The Voters Who Want Islam Out of Germany

Demographic patterns behind support for the radical right are similar in Europe and the United States.

A flag and brochures of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AFD) party at a rally in Bitterfeld, Germany (Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters)

How does a party of economists and businessmen transform into a party of new voters bashing Islam? Republican elites wringing their hands over Donald Trump—who officially clinched their party’s nomination on Thursday and who has called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States—aren’t the only ones asking that. The founders of Germany’s “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) party probably spared a thought for it, too. After racking up historic gains in regional elections in March, the party this month adopted a new manifesto insisting that “Islam is not part of Germany.” A meeting between the AfD and Muslim leaders broke down this week after the president of the Central Council of Muslims refused to retract previous comments comparing the AfD to Nazis.

The party’s beginnings weren’t quite so dramatic. The AfD started out in 2013 with a Ph.D.-riddled member list and a wonky Euroskeptic manifesto that could have lulled a caffeinated squirrel into a midday nap. It called for empowering national governments to ditch the euro, limiting state bailouts, and mandating national referenda for certain EU policies, alongside scintillating stipulations about European Central Bank maneuvers and alternative funding for renewable-energy subsidies. Yet the huge influx of predominantly Muslim refugees in the past year, along with incidents such as the infamous New Year’s Eve assaults on women by men seeming mostly to be of North African descent, has helped radicalize group. Last month’s manifesto not only declared Islam incompatible with German legal and cultural values, but also endorsed a ban on burqas and the call to prayer.

The AfD’s founder Bernd Lucke, an economics professor, left the party last summer, condemning rising xenophobia. Many other founding members have likewise defected. So who are the new supporters that helped the party to its best-ever election performance a few months ago? Which people, specifically, want to kick Islam out of Germany?

Demographically, surveys show, AfD supporters fit a certain loose profile. First, despite having a woman at the helm in the figure of Frauke Petry (as well as trigger-happy aristocrat Beatrix von Storch, who has advocated using deadly force  against illegal migrants at the border, as deputy party chief), AfD supporters are predominantly male. In January, one poll found 17 percent of male respondents nationwide would vote for AfD in a hypothetical immediate election, while only 2 percent of women would. In the March regional elections in the state of Sachsen-Anhalt, 27 percent of male voters chose AfD, as compared to 18 percent of female voters. As the German daily Die Zeit pointed out, that means AfD support follows roughly the same pattern as support for the intensely anti-Islamic pan-European movement PEGIDA (“Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West”).

Theories abound as to why and to what extent men are more likely to vote for far-right or xenophobic platforms than women—a pattern that holds with Trump supporters in the United States, as well as voters for Austria’s far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, who just barely lost that country’s election this week. But few political scientists doubt that the trend exists in some form. “That’s one finding that we all agree on,” said David Art, a political-science professor at Tufts University who studies comparative politics and right-wing extremism.

A second trend in AfD demographics involves class. Originally, professors, journalists, and business leaders dominated the party, with over half the founding members in 2013 sporting a “Dr.” in front of their names. Surveys around the March 2016 elections in three German states, however, showed the AfD drawing about a third of its support from laborers, and another third from individuals currently unemployed. Those with “higher education” were in the minority. That’s not to say that AfD supporters are entirely uneducated, or that no one with a university degree continues to support the once doctorate-led party. But in general, said Kai Arzheimer, a political-science professor at the University of Mainz who has become the go-to expert on voter behavior in the AfD, “it’s people who have done Realschule, which doesn’t qualify you for entering a university, but is still quite a respectable degree.”

Third comes age. “[AfD supporters] are youngish to middle-aged,” said Arzheimer. “Interestingly, voters over 60 seem to shy from voting for the AfD because they're still tied to the Christian Democrats,” Merkel’s center-right party.

Prior political affiliations also set AfD voters apart. When Bernd Lucke founded the AfD, he intended to win voters both from the Christian Democrats and Germany’s liberal party, the Free Democratic Party (FDP). But although many AfD supporters have indeed come from the Christian Democrats, said Arzheimer, “the AfD [also] managed to mobilize many former non-voters—very unusual normally. They managed to bring back people into the political arena that had been disenchanted but quiet for years, even decades.” A scattering has also defected from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the socialist party die Linke, as well as the ultra-right-wing NPD—“a really nasty party,” noted Arzheimer. (The NPD, supported by an estimated three percent of German voters, gained its reputation for neo-Nazi sympathies after leaders boycotted a minute of silence for Holocaust victims in 2005, instead wanting to honor the victims of the Allied bombings of Dresden. NPD leaders also made headlines in 2008, blaming Barack Obama’s presidential win on an “alliance of Jews and Negroes,” and have been widely perceived as operating “on the edge of legality” regarding incitement to violence.) Crucially, Arzheimer pointed out, the AfD manages to attract NPD voters while also remaining “acceptable for a much larger group of the German population.”

What all these voters seem to share, say the experts studying them, is intense concern about immigration and Islam—issues with extraordinary capabilities for generating strange bedfellows. “Suddenly the far-right is pro-Jewish because it’s anti-Muslim,” said Lenka Bustikova, a political scientist at Arizona State University who has studied far-right movements further east in Europe. “Suddenly with the [influx] of refugees you have this new twist: You are for Western gender rights because you think the Muslims are cavemen. It’s going to be interesting to watch.”

Part of AfD’s strength so far has been its ability to capitalize on intense concerns about the economy and immigration with increasingly inflammatory rhetoric while maintaining a sheen of respectability—crucial in German politics, where incitement to ethnic or racial hatred is a criminal offense. But that sheen may wear off. “This is something we’ve seen a lot before in Germany,” said Art. “There’s a party that tries to emerge to the right of the CDU/CSU for one reason or another.” At the outset, “It looks like it may have a few primarily economic, deeply conservative tenets but certainly not inherently a far-right political program.” But then it peters out or takes a sharp rightward turn, “because it’s the anti-immigrants, the nativists’ appeal that gives these parties strength at the end of the day.”

This dynamic may yet tear the party apart, whether at the leadership or at the voter level. Even the AfD’s recent headline-generating manifesto, Arzheimer pointed out, showed signs of a delicate balancing act. “They very carefully avoided anything that could be used against them in some form of formal process. … There is so much leeway in what they have written. ... It might appeal to hard-core rightwingers but also the famous ‘concerned citizens’—part of a catchphrase in Germany: ‘I’m not a racist but I’m very much concerned about [issues] A, B, C.’” But, he continued, if the AfD “give any reason for the public or media to portray them as yet another NPD I’m sure their support will collapse. Those voters, even if they’re worried about Muslims or immigrants, don’t want to be associated with thugs.”

The AfD’s fragility may be what sets it apart both from right-wing parties further east and the newly nativist turn in the United States. In the east, “I think real danger is from the radicalized mainstream, not these fringe parties,” said Bustikova. (This fall, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s conservative but mainstream Fidesz party took a hard right turn on the migrant crisis, adopting the positions of far more radical groups.)

Art made a similar point, but turned westward. “There’s been a major containment of this far-right nativism in Germany … but it’s the United States in which it’s become in fact a part of the political system.”

There’s a term in German, he mused: ausgegrenzt, translating roughly to “excluded” or “marginalized,” but with a literal translation closer to “beyond limits” or “out of bounds.” Those who wanted the NPD banned wanted it “ausgegrenzt.” The AfD has avoided such calls such far. “When a party is ausgegrenzt in Germany, that means nobody will deal with it. They’ve said unthinkable things.”