The style guide for post-boomer politics is in Paris — but some older leaders like Angela Merkel haven't got the memo
Out with the old, in with the new
The generation born between 1946 and 1964 are known as the baby boomers and have indeed been fortunate. In the West, its members enjoyed immense supremacy over politics during an era of unparalleled prosperity.
But that epoch is now over. Amid some turmoil, a stolid brand of politics imposed over decades is being swept away. Its truisms are no longer a political gold coin.
Some of the elder leaders like German chancellor Angela Merkel haven’t yet got the memo. Others like president Donald Trump are palpably enemies within the fading ascendancy.
The brutal truth in the message of voters across the western hemisphere is boomers were supposed to make everything better but just ended up rigging the system for themselves. The public is angry and hungers to reverse political trends that had the upper hand for so long. Still others are hesitant to give more backing to a system that struggled to perform for its societies.
As Mrs Merkel tries to form a new government — one just like her last one — the situation seems increasingly unreal.
It has become clear that she has no real idea what she wants to do with a longer spell in power. She has become obsessed with managing her legacy. The chancellor readily admits her retirement was delayed to manage the integration of the wave of refugees that came to Germany in 2015.
Merkel's government piles up budget surpluses without offering extra spending to ensure her goal is achieved. Her potential Social Democrat coalition partners have no grand transformational vision for using more government resources. With another leftward lunge, Mrs Merkel won’t contemplate dramatic tax cuts to create opportunities for the new arrivals. Months after the election she continues to act queenly, wielding power as if the election had not set back her party. In fact, the vote was just one blow. Talks with the rising Liberals and the eager Greens to form a so-called Jamaica coalition (so-called because the party colours match the colours of the Jamaican flag) collapsed within weeks.
From within her own conservative ranks, there is deep unhappiness at Mrs Merkel’s endless manoeuvring. One local Christian Democrat Union chapter chairman, who is aged 29, has published a pamphlet called “wake up”. Jens Spahn, the deputy finance minster, is in his late 30s and openly campaigning to lead the party from the right. Separately a coup in the Bavarian leadership could also bring a rightward shift and end Mrs Merkel’s plans prematurely.
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For now, the style guide for post-boomer politics is in Paris. Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year old president, dismantled the two-party system and took on the French unions. After six months in the job, he has seen off threats of a summer of strikes and turmoil. Resistance to his reform programme has failed to find a voice.
Mr Macron’s politics are built around a drive to make a high impact. His ideas stem from an impulse to make change happen. To Mr Macron, conventional politics are junk and ideology is an impediment to good leadership.
In parts of the Gulf region, a process of renewal under young leaders with a clear vision and a determination to achieve their goals is well under way. Europe, and perhaps America, are starting down the same path.
Most radical of all has been the British decision to quit the EU. The voters both overturned the country’s trading system and detonated a bomb under British politicians. The Brexit revolution is without leadership or direction. Baby boomer Theresa May has the unenviable task of stumbling towards the next phase with any coherence she can muster.
The consequences of these political developments in Europe cannot be easily defined. One sure thing is that the legacy of the boomers is being shredded rapidly. Highly integrationist or globalist policies were once seen as a pooling of humanity. As such deepening co-operation became an antidote to conflict, a shared idea of ever-closer ties underpinned mainstream political thinking.
Too much emphasis is given to economic inequality in the upheaval that has smashed western political systems. Brexit is all about trade and Mr Trump’s America First policy is centred on trade battles and tax cuts but that's not the whole picture. Despite Mr Trump and his opponent Bernie Saunders, the emerging battle in the US is cultural. The menacing clashes about economic equality set an undertone for a bigger fight.
Meanwhile, in Europe the great clash is really about national allegiances. A project to run the continent as one bloc is really about sheltering behind thick walls together. Mr Macron makes this explicit. The French leader wants a core Europe of highly developed nations.
Throwing out the old ways of doing things could turn out to be the easy bit. Change had to come after such a long historical interlude. The fact it has been so long delayed makes it all the more dramatic.