Donald Trump arraigned, Boris Johnson expunged, Silvio Berlusconi dead. You could say this was a bad fortnight for the populists. The backlash against them is in full swing. But so is the backlash against the backlash. In Europe, at least, populism is on the rise again. It will get worse.
The best way to think about populism, and political trends in general, is to distinguish between causes and triggers. The rise in immigration that accelerated in the last decade was a trigger. It sent Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy into government. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally is now France’s leading opposition party. And the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is growing stronger and stronger too.
The deeper cause that is pushing voters towards extremist parties is economic and social marginalisation – or the fear thereof. Our societies have seen enormous changes in the past two decades, brought about by a triple whammy: globalisation, immigration and digitalisation. Together, they raised the GDP of our economies, but left many people behind.
The AfD has its strongholds in the most deprived parts of eastern Germany. Besides immigration, the party has two other themes. The biggest is its opposition to climate change policies. Germans have only recently woken up to the consequences of the EU’s decision to phase out the sale of new fuel-driven cars by 2035. This will have huge implications for how people live and work, for commuters and for rural communities. The AfD frames this issue as a metropolitan conspiracy. The Greens, who are driving the new policies in the government, have urban roots. So has Olaf Scholz’s SPD. This is a town-vs-country political conflict, with some similarities to what happened in the UK during the Brexit years.
The AfD is the only party opposed outright to climate change policies. It is polling at an average of 19 per cent, an all-time record for the party. The first polls have already come in with support at 20 per cent. I put the AfD’s total potential at around 30 per cent – though I don’t believe it will get to this level by the next elections in 2025. The reason I place the AfD’s potential so high is that the losers of German politics have nowhere else to go: farmers, long-distance commuters, poor homeowners, and anyone who has acquired specialised skills that will soon no longer be in demand. They live in a world that is shifting against them, in a country that is becoming less willing and able to support them.
The AfD’s other big theme is its opposition to military support for Ukraine. Scholz, I am happy to acknowledge, has abandoned his previously shifty position, and is now unambiguously on the side of Ukraine. Germans, by and large, are now resigned to there being no return to the status quo ante in German-Russian relations. Politics towards China has also become more cautious. A change has taken place.
While the centre of gravity in German politics is shifting, a strong minority remains deeply rooted in the old world. They either support Vladimir Putin, or prefer to stay neutral. This is mostly so in eastern Germany. Right now, the AfD is the only German party that actively opposes weapons deliveries to Ukraine.
The best outcome for the political centre would be all of the following: a decisive Ukrainian victory that puts an end to these discussions; a reprieve on green legislation; and successful industrial modernisation. I am sceptical on all three points. I see the war dragging on for a long time; green legislation will continue, albeit at a slightly slower pace; most importantly, Germany will struggle to wean itself off its old ways of doing business.
Putin’s invasion upended so many things Germany took for granted: cheap gas; supply chains spanning the Eurasian continent; permanent export surpluses; and low inflation. Inflation has harmed industrial firms’ competitiveness, and left people with lower real incomes. For years, I have raised concerns that Germany’s large trade surpluses were unsustainable. The era of high export surpluses has now ended.
Even if Germany succeeds in modernising itself, it will leave people behind. There will be winners and losers.
The AfD is the party of the losers. This is a large constituency – large enough to upset the delicate political balance. As we saw in the UK and the US in the last decade, the dominant metropolitan political consensus was not representative of politics at large. To this day, pollsters systematically underestimate the strength of extremist parties. It happened in Hungary last year, and in Turkey this year.
The AfD is not going to form the next government. But if it wins 20-25 per cent of the vote, it will be fiendishly difficult for the centrist parties to form a coalition. Scholz’s coalition lost the majority in the polls some time ago. Even the old fallback position of a so-called grand coalition between the centre-left SPD and the centre-right CDU/CSU is no longer assured of a majority. They might need a third party. This is how the Weimar Republic ended in 1933. The Nazis and Communists became so strong in the early 1930s that they forced the centrist parties into mega-coalitions that ended up committing one policy error after another.
The AfD is not the Nazi Party. But it is on the extreme right. For me, the single most worrying position is not so much that its politicians want to leave the EU – but that they want to disband it. As the world polarises, so does German politics. The AfD is becoming one of those poles.
This article appears in the 21 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The AI wars