AfD draws pen­sion­ers who did well back in the GDR

There are more sub­tle driv­ers than mere eco­nom­ics be­hind the flow­er­ing of to­day’s rightwing na­tion­al­ism in Europe and the US

The Guardian Weekly - - International News - Philip Ol­ter­mann

Two days af­ter the his­toric vote that let an overtly na­tion­al­ist party en­ter the Ger­man par­lia­ment for the first time in more than five decades, a group of over-60s vent their griev­ances over lunchtime beers in the smoky back room of a for­mer petrol sta­tion on the bor­der be­tween the Ger­man state of Sax­ony and the Czech Repub­lic. Ber­lin, they say, is throw­ing cash at refugees “while na­tive pen­sion­ers can’t afford to buy a new pair of glasses”, Vladimir Putin is Europe’s “only guar­an­tor of peace” and Ger­many is still “un­der oc­cu­pa­tion” by the US.

Op­pach lies in the new heart­land of Ger­many’s far-right up­starts: a clus­ter of five vil­lages in Gör­litz dis­trict where Al­ter­na­tive für Deutsch­land (AfD) won 44% of the vote. With 12.6% of the na­tional vote on 24 Septem­ber, the AfD will be the third-strong­est party in the Bun­destag, but in Sax­ony it is al­ready top: 27% voted for the party that wants to ban burqas, pros­e­cute An­gela Merkel for open­ing the bor­ders to refugees in 2015 and have a ref­er­en­dum on leav­ing the eu­ro­zone.

The AfD can­di­date, Tino Chru­palla, who won one of his party’s three di­rect man­dates in Op­pach, un­seated the re­gional sec­re­tary of Merkel’s Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union, an MP with 15 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence. The Taz news­pa­per called the re­sult “the re­venge of the East”, a slo­gan that res­onated with Op­pach’s pen­sion­ers, many of whom voted AfD be­cause they felt let down by tra­di­tional par­ties.

Peter Ham­pel, 66, the petrol-sta­tion owner, did well when Sax­ony was part of the Ger­man Demo­cratic Repub­lic. But when the Ber­lin Wall fell, things took a turn for the worse. In came large chains of­fer­ing cheaper petrol. When the EU ex­panded east­wards in 2004, driv­ers filled up down the road in the Czech Repub­lic, where a litre of fuel is 20 cents cheaper. Ham­pel filed for in­sol­vency, but a €400 ($470) pen­sion was not enough to pay off his debts. He now sells al­co­hol, news­pa­pers and to­bacco in­stead of petrol. “I lost all trust in the gov­ern­ment,” said Ham­pel, a work­ing pen­sioner. “They promised us it would take 20 years to ad­just wages and pen­sions, and look where we are now.”

Not ev­ery­one in the village agrees that AfD vot­ers have le­git­i­mate con­cerns. “No one around here is re­ally poor,” said Jenny Sachser, push­ing a pram near the petrol sta­tion. Sax­ony’s GDP grew 2.7% last year, the most of any state. The AfD also came sec­ond in parts of Bavaria and Baden-Würt­tem­berg, eco­nomic pow­er­houses.

The town of Gör­litz, where the AfD was also top, has been preened with the help of fed­eral funds and pri­vate do­na­tions. It has ma­jes­tic baroque and re­nais­sance ex­te­ri­ors, but Heiko, drink­ing a beer on Luther­platz, said: “They’ve built all these pretty of­fices, and yet you still have peo­ple sleep­ing on the street.”

Merkel’s han­dling of the refugee cri­sis is usu­ally the top rea­son why vot­ers in Sax­ony chose the AfD, even though the state has fewer peo­ple with mi­nor­ity eth­nic back­grounds than else­where. “We voted AfD so we don’t get any refugees in the first place,” said one man in Ham­pel’s beer­hall. “Once you’ve got weeds, they are hard to get rid of. So you make sure they don’t grow to start with.”

