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June 26, 2013 10:44 AM Conservatives for Better Childcare

By Henry Farrell

This bit in a New York Times about Angela Merkel’s election manifesto may seem a little strange to US observers.

Addressing some 600 representatives of her Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, on Monday, Ms. Merkel vowed that if returned to office, she would increase child subsidy, as well as retirement benefits for older mothers and lower-earning workers. … Building on her long-nurtured image as frugal, commonsense homemaker, the chancellor painted the 127-page election manifesto as a solid foundation for the country’s future — forgoing tax increases, but still chipping away at Germany’s outstanding debts, and ensuring that budget consolidation would remain a cornerstone of a “moderate and balanced” program.

Merkel is the leader of Germany’s conservative party and (as the article suggests) views her reputation for fiscal probity as an asset. Why would conservatives who pride themselves on their stinginess boast about their plans to spend more money on childcare and benefits for women?

Kimberly Morgan has a recent article in World Politics (temporarily ungated) which explains why Merkel and other European conservatives have taken up the cause of spending more on women. The reasons have much to do with straightforward electoral politics.

In the past, women tended to be more politically conservative than men, and their greater support for conservative parties was highly consequential in that it enabled the electoral dominance of these parties in the post–1945 period. However, the rise in women’s workforce participation has transformed women’s views on both gender relations and politics, as women are increasingly more likely to vote for left parties, embrace gender egalitarian norms, and support social welfare spending. … Given the significant size of the female electorate and women’s importance to conservative party successes in the past, parties have competed for increasingly dealigned segments of the female vote through two types of changes. First, they have recruited more female members, promoted women within the party leadership, and adopted targets or quotas to increase their representation. … Second, political parties have altered their electoral platforms to appeal to female voters, a process reinforced by the growing influence of women within these parties.
Worried about the erosion of female support, in 1996 Chancellor Kohl persuaded the CDU to adopt a weak “quorum” for elected offices and positions within the party, although conservatives successfully resisted hard targets. … In Germany, efforts to help parents balance work and family were taken up toward the end of an SPD-Green government, but it was under a coalition of the CDU/CSU-SPD, with a female CDU politician in charge at the family ministry, that significant policy change occurred. … Traditionally a party that disproportionately drew the support of women, the CDU had been steadily losing the female vote, particularly among younger women. Electoral defeats in 1998 and 2002 were particularly jarring, as the party lost even older female voters to the SPD and faced declines among urban voters, another critical group.
… Merkel’s overarching strategy was to “steal themes—as well as young, urban, and female swing voters”—from the SPD, and modernizing family policies was one way to achieve this. In 2007 and 2008 the grand Coalition government enacted transformative changes in germany’s work-family policies, including tax breaks for child care costs, the parental leave law, and an agreement with the Länder that required them to pass laws in their assemblies giving parents the right to a place in day care for children aged one to two by 2013. The federal government promised several billion dollars for the creation of these centers and continuing assistance with operational costs after 2013, with the goal of covering 35 percent of children under age three by that date.

Morgan makes it clear that these changes took place only after internal struggles within the party, between pragmatists who wanted to win votes and conservatives who rejected this new orientation on principle. Nonetheless, they seem to have helped shore up support among an important electoral constituency that might otherwise have defected. Whether US conservatives could ever carry out such a volte-face is of course an interesting question.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.