In Europe, like in America, right-wing nationalist parties are gaining ground. Results of recent elections in Germany represent a chilling new milestone: Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right party with an anti-immigration and Eurosceptic agenda, captured nearly 13 percent of the vote and 94 seats in parliament. It’s the first time since the fall of the Third Reich that an explicitly nationalist party will be represented in the Bundestag.
For anyone concerned about the future of western liberal democracy, the argument against right-wing nationalism seems rather straightforward. But identifying its causes and finding ways to reverse the trend is a different story. If we are not willing to address fears of immigration at face value, we will at least need to offer a more compelling narrative to speak for the underlying anxieties that are driving support for the right-wing fringe.
For the last few years, Robert Gold of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy in Germany has been doing just that, conducting data-driven research that shows direct correlation between globalization and support for right-wing nationalism in Germany. I recently talked to Mr. Gold about the global trend and what Americans, in particular, might learn from the rise of the AfD.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Peter Gaffney (PG): What’s your interpretation of the election results in Germany?
Robert Gold (RG): It makes me sad, of course. Seventy years after WWII, a nationalistic – and frankly, racist – party is in the German parliament. It’s a breaking point.
But the data is complicated. On the one hand, growing support for the AfD in Germany follows a trend that you now see all across the world. In countries like England and the U.S., there is a strong link between right-wing populism and economic factors connected to globalization. And this is also what I take out of my research on fringe politics in Germany.
Still, the situation here is a bit different. To begin with, Germany is a bit of a latecomer. Because Germans have benefited from globalization more than just about anyone in the West. And that’s why it’s taken longer for right-wing populists to gain ground.
Looking at election results we also see a strong east-west divide. Thirteen percent of the vote nationwide supported the right-wing fringe. But the figure in the former DDR is 20 percent. There were even some states in eastern Germany where the AfD beat out all other parties on the ballot. And that’s something that really concerns me.
PG: Does this point to lingering east-west frictions, or is there another story here?
RG: Reunification frictions are definitely a factor. All the data shows that Germany is still divided in many respects.
What’s curious is that – at least in economic terms – eastern Germany has done quite well, especially over the last decade. Welfare has increased. The economy has been catching up. People have stopped moving away from the region. This convinces me that support for German nationalism in that region cannot be explained solely by economic factors.
Cultural and psychological factors obviously play a role. People are feeling left behind in ways that are not directly connected to the economic situation. For whatever reason, they don’t feel represented by mainstream democratic parties, and they are turning to the fringe.
PG: One New York Times article suggests that 15 years of market liberalization in Germany has produced a class of “working poor,” and this is driving support for the AfD, or in any case driving down support for Angela Merkel and Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Does your research support this idea?
RG: It’s not the working poor who voted for the right wing. The AfD did get the support of the unemployed, but they also got particularly strong support among a demographic of middle-class voters with regular jobs.
A central issue for this demographic is job security. As a result of market liberalization, they find themselves in competition with low-paid workers, and they are afraid of moving down the social ladder.
So there is a correlation, but not a strong one. If you look at the typical demographic that gives support to right-wing populists, they are not the ones who are suffering the most from these reforms.
PG: Should this give us reason to take on the anti-immigration position at face value, rather than looking to economic factors?
RG: Not necessarily. Looking at the data, we find that right-wing populists are doing well in Germany in spite of the downward trend in labor frictions. In other words, if labor markets were doing poorly now, we would see even more support for the AfD.
But it’s true that we need to understand anti-immigration sentiments beyond these economic factors. Like in other countries, we must take account of the cultural factors that are driving support for right-wing nationalism.
And here we see a kind of paradox – something that makes no sense in practical terms. We know the people who support the AfD are afraid of immigration, that they are driven by the fear of losing national identity. But this support is strongest in areas where you hardly find any immigrants or foreigners.
