Values & Preferences of the New Political Generation: Reflections on the Center-Right

Eric Langenbacher

Senior Fellow; Director, Society, Culture & Politics Program

Dr. Eric Langenbacher is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Society, Culture & Politics Program at AICGS.

Dr. Langenbacher studied in Canada before completing his PhD in Georgetown University’s Government Department in 2002. His research interests include collective memory, political culture, and electoral politics in Germany and Europe. Recent publications include the edited volumes Twilight of the Merkel Era: Power and Politics in Germany after the 2017 Bundestag Election (2019), The Merkel Republic: The 2013 Bundestag Election and its Consequences (2015), Dynamics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary Europe (co-edited with Ruth Wittlinger and Bill Niven, 2013), Power and the Past: Collective Memory and International Relations (co-edited with Yossi Shain, 2010), and From the Bonn to the Berlin Republic: Germany at the Twentieth Anniversary of Unification (co-edited with Jeffrey J. Anderson, 2010). With David Conradt, he is also the author of The German Polity, 10th and 11th edition (2013, 2017).

Dr. Langenbacher remains affiliated with Georgetown University as Teaching Professor and Director of the Honors Program in the Department of Government. He has also taught at George Washington University, Washington College, The University of Navarre, and the Universidad Nacional de General San Martin in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has given talks across the world. He was selected Faculty Member of the Year by the School of Foreign Service in 2009 and was awarded a Fulbright grant in 1999-2000 and the Hopper Memorial Fellowship at Georgetown in 2000-2001. Since 2005, he has also been Managing Editor of German Politics and Society, which is housed in Georgetown’s BMW Center for German and European Studies. Dr. Langenbacher has also planned and run dozens of short programs for groups from abroad, as well as for the U.S. Departments of State and Defense on a variety of topics pertaining to American and comparative politics, business, culture, and public policy.


Remarking first that the new political generation is narrowing the right-left divide, Eric Langenbacher of Georgetown University provides a detailed analysis of the September 22 German election and places special emphasis on both Millennials and the center-right. This speech was presented at the recent event “Values, Challenges, and Opportunities for a New Political Generation,” and the views presented within are solely the author’s.

Let me start with an anecdotal observation—for a long time in Germany one could almost immediately tell what party a young person supported by her/his appearance. Leftists dressed more casually and there were mohawks, tattoos, and body piercings galore, whereas more conservative folks adhered to a rather formal, suit and tie aesthetic. Judging by the last Bundestag election campaign rallies and election night parties I attended in Berlin in September 2013, this is no longer the case. There seems to have been a sartorial convergence among young political types—with the left a little more formal and the right more casual than before. In fact, it would be difficult to tell a young CDUler apart from an SPDler or even a Pirate.

Looking first at the actual results from the September Bundestag election, one of the headline results was that Merkel and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) / Christian Social Union (CSU) did quite well among the youngest voting cohort of 18-29 year-olds—receiving a plurality of 34 percent of the vote—versus 24 percent for the Social Democratic Party (SPD), 5 percent for the Free Democratic Party (FDP), 6 percent for the Alternative for Germany (AfD), 8 percent for the Left Party (Linke) and 10 percent for the Greens. Nevertheless, youth did give below-average support for the CDU/CSU, whose national vote total was 41.5 percent and 49 percent among the 60-and-older cohort—as well as the SPD, but above average support for the AfD, and Greens. Also, 14 percent of youth chose “other” parties, especially the Pirates. A sizeable 25 percent of the second votes of this age group went to parties that did not make it into the Bundestag (versus 15.8 percent overall).

Thus, from one perspective, the headlines were correct—Merkel did disproportionally well among the 18-29 age group, better than the vast majority of conservatives have for decades. But, we should not overstate this result. When we take into account the wasted second votes, this group probably split almost evenly left-right—and this is the big change from the past when youth tended to be more leftist. It should not be forgotten that a sizable proportion of this age group did vote for new or protest parties at a rate higher than other groups—partially reinforcing the reputation of youth being an advocate for change/shaking things up.

I have been asked to speak more specifically about young CDU voters, but I actually think that the larger, more important issue is what has happened to German youth voters more generally. How is it that they have lost their leftist predilections, their real penchant for change, so that they are increasingly indistinguishable from their elders?

One answer is that there is not really that much to rebel against. The wrenching political-cultural transformation took place in the 1960s-1980s, when there was a real cleavage between the younger and older generations thanks to processes of modernization/post-modernization and the very different socialization circumstances of the cohorts. Today’s young voters are now the second fully post-modernized generation. The simple fact may be that there just is not that much of a disagreement between older and younger folks. Indeed, more than 90 percent of all respondents between the ages of 12 and 29 in a recent survey stated that they have a very good/trustworthy relationship with their parents and 76 percent think that real happiness is only possible with a family. They are also living at home longer with almost 50 percent of 24 year-old men and 27 percent of women still at home. This is partially because they are staying in school longer—almost 45 percent of 18-20 year-olds have the Abitur entitlement to study at a university.

Moreover, Germany is a comprehensive welfare state and one might even assert that it is one with a progressive bent. It is difficult to think of an area of life that is really in need of more public support. Of course, one can always talk about re-allocating resources on the margins—but a little more or a little less unemployment insurance or slightly higher or lower wages are not something that social movements are built around. Environmentalism is entrenched state policy; citizenship laws were liberalized almost fifteen years ago. More can/should be done, but, once again, this is change on the margins. NSA and other state surveillance is a potential mobilizing issue, but German youth are hardly distinctive from their elders in their outrage. There are lingering issues with income inequality, sub-par education, and integration of various minority groups, but such seemingly intractable problems do not appear to have a simple, mobilizable solution. Finally, the German economy has been doing quite well for the last few years and youth unemployment at 7.5 percent is the lowest in Europe (and down from 15 percent in 2005).

