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The Good and Bad in Germany's Election

While the composition of Germany’s next government remains unknown, there are already some lessons that can be drawn from the outcome of the federal election. The most important is that mainstream parties can succeed without pandering to populists and attempting to co-opt far-right movements.

PRINCETON – First, the bad news. In Germany’s federal election, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) suffered losses, but still polled in excess of 10%. Despite constant infighting and numerous scandals, the party seems set to be a lasting feature on the German political landscape. But the good news is that the election disproved various kinds of conventional wisdom about the far right: Western democracies are not fated to fight culture wars constantly; grand coalitions between center-left and center-right do not necessarily strengthen political extremes; and social democratic parties can do well without pandering to nativism and Islamophobia.

Many sophisticated observers have been saying that a struggle between cosmopolitan liberals and more “rooted” communitarians (to use as neutral a phrase as possible) defines politics in the advanced economies nowadays. While some conflicts might be understood in the context of a more or less simplistic divide between “anywheres” and “somewheres,” there are plenty of other challenges that cannot be reduced to this binary. In Germany, immigration has receded as a major concern in recent years. In the run-up to this election, citizens instead cited pensions, the future of the welfare state, and climate as the issues that concerned them most. The main parties staked out different positions on these issues, and a classic contest between center-right and center-left proved to be bad news for the far right.

The fact that citizens had a choice between two clear policy alternatives meant the typical populist complaint that all “mainstream” parties are the same, and that supposedly corrupt elites pursue the same policies to harm “the people,” hardly rang true. Nor did the grand coalition between the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) bear out the assumption that such arrangements provoke support for extremist parties. Instead, the Social Democrats signaled a clear leftward turn and a break with the era of Merkel. 

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