This means that the central issue for constituents of the AfD does not have a strong connection to their everyday lives. And this is why the trend seems so irrational, why the anti-immigration debate was underestimated during the run-up to the election. It’s also why we are having so much difficulty analyzing the right-wing trend in rational terms.
PG: Would you say that right-wing populists have been able to exploit these anxieties in part because mainstream parties failed to address them with a rational narrative?
RG: With the data I’ve seen, I would say that this is indeed the case.
Whatever reasons they may have, people really do fear immigration, and these fears are real. The problem is that right-wing populist parties were the first to address them, even if their messaging makes no sense in any practical terms. As a result, it’s even harder for the mainstream to have a rational discussion about those fears.
At the end of the day, this is the main challenge for political leaders, as well as ordinary citizens who want to take part in the public debate. We need to create a political middle ground where it will be possible to gain back mutual trust – a place where, even if people don’t see eye-to-eye, the terms themselves speak to a common desire to do what’s in the common interest.
PG: People in America are having a particularly hard time taking this step. The idea of seeking middle ground with Trump and his white nationalist movement is met – quite reasonably, I think – with strong moral objections.
RG: It’s similar in Germany. People who support right-wing populism have come to believe that immigrants are taking away their jobs, their culture, their women, or whatever. From my perspective, of course, this way of thinking seems really stupid. But that doesn’t help anything.
If people really want to help the situation, they have to be willing to take the first step, to open up a real conversation about immigration. On the one hand, you can’t do this in the terms proposed by Donald Trump. On the other hand, you have to respect the fact that for a certain constituency there really is a problem.
PG: I think what complicates the story in America is that the center-left political establishment sees an opportunity in the polarized political climate to shore up support among their base. Not only does this prevent us from moving forward in the way you suggest here, it also means, by standing with Democrats against Trump, that we are giving our support to the same agenda of market liberalization that gave rise to populist resentment in the first place. It is a vicious circle.
RG: I quite agree. This is the whole problem with polarization.
And this is very sad for me, because some 10 or 15 years ago when I did my studies, America was still a model for how to do democracy. You could have serious public debate, to submit all sides to a process that would result in legitimate compromise, because the process itself was legitimate.
This has gotten completely lost in America. And it is sad that we Europeans no longer have this model to turn to.
PG: Some analysts I’ve talked to explain the rise of right-wing populism in America and Europe as a symptom of a crisis of political legitimacy in the West. More and more people see center-left and center-right politicians as neoliberal technocrats who are out of touch with their constituents. Does this narrative fit the recent election in Germany?
RG: At least insofar as we’re talking about the perception of legitimacy, yes. What is true in Germany is that supporters of the AfD expressed the idea that the establishment does not represent them anymore.
In the end, the question is really a normative one. Is there a real loss of political legitimacy in the Western liberal democracy? I’m not so sure.
Perhaps what we’re seeing instead is that people have a false image of democratic process. Perhaps they’ve been misled by the belief that democracy should work in the name of one’s own personal and individual will. So they are taking a strong either-or position and then blaming the establishment when this position is put up to a compromise.
Sure, there is a crisis of legitimacy. And there is corruption. But the way forward is to have a public debate about how democratic processes are organized, about how they should be organized, and the relationship between the interest of the majority and the rights of minorities.
PG: You talk about a false image of democracy among ordinary people. Perhaps we could say the same for the existing political class. In America, in particular, we’ve seen an increasingly paternalistic attitude – a culture in which it is common for elected representatives to second guess their constituents. Combine this with a political process heavily driven by private financing, and it is not difficult to see where things go wrong.
RG: I see what you mean, and I understand the argument. But I take a more normative position. If I have the feeling that established parties are no longer taking care of important issues, I can start a new political party. I can organize votes. I can influence policies. Most parties would be happy if people would show up to meetings and present their ideas, if ordinary citizens would take more responsibility.
Politics is not a passive exercise. You can’t just sit there and wait to consume it.
[Featured Image by Jens Meyer/AP Images]