One of the biggest trends that people have noticed across all subgroups of youth is that they are more “bourgeois,” pragmatic, and de-politicized than previous generations. As in other countries, youth turnout is 20 percent lower than the oldest cohorts. Or perhaps their engagement has shifted more to civil society: “Some three-quarters of all youngsters are actively committed to social and ecological interests: elderly people in need of help, environment and animal protection, the poor, immigrants and the disabled.” In any case, the values of youth in Germany do not really diverge from older folks. According to a Konrad Adenauer Foundation paper, in 2009 the 18-30 age group values industriousness and achievement at 58.8 percent (nationally 67.8 percent); taking responsibility for others—71.2 percent (72.4 percent); sticking to the rules—60.0 percent (69.2 percent); being self-conscious and critical—60.7 percent (59.2 percent); doing what you want (tun und lassen, was sie wollen) 17.0 percent (11.8 percent); living in security and prosperity—74.6 percent (75.5 percent); getting politically involved—33.6 percent (34.4 percent). These data show a surprising uniformity in the values of German generations, except that the youngest cohorts unsurprisingly display a little more hedonism, or at least a “work hard, play hard” mentality.

Youth in Germany are much more secular than older generations—or American youth for that matter. That said, the 2010 Shell youth study asserts that there are three religious cultures in the country today—an almost completely secularized eastern Germany, a slightly more religious western milieu, and those with a migration background who are more religious and heavily Muslim. If we add educational differences—thanks to streaming into the Hauptschule, many minority youth are trapped in the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum—there are perhaps three rather distinctive subgroups among young people today. More structurally, the current generation of youth is one of the smallest in modern history—a consequence of the drop in fertility in the 1970s onward. Their absolute size is dwarfed by the older age groups—so their political and social impact is more minimal than in previous decades. Finally, it should be mentioned that in 2010, 24 percent of the 15-25 age group had some kind of migration background (compared to about 39 percent of young Americans identifying as non-white); versus 5.8 percent for the 85-95 age group. In 2011, 35 percent of all children under the age of 5 came from such families. So, this generation is much more diverse than their elders, a trend that will intensify in the future—especially if the recent up-tick in immigration continues.

All of this means that the structural and value changes of the youngest generations have become fertile enough ground for the CDU/CSU—or that young CDU/CSU voters are not that different from voters for other parties. Of course, “wild” youth will always search for something fresh (Piraten, AfD, Greens), but their underlying value orientations will probably bring many young people into the CDU eventually—life-cycle effects. At a minimum, this cohort exhibits few particularities that would lead us to think that their voting behavior will be unique over time compared to other generations. They will support parties for all of the reasons that other voters do—in 2013 because of favorable evaluations of Angela Merkel and a strong economy.

Merkel’s attempts to “modernize” the CDU will certainly resonate with this group—loosening ties with the Church, moving away from an emphasis on conservative social issues, changing stances toward parenthood, mothers, and women more generally; trying to reach out to the burgeoning minority community. One potential source of trouble for the CDU looking forward is its relationship to voters with a migration background. Although Merkel has done more than almost any other CDU politician before her to reach out to this group—for example, hosting various “integration summits”—especially Turkish-Germans have not shifted their support from leftist parties. In the 2013 election, not only did 70 percent of Turkish Germans vote (71.5 percent nationally), but they gave the SPD 64 percent of their support, the Greens and Left 12 percent each, and Merkel’s CDU only 7 percent—albeit up from 5 percent in 2009. If they want to remain electorally viable, CDU/CSU politicians will have to do much more to extend their electoral appear to this growing demographic.

Do young Europeans think European and young Americans globally? I would want to see detailed data, but I hardly think so—beyond a superficial, rhetorical level. Certainly, Europe is taken for granted—but for most (young) Germans it really means the Eurovision song contest, soccer matches, and trips/holidays to Mallorca, Mykonos, or Edinburgh. I would doubt that younger Germans are any more willing than older Germans to sacrifice their treasure or pay higher taxes to help the down-and-out Greeks or Spaniards. Besides, who can even define what Europe is or means?

As for young Germans to watch politically, the nature of the German political system means that most politicians make a career within party or state structures. Also, it is difficult to specify what constitutes a “young” politician today—I have included “fresher” individuals who, at the least are at or below the median age of a Bundestag deputy (49). Observers should follow individuals such as Philipp Missfelder of the Junge Union, Sascha Vogt of the Jusos, and Kristina Schroeder, current CDU Family and Youth Minister. Although currently damaged, I suspect that CSU politician Karl-Theodor von Guttenberg will be back, as will Daniel Bahr and Christian Lindner of the FDP. David McAllister, former CDU Minister-President of Lower Saxony, is certainly someone to watch. Finally, one cannot underestimate the impact of media and popular culture figures such as the blogger Sascha Lobo (Der Spiegel), the controversial rapper Bushido, and comedians such as Oliver Pocher, Hape Kerkeling, and especially Stefan Raab, who was one of the moderators of the only televised debate between Merkel and her SPD challenger Peer Steinbrück.

Eric Langenbacher, Department of Government, Georgetown University

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.