Love Actually – Are ‘Losers of Globalization’ and the AfD a Perfect Match?
From almost making the leap into the German parliament in its foundation year 2013, over pulling almost 7% in the following European elections and eventually entering the German Bundestag in 2017, the AfD caught global attention. The reasons behind the remarkable rise of the German far-right party have often been discussed by scholars. Already long before the existence of the AfD, Betz introduced the thesis that ‘losers of globalization’, meaning people left behind by modernization and the accompanied change in the labour market, tend to vote for far-right parties.
In respect of the AfD, arguments of socio-economic nature and especially the thesis that the success of the AfD grounds on the electorate of ‘losers of globalization’ polarise. The thesis finds support through an analysation of the German labour market which makes a correlation between the structural weak East and the strong turnouts in East Germany apparent. Contrarily, the observation of the actual socio-economic background of the electorate of the AfD makes it almost impossible to apply the thesis to the case of the AfD.
The Initial Phase
In order to understand the rise of the AfD, its development needs to be divided into two parts: Its initial phase until 2015 and the following phase, especially characterised by an increasing radicalization. The former was indeed already affected by economic policies promoting a stop to the further deepening of European integration. However, these policies targeted economic liberalism not measures against globalization. Interestingly enough the AfD also passed in the course of the 2021 federal election a program that can be considered anything but definitely not beneficial for socially deprived groups.
The financial and euro crisis represent additional factors the AfD was able to take advantage of. Since all German parliamentary parties took the same stance, namely bailing Greece out and saving the euro under all circumstances, the AfD was able to fill the gap of opposition in the political spectrum. Simultaneously, Merkel recalibrated the economic stance of the CDU, traditionally the German conservative party, more to the centre giving the AfD even more space to grow. The initial phase of the AfD was, hence, rather characterised by its oppositional socio-economic policies and arguably the mistakes of its opponents. Globalization, on the other hand, played a minor role in its early success.
The Electorate of the AfD
The biggest electoral constant in the success of the AfD is to be found in Eastern Germany. The new federal states are structurally weak and additionally, inhabitants in the East enjoy a less desirable socio-economic situation than in West Germany. In this regard, one could argue that lower income and the fear of unemployment lead to emigration which again results in a climate of uncertainty and anxiety. The fear of unemployment mainly derives from the structure of the labour market. The Eastern German labour market is especially characterised by handcraft businesses and rural areas. Globalization and technology made a lot of these businesses redundant as well as the importance of services in urban areas increased. In this regard, it seems nothing but logical that AfD voters indeed have the redistribution of wealth as their main motive.
However, deriving the validation of the thesis of ‘losers of globalisation’ for the case of the AfD solely on this assumption, is too simple. Keeping in mind that the AfD promotes economic liberalism – why would anyone, disadvantaged by economic change, vote for a party that intensifies this drawback?
And indeed, this perspective on the electoral turnouts in East Germany does by no means reflect consensus. In respect of this, relative deprivation appears to be a promising concept. It implies that voters support the AfD not due to a worsened economic position but due to a feeling of mistreatment. In this case, this alludes to the sentiment of unequal treatment of East Germany compared to West Germany. The comparison of the number of top positions in East and West serves here as evidence. In fact, top positions in business, judiciary and politics are significantly less occupied by East Germans than by West Germans.
Besides that, the thesis that the success of the AfD grounds on a socio-economic homogenous group is further contested. If we take a look at the socio-economic background of the AfD electorate, we encounter a varying field and probably most important, the norm-AfD voter, even within these varying groups, draws an above-average income. This is further underpinned by studies that prove that the decisive factor to vote AfD is not class-affiliation but rather cultural policy-preferences.
No Perfect Match, but …
The success of the AfD is due to various causes. The AfD is an example where the thesis that ‘losers of globalization’ vote far-right can hardly find validation. Only by disregarding several factors one could argue that the success of the AfD grounds on the support of people left behind by modernisation. Nevertheless, the correlation between the structurally weak German East and the large local turnouts is striking. To answer this puzzle a glance at the socio-cultural motives of the AfD electorate could lead to elucidation. In light of this, the thesis that structural weakness leads to resentments against alien cultures which again provides a breeding ground for the far-right could serve as a starting point.