Three weeks ago I found myself sitting in a back room of a hotel in Bischofswerda, a small town some thirty kilometers outside of Dresden in the federal state of Saxony. Before me stood a politician from the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, a freshly-minted member of the German Bundestag, reporting to his constituents on his experiences in Berlin, where he had been loudly raising issues that, he said, the establishment did not want to face. It was a lively presentation, half speech and half video footage of him performing in parliament. The leitmotif of his presentation was the threat from uncontrolled migration. He repeatedly inveighed against the folly of a nation not having full control over its borders.
The graying audience, mostly men, nodded along. There was only one dissenter. During the Q&A session a man pushed back, arguing that it would make doing business with Poland a nightmare. A nearby town called Görlitz straddles the border. It was split in half by the Oder-Neisse line, agreed to at Potsdam in 1945. Today, however, the border is largely notional, and trade is critical to an otherwise-struggling municipality. The man’s protests, however, did not get much of a hearing in the rest of the room, and the AfD MP held his ground. There are tradeoffs to everything, he said, and if sacrificing some trade revenues was the price for tighter border security, he was fine with that.
I was visiting Dresden at the invitation of Jeff Gedmin, a colleague and friend who has been spending time in Germany researching a book on identity and the rise of populism. A recent essay gathers some of his early impressions. The AfD politician we were watching that day in Bischofswerda, Karsten Hilse, features prominently in his narrative. Hilse is a 53-year old ex-cop who found his calling as a politician in the wake of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to keep Germany’s borders open in the face of surging migrant inflows in 2015. He comes off as good-natured and charming; though some high-ranking AfD politicians undeniably dog-whistle ugly nationalist and racist themes, Hilse is recognizable as a principled law-and-order conservative. True, his preoccupation with politically correct politicians in Berlin, whose devotion to a totalizing liberal ideology he said was preventing the country from confronting the real issues facing it, has a familiar whiff of conspiracy theory to it. But we heard similar sentiments repeated countless times in our other meetings around Dresden. Hilse wasn’t a source of these ideas; he was merely reflecting and channeling a widely held set of beliefs.
More interesting than Hilse’s performance was its setting. As of 2016, Bischofswerda had a population of 11,169. But as we pulled in to its main square on a Friday night, the town looked mostly deserted. The façades of the buildings were in great shape, and the square itself looked freshly repaved. Besides the hotel in which the town hall-style meeting was set to take place, only a pizza parlor, an ice cream shop, and a döner kebab restaurant were open for business. The liveliest place in town was the hotel, its bar at the front with a handful of people in it, and its small restaurant half-full. The back room where the meeting took place was at capacity, but no one attending was under fifty, and probably very few were under sixty; men far outnumbered women.
Outside of Central and Eastern Europe, few appreciate how fraught the transition from communism has been. Though living standards have improved across the region, the rate of absolute convergence with west European standards has disappointed. And the improvements have come with a staggering demographic price tag. In the former DDR, between 1991 and 2013, 3.3 million people fled to the west, most looking for jobs as sclerotic communist-era enterprises collapsed in the face of a competitive market economy. The net loss of population was smaller due to a countervailing influx of former West Germans seeking their fortunes in the east, but in total the region has lost more than 10 percent of its population since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Of those leaving, most were young and most were women. Those remaining tended to be less educated. In some rural communities today, the gender balance skews male almost 70/30, and childbirth rates are depressed. Unemployment rates remain 50 percent higher in the former East, and per capita output stands at 73 percent of the rest of the country.
The story is made more complex by the uneven way the economy has been developing. The financial crisis of 2008 highlighted a process already well underway all across the West: deindustrialization and globalization had profoundly “urbanized” opportunity by shifting economic dynamism away from rural communities.1 This holds true for middle America as it does for eastern Germany. The state of Saxony as a whole is posting near-3 percent growth figures—as good as anywhere else in the country—with its larger cities like Dresden and Leipzig developing into high-tech hubs. But small towns like Bischofswerda are stagnating. The East German tractor manufacturer Fortschritt used to be a major employer here. Nothing comparable has taken its place after the factory closed in 1997. Although Bischofswerda’s gender balance is more-or-less evenly split, only 15 percent of its inhabitants are under 20 years old, while more than half are over 50. Population has declined by almost a third since 1991.
Two days later, I was sitting in my friend’s living room in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, sharing impressions of my brief travels among the Ossis. My friend was an experienced journalist at a German daily who had been based in Washington up through the election of Donald Trump; he was now tasked with following the comparatively dry ins and outs of German federal politics. My wide-eyed excitement seemed to make him a little wistful.
“Though I had read about the difficulties of unification,” I said, “I never imagined to see such pronounced similarities between former East Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe, almost thirty years after the fall of the Wall! I assumed Germany would be much further along…”
He shook his head and smiled. “You know, both Germany and the United States have these ‘economically non-viable communities,’” he said. “In America, you just forget about them and let them wither on the vine—and as a result, you get Trump. We, on the other hand, have poured more than a trillion euros into ours—and for all our trouble, we now have the AfD.”
