In the twenty-two years that I have lived on this planet, change has not been difficult to come across, bar a few notable exceptions. Yet in 2018, two everlasting political forces on different sides of the Atlantic, which have dominated their respective areas, may finally witness cataclysmic transformation. Texas and Bavaria, two areas which have a lot in common, are both heading to the ballot boxes to decide not only on their lawmakers for the next four years, but also the future of conservatism in their respective federations.
The more publicised race is Beto O’Rourke’s upstart campaign in Texas. A Democrat has not been elected to state-wide office since 1994, and the Lone Star State has cast its vote comfortably for the Republican presidential candidate since 1980. While the state does have a strong Democratic history (ever heard of Lyndon Johnson?), it is hard to look past its recent electoral history. Perhaps due to its perception as an independent, rural, gun-owning area, many are surprised to see an unknown newcomer attempt to shift the political narrative, with early success.
A shift is also occurring in Bavaria, an area which shares much of these characteristics (save the rifle obsession). It has reliably voted CSU in national elections, which has helped the federal Christian Democrats to prop up support in the Reichstag. The same CSU, which is seen often by the federal CDU as its more upstart younger sister, has dominated Bavarian politics since 1945. However, it too is facing electoral pressures, haemorrhaging support to the Greens and the far-right and is expected to have to find a coalition partner, thus losing its absolute majority.
So why are these two, large, reliably conservative areas in the biggest political powerhouses on their respective continents suddenly opting for a change in policy? It is strange, especially considering the two areas are highly affluent and currently have little to complain economically (unemployment is around 3.5% in both). Markus Söder, Minister President of Bavaria and their main apparatchik, has said: ‘Bavaria has never been better off than it is today, yet the politics is more divided than ever.’ Clearly, other factors play an important role in deciding why the political conversation has been turned upside down.
Both dominant parties have seen their dominance erode at the national level, and their ineptitudes may well be punished by the electorate. In the USA, incumbent Texas Senator Ted Cruz has been a polarising figure ever since his election as part of the Tea Party moment in 2013. He was at the vanguard of the government shutdown early in his Washington career to derail the Affordable Care Act. This was a major political blunder, and this year Cruz has tried to claim that he was never in favour of derailing the government, which has left even his supporters’ mouths agape. He now has to rely on Donald Trump of all people, a man who has viciously attacked not only Cruz himself but also his wife, highlighting his desperation to hold on to his seat.
The CSU too has recently acted childishly at the federal level. Horst Seehofer, its chairman and the federal Minister of the Interior, has nearly sent his letter of resignation to Angela Merkel a few times now over disputes on the refugee crisis. Seehofer has also spent a lot more time bickering with Söder about party direction, which does not relay to the public the notion of political savviness. Conservative parties are generally perceived as competent and goal-oriented, or the ones who get things done, yet when they are incapable of taking their seat behind their desks and making policy, it is unsurprising that voters lose confidence.
These voters also sense that their traditional political conduit is unwilling to listen to them on key issues. Both in Bavaria and in Texas, long-time conservative voters have remarked that too much of their candidate’s rhetoric is focused on issues that matter less to them. Bavaria is the safest area in Germany, so despite increased buzz surrounding refugees and integration, voters appear to have other priorities. Conversely, Republicans in Texas have done little to ameliorate social issues, instead focusing on shutting down transgender bathrooms and legalising open carry of swords. The CSU has also shifted their focus on banal issues, for the most prominent piece of legislation they have passed was the Kreuzpflicht, obligating public institutions to brandish a cross at their entrance. The opposition in the meanwhile has focused on increasing awareness for more popular policies like a $15 minimum wage or a focus on cleaner energy in the wake of the IPCC report.
To be sure, neither Bavaria or Texas will completely flip to progressivism right away. The Texas Senate race is considered a toss-up, while the CSU will probably still be the biggest party in the regional assembly. Yet it shows that the political façade is being renovated. It poses a problem to the larger party apparati in both countries, as within a few decades, they will lose one of their biggest sources of power. Republicans and Christian Democrats will have to find a new political heartland, or radically change the way they govern, as it is clear that voters are simply not satiated by a stable economy and a strict adherence to a set of particular values.