It sounds like a paradox: we’re fast approaching the German general election, and more and more days go by where I find myself unable to detect any political vision. It begins with spectacularly unimaginative campaign posters scattered about Berlin, insipid campaign commercials, boring appearances by candidates at local markets; if this campaign had a colour, it would surely be a safe grey. Even the head of one of the most respected opinion polling organisations was recently quoted as saying that the population was not particularly happy but not very worried either: “The country is calm.”
Angela Merkel couldn’t change this judgment, despite her efforts to cast herself as a ray of light outshining her competitors on the political stage. Making her usual appearance at the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, she sported a new blue outfit after two years of wearing the same dress (a sign that she knew that the country was holding a referendum on her).
This is a German election and a Brit may argue you wouldn’t expect it be a flamboyant spectacle. But the current lethargy is a peculiar one. According to the polls, Germans are more satisfied with their government than ever before, and Merkel is expected to continue in power. And yet, talk to people in the capital about how they expect the next government to tackle their hopes and fears, and you might as well talk to a block of concrete. As the end of the summer approaches, it feels as if everything important was decided weeks ago, and the country is stuck in the languid mood of the last days before an early autumn hibernation. The nation, it seems, doesn’t want to be bothered — even if people are feeling more financially squeezed than before the previous election because wages have been frozen.
We know that emotions matter in shaping a vision. What we don’t know is why complacency and anxiety about the future go together. Why aren’t Germans more optimistic and less prone to weltschmerz and lethargy? Politicians don’t usually engage in such metaphysical matters; in Germany this job is done by public intellectuals.
Few have taken to this more vigorously than Peter Sloterdijk, professor of philosophy and aesthetics at the University of Art and Design in Karlsruhe. Think of him as a more serious and less dashing Bernard-Henri Lévy, but just as savvy about creating an image of himself and just as likely to leave several shirt buttons undone.
Sloterdijk puts the sense of stagnation down to a chronic penchant for tolerance. Politicians who make it to the top are rarely those with the greatest amount of courage and creativity in their thinking, but rather those with a great capacity to adapt and a tolerance for frustration, he argues. As a result, few politicians today are capable of thinking long-term.
This, however, rings true for German society as a whole. Political reforms are slow in the making and hard to swallow, and yet society is undergoing rapid change — in particular with respect to the role of women and the concept of the family.
Over the last ten years, women’s participation in the workplace has revolutionised the distribution of labour. All kinds of lifestyles are now equally acceptable, from marriage to cohabitation, gay to straight, and mixed families that sometimes consist of children from previous relationships. (That being said, Germany is no pioneer when it comes to combining family and career.)
However, these gains in individual freedom sit uneasily with a sense of socioeconomic fragility, in part sparked by the euro crisis, even though it didn’t hit Germany nearly as badly as its neighbours. Germans have come to realise that there is nothing to guarantee that their current affluence will last. This sense of insecurity is further fuelled by recent revelations about America’s global surveillance programme; because of their experience of totalitarian states, Germans are particularly sensitive to violations of privacy — and nearly 80 per cent believe that the current government was aware of the spying.
It looks as if reality is overtaking politics — and political parties have yet to find a vision that is able to react to these changes. That is not to say that policy should all be about vision. But a subtle, almost metaphysical agenda is needed to respond to what Sloterdijk calls “anxious conservatism” — a perception that reality is nothing but a house of cards. And if we are deceiving ourselves, why would we mind being deceived by politicians? Sloterdijk has declared he isn’t going to vote this year. It’s safe to say that Germany is a strong enough democracy to withstand a thinker as prominent as him abstaining — or, to take a more cynical view, that thinkers aren’t as important in shaping public opinion as they used to be.
In any case, not voting would never be an option for me. I did wonder, however, when I looked again at the pictures of Merkel in her shiny new blue outfit, whether she ought to take a new direction in her political agenda-setting too.