Merkel's Challenge Navigating the Post-Fact Era

Angela Merkel used to be celebrated for her composed determination and sober analysis of the facts. Now, though, her refusal to own up to her mistakes makes her look stubborn -- and facts have lost their importance.

An anti-Merkel sign at a Pegida demonstration in March

An anti-Merkel sign at a Pegida demonstration in March

A SPIEGEL Editorial by

These are strange times -- times in which facts have less influence on political realities than mood and emotion. Numbers hardly count anymore, not as much, at least, as fear and hate, rumors and mutterings of conspiracy. That's why the German right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) was able to do so well in the September 4 state election in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The vote was essentially a referendum on Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policies, yet there are hardly any foreigners living in the state. We have more data and facts available to us than ever before, and yet we have entered a post-fact era. Why?

Were Germany a company, we would speak of structural change, of upheaval. The country -- blessedly safe and prosperous -- is surrounded by regions in crisis. The problems elsewhere reach us digitally -- permanently and amplified. But they also reach us in actuality. Our country is changing, with a feeling of uncertainty having become a paramount emotion these days, combined with a sense of indignity.

Angela Merkel has become a victim of this mood, and that is one side of the defeat suffered by her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), in the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania state election, where it received fewer votes than the AfD. The situation in the country, according to the facts, at least, is quite a bit different than it was in 2015. Residency laws have been tightened and the borders are back under control. But the AfD, which rails against a presumed "Merkel Dictatorship" on the country's market squares and baits people who are fleeing from poison gas, is fueled by post-fact politics (as is the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU). Just as American demagogue Donald Trump is able to keep up with Hillary Clinton, AfD leader Frauke Petry nips at the chancellor's heels with emotion. But that's not the whole story.

Many politicians, companies and institutions fail because they miss decisive shifts or deceive themselves. Former German Chancellors Adenauer and Kohl thought they were irreplaceable and became sluggish -- and didn't notice when they began losing ground. Kodak saw digitalization coming, but didn't want to see it. In the 1970s, Ford built a car, the Pinto, that everyone in top management knew would explode if it was rear-ended, but they all convinced each other that the problem didn't exist. Psychologists refer to such self-deception as the "normalization of deviance," and it works great -- until it doesn't.

A Bit of Self-Pity

Angela Merkel has made mistakes that could soon cost her the Chancellery and make a dignified departure impossible. Those mistakes are the other -- for her, painful -- side of the defeat. A head of government cannot allow herself petulant mood swings. After a decade of showing little interest in migration, Merkel was suddenly deeply moved in the summer of 2015 and decided to follow her emotions. Then, in the winter that followed, Merkel's actions once again cooled in response to public outrage, but she continued to defend the warm decisions she had made in the summer. She has never adequately explained the incoherence.

It was nice to experience a Germany exhibiting as much solidarity as it did in the summer of 2015. But a chancellor must also consider the possible effects of selfies taken with refugees. She has to think about whether the federal police force and other agencies will be able to keep up when the chancellor suddenly changes course. Shrewd governance requires clarity about, and the effective communication of, goals, strategy and tactics.

No leader can cede control of essential state responsibilities in times of upheaval yet Merkel, in claiming that the borders could not be controlled, did exactly that. Today, the Chancellery has come to accept the following facts: For eight weeks, the state lost control and was powerless. That control was soon regained, but in the post-fact era, a nucleus is all that is needed. The attacks in Paris and Brussels, the sexual assaults on New Year's Eve in Cologne, the attacks in Nice and Ansbach and the shooting spree in Munich: None of them had much to do with refugees, but they have prevented a return to calm and have kept alive the perception of loss of control that Merkel triggered in the summer of 2015. It has become simple to fan the flames of xenophobia.

What was once celebrated as Merkel's composed determination is now being condemned as obstinacy and the chancellor is taken aback. She thinks it's unfair, which is a bit self-pitying, but she remains interested in the problems she faces. As always, Merkel wants to continue, but it would be more astute for her to recognize the shift that is underway and the challenges it presents. And to determine in which moments facts and figures make sense and when might appeals to emotion be more useful. What strategies and which members of her inner circle have been effective thus far and what must be changed to confront the changed political reality?

