When I first started to argue that the rise of populism poses an acute danger to the survival of liberal democracy, long before our current president descended that infamous escalator in Trump Tower, friends of mine looked at me with some mixture of bemusement and condescension. “Don’t be a Cassandra,” they would say with a smile, and promptly change the subject.
As a result, I gradually developed an unlikely affinity for the famous figure of Greek mythology. Cassandra, so the story goes, possessed the gift of foretelling future catastrophes and the simultaneous curse of failing to make anybody listen to her. And so she was doomed to raving and ranting about imminent disasters even as her compatriots blithely marched toward their doom. Even by the exceptionally sadistic standards of Greek mythology, Cassandra’s fate was truly perverse.
But over the past year, as congressional Republicans privately fretted about the danger posed by Donald Trump while publicly voting to enable his attacks on democratic institutions, I have started to think that Apollo could have inflicted an even more cruel punishment on Cassandra. And that’s because, to an extent I would have found unfathomable a few short years ago, it is evidently possible for dire warnings about the future to have little effect even when they are believed.
As I argued on the anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, that now strikes me as the best description of the state of affairs in the United States. Virtually everybody has long since recognized that there is nothing normal about our president. Yet we insist on acting as though he were normal. Fully cognizant of the disasters that may be on the horizon, we are nevertheless sticking to our old, blithe ways.
I have been thinking about this all over again for the past days because the German political establishment is now well on its way to emulating the worst aspects of the American political class: Half a year ago, shock elections showed that far-right populism is on the rise in Germany, too. But instead of working together to confront the populists and renew the system, a tired political elite has spent the past months squabbling over minor disagreements in an unseemly display of collective egotism. As a result, Germany still doesn’t have a government—and voters are even angrier than they were last fall.
For decades, most Germans were adamant that their country had so thoroughly reckoned with the Nazi past that right-wing extremists could never make the same inroads there as in, say, Austria. This certainty should have been shaken to the core when the far-right, populist Alternative for Germany, or AfD, took 13 percent of the vote in September, becoming the strongest political party in big swaths of the country. A moment of reckoning for Germany’s political class seemed to be on the horizon.
Instead, the political establishment has, over the course of the past months, shown itself at its most unimaginative, bumbling, and craven.
Populist parties throw systems of proportional representation into a deep crisis. When these systems work well, ideologically coherent coalitions on the center left and center right alternate terms in power. But once extremists have a big share of the seats in parliament, such ideologically coherent coalitions find it impossible to win outright majorities. As a result, democratic parties that have historically seen each other as adversaries are forced to cooperate to form a government.
From the day of the election five months ago, it was evident that this would henceforth be the case in Germany: Neither a center-right coalition between Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the pro-business liberals nor a center-left coalition between Social Democrats and Greens came close to commanding a majority in the Bundestag. The two camps would have to work with each other in some permutation.
For the first months after the election, the general assumption held that the Christian Democrats would form a first-of-its-kind government with the help of both the center-right liberals and the center-left Greens. But entering a coalition that included the Greens would have made it more difficult for Christian Lindner, the leader of the liberals, to position himself to Merkel’s right on issues of immigration. Since he believed that this would likely erode his popularity, he put party before country and broke off coalition talks.
This left Martin Schulz, the leader of the Social Democrats, in a rotten position.
For the past few years, his party, the country’s second strongest, had been the junior partner in a so-called grand coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democrats. The general consensus held that this allowed Merkel to claim all the credit for the government’s (rather modest) achievements, eroding both the party’s profile and its electoral support. So, after leading the Social Democrats to a record low share of the vote last year, Schulz announced his intention to go into opposition and categorically ruled out taking a position in the next Cabinet. But now it seemed clear that yet another grand coalition was the only way to give the country a stable government. Ignoring the increasingly loud grumbling in large parts of his party, Schulz embarked upon coalition talks with Angela Merkel.
Given the evident lack of viable alternatives, rank-and-file Social Democrats—who have to vote on any coalition deal in a referendum open to all party members—might have forgiven Schulz for his choice so long as he stayed true to his promise not to enter government himself. But when Schulz and Merkel announced a deal last week, it became clear that he was set on becoming foreign secretary, ousting Sigmar Gabriel, the current holder of the office and himself a former leader of the Social Democrats, in the process.
Gabriel was livid at this betrayal—and promptly unleashed a colorful broadside against the bearded Schulz. Pressing his infant daughter into political service with remarkable cravenness, he quoted her as saying: “Don’t be sad, Daddy. Now you’ll have more time with us. That’s much better than having to hang around that guy with the hair in his face.” By the next day, Gabriel’s henchmen had forced Schulz to resign.
For now, Gabriel appears to have won the power struggle. But the collateral damage is enormous. Many Social Democrat party members were already afraid that entering another government as a junior partner to Merkel would further weaken the party. After the embarrassing spectacle of the past days, they are livid. The chances of them voting down the deal when they cast their postal ballots in the coming weeks—the results are set to be released on March 4—are now higher than ever. If they do so, it would likely lead to new new elections—in which the AfD would have every chance of overtaking the Social Democrats.
Even if rank-and-file Social Democrats end up holding their noses and voting for another grand coalition, it is now clear that the next German government will, from the start, look weak and illegitimate. Instead of confronting the structural drivers for the crisis of democracy, it will at best administer the status quo. And that will make it all the easier for the politically shrewd leaders of the AfD to claim that Germans who want a real change need to have the guts to vote for the populists in four years’ time.
The one person who has mostly evaded attracting blame for Germany’s current mess is the country’s long-standing leader, Angela Merkel. But judged by the high stakes of this political moment, rather than the low abilities of rivals like Schulz, Gabriel, and Lindner, she too is coming up remarkably short.
In the long months since the election, Merkel has barely expressed a preference for the country’s future, let alone set out a vision for how to improve it. If Germany seems to have lost all orientation, the fault for this largely lies with her. Like the rest of her country’s supposed leaders, Merkel, for the most part, has perfectly inoffensive views about the world. But at the same time, the past months have also shown that, like the rest of the country’s supposed leaders, she too lacks the courage and the imagination to fight for her values in an increasingly dangerous world.
The myth of Cassandra teaches us that humans have a deep need to believe that everything is going to be just fine. The first year of Trump’s presidency and the abject failure of the German political class show us that they also have an astounding ability to act as though everything were normal even when they know full well that it is not.
So, as I witness the ongoing descent into moral nihilism in the United States, and watch as the German political class is doing its best to follow suit, I desperately wish that I could travel back in time to comfort my dear Cassandra with some bittersweet advice: “Don’t be too hard on yourself. Stop telling everyone about the catastrophes that lie ahead. You see, even if they did believe you, it would not make all that much of a difference.”