every few years but on the norms and institutions that allow for an open contest that commands loyalty and legitimacy.

In their book, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that democracy ends not with tanks on the streets but with the cumulative chipping-away of those norms and institutions. Using examples from around the world, they show how the decline of civility, a Gingrich-like turn in the tone of political debate, begins and accelerates the process of democratic backsliding: “If, 25 years ago, someone had described to you a country in which candidates threatened to lock up their rivals, political opponents accused the government of stealing the election or establishing a dictatorship, and parties used their legislative majorities to impeach presidents and steal supreme court seats, you might have thought of Ecuador or Romania. You probably would not have thought of the United States.” The underlying cause, the two write, is the “unravelling of basic norms of mutual tolerance and forbearance”.

Democracy starts and ends, in other words, with the assumption of the basic decency and legitimacy of one’s opponents, on all sides. With each jibe at an “enemy of the people”, the “unpatriotic”, “deplorables”, “citizens of nowhere” or “scum”, a system takes another step towards a place where the incumbents can freely abuse power to hold on to it, where the playing field becomes irredeemably uneven, authority becomes arbitrary and a self-reinforcing dynamic of insecurity and overreach takes hold. Time and again in cases of democratic decline around the world, note Levitsky and Ziblatt, the collapse of tolerance and forbearance presaged a broader turn towards illiberalism. Civility is the dam holding back the surge.

Here we might credit Merkel with particular knowledge. Some have ascribed her studious inoffensiveness to her East German background, to spending the first 35 years of her life in a system where the less said, the better. But there is another explanation. Having lived in an autocratic, them-and-us system, where everyone’s motive was suspect if not proven otherwise, she might be said to understand the role of mutual toleration and forbearance in liberal democracy all the more, and how breakable it all is. In her farewell speech on 2 December, a typically low-key affair, Merkel reflected on this: “In particular the past two years of the pandemic have held a magnifying glass over the great importance of trust in politics, science and public discourse, but also how fragile it can be.”

Merkel bequeaths Germany a complex legacy – she was a capable crisis manager but a poor strategist, a canny tactician but also a source of complacency and stasis. That is all up for debate by commentators and historians over the coming years. Yet what seems certain is that she has left the way in which most of her country’s politics is conducted in a state that some other parts of the democratic world, including the UK and US, have reason to envy; a state that it is to be hoped her successors can preserve. Civility does not impede effectiveness, and arguably can improve it. Nor is it a superfluous nicety. Quite the contrary: it is in many ways the very foundation of a successful democracy, where rival perspectives and visions can stake their claim to power, and those who wield it can do so with legitimacy and maturity. Civility should not be taken for granted.

To remain polite, civil and decent, as Merkel did over 16 years as the leader of one of the world’s biggest economies in the heat of successive crises, is more than a footnote. It is something fundamental: a laudable commitment to the ethos that sustains democracy and with it free and prosperous societies.

[See more: Who is Olaf Scholz?]

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