For some political parties who have been warning of the perils of immigration and open borders, the spread of coronavirus is more than a threat. It's vindication.

“Far-right parties everywhere will likely use the coronavirus’ spread to stoke fears about foreigners bringing disease, government's inability to protect the Nation, and shadowy global conspiracies,” said Jennifer Yoder, Robert E. Diamond Professor of Government and Global Studies and an expert on far-right nationalism in Europe.

 

Jennifer A. Yoder Robert E. Diamond Professor of Government and Global Studies

Jennifer A. Yoder, Robert E. Diamond Professor of Government and Global Studies

Far-right groups in Italy, Austria, and France have been among the first to link the virus to foreigners, but Yoder points out that this is precisely the type of crisis where far-right groups and parties in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere energetically deploy well-worn tropes—ones that have been creeping back into public and political discourse—to discredit mainstream parties and their representatives.

Yoder is working on a book project that considers how Germany has reckoned with World War II and the Holocaust, and she compares how other European countries have kept their own dark pasts from that period closeted away.

That post-war effort in Germany, aimed at tamping down the possibility of a re-emergence of far-right ideologies, has been eroded in past years as the far-right has moved from the shadows to the mainstream. One of the right-wing parties, Alternative for Germany, or AfD, has become the third-largest party in the Bundestag as the public has grown increasingly frustrated by Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s welcoming of migrants.

“That gave the AfD a whole new lease on life,” Yoder points out. “It was sputtering out and then it came back with a vengeance.”

Her research has revealed that the far-right has gained the most support in eastern Germany among voters who had experienced communism in East Germany but had little experience with a far-right agenda. By 2019 the AfD was coming in second in multiple state elections and has now taken its place in institutions of representative democracy. Why? One reason may be that older eastern Germans who have already experienced dislocation and disruption with the collapse of East Germany fear yet another threat to their social and economic standing, Yoder says. Nor does that constituency feel responsibility for the country’s Nazi past.

“I think also that they haven’t been as convinced that representative democracy really works for them,” she said.

Representative democracy “requires listening and recognizing people’s insecurities, even their confusion, and trying to address them. It’s not giving them some easy answer, but recognizing that they have concerns. Their fears may be overblown, or maybe they’ve drawn causality where there is none. But to ignore it or belittle it is perilous.” —Jennifer A. Yoder Robert E. Diamond Professor of Government and Global Studies

Yoder points to a trend that has been mirrored in many countries around the world, where upstart populism has taken hold with voters who feel ignored or patronized by traditional parties. Far-right politicians have capitalized on that breach of trust, hammering home a new reality: that traditional parties are lying to voters out of self-interest and only the far-right will speak the truth.

Her latest phase of research focuses on the political speech that is driving the movement in Germany, and the growth of nationalist research institutes and museums that present a carefully curated alternative reality to the history presented by more mainstream institutions. The message: “We are the only ones speaking the truth.”

Yoder and other scholars warn that there may be a price for complacency on the part of so-called political elites in the world’s democracies where constituents aren’t treated as thinking adults. Those alienated voters who feel ignored or belittled or devalued may be receptive to alternatives, including political schools of thought that blame a nation’s problems—including coronavirus—on immigrants. Nonvoters may be moved to turn out at the polls to defend their country’s values. Case in point: More than a million new voters supported the AfD in Germany in 2017.

Recalling a visit to Colby by Steve Levitsky, coauthor of the book How Democracies Die, Yoder said, “Democracies require work. You can’t let your guard down. And a representative democracy really requires listening and recognizing people’s insecurities, even their confusion, and trying to address them. It’s not giving them some easy answer, but recognizing that they have concerns. Their fears may be overblown, or maybe they’ve drawn causality where there is none. But to ignore it or belittle it is perilous.”