German Elections: Why The Far Right Has Fizzled

For months, the news media couldn't stop talking about them. But now the so-called 'disenfranchised' have again gone quiet. Did they ever really exist?

Anti-AfD graffiti in Berlin
Anti-AfD graffiti in Berlin
Jennifer Wilton

BERLIN — Mr. H. gives off mixed signals with his socks and sandals, all purpose vest, angry eyes and friendly smile. He sits in front of his house in a sprawl of high-rises on the border of the city. It's early summer, and no one has put up campaign posters just yet. But Mr. H is already thinking about the elections in September.

Mr. H. is a man with a long, varied history. He's been a police officer as well as a railway employee. He's also diabetic, was unemployed at one point, and retired early. "Maybe that's too many details," he says. "Who really cares? No one," he asks and answers. Mr. H, to use his own words, feels "disenfranchised." Everyone out here feels disenfranchised. Forgotten by politicians. Ignored by everyone else.

Die Abgehängten, or the disenfranchised. The term was thrown around a lot in the early part of the summer. Politicians used it. So did journalists. It was discussed and written about extensively.

This group was used to explain many things, from the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to online bullying, street brawling and populism in general. It was posited too as proof of other phenomena: aloof politics, the arrogance of the elite, social division. The concept mixed with others like "the enraged citizen" and "protest vote." It was a symptom, it seemed, as well as a warning.

But then the disenfranchised fell silent, just as the popularity of the AfD dipped in the national polls.

Tracing the narrative

So who were these people? Did they exist at all? Or have the forgotten become forgotten once more? The concept took shape last year in the months leading to Donald Trump's election, which was interpreted very quickly as the "revenge" of the marginalized — and not just in the United States.

The narrative back then went like this: There were areas, particularly in the countryside and the Rust Belt, once the industrial heart of the American Northeast, where people had been ignored for a long time, people who were not heard, who were in precarious social circumstances. And soon the narrative went global. This wasn't just an American trend: Look at Britain and Brexit, France and Marine Le Pen, Germany and the AfD! Populism had an audience everywhere. Everywhere, people on the geographical and social periphery who had once been forgotten were being remembered.

Trump himself bellowed during the election campaign: "I love the poorly educated." In Germany, around 40% of all AfD voters felt "isolated," according to an October 2016 Allensbach Institute study. But hardly anyone declared that in public in Germany — on the contrary. The term "disenfranchised" also expressed what the supposedly marginalized were resisting: the perceived arrogance of the elites.

Very soon there were postscripts to the narrative, based on analyses of populist voters. The phenomenon was not just a matter of the people who were economically marginalized. It had to do with people of different backgrounds, too, those who felt marginalized by the urban, cosmopolitan, liberal elites who dominated the public discourse and, admittedly, now led the discourse on the marginalized.

The populists' message appeals to people across social strata.

But was that narrative accurate? From an empirical standpoint, argues sociologist Harald Welzer, the concept has been "highly questionable" from the very beginning, at least in Germany, which has a completely different situation compared to the United States. Germany, he argues, is also unlike France, where de-industrialization and centralization played a significant role in the rise of right-wing populism. "To compare these situations is humbug," the sociologist insists.

The discussion about marginalization has centered around the idea that society has failed to address social inequalities, Welzer argues. But this ignores an important point, "that the populists' message appeals to people across social strata." And populists have always existed. "It is in no way a new phenomenon," Welzer says. The one thing that has changed is that populists now have more ways to draw attention to themselves.

Werner Patzelt, a political science professor from Dresden, has experience with the self-proclaimed disenfranchised. Among other things, he studied the populist, anti-Muslim Pegida Movement from the outset — some say too closely, others say with less prejudice than anyone else. Patzelt spoke relatively early of a delicate "those up there/us down here" attitude, spread by people from different backgrounds. It was the first symptom of right-wing populism, a political fashion that eventually spread.

His most recent study deals with anxiety over the future and resentment. He argues that "disenfranchisement" is also a "convenient shorthand" for many other things. "Not everyone who doesn't belong to the elite is disenfranchised." But he says the phenomenon is clearly a warning signal.

The man on the street

Many see it this way, and so politicians and editors have decided to investigate the phenomenon in deserted villages and dreary high-rise housing complexes. In eastern and western Germany, the media ran reports on the precarious situation of people like Mr. H, in low-income housing zones, small towns, and so-called urban hotspots.

Unsurprisingly, they came across people with similar backgrounds. Some seemed unapproachable, but others spoke up. There was a policeman in a leadership position who no longer trusted the state with security policy; an unemployed worker who didn't trust anyone, least of all himself; and a nurse who saw her job threatened by less costly laborers, among others.

In addition to these sample surveys, a recent study and survey commissioned by the Bö​ckler Foundation, affiliated with the Green Party, found that susceptibility to right-wing populist ideas is tied to the subjective perception of one's own circumstances, not an objective social situation. One's political persuasion often stems from a personal sense of a loss of control, privately and politically.

Politics cannot create a perfect world.

Sociologists have for years made a connection between modern times and the loss of control, a sense of insecurity and anxiety. Globalization and digitalization contribute to the feeling of being marginalized.

"What's new," says Welzer, "is that this view is accepted everywhere, that the situation is dangerous even though nothing has really changed in our comfortable lives. That goes for all layers of society."

Still, others see very real and persisting problems. Green Party lawmaker Britta Hasselmann says social inequalities are growing and people are noticing. "This needs to be countered by targeted promotion of structurally weak regions as well as by strengthening the social security systems, the creation of fair employment and the promotion of education and training," she said.

Patzelt, for his part, also believes that the phenomenon is a symptom of real problems, namely the feasibility of the welfare state, the question of fair wages amid international competition, and internal cohesion in an immigrant society. The underlying problem, he says, is that people are experiencing alienation. "We have gradually discovered that politics cannot create a perfect world." What then, is the solution? Patzelt doesn't have the answer, but suggests good will and fatalism. And beginning with small solutions one can live with.

In the forest of high-rise complexes where Mr. H. has lived for several decades, the AfD won many votes in the last state election, but no party can claim a majority. More than half the people here are expected to skip this month's federal election. But not Mr. H. No matter what, he still plans to vote, and he's already convinced some of his friends to join him.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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