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 focussed on the right to political representation, and found that drawing the boundaries of an open society is a delicate balancing act.

Final Tile Germany Series 3Karl 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

graph 1

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

graph 2

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

graph 3

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

last graph

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.

 The author of this article, Magali Mohr, is a Research Fellow at d|part. The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own

Twitter: @magali_mohr



Young Germans 2018 - Divided, but not tearing each other apart

By Magali Mohr

Young people in Germany are polarised in their support or rejection of the open society, according to research by the Open Society European Policy Institute and d|part

Flickr Robert Louis Clemens allnewanddoneYoung people in Germany project contradictory images. On the one hand, they are said to value stability, on the other they are seen as passionate progressives.

The pragmatic “Merkel generation” in adulthood has known only one chancellor, and surveys and media regularly portray a yearning for stability and order. Unlike previous generations, they seek normality and mainstream values. They want to fit in (Calmbach et al. 2016:475).

At the same time, they are strong advocates of openness, tolerance and the Willkommenskultur towards immigrants. When hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers arrived in Germany in the summer of 2015, young Germans made up the largest numbers of volunteers (Karakayali & Kleist, 2016:12-13). Few of them appear to be attracted to nationalism or patriotism (Calmbach et al. 2016:472), and they are more wary of xenophobia than immigration.

What do these contradictions mean for the open society? Are there two distinct groups of young Germans, each with their own views? Or is this a deeply divided generation? Our Voices on Values survey looks at the values of the under-25-year-olds to shed light on this apparent paradox.

People in the survey were asked which attributes were more, less or equally important to what they considered a good society. They were also asked to trade off 14 attributes usually considered to be those of an open society – freedom of religion, freedom of expression, protection of minority rights – for 14 items that might restrict these freedoms – social cohesion, political stability, economic well-being.

Divided but not split asunder

Examining how Germans of all ages responded to these trade-off questions we found that those aged 18 to 24 appeared divided but not to the point of being torn asunder. Groups of young people apparently have distinct views on the open society. Some 39 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds refuse to trade off open society attributes. They believe in values like freedom of expression and the protection of minorities. Some 36 percent, however, are consistently in favour of policies promoting social cohesion, political stability and economic wellbeing, when having to choose against increased migration, religious tolerance and other open society attributes.

This pattern is unique to young people (Figure 1). Only 9 percent of 18-to-24-year-old Germans said that both issues in the trade-off were equally important for a good society, while more than a third of over 55-year-olds consistently thought so. Jan Eichhorn has concluded elsewhere that, for the overall population, we cannot assume a strong schism between open and closed society views, because of the large group of “in-betweens” who favour both. The youngest age group, however, seem to be more willing to argue both ways.

fig 1

 Not all young Germans value political stability – but many do

When asked whether a good society needed openness of government rather than political stability, 61 percent of young Germans said political stability was the most important. This is in line with other youth surveys showing that stability occupies an important place in young Germans’ understanding of a good society.

But for almost a quarter of the same age group, it was more important that groups critical of the government be able to engage in dialogue with the ruling parties. Out of all the age groups, the 18-to-34-year-olds are the most committed to government openness. But only 15 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds considered both aspects as equally important, while among all other age groups more than a third of respondents chose the in-between position.

Fig 2

 Mixed news for the open society in Germany

What these patterns may mean is that young people – more so than older generations – are ready to make clear-cut choices about what constitutes a good society. This could be good news, but it also implies that for many young Germans there appears to be little room for consensus between those who support open society attributes and those who would rather see the government guarantee social cohesion, political stability and economic wellbeing. With fewer “in-betweens” defending both ends of the scale, young Germans may also be easier prey to simplistic yet effective populist discourse in the media and elsewhere, for instance that protecting minority rights is incompatible with security.

Above all, these results show that young people in Germany are not a homogeneous group. Germany’s young people are very different from the older generations in their views of what makes a good society. They are also more divided. This can change, of course, as values change over a lifetime, whether with age or different socio-economic circumstances.