This jarring and suggestive observation got under my skin. On the one hand, it’s easy to dismiss it as being too glib. Yes, a lot of money has been spent, but it hasn’t necessarily been spent well. “Money seemed to be growing on trees within the federal government and at the European Union,” Germany’s Spiegel noted in 2005. “It is especially telling that staff members who worked for Regine Hildebrandt, the now-deceased former minister of social services for the state of Brandenburg, used to write ‘hooray’ on government and EU subsidy notices as soon as the funds were disbursed.” And the Wessis have been criticized for behaving like unscrupulous carpetbaggers during reunification—for indulging in rank economic opportunism under the cover of lofty, gilded rhetoric about helping their fellow countrymen.
But my friend’s observation has broader implications. It appears that even the world’s most practiced technocrats have little idea how to ensure equitable and broad-based growth in the 21st century. Thriving cities surrounded by a struggling, depressed countryside are evident all across the European continent. American progressives enviously looking across the pond at an imagined social democratic utopia should take careful note: Despite vastly different approaches, Europe as a whole is facing very similar headwinds as the United States.
More importantly, a generous welfare state appears at best to be an inadequate solution to the problems and pathologies of checker-boarded economic dislocation. The pesky question of dignity remains: Despite what boosters of a universal basic income try to tell us, our modern sense of purpose and identity remains closely tied to what we “do” for a living. Making disempowered people more comfortable does not necessarily make them less frustrated.
Some kind of dignity deficit is clearly driving the widespread sense of grievance that is, in turn, transforming politics across the West. But there seems to be no easy resolution to these tensions. Economic privations are not their root cause—people do not appear to be directly resentful of economic inequality, as evidenced by the continuing lack of enthusiasm for traditional Leftist parties advocating vigorous redistribution policies. Instead, people seem to be acting out of a sense that they lack control over their lives. There is an economic component to this panic, but it’s less about material deprivation than about a lack of stories in which people see themselves as happy, fulfilled, useful, or respected. It’s about the personal interpretation of history in the making.
My trip to Germany helped me flesh out something David Goodhart has been writing about for a while now. For example, we might be tempted to see Saxony’s poorer, less-educated, rural voters—those that didn’t flee westward in the 1990s and 2000s—as somehow left behind. But many today pride themselves in being the strong ones who chose to stay on their ancestral lands—their mystical Heimat.2 These are Goodhart’s “somewheres”, and their own interpretation of the last three decades leads them to a positive set of values. People repeatedly told us they were for fighting for their community, for prioritizing the bonds of citizenship, and against elites who were poor stewards of the national interest. Europe’s post-nationalists—Goodhart’s “anywheres”—have forgotten these basics, they said, and are in thrall to a dangerous universalist ideology that is leading them to ruin.
The fact that so many of these value-claims seem to depend on an interpretation of recent history and economic circumstance should give “anywheres” like me pause. It’s easy (and common) to fall back on cheap Marxian-inflected psychoanalysis to say that these losers of deindustrialization (some might call them “deplorables”) are merely trying to justify their misfortune, and that the culture war they’re waging is a sublimation of more material frustrations. It would be braver to ask why it is we think that we elites chose an urban existence, supposedly leaving behind our rural neighbors. “Openness” (versus “closedness”), cosmopolitanism (versus parochialism), the privileging of diversity (versus cultural assimilation)—we usually view these values in terms of moral progress, as the self-evident product of a teleological Enlightenment of which we are the vanguard. By surreptitiously bringing a sense of agency into our narrative, we have set ourselves up as virtuous heroes in a drama of continuous moral improvement. And as a flourish, we see these specific values as somehow inherent to liberalism itself. Those opposed are by necessity morally stunted, and “illiberal.”
But since when are openness, cosmopolitanism, and diversity intrinsic to a complete definition of liberalism? They make no significant appearance in any of the foundational texts of liberal political thought. They are merely the product of the demands that globalization and urbanization places upon us “anywheres”, which we in turn try to wedge into the liberal canon in order to erase any discomfort we may feel about change pulling the ideological rug out from under our feet. Historical accounts of earlier periods of urbanization are rightly dispassionate in describing people flocking to cities out of economic want. And they correctly identify the emergence of the middle class and its attendant values as the product of complex factors interacting in these new circumstances. We instead now disfigure analysis into a form or moral self-congratulation.
A good first step in dealing with this “populist moment,” therefore, might be to dial down the rhetoric on these questions of values. If these so-called values are more contingent on circumstances than “true” in any meaningful sense, then what amounts to a temporary truce between the “somewheres” and “anywheres” is possible. Globalization and further urbanization may be inevitable, and so cosmopolitanism and demands for diversity may eventually win out over the older, more communitarian approach. But nothing suggests that this will amount to a moral triumph. On the contrary, it portends upheaval and the pains of adjustment for communities that are already feeling threatened. The agony of the “somewheres” is nothing to celebrate.
The good news is that if we become more flexible on the “openness”/“closedness” question, it may turn out that the threat to real liberalism is more modest than we have been led to believe. For example, accepting that those who propose some judicious limits on immigration are not automatically rendered “illiberal” would be a huge first step. Admitting that majoritarian plebiscites are legitimate ways of adjudicating such issues would go far toward diminishing the appeal of larger-than-life strongmen in more established democracies.
Can we get there? I’m not holding my breath given how extreme polarization has become. But a path toward cultural reconciliation in our societies is there; we just need the courage to take it.
1. See Bill Galston’s latest book Anti-Pluralism for a brisk and succinct treatment of the phenomenon.
2. A complicated word most simply rendered as “homeland” in English, it is a term with roots in both German Romanticism and 19th century nationalism. It was of course later also used in Nazi ideology.