© picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Willnow

How our political system should handle the right wing A Line in the Dust or a Handshake?

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In 2023 the Alternative for Germany party (AfD in the German acronym) celebrated its tenth year on the political scene. Debates about how other parties, especially those on the center-right, should treat the AfD have been going on for almost as long as the party itself has existed. How necessary or important is it for the other parties to draw lines against the AfD? What should be done if and when the AfD’s positions include a legitimate point? This debate has gained momentum and intensified during the past several months as extremist tendencies within the party have multiplied while its poll numbers have been going up.

»The much-discussed firewall already has been torn down many times.«

A number of observers have pointed out that the much-discussed firewall, once proclaimed by CDU chief Friedrich Merz for his party, already has been torn down many times at the municipal level. For that matter, Merz himself has called it into question in some of his public statements. The other parties sometimes like to take the easy way out in these discussions (e.g., the SPD’s co-chair, Lars Klingbeil and the Greens‹ co-chief Ricarda Lang), arguing that drawing lines against the far right should be the task of all parties. At the same time, it’s hard to avoid the impression that those two parties, and others as well, regard this drawing of lines as primarily the job of the CDU, since its location on the party spectrum places it closest to the AfD when it comes to forming majorities and coalitions.
There is nothing wrong with that view when you consider which parties the AfD has drawn voters from in recent years. Moreover, quite a bit of overlap can be noted in the party programs of the AfD and CDU/CSU. Yet that explanation by itself is not sufficient, since – to one degree or another – the SPD, the FDP, the Left, and even the Greens most recently all have lost voters to the AfD in numerous elections. Also, Sahra Wagenknecht, a former member of the Left party, recently announced that she was founding a political association (the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance for Reason and Justice) that will enter the fray as a new political party. Thus, it’s probable that in the future a new player will be taking the field when it comes to the issue of how to deal with the AfD.

The AfD’s voter base?

Many observers have written and speculated about the voter base of the AfD. Are they permanently loyal »core« voters, protest voters, or perhaps just concerned citizens? For years now, political science research has been studying the party, including in a comparative European context, since right-wing populist parties have been gaining ground in other countries as well, a trend that began much earlier elsewhere than it did in Germany. 
AfD supporters rarely volunteer much information about their motives. Furthermore, »social desirability bias« (the tendency of interviewees in opinion polls or media street surveys to over-report thoughts and behavior deemed socially desirable) has come to play a significantly smaller role in opinion research. The fact that many people now care less about others‹ social standards anticipates a tendency for the party and its views to appear more and more »normal« as time goes on. Despite that trend, we should continue to be especially careful in evaluating all data and surveys on the AfD. A highly nuanced approach is in order here, not only with the AfD but really with all analyses of parties‹ voter bases.

»By now the party’s base of support extends into all social strata.«

A variety of research projects show that people vote for the AfD for the same reasons they support other far-right parties in Europe. Their adherents are desperately afraid of downward social mobility and have major concerns about the future. They vehemently reject migration and have little trust in the political system, which they often associate with disappointing outcomes. Also, far-right and right-wing populist attitudes are widespread in the party’s voter base – far more so than in any other party. Using data from the German Longitudinal Election Study (GLES) on the 2021 elections, Michael Hansen and Jonathan Olsen show that political attitudes furnish better explanations than social-demographic variables for why voters choose the AfD. That finding is confirmed by the fact that the party’s base of support by now extends into all social strata and that shared political attitudes keep it cohesive. From an economic perspective, its support network consists of adherents from the lower middle classes and low-income groups. Moreover, the level of formal education among the party’s core supporters is considerably below average. The base is male-dominated, while age groups between 40 and 60 are especially strongly represented. 
But that is just not enough to make the AfD into the party of »the poor« or perhaps of the »little people,« which is the way it likes to stage-manage its own image. On the contrary, research on the party’s program shows that, if its demands were all to be met, the chief beneficiaries would be high-income earners, while lower-income people would be even more disadvantaged than they already are. For instance, a December, 2021 study done by the Otto-Brenner-Foundation showed that the party mostly did not support or actually rejected measures that would benefit precisely those »little people« such as a minimum wage, transfer payments by the state, and the unconditional basic income scheme. Instead, for example, the party calls for tax cuts for upper-income people and offers a program strongly influenced by neoliberal ideas.
Most studies on the AfD’s base of support make it clear that it would be a stretch to divide its adherents neatly into core voters and protest voters. Inconsistencies that sometimes turn up in the research are not something that one simply has to take for granted. Rather, they show how intensively and continuously the social sciences are struggling to account for both the party’s very existence and the changes it is undergoing.

»It is quite possible that political attitudes coincide with protest motives in people’s voting decisions.«

Post-election surveys reveal that there are two kinds of voters within the AfD’s base: those who – according to their own testimony – vote for the party as a form of protest against the other parties and politics as usual, and those who cast ballots for the AfD because they are convinced by the content of its policy positions. In Bavaria the ratio of the two groups after the state legislative elections of 2023 was just about 50 – 50. Scholars who study populism, such as Marcel Lewandowsky, have long – and correctly – pointed out that it is sometimes otiose to insist upon the precision of such a sharp distinction. It is in fact quite possible that political attitudes dovetail with protest motives in people’s voting behavior.

