Every country has a natural government. Every nation has a political party that best suits its personality, which, all else being equal, can’t help but win elections. In Germany the natural government used to be the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). For decades, these two got 80 percent of the vote between them and called themselves Volksparteien because they were broad churches, meant to represent the people as a whole. For three of Angela Merkel’s four governments, they just sat on top of Germany like a big mother hen, keeping our eggs warm. No one ever thought about politics in those days. It would have been like thinking about your pyjamas while you were asleep.
…in a flattened political landscape… no party is likely to get more than 30 percent of the vote ever again.
But now there’s a drift: if this were a romcom, the plot would already be obvious – the CDU and the Greens are those two characters who keep arguing and telling their friends about the other one being a dick. The Social Democrats would be some kind of dependable but dull spouse in a stale marriage.
You just need to glance at the states to see who’s going to be dashing through an airport at the end: the CDU and the Greens now govern together in North Rhine-Westphalia, Schleswig-Holstein, Hesse and Baden-Württemberg. The first two of those are particularly significant, because the Premiers in those states are Hendrik Wüst and Daniel Günther, the CDU’s young post-Merkel upstarts regularly feted as the next generation. The stars are lining up.
This relationship seems so obvious that when it finally happens we’ll wonder how we didn’t realise it before. It just makes sense. German society is made up of cautious people who like big businesses and bicycles. But I know how we were fooled. I went to the CDU party conference in Hannover last month, where a thousand CDU delegates met up to talk about what kind of a party they want to be in the future. On the floor and in the big hall among the stands, the delegates from the various sub-organisations, like the Frauen Union, Klima Union, the Lesbian and Gay Union, were talking about modernising the idea of the Volkspartei to be representative.
No one ever thought about politics in those days. It would have been like thinking about your pyjamas while you were asleep.
Meanwhile on stage, before the TV cameras, Friedrich Merz, the CDU’s current leader, and Markus Söder, the leader of the CDU’s Bavarian ‘sister’, were making jokes about Gendersternchen (the asterisks used in words to include non-binary people, now adopted by many state offices and universities), “Kristall Mett” (a slip of the tongue by Bavarian leader Markus Söder), do a Twitter search, too weird to explain here) and getting personal hygiene advice from the Greens. You can guess which bits appeared in the news. By the same token, the Greens make all the jokes they like about the CDU being the reactionary fans of nuclear power and nuclear families.
The truth is that the culture debates around inclusive asterisks are basically there so that the parties will have something to talk about during election campaigns. They’re issues that will help the candidates do what Germans call “profilieren”: define themselves against their opponents, mark out their cultural boundaries. But we know they’re meant for each other, especially in a flattened political landscape where no party is likely to get more than 30 percent of the vote ever again. It’s how the movie will end.