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A new mysterious stranger has appeared in the German political system: the Alternative for Germany (AfD). Unlike in the song, popular depiction describes him less as cotton-eyed and more red-eyed, showing his all-consuming hatred for all those not born on German soil. It’s Germany’s version of “America first”. The AfD only lacks a leader that would provide us with the memes like Trump does on a daily basis. But then again, the party is still young and there is plenty of time.
On a more serious note, today it is increasingly necessary to take a deep look at the systemic issues pushing the AfD into prominence, specifically by answering a simple question: who votes the AfD? There is a plethora of extremely long and in-depth studies of the AfD phenomenon, as well as a series of newspaper articles that are less complex but also a lot less informative. These articles essentially boil down to “AfD voters are all poor, islamophobic racists”. We propose you a view that is maybe just a tad more complex, but also that reads like something that was written by a human being, and not an AI with only a basic understanding of the difference between English and binary.
So let’s get one thing out of the way: saying that the AfD are just populist racists is an oversimplification of a more complex relationship between the party and its voters. For one thing, AfD voters can be divided into several categories. And while it just so happens that a large part of them do have anti-immigration ideology, this does not make all AfD voters “simply anti-immigrant”.
As AfD voters are not simply islamophobic racist bigots, who are they and where did they come from?
AfD: Where Did They Come From?
The AfD’s ancient roots from 2013 actually delve deep into a simple observation of European economy. In fact, instead of “the Mediterranean countries aren’t pulling their weight” rhetoric of such newspapers as Bild, the AfD’s founders rightly pointed out that countries like Greece would not be able to compete economically while using the Euro. Thus, the AfD’s initial electoral framework was a group of conservative intellectuals who wanted to break up with the Euro (and not the European Union).
Meanwhile, the party has shifted towards the right, and its electoral base (as will be explored later) changed, and grew substantially. The shift was so significant that the original founders were forced to leave the party, claiming that it had grown to be too radical. So what does the current AfD platform look like?
The AfD’s euroskepticism, while it contests the Eurozone and European Integration, does not seek a Gexit from the EU. It remains a significant part of the AfD’s core, but it has been combined with a wide range of issues that are indispensable for a major opposition party. Starting with the policies that one expects of a conservative party, in the internal political sphere, the AfD pushed a campaign against both same-sex marriage and renewable energy, while in foreign policy, the AfD remains supportive of NATO, the US and Israel.
Among the other core aspects of its political agenda, there are plans to reintroduce military conscription from the age of 18 and to start a “180 degree turn” of German attitude to national pride. The AfD also was one of the parties that were less supportive of sanctions against Russia, suffering the internal dispute over this matter.
So the AfD is nothing new in the political spectrum. It is the typical ultra-conservative party. As such, what makes the AfD special is not its current program but its supporters.
The AfD As A Party For The Poor
Why do people vote for the AfD? The first explanation may lie in geography and economy. Any map of the recent German elections shows that the AfD is the strongest in Eastern Germany. There are three reasons for this.
Firstly, the unemployment rate is higher there (6.9% in the east in 2019, including Berlin which skews the data a bit). Unemployment problems come from the days of the good old GDR, where tears and industrial facilities flowed freely from Germany to the USSR post WWII, leaving Eastern Germany in a state of economic depression.
Secondly, these areas are more rural. A study by Heiko Gieble and Sven Regel makes an interesting point that AfD’s voters tend to be culturally more right-wing, a kind of culture best preserved in small communities. This is amplified by the lack of jobs mentioned above.
Last but not least, people who live in areas with fewer migrants are more likely to vote for the AfD. Indeed, the largest migrant groups have settled in the economically prosperous (open for newcomers) West, with fewer moving towards the east.
The study finds consistent data that NON-highly educated (university level) voters are more likely to vote the AfD (11% across 8 regions, which do not seem to be a lot, but is significant in the mysterious world of stats).
Thus, according to the points above, AfD voters are a group of people from the east who have less favorable socio-economic conditions and are trying to find a scapegoat by blaming the immigrants. It’s also fair to assume that they have “simpler” jobs that do not require higher education (ex: industrial sector).
