Political representation and the AfD: Intolerably intolerant?

By Mag­a­li Mohr.

Should open soci­eties inte­grate the posi­tions of those who seek to go against its core prin­ci­ples and val­ues? Using data from our Voic­es on Val­ues sur­vey, we focused on the right to polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and found that draw­ing the bound­aries of an open soci­ety is a del­i­cate bal­anc­ing act.

Karl Pop­per said it all in 1945 when he wrote of the “para­dox of tolerance”.

“Unlim­it­ed tol­er­ance must lead to the dis­ap­pear­ance of tol­er­ance. If we extend unlim­it­ed tol­er­ance even to those who are intol­er­ant, if we are not pre­pared to defend a tol­er­ant soci­ety against the onslaught of the intol­er­ant, then the tol­er­ant will be destroyed, and tol­er­ance with them.”

Now that right-wing par­ties and move­ments are on the rise across Europe, the ques­tion of whether and how an open soci­ety should respond is again topical.

In Ger­many, almost a year has passed since the xeno­pho­bic AfD par­ty, with some of its mem­bers open­ly deny­ing the Holo­caust and brand­ing it a myth, entered the Bundestag.

As the first far right-wing par­ty to obtain enough votes to enter par­lia­ment since the Ger­man Par­ty (Deutsche Partei) in the 1960s, its arrival in the Bun­destag was seen as a “his­tor­i­cal set back, (…) a test for Ger­man democ­ra­cy”, if not an “attack on democ­ra­cy”. The ques­tion of “How much AfD can democ­ra­cy tol­er­ate?” was often asked.

But rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy and the right to run for polit­i­cal office are fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of Ger­man law. Ralf Dahren­dorf, one of the most renowned Ger­man lib­er­al intel­lec­tu­als of the past cen­tu­ry, said “lib­er­al democ­ra­cy is gov­ern­ment by conflict”.

So how should the pub­lic out­cry over the AfD’s elec­tion be judged? How do Ger­mans bal­ance the right to polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion with their sup­port for demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples? In short, what do they think of the AfD’s pres­ence in parliament?

Fig­ure 1: The impor­tance of polit­i­cal representation

Asked about the impor­tance for a good soci­ety of par­lia­men­tary rep­re­sen­ta­tion, 89 per­cent said it was essen­tial. A third had said absolute­ly essen­tial (Fig­ure 1). Yet when asked whether adher­ence to demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples was even more impor­tant, 60 per­cent said yes (Fig­ure 2). A quar­ter of respon­dents con­sid­ered the right to polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion to be equal­ly impor­tant, and a small minor­i­ty of 14 per­cent thought that right more impor­tant than demo­c­ra­t­ic principles.

Fig­ure 2: Trade-off polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion vs adher­ence to demo­c­ra­t­ic principles

These find­ings are par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing because Ger­man elec­toral law stip­u­lates that to enter the Bun­destag polit­i­cal par­ties must either win at least five per­cent of votes or have three direct­ly elect­ed seats. Intro­duced in 1953, this thresh­old was intend­ed to avoid the frag­men­ta­tion of post-war Germany’s new par­lia­ment. Every par­ty enter­ing the Bun­destag must there­fore have enough pop­u­lar back­ing to show it is rel­e­vant to a sub­stan­tial seg­ment of society.

Yet almost two-thirds of the Sit­u­a­tion Room’s Ger­man respon­dents nev­er­the­less con­sid­er adher­ence to demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples as being « more essen­tial » than the right to polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The fact that the AfD entered the Bun­destag means that the five per­cent thresh­old clear­ly doesn’t pro­vide enough pro­tec­tion to ensure that all par­ties in par­lia­ment have lib­er­al demo­c­ra­t­ic views.

So, in want­i­ng to pro­tect democ­ra­cy, those opposed to the AfD are will­ing to dis­card polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion in favour of adher­ence to demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples. Where­as AfD vot­ers, who prob­a­bly know that some of their party’s views are con­sid­ered unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic, are at least twice as like­ly as peo­ple affil­i­at­ed with oth­er par­ties to be in favour of the right to polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion (Fig­ure 3). Open soci­ety prin­ci­ples, as in this instance, may have unex­pect­ed sup­port­ers, which demon­strates the need for sub­tle­ty in under­stand­ing the moti­va­tions behind some polit­i­cal choices.

Fig­ure 3: Trade-off by par­ty preferences

This tells us two things: First, that a sim­plis­tic under­stand­ing of open soci­ety “advo­cates” and “ene­mies” is mis­lead­ing. Regard­ing the AfD, this means that we need a more nuanced under­stand­ing of AfD vot­ers’ moti­va­tions. Sec­ond, that pro­tect­ing open soci­ety val­ues and lib­er­al democ­ra­cy is an increas­ing­ly del­i­cate bal­anc­ing act.

Then how do Ger­mans assess the right to polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion when the AfD is con­cerned? Over­all, 57 per­cent con­sid­ered AfD’s pres­ence in par­lia­ment as “very bad” or “rather bad” for democ­ra­cy, but there were cross-par­ty vari­a­tions (Fig­ure 4). Apart from AfD sup­port­ers them­selves, vot­ers for the left­ists Die Linke and lib­er­al FDP were the least like­ly to see this as a bad thing.

Fig­ure 4: Eval­u­a­tions of AfD’s entry into the Bundestag

The Free Democ­rats (FDP), the par­ty of lib­er­al intel­lec­tu­al Dahren­dorf, has tra­di­tion­al­ly advo­cat­ed par­lia­men­tary con­flict. But that doesn’t explain why 19 per­cent of Die Linke’s vot­ers thought that the AfD’s pres­ence in par­lia­ment was good for democracy?

One pos­si­ble expla­na­tion, applic­a­ble both to the FDP and to Die Linke, may be their oppo­si­tion to Angela Merkel’s fourth term as chan­cel­lor. There is increas­ing frus­tra­tion, espe­cial­ly among oppo­si­tion par­ties, with her con­sen­su­al style of lead­er­ship. Rather than an approval of AfD poli­cies, vot­ers’ respons­es might be seen as hope for a return to live­ly debate in parliament.

What does all this mean for the open soci­ety and Ger­mans’ chang­ing polit­i­cal views? It clear­ly sug­gests that where we draw the bound­aries of an open soci­ety is a mat­ter of nego­ti­a­tion. It is a socio-polit­i­cal bal­anc­ing act, as much as it is a test of vot­ers’ per­son­al interests.

Can this tol­er­ance para­dox be resolved? Pop­per said we should claim “in the name of tol­er­ance, the right not to tol­er­ate the intol­er­ant”. But where does intol­er­ance begin? Must we accept the ver­bal stig­ma­ti­sa­tion of refugees, as prac­tised by the AfD? The erect­ing of cru­ci­fix­es in pub­lic insti­tu­tions while pro­hibit­ing oth­er reli­gions’ sym­bols by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment in Bavaria? Are we our­selves not becom­ing intol­er­ant by not tol­er­at­ing the intol­er­ant? Per­haps we must accept that open soci­ety val­ues can some­times clash, and that we must trust the abil­i­ty of an open soci­ety to live with this kind of conflict.

Mag­a­li Mohr is a Research Fel­low at d|part.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

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