Being a foreign correspondent is a bit like being an airline pilot. There are long periods of boredom, interrupted briefly by a stewardess bringing coffee, followed by short surges of adrenaline dealing with a crisis or political turbulence. So you have to imagine election night as the equivalent of a crash-landing: from 18 Uhr until about 20.30 you are absorbing masses of new information, interpreting it, making it sensible for British readers. With the clock ticking in the background, you have to take a rough guess as to the future of the government and the future of the country.
This performance holds true for all countries apart from Germany.
Here, at 18.50 – that is, 50 minutes after the first prognosis, the ARD interrupts the shrewd number-crunching of Jörg Schönbohm and starts to roll the credits of Lindenstrasse. The combinational possibilities of Black, Red, Yellow and Green, the puffing and punting of flush-faced politicians, the tortured imagery of Ampeln and Jamaica, give way to the adventures of Penner Harry, Andi the taxi driver, the Döner imbiss owner whose best friend is a neo-Nazi and Tanja the Lesbian hairdresser.
Now there are those who see similarities between the goings-on in the CSU and the Lindenstrasse gang. But to us foreigners it looks like a rather abrupt transition. Plainly the ARD church elders decided long ago that German viewers cannot cope with too much excitement (why else show Volksmusik every Saturday evening?). Yes, the Germans are interested in who runs their country but, well, not that interested.
It is fashionable, of course, to blame Angela Merkel for the evaporation of interest in politics. It is her style, after all, to treat politics as just another form of decision-making. As in, shall we buy a new refrigerator, darling? The facts are gathered in from the Stiftung Warentest and you assess the situation. The old machine sounds like a Panzer warming up for action, is uses too much electricity and it is difficult to de-frost. But it works. A new fridge would cost 500 euros, but would be quieter, hold more beer and wouldn’t stink so much. You talk about it during the advertising breaks in Günther Jauch. You sleep on it. And you make a calm decision.
That is how Merkel has taught us to think about politics. She has reduced politics to the size of the Wohnzimmer. No wonder we are all so bored.
But this is not completely fair to the chancellor. The Lindenstrasse episode on election night was a tradition long before Ms Merkel left the Institut for Physikalische Chemie. The modern German miniaturises political processes; it is his response to the politicisation of everyday life under the Nazis and the communists. Big ideas are made small, and less threatening. Take Münte-and-Schröder’s Agenda 2010. An ambitious attempt to overhaul the welfare state? That’s certainly how we saw it abroad. But for ordinary Germans it became largely a question of whether shops should shut at 14 Uhr or 18 Uhr on Saturdays. (Berlin, significantly is still stuck in this Amish phase – I can’t believe that the capital of Germany is considering closing down on Sundays.)
What was Red-Green for the ordinary German voter? For foreigners, it was an intriguing eight years in which Germany tried to free itself from the post-war corset; it seemed easier with itself, more sovereign. But for the German grassroots, Red-Green meant only one thing: Dosenpfand, the unacceptable face of eco-bureaucratic rule. Over the past year, the grand coalition has thrown hundreds of billions of euros at fragile banks and companies; it has (usually without consulting us) propped up the economy but at the price of amassing huge debts. These have been taboo-shattering months. But what sticks in the mind of Otto Normalverbraucher? The Abwrackprämie. The reason is clear: Germany is a nation of Schnäppchenjäger, bargain-hunters. The strongest collective emotions are Geiz and Neid and they have become the engine of politics. Any policy that addresses or feeds these character traits will capture the attention of the voter; anything that hints of the visionary or utopian is a source of deep suspicion.
It is in other words not the politicians who are letting us down, with their mediocrity, their inability to enchant or inspire. The political class has become boring because that’s the way we want it to be. The problem lies in the low expectations of the Wahlvolk. The Germans may pretend to love Obama but don’t want him. They want Klein-klein: they want Lindenstrasse at 18.50 on Wahlabend; and, by God, that’s what they’re going to get.