This month’s edition of the ARD-DeutschlandTrend poll, one of the longest-running and most authoritative political opinion surveys in Germany, names Angela Merkel as the nation’s most popular politician. Satisfaction with her work is 6 percentage points up from the previous month despite the seeming fragility of the indecisive and fractious government she leads, nonexistent economic growth, and a marked lack of German leadership in international affairs.
Merkel’s enduring popularity — a majority of Germans has been satisfied with her work almost throughout her 170-month tenure, the second longest run after Helmut Kohl’s 193 months — is a phenomenon that defies every current political trend in democratic societies.
While Germany as a country hasn’t escaped these trends, such as political fragmentation and anti-establishment protest, during the Merkel era, she herself has withstood their onslaught like a rock at the bottom of a rapid stream.
As the political scientist Yasha Mounk wrote in 2018, “the ability of liberal democracies around the world to translate popular views into public policy has declined”. Traditional parties have lost their appeal to many voters, but entrenched political establishments held back the representation of new forces. Voters have been disappointed with the technocratic liberal elites.
She’s not in it for any perceptible kind of gain, and she’s not trying to win any kind of popularity contest. That may well be why she keeps winning it — and why a similar capacity to maintain majority approval eludes almost everyone else in global politics: They’re just trying too hard
But even those politicians who have come to power on the wave of that disappointment aren’t overwhelmingly popular. Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom and President Donald Trump in the United States have favourability and satisfaction ratings close to 40 per cent, well below Merkel’s steady majority support. So does French President Emmanuel Macron, the great political disrupter, whose confidence rating bottomed out in the low 30s in 2018 and is back to 40 per cent now.
Merkel’s poll performance is matched only by that of authoritarian leaders such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia (which some social scientists have tested and found realistic, despite the obvious distorting power of a repressive regime). To people steeped in the political cultures of the English-speaking world, that is a symptom that Germany has become less democratic under Merkel. In 2017, when Social Democrat Martin Schulz, whose previous career was in the European Union rather than at home, battled Merkel for the chancellorship, he called her political style — her droning speeches and her way of developing important decisions in backroom talks — “an attack on democracy”.
The conventional wisdom explaining why Merkel has gotten away with her supposedly democracy-destroying ways is that Germans hate change. “The power of which Germans are the least suspicious is the power of habit,” commentator Nico Fried wrote in the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung last month, marking the moment when the length of Merkel’s tenure passed that of Germany’s first post-Second World War chancellor, Konrad Adenauer.
That conventional wisdom, however, should be challenged. German politics are quite lively, and that’s reflected in the polls. Leaders appear in the top 10 of most popular politicians and drop out of it based on a news cycle as relentless as in any other democratic country. Despite her stable support, Merkel is quite often not Germany’s most popular politician (Putin has never given up first place in Russia in his 20 years in power).
Fondness for stability
In the December release of ARD-DeutschlandTrend, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz was more popular than Merkel. At earlier points in her tenure, she was overtaken by politicians ranging from elder statesman Wolfgang Schaeuble to the once-darling of her conservative party, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who was brought down by a plagiarism scandal in 2011. In February 2017, three other politicians, including Schulz, were more popular than Merkel.
In the last two years, it became especially difficult to attribute Merkel’s high support to a fondness for stability. The German economy stopped growing and, last year, narrowly avoided a recession. Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union party tired of her, and in 2018, its parliamentary group openly rebelled, selecting a leader she didn’t want. The coalition government repeatedly appeared paralysed by one internal conflict after another, and the junior partners, the Social Democrats, often looked on the verge of breaking up the alliance (they were held back by fears of doing badly in an early election).
Merkel, the lame-duck chancellor with no plans to hold political office beyond 2021, became a holdover rather than a symbol of the good times. The euphoria of 2014, when the German economy surged, the country’s international brand soared in value and the national team won the soccer World Cup, is long gone. It’s been replaced by fear that Germany is falling behind technologically, losing initiative in the EU to France and the global competition to China. Mass immigration, unleashed by Merkel’s decision to let in a wave of asylum seekers in 2015, remains, according to polls, the top worry for German voters.
And yet Merkel’s support has remained remarkably stable. In 2019, the standard deviation of her ARD-DeutschlandTrend satisfaction rating was a mere 2.7 points, compared with 9.7 points for her chosen successor, Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and 4.2 points for Robert Habeck, the co-leader of the Greens, Germany’s second-most-popular party.
The chancellor's popularity
Merkel’s popularity is as stable in polls conducted outside Germany. In the Gallup Global Leadership Ratings between 2007 and 2018 (the latest year for which data are available), the standard deviation of the German leadership’s approval rating — incidentally, the highest of four major powers lately — was a mere 2 points, compared with 2.5 for the Russian, 2.8 for the Chinese and 6.8 for the US leadership. Gallup’s ratings come from polls conducted in 133 countries; this is definitely not about any German preference for a boring lack of change.
My theory about Merkel’s unflagging support is that a large number of people, in Germany and elsewhere, see her as that rare animal “- an authentic person in politics.
It’s authenticity voters seek when they elect a Donald Trump (I heard this from his supporters during the 2016 US presidential campaign) or a Boris Johnson. But with the populists, what they usually get instead is the clever use of the celebrity-politics arsenal to create an illusion of authenticity.
“Celebrity politicians want to promote an image that they are ‘normal’ or ‘just like us’ as opposed to one in which they are clearly ‘different’ and insulated from common life challenges,” wrote British political scientists Matthew Wood, Jack Corbett and Matthew Flinders in a 2016 paper that used Johnson as a case study. “We identify a shift away from the glamour of the red carpet and film star friends towards something more akin to the medium of reality TV where an individual’s ability to appear ordinary, imperfect, ‘everyday’ and ‘normal’ is celebrated.”
Merkel is real
With Merkel, however, voters get the real thing, not a calculated media product. Throughout her 14 years in power, Merkel has been an artlessly awkward public speaker, a cringeworthy dresser and a social media avoider. She doesn’t have a Twitter account and thus is absent from the Twiplomacy ranking of most followed world leaders.
Her weekly video blog is hosted by the government, not YouTube, so it’s unclear what kind of audience it gets, but it’s so much of an acquired taste that I doubt the numbers are significant. She’s also guilelessly conservative in her tastes for music (Wagner), reading (popular history books), holiday destinations (invariably South Tyrol) and movies (her favourite is the 1973 East German cult classic, “The Legend of Paul and Paula”).
Merkel has acted in character for so long and with such obvious sincerity that when she turned to the audience at the end of a political debate in 2013 and announced, simply, “You know me,” it rang true. Non-Germans who weren’t around to witness it probably would have nodded, too: Merkel’s constancy isn’t so much about political, economic or any kind of other institutional stability but rather about being a believable, vulnerable, likeable personality.
Merkel’s surprise spells of what political scientists call conviction leadership — such as her emotional behaviour during the refugee crisis or her part in keeping Greece from dropping out of the euro area, against her party’s fundamental views — are bursts of a spontaneous authenticity that, importantly, isn’t evil or self-serving.
When Merkel sounds worried, then, people tend to believe she actually is — about the world moving on from what she’s been used to, about climate change, about the rise of the far-right. She’s not in it for any perceptible kind of gain, and she’s not trying to win any kind of popularity contest. That may well be why she keeps winning it — and why a similar capacity to maintain majority approval eludes almost everyone else in global politics: They’re just trying too hard.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist.