How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
“We will hunt her,” Alexander Gauland exclaimed to a crowd of supporters in Berlin late on September 24. “We will hunt Mrs. Merkel and whomever else. And we will take our country and our people back.”
Gauland’s party, the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), had just won a historic victory in Germany’s federal election. With 12.6 percent of the vote, it became the first far-right force to enter Parliament since 1960. Its leaders are resolved to use their place in the Bundestag to fight what they call Germany’s Altparteien—its “old parties”—which they claim have betrayed the country.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is the focus of their ire. AfD officials have called her a “lawbreaker” and a “chancellor dictator” for having let almost a million asylum seekers into Germany without Parliament’s consent in 2015. Her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party and its biggest rival, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), took only 53 percent of the vote—their lowest combined share ever.
Germany's political parties should not seek to present a united front against the AfD.
Germany’s right-wing populists have broadened their appeal, attracting protest voters from far beyond their traditional base. Their rise has become the biggest challenge to Germany’s liberal democracy in decades. This is not because the AfD is set to take power anytime soon. It is because the party could drag German politics deeper into a single-minded focus on the supposed dangers of immigration and Islam, distracting citizens and lawmakers from issues more important for Germany’s future prosperity and democratic health.
By allowing integration and immigration to dominate the public debate and by clumsily scandalizing the AfD, Germany’s media and political parties have mostly played into the party’s hands. They should change their approach in the years ahead by building an inclusive kind of German patriotism and by offering voters clearer alternatives on the issues shaping Germany’s future—beyond those of identity.
Ninety-three members of the AfD will sit in the new Bundestag. They will arrive just as the last member of the first group of Green Party lawmakers to enter Parliament, in 1983, retires. This is a symbolic transition. The Greens grew out of the protest movement that swept Germany in 1968—anti-authoritarian, anti-nationalist, multicultural, ecological—and the AfD sees itself as their antithesis.
The party’s alternative is nationalist and antipluralist. It prizes sovereignty and ethnocultural homogeneity, and it spurns a public role for Islam in German society. It denies the existence of human-induced climate change, wants Germany to pull out of the Paris agreement, and calls for closer ties with Russia. It shares these positions with other right-wing populist movements in the United States and across Europe.
There are important differences, however. Unlike U.S. President Donald Trump, the AfD does not advocate trade protectionism. And unlike France’s National Front, it favors cutting the social safety net instead of promising more benefits. Those positions are vestiges of the AfD’s origins as an economically liberal anti-euro party, founded in 2013 by economists who felt betrayed by Merkel’s choice to underwrite big bailout packages for Greece and other ailing countries during the eurozone crisis.
There was not enough anti-euro sentiment in Germany to carry the AfD into the Bundestag during the last federal election, in 2013. But the refugee crisis of 2015 gave the party a second lease on life. The AfD turned itself into an anti-immigration, anti-Islam force, capitalizing on some Germans’ discomfort with their country’s new arrivals and the growth of a more diverse society.
Since then, a number of the AfD’s founders have left and its extremists have gained ground. It now comprises an uneasy mix of national conservatives and far-right nationalists. Many of the former group are sometime CDU members who abandoned the party as it shifted leftward in the years after 2000. Some of the latter have ties to extremist groups, such as the white-supremacist Identitarian Movement. The party’s leadership suffers from intense infighting: soon after the election, Frauke Petry, its head, announced that she would drop her affiliation and sit in Parliament as an independent.
The AfD made breaking taboos its campaign strategy. According to a December memo leaked to German newspapers, the party resolved to be “deliberately politically incorrect” and not to “[shy] away from carefully planned provocations.” Some of its leading voices reveled in this approach. In January, Jens Maier, a Dresden judge now entering the Bundestag for the AfD, spoke of ending Germany’s “cult of guilt” and agitated against the “production of mixed-race peoples to extinguish national identities.” In March, Björn Höcke, the AfD’s leader in Thuringia, argued against the idea that Hitler was unequivocally evil. “There is no black and white in history,” he told The Wall Street Journal. Gauland himself recently suggested that he wanted to “dispose” a Turkish-descended deputy minister in Merkel’s chancellery “to Anatolia.” Later, he demanded that Germans “have the right to be proud of the achievements” of Wehrmacht soldiers during World War II.
Even the AfD’s apparent moderates carry only a thin veneer of bourgeois respectability. One example is Alice Weidel, who was the party’s lead candidate alongside Gauland. Weidel is a 38-year-old lesbian former investment banker who raises two children with a partner of Sri Lankan origin. She presented herself as a “liberal-conservative” to appeal to more moderate voters. In a private email from 2013 released by its recipient shortly before the election, Weidel described the Merkel government as “pigs” and “marionettes of the victorious powers of World War II.” She claimed that “Germany is not sovereign,” has a “corrupted” constitutional court, and is ruled by a government full of “enemies of the constitution.” She railed against the country being “inundated by culturally alien peoples like Arabs, Sinti, and Roma.”