But contacts made in a person’s younger years are widely considered to influence a lifetime of core values, like the kind of society a person wants to live in. According to social scientist Russell Dalton, “Once learned, values are stable beliefs and relatively impervious to later-life changes in the social or personal environments.” The values they consider most important may change over time, but a degree of division and polarisation among those Germans now aged between 18 and 24 is likely to persist.

This is mixed news for the open society, implying on the one hand that a substantial number of young Germans are, and will probably remain, firm supporters of open society values. On the other hand, a divided society is a society in which compromise is more difficult to reach and a common ground harder to find, two keys to an open and inclusive society. The biggest challenge for the future of the open society in Germany will be to bridge societal divides and to address the simplistic view that stability and openness are mutually exclusive.

 The author of this article, Magali Mohr, is a Research Fellow at d|part.

Twitter: @magali_mohr

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own


If you want to read further:

Jugend 2015. 17. Shell Jugendstudie. Hurrelmann, A. M., K., Quenzel, K. G. & TNS Infratest, S. (2015).   Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag.

Calmbach, M., Borgstedt, S., Borchard, I., Thomas, P. M. & Flaig, B.B. (2016) Wie ticken Jugendliche 2016? Lebenswelten von Jugendlichen im Alter von 14 bis 17 Jahren in Deutschland. Springer Link.

Dalton, R. (1981) The Persistence of Values and Life Cycle Changes. Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift, Sonderheft ‘Politische Psychologie’.

Karakayali, S & Kleist, J. O. (2016) EFA-Studie 2: Strukturen und Motive der ehrenamtlichen Flüchtlingsarbeit in Deutschland, Forschungsbericht: Ergebnisse einer explorativen Umfrage vom November/Dezember 2015, Berlin: Berliner Institut für empirische Integrations- und Migrationsforschung (BIM), Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.


Why Germany’s leading political parties should seek votes from the “in-betweens”

By Jan Eichhorn

Far from being polarised, research by the Open Society European Policy Institute and dpart shows surprising nuances in people’s attitudes towards open and closed society values.

The in betweensPolitical parties have long used economic surveys to frame public attitudes in terms of Left and Right. But this Left-Right confrontation tends to overlook values, and does little to help understand the development of political opinions and choices. Germany’s political parties have begun to understand this and are now trying to engage potential voters on cultural issues.

CDU and CSU politicians are arguing for a so-called ‘Leitkultur’ (a leading culture) and the German Ministry of the Interior has been promoting the concept of ‘Heimat’ (the romantic notion of homeland).

These debates centre on the inward-looking nature of a closed society, while other parties are championing open society values. The SPD’s election manifesto advocated a ‘modern Germany open to the world’, and suggested that open society values are under threat. The party emphasised the need to ‘fight for the freedom for everyone to voice their opinion and publish it.

After eight years of coalition governments (2005-2009 and 2013-2017) and now in another so-called ‘grand coalition’, the two parties apparently want to define their differences along open and closed society lines.

This polarisation encourages political argument and debate, but it also conveys a sense of insurmountable, perhaps irreconcilable, duality. This suggests that on the one hand there are those who care deeply about German traditions and culture, and on the other there are more globally-minded Germans who want to help refugees and ensure respect for human rights.

These political parties each shape their strategies with their different messages. They tend to assume that voters’ attitudes are at opposite ends of the scale. Yet our research raises significant doubts about the validity of this binary concept of Germans’ political and social attitudes.

Figure 1: The importance of open and closed society evaluations in Germany (scatterplot)

Figure 1

We have used data from a survey conducted in Germany in February and March 2018 to challenge this long-established approach. We asked participants to assess the importance of seven open society and seven closed society views.

