The presence of political opposition has, for centuries, been taken as a sign of good societal health: freedom of expression, democratic values, and the decentralization of power (i.e. checks and balances). Predating the genesis of the modern liberal democratic electoral tradition, the idea that opposing views ought to be tolerated goes all the way back to Aesop’s Fables and the Bible, where the tolerance of contradicting views is shown to be beneficial to rulers otherwise prone to overconfident thinking, what we now call “wishcasting.” Rulers who stifle dissent, as traditions worldwide assess, are arrogant and, ultimately, ignorant of the truth in favor of their personal ego.
How, then, is it that today, people see unanimity as indicative of positive things? A united front, it is supposed, will allow for the best coordination of all the different actors involved in a given organization. This can be seen in all levels of organization: in the political party that seeks to establish a permanent majority, in the club that kicks out members who disagree with its direction, in the church that excommunicates dissident members, in the corporation that seeks to bust union-organizing activities. In all these things, leaders are motivated by a desire to quash dissent, or perhaps, in their own words, “preserve civility.”
This is because those who stifle opposition are often motivated by their fear of opposition, which they fundamentally mistake to be something else: existential conflict. Opposition is disagreement; it is healthy and absolutely necessary for the function of a large, diverse, heterogeneous society. Existential conflict, however, is where people or parties question the very legitimacy of their peers; it is where one group decides that for whatever reason the entire system needs to come down.
Existential conflict doesn’t come from nowhere; however, there is a consequence to quashing dissent. When leaders become fearful of existential conflict and begin to stifle the opposition, more existential conflict is created, ironically enough. Existential conflict may or may not exist where dissent is not quashed, but it absolutely will exist where dissent is quashed: dissidents in a regime without healthy opposition will, naturally, come to hate the system and come to hate the establishment. And it is that hatred, created by the behavior of the ruling class, that leads to the emergence of anti-system groups and the violence that can ensue.
Tolerating an opposition is one way of defusing existential conflict, and if the alternation of power results, then the presence of an opposition provides the state with a critical outlet for the people’s anger. When the people inevitably get tired of the performance of the government, they will have somewhere to go to try something new. Existing, tarnished actors may be replaced with other leaders without much chaos. The basic principle is simple: when the establishment has worn out its welcome, there is another group of reliable leaders there to take their place and lead the people into the future.
As a result, those world leaders we praise as beacons of democratic light fundamentally seek opposition and are certainly not pleased by its absence. Unanimity is not seen as a beneficial thing to the political leader who seeks a long-lasting democratic state.
All this is to help understand the current situation in Germany. To process what’s going on, one must know the players. Six political groups will be discussed here. They are, in order from left-most to right-most on the traditional spectrum: Linke, SPD, Grüne, FDP, CDU/CSU, and AfD.
Germany is not in a good place right now. The economy is falling into a recession, critical infrastructure upgrades are behind schedule, and energy prices are sky-high. Four out of five Germans are upset about the current economic situation; a bad economy is often associated with the rise of far-right politics. Immigration and the climate transition — both of which are often blamed for the economic problems — are also major concerns of German voters. The incumbent government, too, is seen as incompetent and beset by infighting, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz commanding the support of only around 27% of voters.
The incumbent government consists of three parties: the SPD, Grüne, and FDP. This is a coalition between the left and the center, which is fairly usual in German politics. With the incumbent leadership being unpopular, it would be expected that these parties would lose their voters to the other parties, namely the CDU. Historically, the SPD and CDU have alternated in power, in coalition with either Grüne or FDP.
Unfortunately for Germany, that’s not what’s happening. Yes, the CDU is the leading party in polls right now, but it’s actually not the main beneficiary of the government’s vote attrition: instead, the main winner is the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD). Right now, AfD is polling in second place, driven mostly by strength in East Germany, where it is leading the polls. It is absolutely essential to understand that the party currently in second place in German polling, AfD, is both new to the scene and extremely radical.
AfD, among other things, advocates for Germany leaving the EU and NATO, sympathizes with Russia’s line on the war in Ukraine, denies the existence of climate change, and seeks to ban Muslim worship entirely. Since its formation, it has sat behind what political scientists call a cordon sanitaire, or a “firewall” meant to keep it out of government.
AfD did not start off as so extreme. When it was founded in 2013, it was known as a “professor’s party”: basically, an amalgamation of neoliberal intellectuals. Its first leader was conservative Bernd Lucke, who brought them their first win in the 2014 European Parliament election. In 2015 Lucke lost an internal leadership election to nationalist Frauke Petry, after which Lucke quit the party, claiming it had moved too far to the right.
