The German Question, Again

As noted here a few days ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel is having trouble putting together a coalition government in Germany following a terrible showing in the last election. The German result was similar to the recent French election in one respect: it represents a repudiation of the main ruling parties.

There is one big difference: while the French economy continues to stagnate, the German economy is arguably the best in the world right now, at least by its surface measures. Unemployment is below 4 percent. In fact, Timothy Garton Ash notes some unusual poll results about the voters for the new Alternative for Germany Party that is considered “far right”:

In a 2016 poll, four out of five AfD voters described their personal economic situation as “good” or “very good.” This is not a party of the economically “left behind.” It gathers the discontented from every walk of life, but those who predominate in its ranks are educated, middle-class men. A leading CDU politician told me that the angry protest letters he gets from defectors to the Alternative will typically be from a doctor, businessman, lawyer, or professor. This strong presence of the educated upper middle class distinguishes German populism from many other populisms.

In other words, the anti-establishment populism in Germany is not exactly identical with the white working class Trump voters of the upper midwest, though there are some similarities. (A lot of the AfD voters were concentrated in the former East Germany, which remains depressed relative to the rest of Germany, making it a bit like the forlorn factory towns of Ohio, Michigan, etc.) Ash puts his finger on the main factor: Culture, er, Kultur:

“It’s the economy, stupid” simply does not apply to Germany’s populist voters. Rather, it’s the Kultur. (I say Kultur, rather than simply culture, because the German word implies both culture and ethno-cultural identity, and has traditionally been counterposed to liberal, cosmopolitan Zivilisation.) In a poll shown on German television on election night, 95 percent of AfD voters said they were very worried that “we are experiencing a loss of German culture and language,” 94 percent that “our life in Germany will change too much,” and 92 percent that “the influence of Islam in Germany will become too strong.” Feeding this politics of cultural despair—to recall a famous phrase of the historian Fritz Stern—is a milieu of writers, media, and books whose arguments and vocabulary connect back to themes of an earlier German right-wing culture in the first half of the twentieth century. This is a new German right with distinct echoes of the old.

At this point, you’re probably thinking (especially since Ash’s article appears in the New York Review of Books), “here we go—AfD Germans are just like Trump voters—racist Nazi xenophobes.” But Ash goes on to explain at length how the German version of political correctness has created an understandable backlash, which is part of the point of Trump, and suggests old-fashioned liberalism (of the John Stuart Mill variety) as a better remedy:

For the rank-and-file, it is yet more evidence that the liberal elites have so little time and respect for them that they “won’t look at us even with their asses.” Worse still: they won’t even let ordinary people say what they think. In a poll conducted in spring 2016 for the Freedom Index of the John Stuart Mill Institute in Heidelberg, only 57 percent of respondents said they felt that “one can freely express one’s political opinion in Germany today.”

It’s therefore encouraging to see a growing number of German intellectuals advocating John Stuart Mill’s own response. Take on these arguments in free and open debate. Subject them to vigorous and rigorous scrutiny. Separate the wheat from the chaff. For as Mill famously argued, even a false argument can contain a sliver of truth, and the good sword of truth can only be kept sharp if constantly tested in open combat with falsehood. Otherwise the received opinion, even if it is correct, will only be held “in the manner of a prejudice.” . .

The politics are such that the CSU certainly, and the CDU sooner or later, will move to the right on issues of immigration and identity, to try to win back the populist vote—as center-right leaders have done in neighboring Austria and the Netherlands. Even the centrist Merkel’s interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, wrote earlier this year in the mass circulation Bild-Zeitung that “we are not Burqa”—a ludicrous sentence that may be translated as “give us your votes rather than defecting to the Alternative.”

I wonder if the left in America might follow this advice? Maybe a few. Damon Linker of The Week seems to get it in his column out this morning:

Just two years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the French-Algerian author (and member of the French resistance) Albert Camus deployed the extended metaphor of a pestilential plague to write about the rise of right-wing totalitarianism. The plague begins underground and in dark corners, with rats spreading it among the human population. To defend against it, its would-be victims deploy public health measures, including quarantine.

This approach to understanding and defending against the far right has become pervasive in Europe, where some countries make it a crime to espouse virulently anti-liberal views, and where it is treated as obvious by centrists that far-right parties should never be permitted to join governing coalitions. As long as such parties received few votes, this restriction seemed like a sensible precaution as well as a powerful statement that liberal toleration has its limits.

But now that far-right parties are receiving a significant share of the vote, the reliance on quarantine has become problematic. The center-right party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been struggling to form a government in large part because it refuses to consider permitting the upstart far-right AfD party, which came in a strong third in recent elections, to participate in a governing coalition. That failure could well lead to a new round of elections in which the AfD uses this very weakness among the centrists to increase its vote share further, thereby making the formation of a government even more difficult. . .

The daunting truth is that bad ideas can only be defeated by better ideas. Repeatedly denouncing the bad ideas as bad simply isn’t sufficient. Liberals need to convince the greatest possible number of voters that liberalism can and will improve their lives, and far more so than the morally heinous proposals of the far right. Many liberals think they’re already doing this, but the proof is in the election results, which show that they need to do better. And imposing quarantines won’t get the job done.


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