September’s general elections have brought Germany its own Brexit/Trump moment. For the first time since 1945 a far right nationalist party is part of the German national parliament. The Alternative for Germany, AfD, gained 12,6 % of German votes. Given the AfD’s increasing popularity in the polls and the resurging nationalism over the last years this wasn’t a shock moment in the way that Brexit or Trump’s election was. Yet, there is something particularly troubling about seeing Nazis back in the German parliament. One common response is that ‘we need to take the worries of the AfD voters more seriously’. They have been overlooked and here we are. But: What does it mean ‘to take seriously’? And who is this ‘we’ that is supposed to take seriously?
There are (at least) three senses of ‘taking seriously’. In the weakest sense ‘taking seriously’ refers to acknowledging the existence of worries and the way in which they motivate action. But ‘taking seriously’ can also be understood in a stronger sense, as a requirement to accept the reasons that someone offers as legitimately motivating her actions. In the strongest sense, ‘taking seriously’ entails a requirement to act upon these worries. Taking seriously in the two stronger senses carries more normative weight. To account for this normative weight, the reasons should be both empirically grounded and normatively defensible. What does this mean for ‘taking seriously’ the worries of the AfD voters? What are these worries?
One claim is that AfD voters are predominantly motivated by economic worries. Yet, while parts of the AfD voters do in fact belong to the group of the economically vulnerable (21% of the AfD’s total vote comes from the unemployed, 21% from workers), a study by the Hans-Böckler Foundation finds that they also come from middle or upper class backgrounds. In fact, only 53% of the AfD voters see the core competency of the AfD in social justice. In contrast, 95% express a worry about ‘the loss of German culture’, while 92% worry about ‘the influence of Islam in Germany’. These worries find their expression among other things in a firm commitment to traditional family values and gender roles and a strong opposition to (predominantly Muslim-) immigration. There is an uncomfortable truth that some people vote for the AfD not despite the party’s obvious racism or sexism, but because of it. One thing the AfD seems to offer is the promise to restore the white man’s sense of identity in a world where traditional gender roles and white privilege are being challenged.
Taking these worries seriously in the weakest sense requires an acknowledgment of their existence. In the run up to the election, mentions of the AfD and AfD topics occupied third place in the media behind mentions of CDU and SPD. The AfD has also been granted a broad forum in political talkshows. The worries of AfD voters have thus found a voice that is being listened to.
Taking these worries seriously in the stronger senses requires an analysis of their empirical accurateness and their normative defensibility. Now, there is a sense in which some of these worries are empirically grounded. A commitment to gender equality means that men will loose privileges. A commitment to anti-racism means that white people will loose privileges. Yet, the mere fact that those worries have an empirical basis does not make them normatively defensible. The acknowledgement that someone is worried about something does not necessarily make the worry itself legitimate in any stronger sense. Nor does it establish any claim on others to act upon it. It is therefore crucial to analyse the worries that AfD voters express to determine in which sense ‘we’ are supposed to ‘take seriously’. To do so, it is in a second step necessary to take a closer look at this ‘we’.
One way, in which the ‘we’ is understood, is with reference to the group of middle or upper class, university-educated, cosmopolitan urban progressives. ‘We’, so the claim, form a global elite that is out of touch with the worries of ‘ordinary’ people. It is ‘our’ political correctness that is the culprit. Yet, while it is certainly true that the worldviews of the people who constitute this ‘we’ differ in many respects substantially from those of AfD voters, this ‘we’ is far from constituting a homogenous group. Even if we assume class to be relatively constant, this ‘we’ consists of people with different genders, races, sexualities, abilities, and ages. People within this group are differently positioned and consequently differently affected by the worries of the AfD voters. Iris Marion Young has argued that the fact that individuals have different social positions means that they have different degrees of responsibility to deal with structural injustice. Similarly, we could think that the requirement to take seriously varies depending on the social positions that individuals occupy. It is therefore important to figure out how our different positions within this ‘we’ affect our responsibility to ‘take seriously’.
Therefore, to demand that ‘we need to take the worries of AfD voters seriously’ requires first and foremost an analysis of the sense in which ‘we’ need to take seriously and of the way in which different social positions affect individuals’ responsibilities to do so. It requires carefully walking the line between acknowledging that people are worried, without therefore granting the contents of these worries legitimacy in any stronger sense.