On The Path of Anti-Establishment
A perhaps slightly more complex explanation of the AfD’s sudden success was developed by the Gieble/Regel’s study, and was independently confirmed by the Socio-Economic Panel Study, SOEP: one of the main talking points for AfD voters in all regions (though especially in Rheinland-Pfalz and Thueringen), regardless of their employment situation and age, was a loss of confidence in the government, political parties and (dare we say it?) mistrust in the democratic process. Now, before anyone calls to arms, the AfD doesn’t have any (official) plans to take over the government violently. But we’ve got to explore this point: some people who vote the AfD do so because they’ve lost trust in their government and in the other parties to solve certain issues. The Gieble/Regel study specifically mentions a “feeling of betrayal by other parties”. Thus people who vote the AfD do so not out of hatred towards immigrants specifically, but to protest against the established powers. The AfD harnesses this discontent and blames outside forces, such as immigrants or the Euro.
This is an idea of historical proportions if we remember that support for the Nazi party in the ‘30’s (or any other radical party) came from a feeling that the institutions had betrayed the people, combined with a general low quality of life and discontent. In that specific case, the blame was laid on non-Germans and communists.
The AfD is only very remotely associated with Nazi positions, but it remains a good example. The AfD can in some ways be considered an eternal measure of the country’s contentment with Mama Merkel’s rule.
Where Do They Come From?
So where does the truth lie? As always, somewhere in the middle between two opinions. People who vote the AfD are all individuals; therefore, there may be as many as four or five major factors that push people in that direction. First of all, the basic need for a right-wing party that expresses the voice of conservative people, existent in any society.
In fact, a worldview where all the theories described above are part of the truth is easy to formulate and can be rooted in economics and politics, and so in the real world of people, rather than pure ideology or theory. To put it bluntly, the success of the AfD is the direct result of decades of neo-liberalist policies which have pushed companies to move to third world countries for cheap labor, leaving their populations with jobs set in continually worsening conditions, decreasing pay, and with little hope for the future.
We should also acknowledge that the myth of the foreign immigrants stealing jobs describes a real, if misrepresented, phenomenon: what’s better than moving to Vietnam for cheap labor? Employing refugees right at home. Not to mention that the evil regimes in Libya, Iraq and Syria provided free university education, so that many of the refugees from these places are trained doctors, scientists and engineers. They are a cherry on top.
Ultimately, it is counterproductive to blame a movement for having a certain ideology. In fact, the opposite must be done. In the 1880’s the conservative Bismark, who was afraid of a socialist uprising, created a social insurance programs to calm down workers who felt they were being exploited. Going to the root of the problem, he addressed the concerns of these people. On the flip side, the attempt by the Christian Democratic Union to become “tough” on migrants will solve nothing. The disease is in the economic system. The anti-migrant outburst is nothing but a symptom, once cured it can manifest again, or even take a different form.
Where Are They Going?
No analysis would be complete without at least some prediction about what the future holds. Many health officials tell us that restrictions and even temporary lockdown may become the new norm, with severe restrictions imposed until late 2021. Even with the discovery of vaccines, their distribution will take time and they are not guaranteed to be effective against the latest mutation of the virus. In short, the pandemic is not over yet. Even assuming its end tomorrow, another problem would rear its head: the economy has been shut down partially or completely for almost a whole year now. Even without forecasting a complete economic crash, the next few years are going to be hard.
This heavily impacts the AfD, as they are by far the loudest voice protesting against the restrictions. We already saw this in August, when the AfD helped organize a large protest in Berlin which saw almost 20.000 people coming out to protest, with many coming from neighboring countries. Robert Kennedy Jr. flew to Germany to give a passionate speech for the occasion. If the pandemic lasts much longer, such protests and the parties backing them will have a great opportunity to increase in popularity not only in Germany, but throughout Europe.
The Covid-19 recovery period is also not going to be a politically peaceful time. Many people will come out of lockdown, having lost their jobs, businesses, or simply significant part of income. National debt has spiked in most countries, as governments offer stimulus packages to companies and people in need. The mental and emotional health of many people was also negatively affected by the quarantine. Many people will look for a scapegoat. Current governments are likely to become targets for such attacks, while the parties that are most opposed to the government regulations will benefit, not to mention the debate on how to best face the economic crisis.
As people continue to lose their jobs, some liberties like the right to assemble, and start to crave human contact, the voice of the AfD continues play an important role. When it is all over, the CDU will be blamed for everything that went wrong during this period, to the benefit of the AfD. Thus, despite their recent losses in votes the AfD is likely to bounce back soon. Whether this will lead them to a parliamentary majority in the near future or not remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: AfD’s anti-CDU voice is going to find more consensus in Germany as time goes on.
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