The result is that democracy now feels like a dangerous game. And even Ms. Merkel, arguably the Western leader who plays it best, has not figured out how to win.
Democracy … Except Some Votes Don’t Really Count
As the far right rises across Europe, mainstream parties, seeing an existential threat to liberal democracy, have searched for ways to contain its influence. The solution that major European powers like France and Germany have settled on — and that will be a component of any solution to Ms. Merkel’s current dilemma — is a so-called cordon sanitaire against the far right.
The term, which roughly translated means “quarantine” in French, means sealing off the far right from any power or influence, no matter how many votes it wins. Mainstream parties will not allow the far right into political coalitions or work with it on joint legislation. In Germany’s case, that means an absolute refusal to allow the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, into any governing coalition. The party recently won seats in Germany’s national legislature for the first time.
In the short term, such policies have effectively limited the influence of both longstanding far-right parties like the National Front in France and insurgent upstarts like the AfD. To the many politicians and citizens who fear what might happen if the far right were to exercise real power, that feels like an important victory.
But in the longer term, it turns out to have unintended side effects, making the underlying problems worse — with potentially serious consequences for democracy.
David Art, a professor at Tufts University who studies the European far right, said the mismatch between the votes the far right receives and the influence it wields was one of the “greatest untold stories” of far-right politics.
Policies devised to lock the far right out of power mean far-right voters “have gotten extremely little bang for their buck,” Professor Art said. “You have somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of the European electorate casting its votes for parties that are credibly shut out.”
And shutting a large populist party out of power for years has consequences for the political system itself, not just for that party and its voters.
As the far right’s share of the vote grows, that increases pressure on mainstream parties to cooperate with each other to present a united front and contain the threat. This can mean forming a grand coalition, in which the two largest parties join together despite their political differences.
The result, Professor Art said, is that mainstream politics can start to look like an elite cartel, in which establishment parties must maintain consensus to govern, and so are limited to an increasingly narrow lane of policy options regardless of what voters demand or issues require.
Making the Far Right’s Arguments For It
The problem with that goes beyond legislation. That kind of consensus politics can end up looking an awful lot like far-right populist parties’ claim that all mainstream parties are the same, controlled by elites who do not listen to the people.
At far-right rallies in Europe this year, many supporters told me they saw mainstream parties as all the same and out of touch, an elite establishment unwilling to listen to people’s political demands.
At a rally in Potsdam, Germany, for instance, a chemist who asked to be called Frau Doktor Huss, for fear of consequences if her views became known, declared that she was “totally against” the establishment, which she accused of silencing debate and trying to impose multiculturalism on an unwilling population.
And in Fréjus, France, a local official, Gilles Longo, said he felt “betrayed” by former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s cooperation with the left. “The people who want the National Front, it’s because they don’t believe in the other parties any longer,” he said.
Cordon sanitaire politics can, ironically, end up making these far-right critiques of the establishment more true, by ensuring that mainstream parties really do have to embrace similar positions to reach consensus, and by setting up the political system as the far right versus everyone else.
And supporters of mainstream parties may also grow discontented as they come to see the political system as more concerned with preserving elite consensus than representing voters.
Short-Term Solutions, Deepening Long-Term Problems
This type of political maneuvering, though an effective short-term solution to the political volatility of contemporary democracy, can end up making the underlying causes of that volatility worse.
In Germany, the two largest political parties, the center-right Christian Democratic Union, known as the C.D.U., and the center-left Social Democratic Party, the S.P.D., lost a total of 95 seats in the most recent election, a result that many party leaders attribute to a rejection of their grand coalition by voters.
But after Ms. Merkel’s effort to create a coalition with two smaller parties failed, the C.D.U. and S.P.D. are once again considering joining talks about a new coalition.
That sets up a stark choice: Either the mainstream parties will join together in a coalition that voters have already rejected, or the German president will have to call a new election, invalidating the previous vote entirely.
Either option seems likely to dent voters’ faith in the system. Democracy’s central tenet is that political legitimacy comes from voter support.
If people stop believing that their votes count, and parties come to see voters as untrustworthy decision makers, then that sets up a far deeper danger — that voters and institutions will become not just unreliable, but not fully invested in the democratic system.
That would render those fundamental building blocks of democracy, and thus democracy itself, even more unstable. And as volatility increases, short-term solutions to restore stability could ultimately undermine it.