When Trust in Democracy Threatens Its Continuance: An Alternative to Germany

BY DEIRDRA BRADLEY

The German Parliament in Berlin (Reuters/Axel Schmidt).

“Behind the scenes a small and powerful group of elites within the political parties is secretly in charge, and they are responsible for the misguided development of past decades,” the manifesto for the emerging German political party called Alternative für Deutschland warns. The manifesto promises peace from political dishonesty, pride towards the strengthening of Germany outside of the European Union, and putting forward the German people’s interests following the 2015 migrant crisis.

In contrast to other countries’ governments facing the Arab Spring, the Syrian government resisted liberal change by launching a civil war in March 2011 against rebels within the country. The ongoing civil unrest within Syria has led to the migration of an estimated 11 million Syrian people since 2011 from the country, double the number of refugees from Afghanistan, the next largest origin of refugees to move into Europe.

Germany welcomed asylum seekers, justifying its open-door policy through the constitutional provision under Article 16a, which states, “Persons persecuted on political grounds shall have the right of asylum.” In 2015, Europe had more than 1.3 million asylees residing on the continent. Germany, while not the only destination of migrants during this time, received 442,000 asylum seekers’ applications when this policy was enacted in 2015. When asked on their feelings of how the EU was handling the sudden influx of refugees, Germans polled heavily against the EU, with a solid 67 percent of respondents blaming the EU for the changing social landscape in Germany. The strengthened negativity towards asylees and migrant people has caused the voting population to move towards political parties on the fringe that are promising to quell the onslaught of people making their way into Europe and settling in Germany.

This tense political environment has given rise to the populist movement, Alternative für Deutschland, which is fighting for a return to traditional German society. Outsiders, as the AfD portrays, do not belong in an established German society while they propagate cultures foreign to traditional German values. The AfD spreads imagery of violence done to Germans by the Syrian refugees and brings fear to the German people that their culture is being uprooted and destroyed to make room for something new. This party and others across Europe like it have marked the sudden return of nationalism common in the 20th century. People want to feel as if they are being heard and represented by their own local governments rather than a distant EU.

Those within parties such as the AfD claim to represent the people’s interests and voice dismay for the corruption of government entities. Yet they themselves may be acting in ways divisive to the ideals of democracy held close to heart in countries such as Germany. The rhetoric of the AfD is reminiscent to that from the presidential campaign of Donald Trump in 2015-16. Both called for the growth of their nations and a return to traditional values. They have realized that each of their support comes from the common people who feel that they are not being heard by those that are supposed to be representing them. In Germany’s case, the policymakers affecting border policies reside far off in the EU’s headquarters of Brussels, Belgium. Following President Trump’s subsequent electoral victory in 2016, intellectuals privately asked whether it was possible for a democratic society to backslide into an undemocratic entity given present societal conditions. As once was done within the Weimar Republic to make room for the Third Reich, the AfD utilizes undemocratic rhetoric in opposition to establishments within Germany in order to stand out as an option to move towards as the public opinion grows sour.

Democracy faces subterfuge when a political group gaining power decides that the press should not be trusted by the people. Alexander Gauland, the political leader of the AfD, does not wish to expel all print and media press, but instead “change the imbalance of media to [the AfD’s] advantage” by restricting press activity from those who oppose the AfD and allowing more press access from those who support the party. By making the common person distrustful of certain reporting outlets, Gauland can more easily surround the AfD and its allies with a biased press reporting only good things about the party and bad things about its enemies. This tactic is similar to that of Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, whose government has put into place state-owned media outlets and has funneled private media outlets to companies owned by his allies, both of which are aiming to project outwards the same viewpoints Orban holds himself. In 2015, Prime Minister Orban’s allies owned only 31 media outlets, but already in 2018 we have seen a dramatic increase to over 500 news groups under their control. Restricting free press endangers the people’s rights of awareness to potential governmental crimes. Cover-ups should be reported so that there is always a watchdog focused on the government which would give people the chance to condemn or praise their government’s actions for themselves. By actively supporting these press restrictions, the AfD promotes propaganda which cannot be deciphered as true or false, but rather as for or against the party ideals.

Democratic societies reach crises when a political party or movement gaining traction calls upon the support of violent, hate-filled groups. At the AfD-led march in Chemnitz in August 2018, neo-Nazis marched side-by-side with party members of the AfD. Those protesting that day were seen giving the Nazi salute and attacking those appearing to be of a foreign ancestry. The AfD’s willingness to draw support from groups with criminal histories shows that political parties birthed in a democracy can still try and find support from those wishing to shut down democracy in order for the ideologies of the party to become more visible. Although 79 percent of Germans believe that right-wing fanaticism is a threat to the democratic process, the AfD is still able to grow by drawing support from those on the fringe of societies in the hope that this will eventually cause a mainstream movement of the people supporting the AfD.

The idea of the “democratic republic” has been normalized in the Western world as a model for other societies. People win elections due to popular support, and likely support can be found within a group of like-minded individuals forming a political party. The AfD has even come under the ire of German officials, who are deciding if the party demonstrates “real evidence of efforts against the liberal democratic order.” For a party to become a threat to the system which it operates in, its fringes must become part of its leadership. With the AfD charactering refugees as “invaders” and using its influence to spread fear, this threat has clearly become a reality. A citizen’s right to vote representatives out of office should work to protect the nation against internal threat, but if a politically-minded person can use democratic values in ways to curb democratic processes from within then democratic institutions are jeopardized in a far more subtle way. People would like to think that democracy keeps authoritarians out of office, but it could just give them legitimacy.

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