There’s a lot of breast-beating, inside and outside of Germany, about the right-wing nationalist AfD getting more than 12% of the vote and taking seats in the Bundestag. I find much of this commentary overwrought. It’s not just the rhetoric that tries to make the AfD into the second coming of the Nazis, such as this from the Telegraph:
The far-Right could return as a force to be reckoned with in Berlin politics for the first time since the Second World War.
Almost identical lazy rhetoric appears all over the place, such as this from NPR:
It’s the first time since the Second World War that a party professing such xenophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic views has been voted into the Bundestag.
I dare say that the previous time they are alluding to, the problem was not that the far-right was “a force to be reckoned with” in Germany. It’s a bit like if you were writing an article about the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster and called it “the most significant nuclear incident in Japan since the Second World War.” (I suppose they could have made it worse by calling this instead “the second time since the First World War” that the far-Right was a force to be reckoned with.)
Contrary to these portrayals, it’s not like there’s been a major move to the right. All the small parties did well, at the expense of the two large parties. The AfD consolidated the extreme-right vote because the CDU refused to pander to them. Sure, it’s unpleasant to see a xenophobic party in the parliament, but it’s still only 1/8 of the voters. I generally go on the assumption that 10% of people will do almost anything. (For example, this study found that given a choice between saving the life of an animal or of a foreign tourist, 11% of Americans said they would save the animal. The number went up to 37% if it was their own pet.*) And that party is still less explicitly racist and xenophobic than the party that controls all branches of government in the US.
The real mark of the state of German democracy is not that the party of xenophobes gets some seats in parliament — it’s not like the German political system gives minor parties a lot of influence — but rather, that there was absolutely no thought that the CDU might include them in the government. Once it was clear that the Social Democrats were no longer interested in a grand coalition, it was taken for granted that the CDU had to try to somehow form a coalition with the Greens.
Unlike in the UK, where the Conservatives would only negotiate with their extremist Northern-Irish ideological cousins in the DUP.
As I see it, the real danger of these xenophobic 10% parties is that they can lure the major right-wing parties to adopt their anti-foreigner views in order to recover “their” voters. Does anyone think it’s a sign of progress that Conservative policies were sufficiently xenophobic to make UKIP obsolete in the most recent UK general election?
* Weirdly, 12% of women said they would save their pet rather than their best friend, and 5% (but no men) would save someone else’s pet rather than their own best friend.