Is there a link between authoritarian personality traits and support for the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany? Drawing on recent survey evidence, Markus M. L. Crepaz demonstrates that those classified as ‘authoritarian’ are 30% more likely to vote for the party than non-authoritarians even when controlling for other factors. However, these findings do not suggest that authoritarianism is returning to Germany: for a small group of AfD voters, authoritarian temptations are real, but the AfD also draws support from a large group of protest voters who intend primarily to shake up the establishment through their choice at the ballot box.

It is said that Sinclair Lewis’ bestselling novel “It can’t happen here”, written in 1935, sold out within a week of Donald Trump winning the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As many readers will know, it is a tale of how fascism and authoritarianism insinuated itself into the American body politic, inspired by the German experience.

But is another authoritarian moment now occurring in Germany? In 2015 alone roughly 1 million, mostly Syrian refugees entered the Federal Republic, aiding the rise of a far right political party, the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland). It garnered 12.6 percent of the popular vote in the last federal elections in 2017, making it the largest opposition party in Germany. In some of the formerly East German states, such as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the party received over 20 percent support in state elections.

Empirical evidence suggests that the two exclusionary dimensions, perceived ethnic threat and welfare chauvinism, resonate particularly strongly with Germans who possess authoritarian personality traits. Using the on-line platform Qualtrics, I recruited a stratified sample of 1,010 respondents who completed a questionnaire that was in the field at the end of January 2019. “Authoritarian personality” was gauged by using a seemingly unconnected fourfold childrearing scale established by political scientists Stanley Feldman at Stony Brook University and Karen Stenner at Duke University. There are four queries which ask respondents whether it is more important to raise a child to be: 1) respectful or independent; 2) obedient or self reliant; 3) well-behaved or considerate; 4) well-mannered or curious. Those who favour the first of these choices have been shown in previous authoritarianism research to display high authoritarian leanings.

The Reichstag, Credit: lifetravelandmore (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This authoritarianism construct captures elements of social conformity, order and hierarchy, obeying norms and laws, and respecting one’s customs and traditions. Natives with such attitudes should not only feel culturally threatened when they encounter “others” who look differently, dress differently, follow different customs and traditions and believe in a different god, but should also be unwilling to share the fruits of the welfare state with foreigners who they believe do not belong. The percentage of German respondents who chose the authoritarian option on average most of the time was 28 percent.

The AfD has managed to frame the debate about immigration and asylum along two exclusionary tracks: first, immigrants are depicted as racialised others, who are not only non-citizens, but different in terms of ethnicity, religion, class, customs and other criteria, and, as a result, they supposedly undermine the very essence of German culture and society. Secondly, because they have not contributed to the provision of the German welfare state (housing support, sickness benefits, health insurance, unemployment benefits, etc.), the AfD argues, immigrants must be excluded from receiving welfare benefits, an attitude also known as “welfare chauvinism”.

Applying various statistical methods, results show that authoritarianism is significantly linked to perceived cultural threat, as well as welfare chauvinism even when controlling for a host of other factors, such as age, income, profession, education, gender, political interest, globalisation, and economic threat, among others. Similarly, examining party choice itself, authoritarians are 30% more likely to vote for the AfD than non-authoritarians even when controlling for a number of other conventional explanations such as age, education, gender, globalisation, concerns with levels of unemployment and others. According to my sample, at the end of January 2019, 15 percent of respondents indicated to have voted for the AfD which is in line with the findings of other German polling institutes.

It appears however, that among AfD voters there is a large reservoir of protest voters. When asked how close AfD voters feel to their party, only 30 percent mentioned that they feel “very close” and “close” to their party of choice. These findings do not suggest that fascism is returning to Germany. Rather they indicate for a small group of AfD voters, authoritarian temptations are real, but that there is a large group of protest voters who intend to shake up the establishment with their party choice suggesting that, for now, concerns that it “could happen again” are misplaced.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Markus M. L. Crepaz – University of Georgia
Markus M. L. Crepaz is the Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia.

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