Please, make it go away….
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Over the past few months, people on this side of the world have watched with horror, awe, and partial amusement as Donald Trump rose to the top of the polls and the Republican primaries. It’s easy to see why Germans don’t think much of him. At best, he’s loudmouthed, rude, and voices strong opinions on American exceptionalism, which is pretty much everything Europeans hate about stereotypical Americans. At worst, some of the thing he says are reminiscent of a certain megalomaniac dictator that ushered in the darkest period this country has ever seen. Whether he means the things he says or not, he is brash, populist, and inconsistent, and his fans are even worse. But, as we all point and laugh at what’s going on in the overseas, something very similar is happening on our own soil, and it’s a lot less amusing when it’s here and not over there.
Three German states recently held state elections, and Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) fared reasonably well in all of them. The biggest surprise was in Saxony-Anhalt, where the party won 24.2 percent, which brought it to second place. Although the party didn’t form a government in any of the states that held elections, its performance is pretty amazing for a party that formed just three years ago. It’s also frightening when you learn a little bit more about the party and what it stands for. These numbers horrified a lot of the more liberal members of the German population, and the reasons why anyone would support the party are as foreign to them as Trump’s performance in the U.S.
I share that bewilderment, and when I don’t understand something, my first impulse is to learn a little bit more about it. This is especially true if it seems like something I’m against; after all, how can you stand up against something you know nothing about? I did quite a bit of reading on Sunday night and in the absence of an updated party program, the best I could come up with is that it’s a lot like the free market liberal FDP party with more racism. The party was founded in 2013 largely as a protest to bailouts during the Euro crisis, and a lot of its original platform was based on protecting German financial interests and returning to the Deutsche Mark. However, it gained a lot of momentum in the wake of the refugee crisis and the rise of PEGIDA, and that combined with changes in leadership saw it take on a much more racist tone. AfD, its followers, and PEGIDA began adopting some of the same language and tone as the Nazis used, which is alarming in the country that gave birth to the Nazis.
On Monday, several German media outlets released stories about draft proposals for a new party platform that includes such gems as privatizing unemployment insurance and worker’s compensation. There were also several articles in circulation outlining the party’s performance and voter base in Saxony-Anhalt. These statistics indicated that a large chunk of AfD voters are workers and unemployed, which is surprising given that the party doesn’t exactly take a stance that would strongly benefit either of those groups. However, it makes more sense when you delve a little bit deeper.
The same statistics pointed out that around half of its voters were previously non-voters. These are people who previously felt disenfranchised enough by the current political system to stay home on election days. They didn’t have a sudden change of heart; they simply found a party that spoke to them enough to go out and vote. The other half were largely poached from left-wing parties, which seems completely illogical at first until you realize that these are people who also feel dissatisfied by the current system. Their previous voting habits failed to change things for them, so they cast their vote for a protest party.
I think a lot of people, both inside and outside of Germany, fail to understand just how much reunification left some people behind. The Berlin Wall came down over a quarter of a century ago, but unemployment rates are still much, much higher in the former East than they are in the former West. After reunification, factories closed, state institutions were merged with their West German counterparts or privatized, and a lot of people had trouble getting their qualifications recognized. Some of these issues resolved themselves, but some did not, and there were a lot of people who never completely got back on their feet. At the same time, the eastern states are less populated than the western states, which left those states with less political sway. There are people who feel that they never really got the democracy they were promised and that they were simply taken over by the West. The country they grew up in is gone, and the one they currently live in isn’t really what they bargained for. That’s bound to leave those people disappointed and frustrated, which can be a dangerous combination.
Of course, Saxony-Anhalt isn’t the only state where AfD managed to get seats. It won 10 percent of the vote in North Rhine Westphalia and just over 15 percent in Baden-Württemburg, both of which are located in the former West. However, although the roots of inequality in those states are different to those in Saxony-Anhalt, I think the frustration that resulted in those votes stems from a similar place. After a couple of decades of privatization, stagnating wages, and growing inequality, disenfranchisement is growing in the richer parts of the country.
I absolutely do not agree with AfD voters and I am not defending their views. I’m sure that there are plenty of people who vote AfD purely out of racism and xenophobia, and I have nothing but contempt for those people. Still, I think writing off all AfD voters as simple racists doesn’t tell the whole story, and frankly, I think it’s kind of dangerous. I don’t believe such a large chunk of the country just magically became open and convicted racists overnight. There’s something going on deeper beneath the surface. Germany can’t solve its right wing populist problem until it solves its inequality problem. AfD’s strongest base is in the former East, and that’s not a coincidence. Until change happens, those voters are going to keep swaying towards those parties that promises it to them, whether those changes are in their best interests or not.