The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Germany — and Europe — can’t afford to accommodate the radical right

An election campaign rally for the German Alternative for Germany party in Bautzen, Germany, on Aug. 15. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

Tarik Abou-Chadi is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Zurich and the Centre for Democracy Studies Aarau.

This past weekend, elections in two states in eastern Germany, Brandenburg and Saxony, saw the populist radical-right party Alternative for Germany surge ahead, though it fell short of wins. Its success has revived an old German — and, indeed, European — debate on how best to counter the rise of the radical right.

Former leader of the Christian Social Union Franz-Josef Strauss once said that in Germany, “No legitimate political party can be right of the CSU.” This claim, which became the mantra of postwar German politics, was based on the idea that if the alliance between the CSU and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union positioned themselves enough to the right, they would be able to win the far-right share of the electorate and forestall the rise of a radical-right party.

With the emergence of the AfD as a successful challenger to the right-of-the-Union parties, many commentators, analysts and politicians have thus blamed the CDU/CSU, and especially Merkel, for not following through on Strauss’s words. In their eyes, if the CDU/CSU had only been more conservative on questions of minority rights, gender equality and immigration, it could have obstructed the AfD at the outset. This narrative is not limited to Germany: It has become a widespread way of looking at the current transformations of European politics.

As intuitively appealing as this narrative is, it stands against much of the empirical evidence and social science work that has been done to systematically investigate this question. Accommodating the radical right is a double-edged sword as it is unclear how many voters established parties can actually win back with these strategies. More worryingly for European democracies, there is reason to believe that accommodation might even strengthen the radical right in the long run.

Over the past 30 years, center-right — and also center-left — parties in western Europe have become increasingly right-wing on questions of immigration and have more generally adopted some positions from the radical right. In Germany, for example, the governing parties have passed several measures making asylum policies more restrictive since 2015. A recent analysis ahead of the upcoming Austrian parliamentary elections shows an overlap in positions of 81 percent between the Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s center-right Austrian People’s Party and the radical-right Freedom Party of Austria.

Yet these trends have clearly not prevented the growth of the radical right. Across much of western Europe, radical-right parties are doing better than ever. Since many voters of the AfD and other such parties are dedicated supporters that could never imagine voting for another party, established parties struggle to win many of them over even with a turn to more nationalist policies. As the former leader of the National Front Jean-Marie Le Pen has famously put it, “Voters always prefer the original to the copy.” But there is also a more troubling trend at play.

In a joint research project, Denis Cohen, Werner Krause and I investigated the effects of accommodating radical-right parties for more than a dozen Western European countries since the 1990s. Our recent working paper, which combines election study data on vote switching with data on party positions, finds no evidence that the radical-right vote share is reduced when established parties choose more anti-immigrant positions. If anything, the radical right is the net winner of the intensified competition over the same pool of voters.

This is supported by research showing that, when mainstream parties emphasize topics and employ frames that are associated with the radical right, they bring more attention to these topics — attention that generally benefits the very parties they seek to defeat. For example, radical-right parties benefit from higher attention to the issue of immigration, especially if voters see it through a frame of security. This means that established parties that accommodate the positions and rhetoric of the radical right actually bring them into the mainstream. This legitimization allows the radical right to appeal to new segments of the electorate and takes away the social stigma associated with activism on its behalf.

It might be tempting for establishment parties to believe the only way to defeat the radical right is to shift away from centrist and progressive positions. But calls to counter its rise with more authoritarian and nationalist positions are misguided. The hard truth is that short-term policy shifts are unlikely to weaken radical-right parties such as the AfD.

Instead, those interested in promoting liberal and democratic societies should shift the discourse away from the radical-right playbook. Politicians should stand up against the racism, sexism and homophobia promoted by these parties and should emphasize how these parties fail to provide solutions to the pressing policy questions of our time. In the long term, parties must address the increasing inequalities produced by the socioeconomic transformations of our time — inequalities that will not be solved by adopting policies from the radical right.

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