Berlin-In 2018, I went on a student journey across the cities of Germany led by NY Times European economics correspondent Jack Ewing. One of the topics that we studied throughout the trip was the rise of alt-right nationalist parties. I learned a number of startling things about the danger of these movements of hatred, and I realized the severity of the matter when it became clear that these movements were not isolated, but plaguing liberal democracies across the world. Germany is unfortunately only one case study of many.
It became clear that Germany’s institutions have taken a fall into far-right nationalism and populism when studying the local political scene and interviewing Germans on the street, at marketplaces, and anywhere they would be willing to talk. Through these interviews, we learned that extremist parties are threatening political institutions in Germany and rapidly destabilizing them by breaking the sacred bond of trust between the people and their government. It’s unclear how and when Germany’s political harmony will be repaired.
We also met with Johannes Kiess, a German political researcher who conducted a series of surveys between the years of 2006 and 2016 at the Center for the Study of Right Wing Extremism at the University of Leipzig. He asked the German population if they trust a variety of political institutions and measured this trust as a function of time. His studies show that the German people have become increasingly polarized. German democrats became more trusting while a smaller group comprised of older, middle to upper class wealthy white men lost trust in political institutions, causing them to become radical. This trend of polarization between members of competing parties is a phenomenon we see everyday in the United States.
These demographics have been moving farther apart from each other on the political spectrum because middle class workers feel threatened that they are going to lose their jobs as a result of hundreds of thousands of refugees entering Germany. This fear is unfounded.
Compared to ten or twenty years ago, according to Kiess, the average middle class family income is low. He also stated that the recent influx of Syrian refugees has contributed to the middle class’s economic fears, worrying them further with a new political crisis. These fears are compounded by politicians running on the platform of fear.
The German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, for example, has recently added to the fears of middle class workers. He claimed that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policies have taken away German jobs, redirecting resources towards incoming refugees. When the German people saw that there money was being allocated to help foreigners and not them, they felt betrayed.
Seehofer’s effort to seize power from Angela Merkel caused the German people to lose faith in her promise to maintain political and social stability. Inadvertently, his political maneuver to seize power added to the numbers of a far-right nationalist party called Alternative for Deutschland (AfD).
Since 2013, the AfD has gradually attracted support not only because voters feel like they can no longer trust German political institutions, but also because the AfD makes established parties look weak by aggressively pushing the boundaries of what can be said in the media. The AfD is rapidly changing German politics with their aggressive populist rhetoric in an effort to destabilize it. According to Kiess, they hope to get rid of the Euro currency, prohibit immigration, remove Angela Merkel from power, and take Germany out of the EU, similar to the goals of the Brexit movement in the UK.
Similar to the AfD, ambitious and aggressive politicians around the world running on the platform of extremist ideology are gaining momentum. They have adopted a new, persuasive rhetoric that takes advantage of people's fears and manipulates them to get elected. This situation occurred in the United States with Donald Trump, in the UK with Brexit, through the movements of far-right nationalist and populist parties in Italy, and it occurred in France with Marine le Pen. These political upsets have in part been affected by Russia’s cyber campaigns, and all of these rising populists have a common goal: aiming to win elections by stirring up fear.
Global economic crises have shown that capitalism and democracy have their limits, opening up a window of opportunity for new leaders to emerge and question the legitimacy of our current political systems. Nationalist and populist forces are on the rise and rapidly gaining momentum, leaving in question if democracies can survive this new outbreak.
When I asked Kiess about Germany’s future and the future of democracy, he only shook his head in despair and got up to get a beer. In my opinion, if we do nothing to stop this populist movement, it will only continue to get stronger and threaten to unravel more democracies around the world. We the people must organize and fight this evil together, or it will overcome us.
(H.D., writing the beginnings of this piece, Berlin, Germany)