The CDU Faces Pressure to Move Right—That Could Backfire

Lucas Dolan

American University

Lucas Dolan is a PhD Candidate at American University’s School of International Service. His research is broadly concerned with the role of transnational activist networks in reshaping international order. In his current research project, he examines the emergence of a transnational right-wing populist movement and its influence in German and American domestic politics. His commentary on populist politics has appeared in Duck of Minerva and The New York Times.

Mr. Dolan learned German as a Kathryn Davis Fellow for Peace at the prestigious Middlebury College Summer Language Schools. He studied network analysis at the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) Summer Program, an internationally recognized quantitative methods program. Before starting graduate school, he worked as an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin.

He is a 2018-2019 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).

Today, Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is meeting in Hamburg to choose a new leader—a decision with massive ramifications for national and European politics. This moment represents the first opportunity for a major shift in the direction of the CDU in almost 18 years. While much attention has been devoted to the differing paths offered by the three candidates, a common challenge deserves consideration: the pressure to move the party further to the right to co-opt the populist challenge of the Alternative for Germany (AfD). While much can be said about normative issues related to this challenge, strategic calculations are enough to caution against a CDU surrender to the pressure to move rightward. Academic research on the competitive dynamics between mainstream parties and right-wing populist challengers suggests that a significant shift to the right would ultimately be counterproductive for the CDU.

While populist parties have demonstrated a strong propensity for shaping agendas, public discourse, and media narratives, research strongly supports the idea that the tactics chosen by mainstream parties make a significant difference in stemming or accelerating the growth of these parties. The CDU need not be on the defensive, their next moves dictated by the AfD; instead, they can exercise a great deal of agency in shaping the political space within which they will compete in the next era of German politics. There is an increased opportunity and responsibility for them to do so, as the other longstanding party of mainstream German politics, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) remains historically weak.

The CDU need not be on the defensive, their next moves dictated by the AfD; instead, they can exercise a great deal of agency in shaping the political space within which they will compete in the next era of German politics.

Given that mainstream parties have broad agency in managing competition with right-wing populist challengers, there remains a question of what strategy is most effective from the perspective of the mainstream party—in this case, a party of the center-right. There has been major disagreement among scholars on this issue. Swedish political scientists Carl Dahlström and Anders Sundell grouped the competing positions on this issue into what they called the impeding hypothesis and the facilitating hypothesis. According to the impeding hypothesis, when a mainstream party moves toward a more restrictive immigration policy, this hurts the right-wing populist party. Colloquially, the logic is that the best way to stop the challenger is by stealing their thunder. Alternatively, the facilitating hypothesis holds that when mainstream parties become more restrictive on immigration, it actually benefits the right-wing populist party. The logic here is that such a move increases the salience of the immigration issue and that ownership of the issue is difficult to wrest from the populists.

Dahlström and Sundell’s data from 290 Swedish municipalities supported the facilitating thesis, and the finding that adopting populist elements is a less effective strategy than other means of containing these parties has found recent corroboration. Center-right parties attempting to co-opt populist challengers on immigration are playing with fire. This is not just an ivory tower narrative, but a dynamic that radical right politicians themselves seem to intuitively grasp. Jean-Marie Le Pen famously observed that “voters always prefer the original to the copy.” Sure, the AfD is not the Front National of the elder Le Pen’s era, and Germany is certainly not France, but anyone seeking to argue that Germany deviates from the fundamental facilitation logic should seriously consider the example of the recent Bavarian elections. While it was not the only factor in the Christian Social Union’s (CSU) disastrous result, Horst Seehofer’s efforts to appeal to immigration hardliners certainly did not present a promising precedent for campaigning in the rest of Germany.. Whoever assumes the party’s leadership today, the road to a successful future for the CDU remains solidly Christian Democratic, not populist-lite.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.