We then computed the two scores to measure the overall importance that people attached to each area (methodological details are in our note about the survey). Figure 1 shows the distribution of both scores jointly, and is important in that it reveals the absence of any clear trend. While some of the people held strong closed society views and disliked the values of an open society, and vice versa, many were equally attached to both open and closed society values. The weak relationship between the two scores meant that for many people the two opinions are not at opposite ends of the spectrum. Many who gave a high rating to open society attributes similarly gave a high rating to those of a more closed society.

Figure 2: Choosing between two open and closed society options (Some respondents skipped the question)

Figure 2

We then looked at concrete examples in which people were asked to choose between a specific open society attribute and a specific closed society one.

Figure 2 covers two of the 14 choices that were offered. Respondents were allowed to say whether one option was more important than the other, but they could also say that both were equally important. Many chose the latter.

When choosing between freedom of religious expression and respect of shared values, about a third selected each of the two options respectively, and another third the in-between option. These thirty-four percent of the Germans surveyed saw no problem in finding both options equally important, and the same holds true for the second example. In this, people were asked whether protecting minority rights was more important than protecting the interests of the majority. Twice as many people favoured the majority (40%), but nearly the same percentage (38%) said the two were equally important.

What this suggests is that 59 percent would either emphasise the protection of minorities or say that this protection was as important as the interests of the majority. Ignoring the in-between group and assuming a strong duality of open and closed society views adds up to a substantial distortion in our longstanding perception of German public opinion.

Figure 3: Value choices compared with party choice (most commonly selected option in 14 evaluations of open and closed society pairs of attributes)

Figure 3

These insights are particularly important for the main political parties, as illustrated in figure 3. This shows the most commonly chosen option across all 14 sets of choices (two examples feature in figure 2). Unsurprisingly perhaps, the fewest in-betweens, or those who do not favour closed over open society values, or vice versa, are among AfD voters (10%). They are also rare among FDP voters (21%), who have the second highest level of voters emphasising closed society choices (44%), after the AfD (54%). The highest levels of open society choices are among voters for the Green Party (43%) and the leftist Die Linke (37%).

The two biggest parties, the CDU/CSU and SPD, differ markedly in terms of their open and closed society attitudes. While 34 percent of SPD voters tend to make open society choices, only 19 percent of CDU/CSU voters do so. Conversely, 38 percent of CDU/CSU voters have a closed society profile, while this only applies to 19 percent of SPD voters.

This might lead us to think that the two big parties would be right to develop binary narratives on value-based issues, as outlined earlier. But that would ignore the large group of people who gave equal importance to open and closed society choices – 36 percent of CDU/CSU voters and 40 percent of SPD voters. In the SPD’s case, it is the most common profile.

These parties in particular should consider the wants of these “in-betweens”. In the case of a large part of the population, it would be wrong to assume that those people who are concerned about “German” values - the position of the majority and the stability of the system - necessarily disapprove of protecting minority rights, or of being an open, globally-minded country.

Laying emphasis on the extremes therefore risks further alienating people from the two main parties that claim to capture broad groups of the population (as so-called ‘Volksparteien’). Addressing these “in-betweens” could help both the CDU/CSU and SPD to reach some of the voters they lost in the recent elections. In other words, they need to appreciate that for many Germans, open and closed societies are not opposites.


The author of this article, Dr Jan Eichhorn, is the research director of d|part and oversees the work on the Voices on Values project. He also teaches Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh.

Twitter: @eichhorn_jan


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Dr Jan Eichhorn.


