The CDU claims to make policy for "the middle of society. But who is that supposed to be? And is that still in keeping with the times?
The chancellor and her rhombus: "The middle." With a period. Without argument. Photo: Michael Kappeler/dpa
The center of society is a diffuse place. Finding it is not so easy, even geographically. The center of Germany is somewhere in southeastern Lower Saxony, eastern Hesse or western Thuringia – it’s hard to say. That’s because there are different cartographic representations of Germany, and it depends on how you include the islands or peninsulas in the North Sea and Baltic Sea in the calculation of the initial area.
Many places lay claim to the label "center of Germany". They all want to be in the middle. The center is beautiful. The center is important.
The situation is similar in politics, although fewer parties are throwing their hats into the ring. Only the CDU/CSU and the SPD have to fight over the center, although the CDU/CSU is more stringent in its center marketing: There she stands, the chancellor with her signature rhombus, in front of thin display walls with the inscription "Die Mitte." (The center), with a point, without argument.
And Angela Merkel isn’t the only one relying on this narrative. Most recently, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said on "Anne Will," when discussing possible coalition efforts with the AfD at the state level, "The CDU is exactly where it belongs. In the center of society." That this does not mean the geographic center of Germany is clear. Everything else, however, is completely ambiguous.
Euphemism for morbid averageness
If it were a matter of the political center, the CDU’s claiming behavior could still be explained somehow. The political center may be ambiguous, but it is somewhere on the spectrum between left and right. It is questionable, however, what happens when the one-dimensional notion of a political spectrum from the left to everything in between to the right is no longer valid.
When political attitudes have become a three-dimensional mobile in which positions constantly have to be rebalanced depending on the other. Then the middle must also be flexible, more than the pole between the extremes.
CDU members repeatedly claim that it is not (only) about the political center, but about the center of society. But "the middle of society" is probably not much more than a euphemism for a miserable average. A self-perception that carries with it a claim of closeness and an everyday political mission that has not been examined for a long time.
In 2019, the CDU and SPD may seem to have fallen out of time. Neither can be a "people’s party" any longer, and that’s what it looks like at the moment. While one is becoming a laughing stock on the web, the other is chugging through the fog in search of a dual leadership without a compass.
The desirable place of the sensible
The state of the formerly tone-setting parties is reminiscent of traditional companies that have failed in the last decade to adapt to new needs of staff and life realities of potential customers. A casual glance through the blinds in front of the windows of the party headquarters still leads one to believe that everything out there is as it always was. Inside, after all, many things are still the same: the colleagues, the hierarchy, the fax machine.
The center is also the feel-good place to which people with sufficient privileges like to retreat.
The center is the desirable place for the sensible. It stands for something primordial: for shades of gray, for differentiation, prudence, compromise. In the middle, people are aware of earthly cruelties and social upheavals. We look on in shock when there is another war somewhere. You shake your head when Donald Trump says something stupid. We observe and analyze because we can afford to keep our distance.
The center is also the feel-good place to which people with sufficient privilege like to retreat in order to be able to fade in and out of the margins at will. Where compromise may pinch briefly, but doesn’t really hurt. But the problem is: Questions are increasingly being asked whose answer can only be a lack of compromise if they are to be tackled seriously.
The widening gap between rich and poor, the pressing challenges of an aging society, the threatening effects of the climate crisis, and the attacks on this society by right-wing perpetrators of violence that have been pushed aside for too long are just a few examples. The CDU, the "party of the middle," has no uncompromising answers to these questions. Is it because it is afraid of alienating at least half of its voters?
Who belongs to it, who is being addressed?
The center of society should be a safe place for everyone. Many Union politicians convey the opposite with their words. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said at the Political Ash Wednesday that toilets for the third sex are for "men who don’t yet know whether they can stand when they pee or whether they have to sit.
And the former president of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Hans-Georg Maaben, a member of the CDU, in a speech to the Union of Values, which describes itself as conservative, touts that he "did not join the CDU thirty years ago so that 1.8 million Arabs would come to Germany today." Aha. Is that how the middle of society thinks?
Sure, they might. And with this insight, it finally becomes clear what one must ask first in the search for the middle. Namely, society itself. Who is this society that CDU members want to be in the middle of? Who belongs to it, who is addressed, who is heard and for whom are jokes made at the expense of others?
A party that claims to represent the middle is worth questioning. Because the battle for the center is always about interpretive sovereignty and power. And then it behaves surprisingly similar to the geographical center: It makes a difference who measures.