What actually happened in this year 2023, at the beginning of which the AfD was still at 13 percent in surveys? Did tens of thousands freeze to death in their icy homes in winter? Did BASF and Bayer have to stop production? Are there masses of ragged and emaciated people begging in the streets?
In any case, the conditions in this country are far from any prophecy of doom. Instead, pensions for the approximately 21 million pensioners are rising, the gas storage facilities are full, and inflation has been somewhat tamed. And apart from the Bundeswehr, in principle everything works, even the Internet and the railways, okay, often only tolerably or with a delay.
But we are not facing collapse. And anyone who has retained a spark of good old Rhenish optimism could say at the end of this year: It's still good. Habeck didn't even remove the old heaters himself. And nevertheless.
And yet, as 2023 draws to a close, this may prove to be the year in which something crucial is shaken. The resistance to change that is inherent in Germans also affected their democracy over many decades. It was – and was! - more stable than anywhere else. The voter turnout is high, the governments are generally reliable, radical parties have no chance. Populism and chaos were always the others, in short: the Austrians, the Italians...
The Germans, purified by the Nazi years, on the other hand, with a kind of late-discovered basic trust, remained in doubt about Winston Churchill's definition: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried out from time to time."
Once Upon a time. In mid-August, the Körber Foundation published a representative survey, the results of which are more than alarming. According to this, the proportion of Germans who have little trust in their democracy rose from 30 to 54 percent within two years. 71 percent agree with the statement that those responsible in politics and the media live "in their own world from which they look down on the rest of the population." 58 percent say: "Politics does less for people like me than for other groups." In the "Mitte Study" by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, 30 percent even agree with the sentence: "The governing parties are deceiving the people." That's almost twice as many as two years ago. And eight percent of those surveyed – one in twelve – now share a right-wing extremist worldview; Previously the proportion was consistently below three percent.
This is no longer a gradual erosion process, it is a galloping one. Doubt, discord, jealousy of food – it seems as if the AfD's stories have seeped into the mainstream.
So what happened? Since it sometimes helps to first delve into the small things in order to better understand the big picture, here are a few personal, everyday observations. I come from a village in southern Germany. When I visit, I always have to get used to the manners again. That you greet someone you don't know on the street. It's not entirely natural for waitresses who are decades younger to speak to you on a first-name basis. And no one pisses anywhere in public, especially not at light rail stops.
But they consider gender to be complete nonsense. My old friend, the dentist, an extremely enlightened person, recently asked whether they had nothing better to do in Berlin. And another claimed he no longer used the light rail because the "Arab assholes" on it made so much noise and dirt. He is also far from voting for the AfD.
The other day I was traveling along the Ku’damm in the bus. None of the usual Berlin rednecks. A woman with a stroller got in at the Europa Center. The space for wheelchairs and strollers was occupied and no one moved aside. The woman couldn't get any further, the doors couldn't close, the bus couldn't start. Immediately there was a lot of commotion among the passengers. “Out or in!”, “Are you stupid or what?” I'll spare you the rest. That was a bit intense even for Berlin standards. "It's getting worse and worse," groaned a passenger as the bus finally moved on.
Lack of understanding and dissatisfaction, impatience and intolerance, dissatisfaction and ruthlessness. Yes, it's getting worse. Felt, measured and observed.
The Federal Republic in 2023 – a country is in a collective bad mood. A variant of US Trumpism has eaten into this republic. The ugly way people treat each other has seeped into everyday life from social media. It is as if society is currently in a noisy, organized retreat from civil interaction with one another - and, related to this, on a quiet retreat from democracy.
Because the bad mood, fed and fattened by an overdose of crises, which is now joined by a war in the Middle East and flaring anti-Semitism in our own country, feeds and fattens this bad mood in combination with the feeling that “those up there” are in Berlin and Brussels are being disrespected, especially the AfD (and possibly soon also a Wagenknecht party if it ever really exists). “Those up there,” on the other hand, are in complete disarray. At the end of 2023, 76 percent were dissatisfied with the federal government, 69 percent with the Chancellor. A declaration of no confidence of historical dimensions, a receipt for a constant traffic light dispute of a similarly historical caliber over arms deliveries, basic child welfare, heating laws, debts, immigration, nuclear power... Just a few examples.
And so to a few more disturbing numbers. If there were federal elections today - as of mid-November - the AfD would have a vote share of 21 percent. In state elections in the West it would be between a tolerable ten percent (Saarland) and a painful 20 percent (Baden-Württemberg). There is no longer any federal state in the East where the AfD would not become the strongest party; Everywhere she received well over 30 percent of the vote, in Saxony even 35 percent. Only coalitions of three or four partners could govern against them, and the cartel of the old party cartel would be confirmed. The fattening treatment would continue.
As long as the AfD was only a party for old, elderly and old-born men who let off steam in the voting booth about being short-changed, the matter was comparatively harmless. A piece of bird shit in the history of the Federal Republican party. Not pretty, but not a drama either. In the meantime, however, the AfD has spread to the middle of the electorate. The long-held almost iron rule “You don’t choose that!” no longer applies in middle-class circles. 27 percent have long considered the AfD to be a "normal democratic party", and only a good half of Germans cannot even imagine voting for them; three years ago, 74 percent rejected the AfD outright.
Normal? Democratically? No, that doesn't make us Weimar. We are not on the straight and irrevocable path there either. The republic, see above, is far from impoverished; the masses of unemployed people who brought Hitler to power do not exist; just masses of middle class people who - for no reason at all - dream of decline and impoverishment and struggle with the fact that others are better off. The Munich sociologist Armin Nassehi has put this feeling of being disadvantaged and taken advantage of, which is particularly common in the East, in the wonderful formula: "The argument is not that people are doing badly, but that they have adapted to it They're not feeling well."
Sometimes appearances determine consciousness. We can do it – that was a succinct and big sentence. Nowadays, for many people it's more like: We don't want to do it at all. And this is by no means just aimed at taking in more refugees.
But this is also true: we are now apparently a democracy with fewer and fewer democrats. But with many more right-wingers and Robespierres on both sides of the political spectrum; In their rigor, “Last Generation” and “Identitarian Movement” differ little. But the relentlessness extends far beyond radical minorities. Today there is "an increasing attitude of wanting to implement what you have recognized as right and true," says Bremen political scientist Philip Manow. He speaks of the “extremism of the self-proclaimed middle.” Every careless word, every little freak-out, every slip-up gesture can immediately go viral (and usually does), spread to the furthest corners, mocked, and, if in doubt, falsified.
It's not easy to arm yourself against it. What is fake and what is not? Often hard to recognize at first glance. In this world, the serious automatically falls behind. For populists like the AfD it is a guarantee of success. Understanding, let alone reconciliation, is not part of their concept. This is what makes the political debate so terrible – and so terribly exhausting.
This is how a political crisis meets a society that is irritated, overwhelmed and incited by the pandemic, money worries and wars, and whose members often seem to have lost a sense of what the much-maligned state has achieved in recent years. With all the “bazookas” and other billion-dollar programs, things may not always have been fair, often slow and bureaucratic, but all in all the promise “You’ll never walk alone” was true. It's just that the impression prevails: it's always the others who are the winners.
This is also why, after two years in the Chancellery, Olaf Scholz is not given the respect that he demands for everyone (and everyone!). Maybe a more respectable, less argumentative way of dealing with one another at traffic lights would help to regain at least a little of the trust that has been lost.
There may even be a realization that there is more at stake than just the next election victory, much more. It just takes an overdose of Rhenish optimism to believe in it.