Populists in search of votes
Populists are also making their voices heard in Germany. How do they operate and what do they mean for democracy? A political scientist provides answers.
Germany has not been spared the development of populist movements and parties currently being observed around the globe. Populists take up issues that are perceived as urgent problems by large sections of the population. They attribute the causes of these problem situations to failing political and societal elites. In Germany, the emergence of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing populist party that is now represented in all state parliaments and the Bundestag, was initially linked with criticism of Germany’s participation in the euro area. Following the immigration of refugees from the Middle East, migration policy has become the dominant issue of the populists.
Populist politics always has a social-protectionist agenda. This involves a rejection of migrants’ economic and social policy rights. However, cultural tensions also become linked with migration. The preservation of people’s own collective identity moves to the centre of debate, in which right-wing populist positions lament the loss of a “western” or “German” identity.
However, populism stands not only for specific ideas, but also for a change in the form of political debate. It is an integral part of populist discourse that it expresses itself primarily in the so-called social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. The AfD is the German party with the largest and most intense Internet presence. That is how echo chambers emerge in which only one particular opinion is endorsed. Furthermore, the anonymity of Internet communication leads to a release of linguistic aggression previously never seen on such a scale in political discourse.
In the populist perception, political and societal elites promote developments that are considered dangerous and simultaneously prevent criticism of them in the traditional media. Accordingly, the populists demand the removal of these elites from the centre of the political system, the media, parliaments and governments. An ethnically homogeneous “people” should directly exercise power instead. Populism is therefore accompanied by a radical critique of democracy and the system of representative parliamentary government. Populists demand sweeping system change and, as a result, they open up their right-wing fringes for representatives of extremist right-wing ideologies that revive certain elements of the German fascism and National Socialism of the 1930s and 1940s.
Prof Dr Thomas Noetzel teaches political theory and the history of ideas at the University of Marburg.
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