The AfD is not a neo-Nazi party. It does not use Nazi symbols, does not deny the Holocaust, and, although it is home to a number of anti-Semites, presents itself as a defender of Israel. (Nazi symbols and Holocaust denial are illegal in Germany.) But it is racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic, and it claims to be the only true representative of the people’s will.
Representation in Parliament will give the AfD the chance to promote those positions on the national stage. More important, it will strengthen the party as an institution, granting the AfD official benefits that it once argued had created an oligarchy of the Altparteien. Just like those established parties, the AfD will gain seats on key parliamentary commissions, secure access to parliamentary research services, and receive millions of euros in federal funding. It will also set up a political foundation, akin to the CDU’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation or the SPD’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation, with taxpayer money. The AfD has named its own institution after Erasmus, the early modern Dutch humanist who wrote: “That you are patriotic will be praised by many and easily forgiven by everyone; but in my opinion it is wiser to treat men and things as though we held this world the common fatherland of all.”
THE RIGHT TAKES MIGHT
How did the AfD get this far? The party drew the votes of more than 1.2 million Germans who did not participate in the 2013 election, taking more than a million votes from former CDU voters and another million from former backers of the Social Democratic and Left parties. Many voted for the AfD simply because they rejected the alternatives: 85 percent of its supporters said that a vote for the party was “the only vehicle with which I can express my protest,” according to the pollster Infratest Dimap. Indeed, most AfD voters are not extremists. In the same survey, 55 percent said that the party does not do enough to distance itself from hard-right views.
The AfD’s voters come from a broad cross-section of German society. Taken together, they are richer than average. (And they are more likely to be male.) Although the party was strongest in the relatively underdeveloped former East Germany, it also performed well in the rich western states of Baden-Wurttemberg and Bavaria. Economic deprivation does less to explain the AfD’s success than cultural alienation does. Infratest found that 95 percent of AfD voters are concerned about the “loss of German culture,” 94 percent fear “that life in Germany will change too much,” and 92 percent are concerned about “the influence of Islam will grow too strong.”
This does not mean that socioeconomic concerns do not play a role. But for the AfD’s backers, such concerns are often culturally inflected. Some AfD voters argue that the millions of euros that the government spent on services for refugees, for instance, should have paid for better schools and upgraded infrastructure. Many fear immigrant competition for affordable housing and for low-paying jobs. Others worry that German elites are neglecting the country’s rural areas and economically struggling cities with diverse populations, such as Duisburg and Gelsenkirchen.
In its December memo, the AfD laid out the logic of its success. “The more nervously and unfairly the Altparteien react to provocations, the better,” the party stated. “The more they try to stigmatize the AfD because of provocative words or actions, the better this is for the AfD’s profile. Nobody gives the AfD more credibility than its political opponents.”
One would have hoped that German elites would have taken those words to heart. Most did not. The major parties made the threat of the populist right into a central theme of their campaigns. Commentators and politicians, including Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, hyperbolically called the AfD “Nazis” or “neo-Nazis.” This focus prevented established parties from getting through to voters about the other issues they care deeply about, from pensions and education policy to the crisis in Germany’s nursing homes, and from presenting a vision for Germany’s transformation in the digital age. In the eyes of many voters, the CDU and SPD failed to distinguish themselves from each other—lending credence to the AfD’s claim that only it could offer real change.
Weidel described the Merkel government as “pigs” and “marionettes of the victorious powers of World War II.”
The AfD’s agenda governed the final weeks of the campaign. The moderators of the only televised debate between Merkel and her main challenger, the SPD’s Martin Schulz, asked questions of the candidates that seemed as though they could have been written by the party: most dealt with the purported dangers of immigration and refugees, the risk of terrorism, and the question of Islam and integration. The issues that will decide Germany’s future and on which the AfD’s proposals are least compelling—economic innovation, public investment, the digital revolution, demographic change, education, European stability, and the challenges from authoritarian powers such as China and Russia—did not feature at all.
In the months ahead, political parties, the media, and nongovernmental organizations should not seek to present a united front against the AfD. Doing so plays into the AfD’s claims that it is the only alternative to a monolithic establishment. Nor should they seek to imitate the party to win back its voters, as the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, did this year. Horst Seehofer, the CSU’s leader, demanded that Germany rigidly cap the number of refugees it accepts in language befitting the AfD: the opening of Germany’s borders, he said, had produced a Herrschaft des Unrechts—a “reign of illegality.” On Sunday, his party had its worst showing ever. Voters preferred the original to the copy.
