In modern democracies, leaders come and go. Then there is Angela Merkel. Excuse the political incorrectness and my poorly used idiomatic German, but if there ever was a mensch in 21st-century politics, it was her.
Nowadays, elected leaders usually leave office without much fanfare. Of course, there are exceptions: Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu and Silvio Berlusconi all instinctively come to mind, politicians who continue to evoke heated emotions and generate even more debate after leaving office.
There are those – the vast majority of elected leaders – who are almost instantly expunged from public memory and condemned to historical oblivion soon after their departure. “History will judge me more favorably and seriously than contemporaries,” they always tell themselves. True. It can also treat them much more harshly.
Those considered divisive by contemporaries continue to split public and expert opinion, until historians – and the leaders’ own self-aggrandizing autobiographies – cast some form of authoritative judgment on their record of achievements and failures, promises kept and pledges broken.
Nearing the expirations of their tenures, whether by election or term limits, some were deeply reviled, some seen as conniving and dangerous, some considered eminently incompetent and some, a few, were actually liked.
Generally, transitions of power are a stable, recurring feature of modern political life in democracies, warranting a short moment of the public’s attention.
The combination of 24/7 news coverage, the expansion and centrality of social media at the expense of the mainstream media, and people’s declining trust in government and negative views of politicians led to our current reality of indifference.
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The lack of interest and confidence, and general alienation from politics, triggered a growing disinterest and disassociation with the political process. As a result, when the prime minister of Sweden, Japan or Argentina is replaced, the media and public’s attention and interest is limited.
Then there is Angela Merkel. She does not belong in any of the categories or groups mentioned above.
It’s not just the longevity in office – Germany’s chancellor for the last 16 years, since 2005 – that sets her apart, but the qualities she exuded, the demeanor she exhibited and the perceptions people (in and out of Germany) have of her.
It’s not necessarily about particular policies: some of what she did or did not do continues to divide the German political ecosystem. It’s not about how she handled various crises that such a long term in office naturally and inexorably presents. In fact, it is not at all about her report card.
It is about something else, which is elusive, endangered and almost extinct in modern political life: the type and quality of leadership.
Critics will argue that Merkel’s quasi-presidential stature raised expectations, and that she did not always deliver. They claim that a broad perspective of her tenure will show hyperbole and apotheosis, such as her handling of the economic crisis of 2008 and the subsequent Greek debt and insolvency crisis of 2015. They argue that she asserted German economic dominance in Europe, but hardly the political and foreign policy gravitas to go along with it.
Her supporters have an entirely different narrative on how she masterfully navigated Germany through troubled waters.
Historians will surely have a better overview of this, but at this point both accounts miss the story because it is fundamentally not about this or that policy.
Angela Merkel may not be missed, but Merkelism will be. So, what is Merkelism? And what is Merkelist leadership?
First and foremost, it’s seriousness. It’s balance, steadiness, composure, poise, calm, pragmatism, humbleness, seeking consensus, aversion to high risk, fact- and science-based policy choices.
How many leaders do you know like that?
Recent research in the “elections” branch of political science draws a sharp distinction between two qualities: the ability to get elected, and the talent to govern. Anyone reading this, anywhere in the world, can come up with numerous examples in modern democratic politics of how the elected are unfit to govern, while those suitably experienced and capable of governing are unable to get elected.
Merkel combined the two, a rarity in recent decades.
Modern leaders live and operate in an aquarium. They are constantly under the microscope, scrutinized and criticized for almost everything they say and do. The aggregate demands on government have exponentially grown, in inverse proportion to attention and patience spans. People demand quick fixes for complicated problems they rarely understand. Some politicians make false promises, spread false solutions, plainly lie or are crushed by the burden and responsibilities.
Merkel found a different way: Govern through seriousness, examine all options, see what is feasible, check public impulses, adjust the policy and act on it. Critics will argue that this is anathema to leadership, that it lacks vision, boldness or the courage to make major decisions.
Merkel’s record proves the opposite, and this is why the entire world is celebrating her tenure with richly deserved accolades and the inevitable platitudes.
The way the world is bidding farewell to Angela Merkel proves that the world needs more Merkelism. In today’s liberal-democratic world, it is either Merkelism, Trumpism or good old ineptness. Take your pick.