Why Scandals don’t hurt the AfD

It‘s obvious that there is not going to be a German Trump any time soon but Germany is grappling with the issue of far right populism and a general decline of democratic values. The far right populist AfD party is polling about 11%, it could possibly become the third largest party in the Bundestag and the largest opposition party. Clearly the national mythos that Der Spiegel seems to think immunises Germany from far right populism isn’t 100% effective.

There are very real reasons and current reasons for the rise of the far right in Germany and the fact that despite all the scandals, the party is polling consistently.

The AfD is down, they were about 15% in polls back in mid 2016 but what has damaged the AfD isn’t the scandals, it has been the closing of the Balkan route.

Images of masses of people entering Germany are no longer dominating the news cycle and although it is a big issue that took up large sections of all the major debates between party leaders. The refugee crisis just isn’t the issue it was back in 2015 and 2016 when the AfD moved from being a eurosceptic party to a far right populist party. But Germany really can’t sigh in relief, because the AfD entering the parliament at all, is a shock to the system.

The AfD will be the first far-right party in the Bundestag since the 50s. So looking at the UK and USA and saying well it could be worse, just isn’t sufficient considering Germany’s uniquely dark history.

The AfD has been stumbling from one scandal to another since Bernd Lücke was replaced by Frauke Petry, yet the party is still polling about 11% and these scandals don’t seem to have any real impact on those numbers. The most recent is AfD leader Alexandr Gauland saying that German’s should be proud of the soldiers who fought in the world wars.

The ability to seemingly stumble from one scandal to another without taking any damage isn’t unique to the AfD. UKIP, Trump and Le Pen all displayed the same qualities as Teflon during election campaigns.

So the media in Germany while doing the right thing in principle, highlighting and criticising the AfD when these scandals arise are not going to turn those already intending to vote for the AfD away from them, these lessons should already have been learned. There are several reasons why the tradition of informed debate, accountability and truth are not harming the poll numbers of the AfD.

Politicians Lie

The AfD are proud of the fact that they have managed to get traditionally non-voters to vote for them. Many of these first time voters are not politically disinterested but politically disillusioned. They will say one liners about politicians all being the same, self interested, corrupt and greedy, that they are elites who lie to get ahead.

Politicians lie is a mantra that applies to all politicians for these voters and that includes the AfD. They believe the AfD are different but not because they tell the truth. So when the AfD are caught lying, it has no impact because these voters accept that’s what the AfD has to do to compete with the elites of the established parties.

Voting AfD is also seen as a way to send a shock to this system. It’s irrelevant what the AfD stands for, voting for them causes a re-action that voters don’t get from the elites, when they vote for other parties.

Come the morning after the election results how many journalists will be rushing to districts where the CDU, SPD had large victories compared to journalists travelling to places like Peenemunde and Frankfurter Oder where the AfD are currently set to receive massive support?

Title: Why people voted AfD: Orange ‘to send a message to the other parties’. Blue ‘their political proposals’

Anti-Intellectual, Anti-Elite Attitudes

This is another big commonality with other countries tackling populism. The AfD is anti-elite and anti-expert. Rolling out academics from the Federal Agency for Political Education, no matter how charming or insightful they are, doesn’t work on a large scale because just like the mantra politicians lie, so do academics because they supposedly all have vested interests or can’t relate to the concerns of the common man or Besorgtebürger (concerned citizens) as the AfD like to identify themselves and their supporters.

This attitude extends to the Lügenpresse (the lying press) seen as in league with politicians and elites to obscure the reality to benefit themselves.

Anti-intellectualism allows the AfD to ignore or dismiss statistics and expert opinion about crimes committed by migrants or Germany’s economic situation and play the saviour of ‘forgotten communities’.

Fracturing of Traditional Media Structures

Focus a magazine that walks the tight rope between tabloid and serious journalism, shared via social media an urgent news update claiming that there had been a mass shooting of Christians in the UK. The article of course generated massive outraged and a racist responses. In reality it wasn’t terrorism but a feud between two individuals. Focus hasn’t taken the article down or issued any correction, it was pandering to a narrative that would drive clicks and engagement.

Pandering by struggling existing media outlets is one side, the other side is the fracturing of traditional media in part due to anti-elite attitudes.