In Op­pach, the ke­bab shop is called Taj Ma­hal. Gar­garia Paramjit Singh, 37, who works there, came from In­dia as an eco­nomic mi­grant in 1998, end­ing up in an asy­lum seek­ers’ cen­tre. Hav­ing spent years threat­ened with de­por­ta­tion, he is now mar­ried to a lo­cal and says that he, too, would be crit­i­cal of refugee hos­tels be­ing built next to their chil­dren’s school.

To those pre­ma­ture pun­dits who as­sured us that the global pop­ulist wave was al­ready re­ced­ing, Ger­many has just de­liv­ered an enor­mous rasp­berry. In one of the most pros­per­ous coun­tries in the world, with the strong­est pos­si­ble taboo on xeno­pho­bic, rightwing na­tion­al­ism (A Hitler) and an ex­is­ten­tial com­mit­ment to Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion, one out of ev­ery eight vot­ers has turned to a xeno­pho­bic, Euroscep­tic, rightwing pop­ulist party, Al­ter­na­tive für Deutsch­land (AfD). One les­son to be learned is this: if we are to com­bat pop­ulism, we must un­der­stand that its deep driv­ing forces are as much cul­tural as eco­nomic.

Of course there’s an eco­nomic com­po­nent, even in Ger­many. Not all Ger­mans are driv­ing BMWs and con­tem­plat­ing a sec­ond hol­i­day in Mal­lorca. Yet the eco­nomic mo­tive is much less salient than it was in the votes for Don­ald Trump and Brexit. In a poll con­ducted for the Ger­man tele­vi­sion chan­nel ARD, 95% of AfD vot­ers cited threats to “the Ger­man lan­guage and cul­ture”.

As al­ways, there are spe­cific na­tional causes. In this case, the two largest cen­trist par­ties, So­cial Democrats (SPD) and Chris­tian Democrats (CDU), have been co­hab­it­ing in a “grand coali­tion” gov­ern­ment for eight of the last 12 years. That has pro­pelled dis­grun­tled vot­ers to the smaller par­ties and the ex­tremes. Un­like the lead­ers of some other Euro­pean cen­tre-right par­ties, who have tacked to the right to pick up the pop­ulist vote, An­gela Merkel has stayed with both feet planted firmly in the mod­er­ate, civilised, lib­eral cen­tre. I have praised her for it in the past, and do so again now. But her cen­trist, even slightly left-lean­ing moder­a­tion had a price. The Bavar­ian CSU – the more con­ser­va­tive sis­ter party to Merkel’s CDU – now loudly be­moans that “open right flank”.

Then there is the east-west di­vide, with strong sup­port for rightwing, xeno­pho­bic pop­ulism in many parts of the for­mer East Ger­many. There is an al­most per­fect sym­me­try here: the ar­eas that pro­duced the most votes for the AfD, in the east, ac­tu­ally have the fewest im­mi­grants. The East Ger­man phe­nom­e­non un­doubt­edly has much to do with the legacy of 40 years spent un­der a com­mu­nist regime, and the way in which the two un­equal halves of a once-di­vided Ger­many have in­ter­acted since uni­fi­ca­tion.

Yet rather clear ge­o­graph­i­cal di­vides are also char­ac­ter­is­tic of other rightwing pop­ulisms: the Trump­sup­port­ing in­te­rior of the US, against the more lib­eral coasts; Brexit-sup­port­ing Eng­land-with­out-Lon­don against cos­mopoli­tan Lon­don and pro-Euro­pean Scot­land; Law and Jus­tice party ru­ral, small town, east­ern and south-east­ern Poland against its more lib­eral big cities, west and north-west. For all the dif­fer­ences be­tween these re­gions, one finds in them a com­mon feel­ing, a shared re­sent­ment, some­thing like “we ex­ist too, but you have been ig­nor­ing us as sec­ond-class”.

The same is true of the so­cial di­men­sion. We fo­cus too much on the strictly eco­nomic as­pect of in­equal­ity. This cer­tainly plays an im­por­tant part in coun­tries such as Amer­ica and Bri­tain, where glob­al­i­sa­tion in a ne­olib­eral, fi­nan­cial-cap­i­tal­ist form has re­sulted in the top per­centiles be­ing dis­pro­por­tion­ately en­gorged with riches, while real wages and house­hold in­comes have stag­nated or de­clined. With grow­ing so­cioe­co­nomic in­equal­ity has come a fur­ther de­cline in equal­ity of op­por­tu­nity.

