In western Germany this week, I found myself witnessing one of the more extraordinary and unexpected developments in European politics: An explosion of the boring and conventional.
This is meant to be Europe's year of angry politics. In a series of elections starting March 15, the continent's three most successful, most economically booming countries – the Netherlands, Germany and France – will hold elections, which, according to conventional wisdom, will be dominated by icon-smashing-nationalist, isolationist, anti-immigrant politics of the sort that made 2016 so distressing in the English-speaking world.
There is, without question, a revolt against the political establishment and the conventional political parties. But to say it's coming only, or mainly, from the xenophobic right is to miss much of what's going on.
Angela Merkel, the conservative chancellor who has been in power for a dozen years, for the first time this week experienced a political challenge that had the potential to throw her out of office in the September national election. Everyone had expected her greatest threat to come from the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, an anti-immigration, anti-Europe protest movement-turned-party that had soared in the polls as Germany worked to settle hundreds of thousands of refugees.
But German politics and media have now been consumed by a more prosaic debate: one involving unemployment insurance, pensions, health care, housing. It was launched by Martin Schulz, the bearded, professorial candidate of the centre-left Social Democrats – a party whose politics are roughly comparable to Canada's Liberals.
He pulled his party sharply to the populist left with a campaign aimed at pocketbook issues, promising to use his country's extraordinary wealth to build wages and benefits. (Germany is the world's largest exporter in good part because the Social Democrats, in the early 2000s, forced wages and social-assistance payments down.) Suddenly, he and Ms. Merkel are socking it out over bread-and-butter politics rather than heady matters of ethnic identity and immigration.
Boring has had an effect: The AfD has plummeted in the polls, falling from almost a fifth of the vote to 9 per cent. And it was losing most of those votes to Mr. Schulz. A lot of voters, it seems, will switch from a far-right to a more left-wing anti-establishment message – they just don't want the establishment.
Mr. Schulz's moment of novelty will end, of course; he and Ms. Merkel will suffer setbacks and revivals, and maybe the AfD will surge again (although it has serious credibility problems: one of its leaders just got expelled for denouncing Berlin's Holocaust memorial).
But there's mounting evidence that German voters, and many other European voters, aren't getting worked up about refugees and ethnic minorities so much as they're just looking for change.
The Allensbach Institute, a conservative polling firm, regularly poses the question: "Are you worried about the current development of the refugee situation in Germany?" In October, 2015, 53 per cent of Germans said yes. In January, 2016, it was 48 per cent. In January, 2017 – shortly after the Berlin Christmas market attack – anxiety about refugees had fallen to 32 per cent. Indeed, the general level of anxiety among German voters in 2017 was measured by the same firm as "middling" – less anxious than a couple years ago, and nowhere as high as in 2003 and 2004, when Germans were freaking out about the world.
Voters do want something different from politics. That's apparent everywhere in Europe now. Italy's Democratic Party has just split into two parties; the Netherlands now has about 20 parties likely to win seats, none of them dominant; France has both a far-right and a far-left candidate pledging to leave Europe and a center-left breakaway candidate leading the polls.
Some of those voters are indeed terrified of dark-skinned outsiders, and want to close the borders – but it may be a far smaller group than protest-party votes suggest. "No doubt there is a small minority of people in our country who favour collective suicide," the centre-right parliamentarian Edouard Philippe wrote in Le Monde this week.
But that minority isn't what he's worried about – it's the far larger group of voters who will mark an X next to a collective-suicide party simply because they're looking for something new, boring or otherwise.