A very important and instructive lesson that politicians and those in governments, the world over, should learn from the outcome of the latest German elections is that the seeds of nationalism and populism also flourish in the garden of wealth and economic prosperity.
The election results question a common narrative theorists and analysts frequently use to explain the recent rise of nationalism and populism across Europe. They argue that the far-right radical political ideology in Europe grows on the fertile soil of discontent. They offer the close correlation between the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 and the rise in nationalism and populism as evidence of this.
The premise of this narrative is that electors put on their nationalist hats at the first signs of dire economic times. And that mostly right-wing politicians exploit this turmoil by successfully appealing to the electors’ nationalistic or nativist sentiments. Even classical economists subscribe to this view. But what lessons can we learn from the German election results in this context?
Germany’s economic success would suggest that populism and nationalism will not flourish on this soil. The evidence is noteworthy. Chancellor Merkel presides over a fiscally robust country that boasts among the highest real GDP in the EU, a strong export sector that has produced a trade surplus of about €270bn, and in July this year an unemployment rate at just 3.7 per cent. After a sharp drop in 2009, the global financial crisis hasn’t restrained the upward trajectory of the German economy. Indeed, the Chancellor reminds Germans that they have “never had it so good.”
The German economy’s success is said to be a source of envy, even in the US, on account of too many German cars on American highways. Amidst this period of wealth, however, a far-right political party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), has emerged in just five years from the cement slab Germans laid over the earth that once sprouted Nazism, and boldly tread in NASDAP footsteps to become the third largest party in the Bundestag. The 94 parliamentary seats they captured along the way were undoubtedly far more than they anticipated.
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Their historic breakthrough would suggest sound sustainable economic prosperity is no longer the main criterion for political success. The two main political parties behind Germany’s economic prosperity lost votes. Merkel’s CDU lost 7.4 per cent and former coalition partner, SPD, 5.2 per cent. What could possibly explain this seismic political shift? For the ruling parties to lose votes to a party that did not so much as promise any more economic prosperity, let alone guarantee to sustain it. That Germans have never had it so good clearly does not appeal nor apply to the 5,877,094 who voted AfD.
A cold wind blowing
They released a cold wind that blew from the eastern Germany. It spread from Saxony where AfD received 27.0 % of the vote, through Sachsen-Anhalt (19.6), Brandenburg (20.2), Thuringia (22.7) and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (18.6) to Berlin where the party captured 12 per cent of the votes in the historically leftist national capital.
If there are answers to be found on why material wealth appears to have less impact on a country’s political development, they’re to be found in these regions of Germany. Did the recent economic prosperity stop on the historic border between east and west Germany? Do the people in the east prefer economic nationalism over economic prosperity? Are political platforms, built on pillars of promises of economic prosperity, still as relevant? Are the election results an indication that the chorus of the far right on immigration, unemployment, Islam, national identity, fear of terrorism, social and economic disparities the new yardsticks of political success. What are the implications for economics in politics?
There are no easy answers as our empirical data provides very little useful information. What do we know of the AfD? What economic, social, infrastructural public policies, for example, would they like to implement? We don’t really know. They reportedly have said they have no policy agenda. We do know that they abhor immigrants in Germany. But a focus on that would make it difficult to arrive at any useful answers to pertinent questions.
The AfD have made no attempts to disavow Nazism. We know that, like them, the Nazi Party rose within the German political structure from nothing. But, from 1929, when they made gains in the German referendum that year, to 1933, when Hitler became chancellor, the Nazis changed Germany. Of course, solid constitutional safeguards have since been put in place.
Merkel has reportedly offered to listen to the “concerns and anxieties” of those electors from the east. How and to what extent her listening will test those safeguards and restrain the AfD within the political establishment is a key question. It is certain their participation within it will change Germany. An AfD leader, Alexander Gauland, is widely reported to have said as much: “we will change this country.” Contemplating how they would do it reminds me of Carl Schmitt, a famed German jurist who later became an unabashed Nazi supporter. He argued in 1932 that parliamentary democracy, as constituted by the principles of liberalism, had failed. He pointed to an impotent “weak Germany” as evidence. To build a “strong state” Germany must do “away with politics!”
When the 19th German Bundestag convenes within a month, we can expect, if not a doing away with politics, an adjustment to Merkel´s politics that seems to put (too) much hope on the notion that a strong economy guarantees political success. We can hope that changing Germany would not mean doing “away with politics.“ We can expect to see the first of the promised changes from the AfD to be in the tone, character and scope of national discourse;. as we have seen, for example, in the US, where the President publicly refers to a football player as a “son-of-bitch” for kneeling at the national anthem. Let us hope for much better here in Germany.
If it no longer holds true that delivering a strong economy is the paradigm for political success then economists, political theorists and politicians must now pause to ponder: what is?
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Michael Davies-Venn is a public-policy analyst and political-communications expert, based in Berlin, focused on issues of global governance, including climate change and human rights. He is a guest researcher in the Ethics of the Anthropocene Programme at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.