I be­lieve we need to think about more sub­tle, less eas­ily mea­sur­able di­men­sions of in­equal­ity. I would call them in­equal­ity of at­ten­tion and in­equal­ity of re­spect. At­ten­tion, as Tim Wu points out in his book The At­ten­tion Mer­chants, is one of the ma­jor cur­ren­cies of our in­ter­net age. How much at­ten­tion did our main­stream lib­eral me­dia give, un­til re­cently, to the “left be­hind” re­gions and so­cial groups? In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Sales­man, Linda, the wife of poor, strug­gling Willy Lo­man, cries: “He’s a hu­man be­ing, and a ter­ri­ble thing is hap­pen­ing to him. So at­ten­tion must be paid. He’s not to be al­lowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. At­ten­tion, at­ten­tion must fi­nally be paid to such a per­son.”

In­equal­ity of at­ten­tion shades into in­equal­ity of re­spect. A phrase that has be­come al­most prover­bial on the Pol­ish pop­ulist right is “re­dis­tri­bu­tion of prestige”. It’s an odd phrase, at first hear­ing, but ac­tu­ally it cap­tures some­thing im­por­tant. Re­dis­tri­bu­tion is not just about money; it’s also about re­spect. Our so­ci­eties have sim­ply not de­liv­ered well enough on one of lib­er­al­ism’s cen­tral prom­ises, sum­marised by the le­gal philosopher Ron­ald Dworkin as “equal re­spect and con­cern”.

At the end of Alexan­der Payne’s lovely film Ne­braska, the son of a bat­tered, weary, old, white, work­ing-class man buys his dad a gleam­ing pickup truck. The old man drives slowly down the main street of the town where he grew up, en­joy­ing, just for once, the ad­mir­ing glances of his child­hood com­pan­ions. At­ten­tion. Re­spect.

This, in turn, shades into the cul­tural di­men­sion – so im­por­tant in Ger­many, but not only there. “I don’t recog­nise my coun­try any more” is the char­ac­ter­is­tic sen­tence of the rightwing pop­ulist voter. On est chez nous was the re­veal­ing chant of the sup­port­ers of the French Front Na­tional leader Marine Le Pen. Im­mi­gra­tion is ob­vi­ously a key fac­tor here, es­pe­cially when it comes linked to a real or imag­ined threat from Is­lam. In one re­cent Pol­ish opin­ion poll, 42% of those asked said that Is­lamist ter­ror­ism was a ma­jor threat to Poland’s na­tional se­cu­rity, de­spite the fact that the coun­try has vir­tu­ally no Mus­lims and has re­fused to take even its min­i­mal EU quota of refugees from the Mid­dle East.

But it’s not just im­mi­gra­tion. It’s also is­sues such as abor­tion and gay mar­riage – and what is de­nounced as po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, mean­ing some­thing like “there are so many old-fash­ioned things I’m not al­lowed to say any more”. Then the rant­ing Trump, Le Pen or AfD leader comes along and the voter ex­claims: “At last, some­one is telling it as it is!” And they com­plain that ev­ery other group seems to be en­cour­aged to have its iden­tity pol­i­tics – all ex­cept the na­tive, “true” English, Amer­i­cans, Poles or Ger­mans. Pop­ulism is their iden­tity pol­i­tics.

This is not the whole story, of course. Hos­til­ity to the EU, specif­i­cally to the euro, is a ma­jor driver of pop­ulism. The AfD be­gan life as an anti-euro party. But these so­cial and cul­tural di­men­sions are com­mon to most pop­ulisms. So let’s pay at­ten­tion to Linda Lo­man. If we make the wrong di­ag­no­sis, we will never find the cure.

It’s not just about im­mi­gra­tion but also about abor­tion and gay mar­riage – and what is de­nounced as po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness

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