She needs to go back to the beginning and find clarity about her own course. She must then rebuild trust, and provide extensive and repeated explanations for her actions. Because if she wants to ultimately leave office on top, she must reach out to voters who have thrown their support behind the AfD, to her own party, to CSU head Horst Seehofer and to Social Democratic party head Sigmar Gabriel. Nobody can confront structural change all alone.

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Inglenda2 09/13/2016
1. Turning a blind eye to facts is nothing new!
I am very sorry to say, that there is little substance in what you are suggesting, about a change from factual to emotional arguments. Since the former chancellor Dr. Adenauer died, truth has played very little role within German political and medial life. This starts with young children being taught that Germany was alone responsible for starting two world wars, combined with a completely distorted record of twentieth century German history, even to and above universaty level. The denial of internationally accepted human rights, for former so-called internal deportees, based on statements which have no foundation, or even the current assertion, that retired workers are now better off than they ever have been, are all elements which, if handled honestly, could be presented from a completely different point of perception. Merkel is just carrying on with the same sort of national self-mutilation, which her predecessors have practised and which is now become a tradition in the Bundes-Republic.
distrak 09/13/2016
This writing is very opaque. "The attacks in Paris and Brussels, the sexual assaults on New Year's Eve in Cologne, the attacks in Nice and Ansbach: None of them had much to do with refugees" What on earth is the author saying. All of this had to do with refugees, because all of these events were allowed to happen because the German government (thanks to MERKEL) , and the EU allowed its borders to be controlled by illegal migrants, people-smugglers and criminals. And Germany, specifically Merkel, tried to convince the German public that this was the right thing to do and anyone who criticized it was racist, right-wing, etc. The government abrogated its responsibility and the chancellor gave these orders to open the gates without any consultation of her government or her people. That is why Germans are sick of this disorder, chaos, and incompetence. This government promises to step up deportations of failed asylum seekers--it never happened. This government promised to get these Magreb criminals out of Germany after the Silvester taharrush gamea (Arab gang rape)--it never happened. The government is either lying or totally incompetent. If this government, and Merkel, was willing to REALLY learn from its mistakes, and make up for them, the political situation would not be as insecure. But, they don't listen. And they don't really seem to care. Or care more about the rights and well-being of illegal Afghan migrants than the rights and well-being of their own citizens.
glasspix 09/13/2016
3. Fact
Fact - it takes weeks to publish comments made on Spiegel Int., and it make the impression that the publication is reluctant to print views OVERWHELMINGLY contrary to the pro Merkel propaganda in the articles above.
Wetoldyouso 09/14/2016
4. Merkel is not the victim: Europe is
First of all, not having many "refugees" in your area shouldn't ipso facto make it required for a voter not to express disapproval of Merkel's policies. All the voters need to do is look at areas where there are huge numbers of migrants, which is what most of them really are, to see what will happen if Merkel is allowed to go on with her policies. And as far as facts go, here's another one: the migrants that Merkel let in were inadequately vetted, allowing IS trained jihadists into Europe. And here is another one: she never consulted a single other EU member state or the electorate - she acted alone. And yet another fact: Germany has not been able to get rid of tens of thousands of illegal immigrants from North Afica - Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians - many of whom simply disappeared into the shadows and are involved in criminal activities. And lastly, Berlin has one of the most active and growing Salafist movement in Europe - and that is something Spiegel itself reported earlier this year. The voters in Mecklenburg were not the victims of some sort of magical Kool-Aid the AfD was selling them - it is Europe as a whole that will be the victim of eroding cultures at an even faster rate than its absurd and unchallenged immigration policies would have produced, thanks to Merkel's imperial actions. Germany, yet again, is devastating Europe.
anirbanbhattacharjeee 09/14/2016
5. Minimum wage
Didn't IMF along with Wolfgang Schäuble suggest lowering the minimum wage for refugee and use them to fill up the positions where Germany is lacking in workforce. I am pretty sure that had nothing do towards opening up the the doors for refugees.
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