Only one party wholeheartedly celebrated the outcome of Germany’s federal elections on September 24: the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). Winning 12.6 percent of the vote, the party achieved a historic feat. It is the first far-right party to enter the national parliament since the defeat of the Third Reich seventy-two years ago.

Even though this result was in line with the last pre-election polls, this success has come as a shock to Germany’s other parties. Since the results were announced, the country’s political and journalistic classes have been engaged in a collective soul-searching to account for the AfD’s rise. A good amount of the discussion revolves around the purported underlying reasons that motivated voters to cast their ballot for a party that in the run-up to the election became ever more explicitly racist. On some accounts, the German Democratic Republic, with its authoritarian nature and seclusion from any immigration, has been taken to account for the party’s significantly higher share of support — around 22% — in the former East. Alternatively, not history but economic frustration and cultural dislocation amidst globalization — in short, similar reasons offered to explain Brexit or Donald Trump’s election — have been put forward to interpret the “protest” vote and also make it somehow less threatening. The most problematic aspect of this search-for-underlying-reasons lies in its innermost premise: it does not take the voters of the populist right seriously. While speaking of the “hurt honor” of those who were “left behind by globalization,” the attempt to explain their votes only further infantilizes them. This obvious genetic fallacy plays into old prejudices about irrational masses when politicians in Germany argue that more than 60 percent of AfD’s voters did not really want to vote for the party — not dissimilar to arguments not to view all Trump voters as racist or all anti-Brexit voters as anti-immigrant. These arguments imply that voters decided to vote for the far-right party ignorant of what the party stood for. This is not merely patronizing; it also stands at odds with the evidence that AfD voters made up their minds well before election day on how they would cast their vote. What follows, then, is not a further investigation into possible hidden causes, but an analysis of two proposals regarding how to deal with the far-right’s rise.

Two leading German politicians, both prime ministers of German states, have recently made suggestions that would seem to take voters and their vote more seriously. It is probably not a coincidence that both politicians represent states in which the AfD far exceeded their national average. That these politicians would respond to the far right’s rise more programmatically is thus to be expected, even if elections in those states are not due for another two or even four years. Both of their programs, however, while understandable, are problematic from a democratic perspective. And both point to the predicament in which Europe’s established parties find themselves when dealing with the rise of the populist far right.

Manuela Schwesig, the Social Democratic (SPD) prime minister of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern on the Baltic coast — Angela Merkel’s home state — implicitly endorses the suggestions of some exit polls that two thirds of AfD voters might not have been xenophobes but were expressing their disappointment in the workings of parliamentary democracy. Schwesig wants to take this seriously as a structural critique of the German system. In response, she proposes the introduction of referenda on the national level, banned under the German constitution in reaction to Weimar-era experiences, to give voters a chance to participate in official politics in between parliamentary elections.

The fascination with referenda as a panacea for party-disenchantment is familiar in Germany. In the days of Weimar, anti-Republican parties of the right used plebiscites against the “system parties,” arguing that they represented the real and oppressed people against corrupt party elites that followed international directives. This rhetoric has clear current echoes in the AfD’s invectives against the politicians of the outgoing government and crude theories of Germany’s supposed lack of sovereignty and continued occupation by the Allies.

If that history and language should make one uneasy and doubtful of a claim that referenda are the appropriate means to reintegrate disaffected voters into the political mainstream, recent experience elsewhere with plebiscites as well as a brief reflection on the nature of referenda should do so even more. Plebiscites can only answer yes-or-no, in-or-out decisions. They pit one group against another. By that very nature, they heighten opposition and play into the hands of those arguing that they present the will of the people while doing nothing to bridge the difference from their opponents. It is hard to see how plebiscites would serve to integrate a group of voters that even in its best showing in Saxony is far from an absolute majority and radically opposed to proponents of other parties. With little chance to succeed in a yes or no vote, plebiscites would only increase frustration and a sense of victimization. Even (or precisely) in closer outcomes, recent experience has demonstrated that divisions increase rather than decrease in the wake of campaigning and voting. Calming tensions is not a referendum’s strongest suit.

On producing viable policy, Brexit, the fraught Catalan vote of independence, or such a seemingly pedestrian issue as keeping Berlin’s Tegel Airport open, plebiscites with their binary nature are ill suited to the complexities of modern politics. Even the Swiss, usually the darlings of plebiscite advocates, demonstrated these problems with their nearly unworkable vote for restricting immigration from EU countries while keeping access to the Common Market. This problem is not new. In the last months of the First World War, the German sociologist Max Weber wrote a number of essays on the ways to democratize Germany. Weber, not categorically opposed to plebiscites in very specific circumstances, nonetheless sounded a cautious note on their place in modern politics. Most problematically to him they knew no compromise, the key to reconciling competing interests in pluralist societies and to drafting legislation. [1] In the best of circumstances, plebiscites can pressure politicians to take up issues of interest to the public that might otherwise be ignored. Yet in doing so, they pit voter against parliament. As such they seem to be an odd way to remedy trust in the institution of parliament. If Brexit or recent local experience in Berlin are any measure, plebiscites have the much more reliable potential to increase distrust of elected politicians. In both cases, politicians are suspected of not fully implementing the will of the people as expressed by their yes or no vote — not an unreasonable assumption if the plebiscite was meant to pressure elected officials into doing something they did not previously care to do. This attitude is frequently given additional fuel by the serious difficulties politicians might face when attempting to implement such a vote in real life. Thus, if plebiscites are at least of dubious potential to diffuse voters’ move towards populists, what about the second option?

