As far-right populists stormed the stage in one European country after another in recent years, Germany looked like a positive outlier: As a centrist chancellor coasted from one victory to the next, the country’s politics remained resolutely sensible and stubbornly boring. By the time Angela Merkel won a third term in office in 2013, Germany was the last European democracy with a system of proportional representation in which far-right extremists were not represented in the national parliament.
German commentators often pointed to that fact with immense pride. For decades, historians had insisted that the country’s abnormal path to modernity had predestined it for the catastrophe of National Socialism. Now, Germany’s political class cautiously started to claim that it was pursuing a rather more positive Sonderweg: somehow, the country that had caused untold suffering in the twentieth century had learned to be uniquely immune to the depravations of politics in the twenty-first.
“Our economy is doing really well,” they’d say, with just a hint of smugness.
“We’ve learned from the past, so we’d never make a mistake like that again,” they’d add, their smugness a little more conspicuous.
Though I was deeply skeptical of this triumphalism, I sincerely hoped that it would prove to be right. I, too, wanted to think that a thriving economy could act as a bulwark against populism. And I, too, wanted to believe that countries could learn from their dark past, building up a long-lasting immunity against racist rhetoric.
We now know that it was not to be: Never in Germany’s postwar history has a far-right party gained more than 6 percent in a national election. Today, the Islamophobic, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party pulverized that record, taking over 13 percent of the vote, winning a plurality in a significant number of districts, and establishing itself as the country’s third-biggest party.
The AfD won this remarkable victory even though a more radical wing of the party took over a few months ago. It won this remarkable victory even though one of its two new leaders used distinctively Nazi rhetoric when he expressed his hope that a competitor of Turkish roots would be “disposed of” in Anatolia. And it won this remarkable victory even though the other new leader said that members of the government are “just puppets of the victors of World War II,” implying that the current political system is illegitimate.
Over the next months, the temptation to normalize the AfD will be immense. But there is nothing normal about the party or its unprecedented success: It represents a decisive break with a political consensus about questions ranging from identity to historical memory that has defined the very core of Germany’s post-war democracy. And so its arrival in the Bundestag represents the start of a genuinely new era in German politics.
The rise of the AfD will also make the country’s political system a whole lot less functional. Since the end of World War II, the German government was either led by the Christian Democrats, the major party of the center-right, often in coalition with a smaller center-right party like the Free Democratic Party, or by the Social Democrats, the major party of the center-left, often in coalition with a smaller center-left party like the Greens. This both made it possible for democratic parties to distinguish themselves from each other ideologically, and to throw a tired government out without turning to the extremes.
But while four out of every five Germans voted for either the Christian Democrats or the Social Democrats for much of the postwar era, their cumulative share of the vote has now reached a record low: In 2017, just over one in two Germans voted for one of those two parties.
The precipitous loss of support for the two main parties has two bad effects. First, to cobble together a parliamentary majority, German politicians are now forced to enter coalitions that don’t make much ideological sense: While Merkel’s Christian Democrats won a healthy plurality and she is virtually sure to serve a fourth term, it will most likely be at the helm of an unprecedented “Jamaica coalition”—one that includes her Christian Democrats, the left-wing Greens and the right-wing FDP. (The parties’ colors are black, green, and yellow like the Jamaican flag.)
Populists have long claimed that there is no real distinction between the establishment parties at the center of German political life. As these parties are forced to work together across traditional political cleavages, this old calumny is increasingly turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Second, the need for many moderate parties to clump together in unconventional constellations also makes it increasingly difficult to “throw the bums out.” When German voters were fed up with Helmut Kohl, the last center-right politician to lead the country for close to two decades, they could get rid of him without emboldening the extremes. (He lost to Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder in 1998.) But if they want to vote out Merkel (or her chosen successor) in 2021, they will find it much harder to do so without turning to the extremes: unless they vote for the far-right AfD or the post-communist Linke, there will be a good chance that any party they support will wind up in yet another coalition with her Christian Democrats.
This is why it would be a mistake to assume that the AfD’s rise will prove to be short-lived. In other European countries, populist parties have proven extremely adept at undermining trust in the political system, and in positioning themselves as the only viable alternative to an increasingly dysfunctional establishment. The coming years will give them plenty of opportunities to do the same. Though it is perfectly possible that the party will fall apart before the country next goes to vote, it is just as likely that it will be able to celebrate an even bigger victory come 2021.
In retrospect, it was deeply naïve to think that Germany would somehow prove immune to the populist rise—not because there is something uniquely rotten about the country, but rather because the populists have long been on the rise across such a variety of local contexts. And so the comeuppance of the German political class offers a lesson that is of great relevance if we are to understand the likely future of populism around the world.
A lot of complicated factors determine how strong a particular populist movement is at a particular time in a particular place. This makes it easy to over-interpret their successes as well as their defeats. At the end of 2016, the victory of Brexit and of Donald Trump somehow created an assumption that populists would now be likely to win every election. Conversely, when populists failed to win in the Netherlands or in France in the early months of 2017, the opposite assumption quickly took hold. “The populist wave,” one observer after the next concluded, “has finally crested!”
But the truth of the matter is that, for all of the idiosyncrasies that determine the outcomes of particular elections, the wider populist turn is being driven by deep and long-lasting transformations: Across North America and Western Europe, citizens suffer from stagnating living standards and an uncertain economic future. In all of these countries, they are yet to come to terms with an influx of immigrants and a changing conception of membership in the nation. And in all of these countries, the rise of the internet and of social media is making it much easier for extreme or hateful voices to leave their mark.
These structural transformations are not so rapid that populists are suddenly favored to take over the government in every country. Moderate politicians retain a real chance to react to the changes that are undermining our political system, and to stop this populist moment from turning into a populist age. But to do that, they will need to govern with courage and imagination—and prove capable of beating the populists at more than one election.
For now, moderate parties are failing at both tasks: Instead of serving their values with imaginative new policies, they simply return to business-as-usual. And instead of recognizing that populist parties pose an existential threat to the political system, they pat themselves on the back so long as they—or their friends—still retain access to government-sponsored limousines.
So, no, the radicals did not gain an outright victory in Germany today. The next German government will be uninspired and ideologically incoherent yet perfectly decent. All is not lost. And yet, it is now more important than ever to resist the temptation to let an occasional respite from the populist surge lull us into a false sense of complacency.
This battle is here to stay. We have to get serious about confronting it over the next decades, not just the next months.