On July 16, 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel participated in a televised Q&A at a school for students with physical disabilities in Rostock, Germany. The focus of their conversation was the “good life in Germany,” the title of a government program sponsoring the event. The students were seated agora-style around Merkel, who roamed freely around the space. During the Q&A, a fourteen-year-old Palestinian refugee named Reem shared her story. In impeccable German, she described how she had been living in a camp in Lebanon with her family before arriving four years earlier to Germany, which she had come to view as her home. Merkel, flanked by two moderators, pressed her for more details. Reem revealed her temporary immigration status; facing possible deportation, she explained what it was like to live with such uncertainty. “I’m here … and I don’t know what my future looks like, while I don’t know whether I can actually stay here.” Her life goal was to study, though it hurt “to see how others can enjoy life, when one can’t enjoy life along with them.” Merkel countered by invoking “hard politics.” “When you stand before me, and you’re … an unbelievably nice person, but you also know that in the Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon there are thousands and thousands, and if we say you can all come—all of you from Africa can come, you can all come … we can’t manage that.”
Then, something happens. Merkel describes the situation as Zwiespalt—literally, split in two (“Ich bin Zwiegespalten” means something like, “I’m of two minds”)—and shifts the conversation from issues surrounding Reem’s predicament to administrative procedures for asylum-seekers. Midway through a sentence, Merkel pauses. Muttering under her breath, she crosses the stage to Reem, who is crying. Merkel leans in and tells her, “You did that really well.” The moderator interjects that Reem didn’t “do well” but is stuck in a trying situation. Merkel, stroking Reem gently on the shoulder, snaps back. “I know it’s a trying situation, but I want to stroke her nevertheless.” The government doesn’t want things to be like this, she assures her. “But you’ve demonstrated so well, for many, many other people, how one can get along in this situation.” The rhythmic stroking ends. Merkel nods at Reem, who nods back. Merkel stands up, and the Q&A continues.
Clips from their exchange, which showed politics as a series of balletic gestures, went viral. Audiences assessed Merkel’s more or less human face. Twitter handles chirped that the chancellor had the empathy of “a piece of toast” and photoshopped images of Merkel stroking lapdogs and Alexis Tsipras (“Crisis in Greece solved!”) peppered Facebook posts. A Green Party leader declared that Merkel’s CDU-coalition government couldn’t “stroke away” the errors of its migration policy. Meanwhile, some foreign commentators remarked that their unscripted encounter—captured by Merkel’s spontaneous actions and spatial directions (back to the camera, facing the girl, leaning in)—showed the possibility for a more authentic, meaningful politics.
If Merkel’s performance showed politics as dance, what kind of dance was it? The answer, the dance of liberalism, is especially pressing now that Merkel, despite being embattled in recent months, remains for many the last liberal the world can count on. It is also a dance that many of us participate in, knowingly or not.