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
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