Why the AfD’s threat to the open society should not be overstated

By Magali Mohr & Luuk Molthof


When the coalition talks between the CDU/CSU, the FDP, and the Greens collapsed two weeks ago, there was at least one party that rejoiced at the failure of ‘Jamaica’. The right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), excited about the possibility of a new vote, was hoping to improve last September’s results in a new election. Even if a new vote stays out, the AfD may still benefit from the recent developments. If conversations between the CDU/CSU and the SPD lead to another Grand Coalition, for instance, the AfD would become the main opposition party in the Bundestag, increasing its significance in German politics. Both scenarios – the AfD making electoral gains in a new vote and the AfD becoming the main opposition party in case of another Grand Coalition – are making German politicians and commentators very nervous indeed, leading some to argue for the establishment of a minority government[1]. A similar unease was present last September, when the AfD secured 12,6% of the vote and successfully entered the Bundestag, raising significant concerns among commentators about the potential implications for the open society. However, in this article, we argue that the AfD’s threat to the open society should not be exaggerated. Although the recent rise of the AfD and its entry into the German Bundestag pose new challenges to Germany’s democracy, we argue that, as long as there is an open public discussion and engagement with the AfD and its electorate, Germany’s open society need not be undermined.

Six reasons why the AfD may not pose a threat to Germany’s open society

Christian Social Union (CSU) patriarch Franz Josef Strauß once famously noted that “there must never be a democratically legitimate party right of the CSU”. It seems that, for a long time, the German electorate agreed with him. While in other European countries, populist parties – such as the Dansk Folkeparti (DF) in Denmark, the Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) in the Netherlands, and the Front National (FN) in France – gradually gained ground over the 2000s and 2010s, Germany long appeared resistant to the ‘populist surge’. However, the Pegida-movement, the successes of the AfD in several state elections, and the AfD’s election to the Bundestag have shown that Germany is not immune to right-wing populism.

With its nationalistic and xenophobic rhetoric and standpoints, the AfD rails against certain core principles of the open society, including freedom of religion and cultural pluralism. Its rise in popularity has therefore raised concerns among commentators about the future of the open society in Germany[2]. However, the AfD’s threat to the open society should not be exaggerated. Here are six reasons why.

1) The AfD closes a gap in German political representation

From a European point of view, Germany is rather late to the party. While right-wing populism - in this magnitude - is a relatively new phenomenon in post-war Germany, many of Germany’s neighbours have faced its challenges for more than a decade. The entry of a right-wing populist party into the Bundestag is arguably just the latest step in the gradual ‘normalisation’ process Germany has been undergoing after reunification. Right-wing populism, it appears, is now an inherent - though not necessarily dominant - feature of modern European democracy.

Going a step further, one could claim that far-right political parties are a product of our open societies. A crucial feature of the open society is tolerance for different ways of thinking. This means that even those who oppose core democratic principles should have a right to express and organise themselves. While far-right political parties pose new challenges to our open societies, as long as their grievances are expressed through democratically legitimate means, their participation in the public debate does not necessarily undermine the open society. In this context, the AfD’s entry into the Bundestag could be seen as closing a gap in German political representation.

2) AfD’s success not as impressive as it first seems

Considering that Germany welcomed more than one million refugees since 2015 and experienced several terrorist incidents since then, the AfD’s electoral feat last September may not be as impressive as it first seems. The AfD’s share of the vote (12,6%) still lies below that of many other European populist parties[3]. Moreover, over the last year, the AfD’s support dropped from 16% in September 2016 to 12,6% in September’s elections. This means that the terrorist attack on Breitscheidplatz in Berlin of December 2016 did little to expand the AfD’s base. In other words, while the German elections were dominated by the topic of immigration, the AfD was only partially able to capitalise on this, suggesting that even in an environment prone to anti-immigrant sentiments, a large majority of the German electorate remains committed to cultural and religious pluralism.

3) September election results not a vote against open society principles

Last September, in the context of increased concerns about immigration and security, the large majority of the German public, rather than turning to closed borders, more nationalism, and less Europe, continued to support a tolerant and open society. Of particular note in this regard is Angela Merkel’s win. Although it is increasingly uncertain whether she will be able to serve a fourth term, the fact that she won September’s elections is certainly significant. Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders in the summer of 2015 contributed to a widespread perception of Germany as defender of human rights and democratic principles and ultimately lent Merkel her reputation as the “liberal West’s last defender”. Although Merkel’s CDU/CSU Faction booked an 8,6% loss, the fact that Merkel won the elections - and with a significant margin -, despite her controversial decision to invite thousands of refugees, should leave us optimistic.