MORE ALTERNATIVES, PLEASE
There is a better way. The media should call out the AfD when it makes outrageous statements, but it should not make every one of its provocations into front-page news. And rather than pretending that immigration and Islam will define Germany’s future, journalists should focus on other topics—and demand that AfD politicians address them, too. (Gauland grew visibly agitated in an interview with a German-Russian television journalist who pressed him on issues such as pensions and education policy during the campaign.) Similarly, the foundations and nongovernmental organizations that organize public discussions should include AfD representatives and question them on their policy stances. Journalists should carefully dissect the AfD’s work in parliament, but they should do so soberly: the appearance of partisan fervor plays into the AfD’s narrative of a “lying press” arrayed against the people.
Germans still have an exceptionally high level of trust in established media. That is especially the case for public television, which a 2015 poll found 80 percent of Germans trust and 73 percent believe is the most important source of news. To prevent the emergence of a more polarized television landscape—Germany has no analogue to the United States’ right-wing channels—stations must hire more conservative journalists. Most prominent figures on German television hail from the center-left, leaving conservative viewers with few figures they can identify with and letting progressive positions atrophy unchallenged. (Television outlets should also bring more Muslim German journalists onscreen, where they are now underrepresented.)
Germany needs a lively debate on the political alternatives within its democratic spectrum. Part of the AfD’s appeal came from the fact that these alternatives have become less visible in recent years, as Merkel’s CDU has moved to the left and governed in a grand coalition with the SPD. Merkel’s tendency to present her own policies as alternativlos (“without alternatives”) made matters worse. That the Social Democrats have decided to enter the opposition should help make the differences between the two major parties more apparent. But winning back AfD voters will still be hard.
Merkel has said that she wants to do so by “listening to the concerns” of AfD supporters and convincing them to come back to the fold with “good policies.” These are important steps, not least because they serve the broader goal of securing Germany’s future and do not simply seek to attract the disaffected. But it will take more than this to win back those Germans who chose the AfD in protest. It could be wise for Germany’s center-left parties, for instance, to embrace the language of patriotism. So far, they have either limited themselves to overly intellectual concepts such as constitutional patriotism (the idea that German identity should be built on its basic law alone) or rejected patriotism outright. But why should progressives not propagate an inclusive patriotism and a tolerant view of the nation as part of a united Europe, much as French President Emmanuel Macron appropriated a kind of patriotism that for too long the French right had claimed only for itself? Doing so would respond to the search of many Germans for an emotive anchor as their country changes. There is little risk that this kind of patriotism will turn into the exclusionary nationalism of Germany’s past. In fact, its inclusive character should help preserve many of the heard-learned lessons of that history.
Next, parties should offer an unvarnished take on the challenges of immigration and integration without focusing on them exclusively. For the center-left parties that have historically represented Germany’s workers, that means acknowledging and addressing their constituents’ concerns about new arrivals increasing the competition for jobs and affordable housing. The challenge is harder for the CDU. Merkel’s refugee policy and her statement that “Islam is part of Germany” have made her the personification of many AfD voters’ cultural fears. She may not be able to win back voters simply by listening to their concerns and offering reasonable policies in response.
Her successor as CDU chair will have to make the difficult choice of where to position the party and whether to enter into coalitions with the AfD at the local and regional level. Some will argue that the CDU should assume a soft anti-Muslim agenda to protect its right flank. Much to Merkel’s credit, she steadfastly resisted playing to Islamophobia during the campaign.
The extreme divisions with the AfD and its leadership could destroy the party over the next four years. But established parties cannot bet on that outcome. The AfD has managed to enter the Bundestag during a time of budget surpluses, few terrorist attacks, and record low unemployment rates. If Germany’s economy worsens or if terrorist attacks increase, the party could gain strength. It could also do so by pledging to deepen social protections for German citizens. The National Front has proved that the most convincing populist mix is a combination of hard-right xenophobic nationalism with guarantees of social security for the “native” population.
For now, however, the greatest risk is that the AfD will tighten its grip on the public debate as its lawmakers use their seats in the Bundestag to slowly change Germany’s political culture. It will use its representation in Parliament to provoke and break taboos, just as it has done outside of Parliament and in state assemblies over the last few years. That will change the culture of the Bundestag and of German public life more generally, fueling a descent into a divisive debate over identity.
Such an atmosphere will deprive German democracy of the oxygen it needs to address the biggest challenges of the coming decades: Germany’s ailing education system, its shrinking labor force, and an industrial base that needs to adapt to the digital economy. Beyond those difficult domestic problems lie Europe and the rest of the world, where German leadership on issues from eurozone reform to climate change is in high demand. At best, the coalition government will keep up its current level of engagement abroad. Talk of Merkel as the leader of the free world has never seemed more absurd: Germany is likely to turn further inward.