Stanislaw Tillich, prime minister of the German state of Saxony, like Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in the former east, is a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). His focus is the third of AfD voters with whom Schwesig does not deal, the 32 percent who declared in exit polls that they had voted for the AfD precisely because it is xenophobic. Tillich couches the antipathy in seemingly more benign language. He wants to cater to those who “want that Germany remains Germany.” According to Tillich, the CDU abandoned those voters when the party moved left under Merkel’s stewardship, pushing conservative voters into the arms of the AfD. The “socialdemocratization” of the CDU deprived voters of a clear choice between two camps.

At first glance the argument seems to have some merit. After all the brief “Schulz hype” following the nomination of Martin Schulz, until then president of the EU parliament, also rested on the assumption that at last the SPD would offer a clear alternative to the CDU again. Now following their election loss, the Social Democrats defend their unwillingness to enter yet another “Grand Coalition” with Merkel’s CDU and their decision to go into opposition in similar terms. The problem, however, lies with the policy fields that Tillich focuses on: immigration and the “Germanness of Germany.” On policy, the Merkel government since 2015 has become significantly more restrictive in granting asylum and numbers of those seeking asylum have dropped substantially while deportations are up. Tillich himself has also been consistently on the right of Merkel. The CDU in Saxony as a whole is considerably to the right of the federal branch of the party already and has been for much of the post-reunification period. In those 27 years, the Christian Democrats governed Saxony continuously and for long stretches with absolute majorities, a rarity in the German system.

On immigration then, little further tightening can be done on the policy side. Thus Tillich really aims at the nature of German society today — the present and not the future. His by no means innocently tautological statement of “Germany staying Germany” indicates as much. Yet what is this to mean in practice? Rolling back protections of minorities? Denying non-white Germans their place in German society? In this context, it is important to point out that the AfD vote overwhelmingly came from areas with next to no immigrants (German statistics only differentiate between Germans and non-Germans). At the end of 2015 only 3.9 percent of the population of Tillich’s Saxony was classified as foreign, compared with 10.5 percent across Germany. Yet the AfD, running aggressively on anti-immigrant sentiment, received 27 percent of the vote, making it by the slimmest of margins the largest party in that state. According to Tillich then, a section of Germans who have virtually no contact with foreigners should set the agenda on immigration, integration, and multiculturalism.

Not only does that seem grotesque considering the outside influence it would secure for what is after all still a political minority, though one very adept at driving political discourse. But the very premise of Tillich’s statement is deeply problematic. It at once legitimizes the AfD’s stance and restricts the sphere of the political to a narrow definition of what counts as German, while by the same token expanding the boundaries of what is sayable: “Germany has to remain Germany” automatically makes every change from the past “ungerman.” The AfD chairman Alexander Gauland’s attack on Aydan Özoğuz, responsible in the federal government for immigration and integration, is an example of that. In response to a statement by Özoğuz on German culture that Gauland deemed insufficiently “German,” he suggested at an election rally that Özoğuz, who was born in Hamburg to Turkish parents, should be “deposed off in Anatolia.” In a recent interview Gauland claimed that he could not see how such words were in any way problematic or had the potential to cause violence. Apart from the verbal harassment of journalists by self-declared guardians of Germany, the frequent attacks on refugee shelters and on the offices of left-wing politicians reveal the disingenuousness of such a statement. And while the statement at the time drew widespread criticism, Tillich now appeals to the same sentiments. His definition of “Germany as Germany” precisely is aimed at those who do not think that a German of Turkish origin is actually German. Yet as other European countries as well as German history have shown, trying to out-right the radical right only emboldens it further, and in the process shifts political discourse as a whole. Tillich’s own stance to the right of Merkel proved of little help in the elections. In fact, Saxony’s CDU underperformed compared to the national average. If anything, Tillich’s suggestion seems even more problematic than Schwesig’s.

The analysis started from the premise that the tortured attempts at understanding the underlying reasons for pro-AfD votes indicated that we had better stop looking for them. Yet the most recent suggestions of how to counter the AfD proactively and politically seem equally misguided. Instead, it might be best to stick to one’s own convictions. This is not to say the other parties should give up on those areas or voters who elected AfD politicians. But each party should campaign there with its own convictions and principles, not try to ape the far-right. If the argument is indeed true that the lack of choice created voter frustration, presenting voters with genuine options makes more sense. If AfD voters cast their votes because they did not feel taken seriously, engage them with political arguments. The attempt to decipher the vote for the AfD as something else infantilizes the party’s voters and turns them into irrational and immature citizens. As long as one believes in the democratic equality of all votes, this is not an appropriate reaction. AfD voters knew what they did. The AfD did not pretend to be something it was not. Its voters cast their ballots for a xenophobic party because of and not in spite of these ideas. If AfD voters believe in those ideas and they are fundamental to their political identity, then winning them back would mean endorsing racism. This can hardly be a desirable strategy. If they do not, or rather if they prioritize other issues, they are more likely to be won over by effective and well-argued alternative policies. All this speaks to rejecting both Schwesig’s and Tillich’s arguments. To refer to Max Weber and his 1918 writings once more and to paraphrase him slightly: the leaders of the AfD “speculated on the cowardice,” the “equally emotional and equally undirected cowardice” of the established parties. Weber referred to a different right in his day, the response to which would be the test the German political class had to pass in the post-First World War period. “Depending on how it reacts,” he suggested of his own Germany, “it will then become clear whether the German nation has reached political maturity.” [2] The political establishment’s reaction to the rise of the AfD will attest to the country’s political maturity now, more than 70 years after the end of the Third Reich and 27 years after German reunification.

Philipp Nielsen is Assistant Professor of History at Sarah Lawrence College.

[1] Max Weber, ‘Parliament and Government in Germany under a New Political Order’ in Peter Lassman and Ronald Speirs (eds), Weber: Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 225.

[2] Weber, ‘Parliament and Government’, 232.