4) The AfD stimulates the open society debate like no other

The open society and the values pertaining to it developed into a key topic of the election campaign(s) last September – and not least because of the AfD. For all parties, the upholding of the open society became a means to demarcate themselves from the AfD. As a result, the importance of the open society in Germany is - directly or indirectly - repeatedly mentioned in all electoral programmes[4], apart from that of the AfD. Similarly, the open society, what it means, and where it should be headed became topics widely discussed by the public and media. Thus, by railing against certain core principles of the open society, the AfD actually set in motion a public debate about its meaning and value.

5) Potential for politicisation and revived participation

This (unintended) positive effect of the AfD on the stimulation of public debate may likewise hold true for its entry into the Bundestag. A study on the impact of the AfD’s entry into three of Germany’s Landtage found that, while the creation of conflicts and provocation by the AfD can hamper parliamentary processes, their presence may also lead to a politicisation and revitalization of parliaments. Similarly, looking at the AfD’s electorate, the AfD may have a positive impact on voter turnout. Through targeted campaigning and intense use of social media platforms, the AfD was able to mobilise 1.2 million non-voters in their favour. Although this success is also indicative of the failings of mainstream parties to reach out to voters beyond their traditional electorate base, in terms of political participation - a core pillar of the open society - positive development is apparent.

6) Integrative potential of parliamentarism

Just as the AfD’s entry into the Bundestag is likely to affect the parliamentary process, so too is it likely to affect the AfD itself. Through bureaucratic processes and an increased understanding of the workings of politics, even radical parties typically slowly become part of the “establishment”. Here the evolution of the German Green party over the past 30 years is telling. Having emerged in the 1980s as left-wing, anti-capitalist and anti-bourgeois movement, strongly opposed to armaments and critical of the system, the Greens now call for strong police forces. This socialisation effect of parliamentarian experience may well, if only gradually, likewise have an impact on the AfD’s orientation and its outlook on the democratic process.

Safeguarding the open society requires engagement

It is difficult to predict, at this point, whether the AfD will be able to capitalise on the current coalition chaos. However, independent of the developments over the next weeks and months, the AfD looks like it is here to stay. In this blog we argued that while this new reality poses challenges to Germany’s democracy, the AfD’s threat to the open society in Germany should not be overstated. As long as there is an open public discussion and engagement with the AfD and its electorate, the open society need not be undermined. Since 13% of the German electorate voted for the AfD it is important that its grievances are publicly discussed rather than merely discarded. It will be up to the other parties, the media, and the public to safeguard the open society and ensure the AfD does not “poison the content of Germany’s political discourse” by consistently challenging the AfD’s discourse and that of those who replicate it.

This article is the first in a series of articles about the meaning(s) of the open society in Europe, published as part of d|part and OSEPI’s joint action-research project “Voices on Values”.

The authors, Magali Mohr and Dr. Luuk Molthof, are Senior Research Fellows at d|part and conduct research for the joint project.


[1] See for instance Mark Beise and Hans-Jochen Vogel.

[2] See for instance the comments by Daniel Erk, Elmar Theveßen, and Matthias Matthijs & Erik Jones.

[3] For instance, the PVV received 13,1% in the last Dutch parliamentary elections, the DF 21,1% in the last Danish parliamentary elections, and the FPÖ 26% in the last Austrian parliamentary elections.

[4] See SPD - ‘Zeit für mehr Gerechtigkeit’; CDU - ‘Für ein Deutschland in dem wir gut und gerne leben’; FDP - ‘Denken wir neu’; Die Linke - ‘Sozial. Gerecht. Frieden. Für alle - Die Zukunft, für die wir kämpfen!’; Bündnis 90 / Die Grünen - ‘Zukunft wird aus Mut gemacht’.