Has the Coronavirus Pandemic Broken the Populist Fever?
Senior Fellow; Director, Society, Culture & Politics Program
Dr. Eric Langenbacher is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Society, Culture & Politics Program at AICGS.
Dr. Langenbacher studied in Canada before completing his PhD in Georgetown University’s Government Department in 2002. His research interests include collective memory, political culture, and electoral politics in Germany and Europe. Recent publications include the edited volumes Twilight of the Merkel Era: Power and Politics in Germany after the 2017 Bundestag Election (2019), The Merkel Republic: The 2013 Bundestag Election and its Consequences (2015), Dynamics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary Europe (co-edited with Ruth Wittlinger and Bill Niven, 2013), Power and the Past: Collective Memory and International Relations (co-edited with Yossi Shain, 2010), and From the Bonn to the Berlin Republic: Germany at the Twentieth Anniversary of Unification (co-edited with Jeffrey J. Anderson, 2010). With David Conradt, he is also the author of The German Polity, 10th and 11th edition (2013, 2017).
Dr. Langenbacher remains affiliated with Georgetown University as Teaching Professor and Director of the Honors Program in the Department of Government. He has also taught at George Washington University, Washington College, The University of Navarre, and the Universidad Nacional de General San Martin in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has given talks across the world. He was selected Faculty Member of the Year by the School of Foreign Service in 2009 and was awarded a Fulbright grant in 1999-2000 and the Hopper Memorial Fellowship at Georgetown in 2000-2001. Since 2005, he has also been Managing Editor of German Politics and Society, which is housed in Georgetown’s BMW Center for German and European Studies. Dr. Langenbacher has also planned and run dozens of short programs for groups from abroad, as well as for the U.S. Departments of State and Defense on a variety of topics pertaining to American and comparative politics, business, culture, and public policy.
One of the biggest challenges that pundits and intellectuals have confronted over the last few years is the rise of right-wing populism across the (western) world. A vigorous debate over causes has ensued with two perspectives coming to the fore. On the one hand are voices that stress the rational, structural reasons behind the pervasive discontent fueling parties like the Lega in Italy or the Alternative for Germany (AfD). According to this explanation, ascendant neoliberal economic policies and transformative processes of globalization have disadvantaged or negatively affected sizeable swaths of the population. The loss of jobs, the decline of entire regions, rising income inequality, and stagnant wages are the ultimate drivers of populism.
On the other hand, many have stressed the cultural or ideational causes behind populism. In this view, voters are choosing populists not because of any material deprivation, but rather due to perceptions and beliefs. Here, a fear of potential loss of status, resentment of arrogant elites and especially a backlash to the increasing multicultural diversity of countries is driving support for right-wing populists.
I have long subscribed to the second explanation. Typical Trump or AfD voters are not socio-economically deprived and have not really suffered (yet) from globalization. Moreover, such voters are disproportionately found in the least diverse parts of a country like eastern Germany or rural Appalachia in the U.S. Analysis of the 2017 Bundestag election showed that the overwhelming reason voters selected the AfD was the party’s opposition to refugees, immigration, and multiculturalism—not its underdeveloped economic plans or its pro-natalist platform.
One can toy with extremist rhetoric, half-baked policy ideas, slogans and trollish memes when the stakes are seemingly low—when a voter is assured deep down that these people will never come close to wielding power.
From a different, more philosophical or speculative perspective, I have had two additional thoughts about the rise of right-wing populism. First, perhaps fittingly, it has seemed like a contagious virus—seemingly unstoppable, with the tension and temperature inexorably rising. Many have been waiting for the fever to break—so to say. Second, I could not help but think that support for right-wing populism is a kind of luxury. One can toy with extremist rhetoric, half-baked policy ideas, slogans and trollish memes when the stakes are seemingly low—when a voter is assured deep down that these people will never come close to wielding power. From this perspective such angry rhetoric, conspiracy theorizing, and protest voting is fine as long as there are no real consequences because the mainstream, experts, and adults are still in charge.
All of this said, there is some, perhaps even increasing, evidence that the coronavirus pandemic and the associated economic downturn is precisely the moment when the fever breaks and voters realize that they do not have the luxury of flirting with such irresponsible parties anymore. Countries need experts of all kinds—medical, financial, logistical—during national emergencies. Indeed, rule by ideologues, dilettantes, and demagogues can be downright lethal.
There is some, perhaps even increasing, evidence that the coronavirus pandemic and the associated economic downturn is precisely the moment when the fever breaks and voters realize that they do not have the luxury of flirting with such irresponsible parties anymore.
Germany is an interesting example of these dynamics. Seasoned elites and mainstream politicians are soaring in popularity: Markus Söder, Minister-President of Bavaria, who has presided over one of the most stringent regional responses to the pandemic; Jens Spahn, the federal health minister; and Chancellor Angela Merkel are doing quite well. AfD leaders Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland have seen their ratings decline (interestingly, as well as some of the Greens like Robert Habeck). Some recent opinion polls have shown an overall drop in the party’s support—as low as 9 or 10 percent, down from as high as 15 or 16 percent at one point over the last few years.
Certainly, many have noticed how the AfD is suddenly not garnering or generating the attention it once was. Even the momentous decision of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution on March 12 to deem the AfD grouping “the Wing” as right-wing extremist and to monitor it as a danger to democracy—and the subsequent decision by the AfD to dismantle the group—did not generate excessive headlines. The AfD’s typical trolling and disruptive tactics are widely ignored and certainly are not gaining traction. After Merkel was quarantined due to suspected coronavirus infection, a Bavarian AfD politician tweeted (subsequently removed): “Good, behind bars would be better, but this is at least a start.” There was a brief backlash, but it was quickly forgotten. Antisemitic politician Wolfgang Gedeon—so extreme that he was even kicked out of the AfD—opined that the coronavirus was created by the U.S government. Such conspiracy theorizing is getting nowhere.
And there is good reason that Germans might be turning away from populism during a pandemic and back toward their leader of fifteen years, Angela Merkel. In times like this, there appears to be a newfound appreciation for a trained physicist as leader. Although initially criticized for taking a backseat in the country’s response—the federal nature of the country played a role here—over the last few weeks, she has taken the lead in her inimitable manner. She has reassuringly but also clinically outlined the severity of the situation, stating that 60 to 70 percent of Germans could be infected. She has also calmly shut the country down—first the borders, then restrictions on the operation of businesses, and then prohibitions on mobility and meetings. The policy course has been calm, rational, and sequential. Such policy responses, coupled with the quality of the bureaucracy and the high-quality healthcare system, is one reason that Germany’s death rate (so far) has been among the lowest in the world.
The contrast to populists in power such as Boris Johnson, who hesitated for quite some time to shut Britain down and especially Donald Trump, who long denied the severity of the crisis caused by the “foreign,” “Chinese,” or “Wuhan” virus but who changed his tune last week and again this week, most recently advocating (against medical advice) for a re-opening of the country by Easter, is profound. Of course, only time will tell if the coronavirus and economic downturn truly will slow down or reverse the momentum of right-wing populism. But the signs are there—at least in Germany—and parties like the AfD have next to nothing productive to add at the current time.
 Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Authoritarian Populism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018).