Normalization within the general public

Other findings made in the last few months, especially those presented in DeutschlandTREND by Infrastest dimap, a Berlin opinion research foundation, appear to offer some deeper insights. They make it evident that many people consider the rise of right-wing extremism within the party to be less and less problematic.  They regard the AfD as a party like any other despite its drift toward extremism. Such research results make clear that two parallel trends have been taking place. On one hand, the party has been radicalized from within – a tendency apparent in the classification of several state-level parties as »definitely right-wing extremist«; on the other hand, the party has been »normalized« for the general public.
One of the reasons for this increasing normalization ties into the initial question posed in this article: namely, how other parties are responding to the AfD, its political program, and its language. Much knowledge has been gathered on that very question, for instance, some recent work by the Mannheim political scientist Marc Debus. His study, but even more so the international comparative research done by Werner Krause, Denis Cohen, and Tarik Abou-Chadi, reveal that conservative parties, when they draw closer to far-right parties, fall into a lose-lose pattern. That is to say, when the conservatives incorporate right-wing populist language, narratives, and positions into their programs, they don’t weaken the right-wing populist parties. In fact, if anything they may even give the latter a boost. At the same time conservative parties also lose centrist voters who do not approve of such a rightward-trending course. Even when the latter outcome does not materialize, these studies demonstrate one clear tendency: when conservative parties cozy up to the far right in their language and program, the latter ultimately reap the benefits.

»The migration issue pays off primarily for the right-wing populists.«

It is also becoming clear that right-wing populist parties home in unerringly and unambiguously on one issue that can benefit them far more than it does all the other parties: migration. When that issue is emphasized by other parties in public debates, especially when they do so in sharp, provocative ways, the payoff comes not to them but to the right-wing populists. Another factor concerns the mainstreaming of right-wing populist imagery, especially in speech. What is meant here is the following: when such imagery is deployed by established political forces, it filters into common speech and becomes a »normal« part of discourse. So, for example, when Markus Söder, the Minister-President of Bavaria, decries »forced veganization« at a demonstration in Erding or when former Health Minister Jens Spahn demands that Germany close its borders in light of »illegal mass migration,« AfD partisans rub their hands in glee, because that is the kind of language they have been employing for years throughout the country.

How, then, are we supposed to denounce this language as populist and partially based on the legacy of far-right thinking when it is being used simultaneously by the democratic center? The Union parties, the CDU/CSU, like to say that one shouldn’t leave those themes to the right wingers; besides, present-day problems must be addressed. That is more than just correct! But – and here we are completing the thought – merely mentioning problems is not enough; much more must accompany such references. First, the democratic center must offer a program that features its own concrete solutions, something that right-wing populists in nearly every case fail to deliver. Second, they should be tough while adopting a polite, engaging tone in presenting arguments. Third, social conflicts should not be suppressed, yet neither should different groups be played off against one another.

The issue concerns everyone

And here the overall responsibility of the political system comes into sharp focus. According to the survey done for DeutschlandTREND in September of 2023, FDP supporters rather than those of the Union parties were most open to voting for the AfD. In addition, political scientist L. Constantin Wurthmann and his associates have shown that, at least in 2017, the AfD drew far more support from the CDU (27%) than it did from the SPD (10%). So, there is no doubt that the former black-gold segment of the political spectrum (i.e. the CDU allied with the FDP, as in the previous governing coalition) bears a special responsibility when it comes to the AfD.

However, it is by no means the unique task of the Union and the FDP to develop concrete solutions for human problems, provide suitable political communication, and take clear measures against polarizing populism and right-wing extremism. Those are instead tasks that all democratic parties must assume. In fact, the very parties that now make up the German government (SPD, FDP, Greens) have not exactly covered themselves in glory in their political communications of 2023. What is more, they have not paid enough attention to the issues of social fairness raised by their grand projects of social transformation. And those are exactly the issues that are of paramount importance to the AfD’s voter base (and certainly not to them alone).

In addition to all these potential short-term solutions, it is worthwhile to take a look at some longer-term approaches. From a political science perspective, it is urgently necessary that democratic parties establish a presence and visibility in rural areas (Highly recommended on this point is Lukas Haffert’s Stadt, Land, Frust – in English City, Country, Frustration). Furthermore, political education should enjoy secure and adequate funding, including the adult education sector. Finally, parties with a democratic agenda should pay far closer attention to the bloc of non-voters, meaning they should not begin their inquiry into non-voting on the day after an election (held only every four or five years) and then promptly call it quits. That is especially the case since, as before, the AfD tries hard to mobilize potential voters among the non-voting population. At the end of the day, it would be worthwhile to delve more deeply into the diminished sense of personal efficacy that has been diagnosed in Germany: i.e. the feeling many people there have that they cannot affect politics very much.

The Sahra Wagenknecht Factor

Those who have now come to believe that the new Alliance Sahra Wagenknecht is going to solve the »AfD problem« should heed one final piece of advice: Wait and see; it’s better to remain skeptical. True enough, Wagenknecht’s brand of leftist conservatism does seem to have identified a gap in the party spectrum. Yet at the same time it remains an open question whether she will succeed in building party organizations in a short enough period of time to allow her to compete in upcoming elections, especially in eastern Germany.

Granting all those caveats, her Alliance could possibly take away some crucial percentage points from the AfD in Thuringia and other states in 2024. But it is far from clear whether the Alliance’s supporters will stick with Wagenknecht permanently if they do not see that their demands are being sufficiently (and pointedly) articulated, or whether in that case the Alliance might be tempted to move further to the right. Those will undoubtedly become the subject of new political science research. At least up to this point, however, there are (still) too many unknowns involved to justify anything more than educated guesses.

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