In 2017, AfD entered parliament but Petry also quickly quit, similarly claiming it had moved too far to the right. Since then, AfD has undergone a succession of leaders moving it further and further to the right; Jörg Meuthen, one of Petry’s successors, left the party (again due to its extremism) in 2022. One of the two current leaders, Alice Wiedel, is fighting an internal opposition that considers even her to be too moderate. The leader of the insurgents, Björn Hocke, has railed against the Holocaust memorial in Berlin and is currently charged in court with using Nazi terminology in a public speech.
So why is such a far-right party in second place in German polling? The answer is surprisingly simple: all of the other parties have discredited themselves in the eyes of the German people, and with every other option bearing the blame for Germany’s current issues, the AfD looks like an increasingly attractive option. Its anti-immigration, anti-establishment stances are seen as refreshing in comparison to re-electing the old parties.
But, wait, you might ask: what happened to the CDU? Germany has historically alternated between the SPD and the CDU in government, and one might expect voters turned off by an unpopular SPD government to turn to the CDU as their replacement. However, there’s a critical problem here: Germany destroyed their opposition, not by force, but by undue unanimity and cooperation.
The CDU is equally, if not more, to blame for Germany’s current issues than the SPD. Chancellor Scholz has only been in power since 2021, but before then he was Vice Chancellor in a coalition government between the CDU and the SPD. In fact, for around twelve of the sixteen years ahead of Scholz’s election, the CDU and SPD were in coalition with one another under CDU leader and Chancellor Angela Merkel. The CDU and FDP were in power for the other four. Even today, in nominal opposition, the CDU continues to vote with the government a majority of the time.
All of this working together, as fun as it might have been for Merkel to have both sides of the country at her back, has ironically driven the growth of anti-system opposition. Initially, opposition flowed in usual directions, towards the Grüne (who even led polls for part of Merkel’s last term) and FDP, but with those parties now joining the government, it’s been left with nowhere to go except Linke and AfD. Linke, the modern-day successor to the East German Socialist Unity Party, is unpopular in West Germany; AfD has picked up the slack while pulling away large numbers of former Linke voters. Both parties have problems with Nazi apologism, a relic of the East German government’s failure to effectively denazify the country.
Most attempts to pull votes away from AfD will fail, on the simple basis that the rest of the parties created the problems Germany is presently facing. No party can credibly claim that AfD created the problems to begin with and, as such, voters focusing on the past decade or so of government performance might as well vote for them. So Germany has been left with a far-right party in second place in the polls.
Germany isn’t alone, for the record. Austria is experiencing an even more extreme version of this phenomenon, with their AfD equivalent (the FPÖ) currently leading polls nationwide. The FPÖ’s youth wing recently released a video utilizing Nazi imagery and praising self-identified fascists from the World War II era. It has received less attention in the face of Austria’s smaller size, tradition of right-wing politics, and historical neutrality.
In the end, I do not know what will happen next in Germany. The future is a murky place. This far ahead of the last election, Grüne was placed second, but they eventually came in third; AfD may eventually lose some of their current support., I earnestly believe Germany would be farther away from this position had they preserved the natural government-opposition distinction rather than repeatedly falling back on an establishment-centric governance model, leaving only extremists as the alternative for dissatisfied voters.
All this is to say that unanimity isn’t really a desirable place to be if we seek to avoid existential conflict. A political system that can preserve and respect civil opposition, allowing for the credible alternation of power (and thus blame), is intuitively more likely to remain stable and avoid existential conflict. On the other hand, when we seek to impose or encourage unanimity and a united front on an organization, state or otherwise, removing legitimate outlets for dissent, we inevitably turn off those dissatisfied with the state of things and invite existential conflict into the system.
Germany isn’t the only country to experience this. This sort of pattern of behavior, to me, appears to be present in many European countries both now and during the interwar period. It’s also present in American politics, where unanimity has historically been prized and only now are increasing numbers of voters, especially in the progressive and nationalist blocs, deciding to vote against the long-standing permanent majority of the civil establishment. This is part of why I cringe when I hear a permanent majority — either Democrat, Republican, or especially a centrist third-party — raised as a solution to our current problems: it will never, ever last. It will only lead to centrifugal competition, moving dissenters farther and farther away from the center and from each other, until the entire system tears itself apart.
Civil opposition is a good thing. Even if it’s sometimes a little much for us to accept criticism and tolerate dissension and disunity, the price we pay in our time and our egos saves us a great deal of pain and suffering down the road.