The Great Unequalizer
The Pandemic Is Compounding Disparities in Income, Wealth, and Opportunity
In late January, the future looked bright for the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Frauke Petry, the party’s chief, had gathered Europe’s right-wing populists for a summit in the German city of Koblenz, where she appeared on stage with the other leaders of the continent’s populist revolt. To the cheering of the crowd, French presidential candidate and National Front head Marine Le Pen declared that, in 2017, “the people of continental Europe will wake up.”
In Germany, voters do appear to be waking up—but not in the way that Le Pen envisioned. The AfD has lost around one-third of its popular support since January, according to recent polls. If elections were held today, the party would win between 8 and 11 percent of the vote—a steep decline from the 15 percent it registered last December, following a series of successes in regional elections in 2016. This rapid fall from favor stands in stark contrast to the surge in public support that right-wing populists are enjoying elsewhere in Europe, notably in France and the Netherlands. In the midst of a far-reaching populist revolt, Germany has emerged as an exception—at least for now.
Three structural dynamics have fueled the AfD’s crisis, and each promises to be influential beyond the immediate future. The first is the German government’s assumption of tougher migration policies. The political steps that Berlin has taken since July 2015 have been controversial, but they have also significantly reduced the number of refugees arriving in Germany. The refugee deal with Turkey and Berlin’s attempts to conclude similar agreements with North African countries such as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia have effectively robbed the AfD of what was once one of the party’s unique selling points: its promise to reduce migrant and refugee inflows. At least for now, Berlin’s measures have largely defused what was long predicted to be the determining factor in the federal elections in September.
European populists have won the blue-collar vote by embracing redistributive policies. This has not happened in Germany.
Next, the rise of Martin Schulz as the Social Democratic Party’s candidate for the chancellorship has reintroduced the possibility of change to Germany’s dormant political center, sapping the AfD of some of its support. A former president of the European Parliament, Schulz has electrified the SPD’s base by branding himself as a quintessential pro-European and a counterweight to U.S. President Donald Trump. Schulz has used his pedigree as a political outsider—he has never held elected office in Germany at the national level—to attract dissatisfied and disenfranchised voters, including left- and right-wing populists who regard him as an alternative to the AfD, the Greens, and the far-left Die Linke. By doing so, he has managed to level the playing field with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and has even pulled ahead of her in several national polls, in a remarkably rapid surge.
Finally, the AfD has undermined its own electability by exposing some of its internal contradictions to the public. Since the party’s founding in 2013, it has attempted to balance carefully scripted political provocations with attempts to uphold the appearance of conservative respectability. This approach has been central to the party’s appeal, attracting center-right voters unhappy with the status quo but reluctant to embrace extremist positions. In recent months, however, this strategic ambiguity has crumbled. At an AfD meeting in mid-January, Björn Höcke, a former history teacher and one of the party’s regional leaders, caused an uproar by challenging what he described as Germany’s “shameful” approach to its Nazi-era past. “We need nothing less than a 180-degree change of course in our political approach to history,” Höcke said. His comments laid an axe to a foundational consensus in German politics, called into question the party’s compatibility with a cornerstone of Germany’s postwar identity, and alienated some of the AfD’s more centrist supporters. Even Petry felt compelled to rebuke Höcke’s remarks; she is now struggling to push him out of the party.
But Germany’s relationship with its past is hardly the only issue that separates the AfD from the majority of voters. Equally divisive is the party’s economic outlook. Other European right-wing populist parties have won the blue-collar vote by embracing redistributive policies. This has not happened in Germany: the AfD still wears the neoliberal robes it donned at its founding during the height of the eurozone crisis. Whereas France’s National Front has attracted the working class with promises to lower the retirement age or to increase the minimum wage, the AfD has called for abolishing inheritance and net wealth taxes and for reintroducing bank secrecy, or rules that allow banks to shield information about their clients from the government. Those are hardly positions that win over average Germans.
SOVEREIGN IS HE DEFINED BY EXCEPTION?
The AfD’s recent decline should remind Europe’s political establishment that addressing the root causes of voters’ concerns is the single best antidote to populist anger. Germany’s efforts to regain control of migration flows without relinquishing its humanitarian principles—as demonstrated by Berlin’s commitment to use its G–20 presidency to promote economic development in Africa—is a case in point. The party’s fall from favor has also demonstrated the importance of creating real choices in the political mainstream. Offering a viable political alternative to the status quo, as Schulz has, can defuse the anti-establishment appeal of populists. Politicians elsewhere in Europe should take note.
Whether the AfD’s apparent collapse will continue is unclear. The refugee deal with Turkey could come apart if tensions between Ankara and Berlin continue to rise; Schulz’s appeal to disaffected voters could hit a ceiling; or the Greek economic crisis could reemerge, dividing voters over Berlin’s response. Such events would certainly throw a lifeline to the party. On the other hand, the political turmoil of the Trump presidency or further right-wing successes in Europe could undermine the AfD: although right-wing triumphs abroad would galvanize the party’s core supporters, they would also encourage an even stronger democratic backlash. Against the backdrop of Europe’s populist surge, it would be striking if the country most blemished by extremist fury in the twentieth century were to prove most resistant to its temptations in the twenty first.