Voters not happy with the narrative of the mainstream media can quickly find online sources to reinforce their own narrative, the fracturing isn’t as serious as in the USA or UK, Germany ranks well on press freedom and there is no Breitbart equivalent. But the AfD outperforms the other parties online in a lot of key performance indicators.

The party benefits from being the party of choice for internet trolls. To be influential online parties don’t need the largest number of followers, a small core of radically loyal extremely active and tech savvy users are much more effective and that’s exactly what the AfD has. Their online supporters are going to muddy the waters, set the tone and drive their own narrative. It means that even if AfD voters were open to persuasion by facts and logic presented by the mainstream media, they exist within a bubble where such things are kept out.

Facebook socialised news, traditionally one judged the trustworthiness of an article based on the media organisation that published it, today the judgement is made based on the individuals relationship to the person who posted it. This has the affect of legitimising fake news in Germany and supporting the AfD’s narrative.

The internet has politicised many people as they are more tuned in to what is happening in the world but they are not better informed, in fact there are arguments that the internet has made them less informed.

Identity, Nationalism and Pride

In an article about the town of Peenemunde a resident said he supported the AfD because they cared about forgotten communities like his.

The AfD aren’t alone in offering populist solution to social problems, Germany has had far left populist parties since reunification, today that party is Die Linke (polling about 9%), who find their support base in communities of the former DDR (East Germany) where social problem such as unemployment are higher than the national average.

There is a surprising overlap between the two parties in terms of voter base but one place where they diverge fundamentally is attitudes to migration, diversity and nationalism.

The AfD are all about emboldening German nationalism, ‘courage to Germany’ is one of their main election slogans.

Nationalism is taboo for obvious reasons in Germany, but the AfD have pandered to a backlash to the sense of shame that comes with being German. This sort of blood and soil nationalism filling a gap left by the breakdown of other aspects of national identity is also a factor in the USA and UK.

Traditionally working class communities whatever their economic circumstances have lost a sense of identity, what in America has been described as bowling alone. With the sense of identity associated with being working class gone, there is a void. Populist parties like the AfD have filled that void with nationalism. Giving an individual a sense of purpose and community is a powerful thing. The parties who once benefited from a working class identity have offered no alternative and the existing alternative, nationalism is completely unacceptable to them, alienating many of their traditional voters.

It’s an emotional appeal that has proved very powerful and like most attitudes based in emotion very difficult to defeat through argumentation.

This aspect of AfD ideology is also part of Germany’s culture war while sexual education in schools that covers LGBT issues is one topic, they mostly focus on the supposed threat posed by immigration and a growing muslim population.

A society weakened due to the breakdown of traditional societal structures that gave a sense of identity are vulnerable to anti-foreigner scaremongering.

Creating the Other

What makes populism dangerous is its own elitism.

Populist parties claim to be the on true voice, the one true patriots and the only party genuinely interested in the welfare of their nation, everyone else is a self interested, out of touch, elite.

Populist parties pander to a sense of being genuine, that people are only genuinely German if they display certain characteristics, one of them being that they vote for the AfD.

The exclusive nature of populism gives an enemy to their supporters which is itself a powerful aspect of creating a sense of belonging and identity for supporters.

It also damages public discourse and the potential for compromise in governance. In traditional debates, there is an element of good faith, opposing politicians might disagree about aims and means but they each believe what they’re saying and that they want what’s best for their country. Populist parties like the AfD reject this good faith.

What to Do

These are the main factors that I have observed at work in the AfD’s favour. Tackling it, well that’s a different issue. Focusing on the economic issues in communities that are experiencing difficulty is an uncontroversial start.

Considering ways to revive and reform societal institutions that give a sense of belonging. Being honest with voters about the limitations of party politics and government.

What to do about the media is almost tougher, it will probably take a generation for people to develop a media maturity that enables them to discern effectively the trustworthiness of online information.

While saying keep talking to each other sounds facile, it’s necessary to remind everyone in the debate that we are human and have a lot in common whatever our politics.

Further Reading:

Loneliness, Radicalization, and the Fate of Democracy

Six Charts To Help Americans Understand The Upcoming German Election

The Cognitive Bias President Trump Understands Better Than You

Globalisierungsangst oder Wertekonflikt? (PDF)(German)

How statistics lost their power — and why we should fear what comes next

Germany’s anti-fake news lab yields mixed results

I Helped Create the Milo Trolling Playbook. You Should Stop Playing Right Into It.

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