“Authoritarian Temptations:” An interview with Wilhelm Heitmeyer
Professor Wilhelm Heitmeyer is a sociologist. He is the founder of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence at Bielefeld University, which he headed from 1996 to 2013, and where he still conducts research. In 2018, published a book entitled “Autoritäre Versuchungen” [Authoritarian Temptations], now in its 3rd edition. In it, he examines why right-wing parties, movements and attitudes are on the rise in German society.
By Wilhelm Heitmeyer
Professor Heitmeyer, in your widely acclaimed analysis you examine the shift to the right in German society and take a look at longer lines of development. Why are right-wing populist parties, movements and positions becoming so popular at this time or in recent years?
It is a concourse of several circumstances. That is why the developments cannot be explained unidimensionally from the party system. It is necessary to delve deeper. An authoritarian and anonymous finance capitalism has emerged and has achieved great gains in control over nation-state politics through the ever-expanding neoliberal economic policy in the rapid process of globalisation. This form of capitalism has managed to enforce its premises increasingly unhindered because nation-state politics has had to accept more and more losses of control in order to take effective action against growing social inequality, for example. This has in turn led to experiences of social disintegration and fears of loss of status in parts of the population, associated with individual losses of control over one's own biography and insecurities. An important consequence is that the view of the democratic system has changed. I call this an emptying of democracy, i.e. the apparatus functions, but trust is eroding.
My thesis in 2001 was that the winner of this process would be rabid right-wing populism. The current development in Germany and Europe does not come out of the blue. It has been in the offing for a long time.
You have summed up the socio-political developments of the last 20 years with the term " uncertain times". Threats do not automatically lead to right-wing populist attitudes, however. What makes right-wing populist positions plausible or connectable?
Well, the term of "uncertain times" draws a distinction between two processes. One comprises rather creeping processes of insecurity and disorientation, i.e. where is this society heading? The second process includes crises that we experienced between 2000 and 2020 - and we cannot even begin to predict the social and political effects of the coronavirus crisis. Crises are always tied to two conditions. First, that the usual political, economic and social routines for regulation no longer work. Second, that the conditions before the events cannot be restored. Such crises began with "9/11", when Islamist terror sprang up in the Western world. In 2005 we had the "Hartz IV" crisis in Germany with the social repercussions for parts of the population. Then there was the banking and financial crisis in 2008-2009, followed with a cultural and political crisis in 2015/2016 with the movement of refugees.
Against this background, authoritarian attitudes develop in search of security and control. It must be emphasised that the movement of refugees was not the cause, but only an accelerating factor of this development. It is against such a backdrop of loss of control that the movements and parties that I do not call "right-wing populist" take hold, but in the German case it is "authoritarian national radicalism," which is not right-wing extremist as a whole either. This makes it attractive to broader sections of the population because it promises to restore control: "We are taking back our people and our country." It suggests a "change of system" with an authoritarian model of society, German superiority, a reinterpretation of German history and "being German" through exclusion.
Everyday racism and xenophobic attitudes are not new phenomena. You have also included results from your long-term study "German Conditions" in the current analysis. You can show that about 20% of the respondents already held right-wing populist attitudes in 2002. Are these attitude patterns becoming visible only now or are the current developments about completely different, new actors?
It must be emphasised again and again, in fact. It is about attitudes of "group-based misanthropy" according to which people are devalued and discriminated against and become the focus of violence solely on the basis of their group membership as Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, refugees, homeless people, or people of a different skin colour, irrespective of their individual behaviour. Such attitudes were present long before the emergence of right-wing reactionary movements in 2014 or the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) [Alternative for Germany] party drifting to the right in 2015, which I call "authoritarian national radicalism". People with these authoritarian attitudes had no place in the electoral process until then. They engaged in vagrant politics, sometimes voting for the Social Democrats, sometimes for the Christian Democrats, or disappearing into the rage-soaked apathy of abstention. These people have had an authoritarian political offer since 2015. They are brought out of their individual powerlessness with authoritarian slogans and provided with collective power fantasies against the open society and liberal democracy.
You also reach the conclusion that right-wing populist attitudes are by no means held only by the socially disengaged, but also by high-income earners with a high level of education. You speak of the "raw bourgeoisie." What exactly do you mean by that?
This perspective has long been underestimated. "Raw bourgeoisie" means that a jargon of contempt towards weak groups is revealed behind the façade of presented prosperity and polished language. Establishment privileges are claimed and an "ideology of inequality" is also visible in these groups, which forms the core of "group-based misanthropy." It is important to note that formal higher education does not provide a secure "buffer" against such attitudes. This is a position cultivated for social self-relief, of course, but it is political self-deception. We need only look at the 20-year-old studies on xenophobic and national-conservative attitudes among students of law, economics and engineering. They are more pronounced than among students of other subjects. Yet the leading elites for business, politics and the state are recruited from these subjects.
Furthermore, people in these circles are reached particularly by intellectual elites not only from the increasingly differentiated right-wing spectrum.
Right-wing populist attitudes are not exclusively an East German phenomenon. For instance, the AfD got 15.1 % of the vote from a standing start in the state elections in Baden-Württemberg in 2016. Many of the party's prominent leaders, such as Björn Höcke, also come from the West. Are there differences in East and West Germany nonetheless in your view?
You are absolutely right. But there have been clear differences from the outset of the so-called "reunification." We can show these again and again in the long-term study on "group-related misanthropy" between 2002 and 2011 with annual representative population surveys. And this continues to the present day. The interaction of social disintegration processes, not being perceived by the political elites, the lack of orientation and above all – which cannot be stressed enough - the loss of recognition, lead to these authoritarian political search movements among considerable segments of the population. This also applies to younger people, especially young men. In addition, there is the politically underestimated socio-geographical factor: East Germany is characterised mainly by villages and small towns that are quite homogeneous socially and culturally and thus generate a high degree of conformity.
You consider the long-established term "right-wing populism" to be unsuitable and instead recommend the somewhat more unwieldy term "authoritarian national radicalism." Why do you think this term is more appropriate?
The term "right-wing populism" is completely unsuitable to describe what is happening politically. It is devoid of content, it has no criteria other than a line of conflict when talking about the opposition of "real" people against corrupt elites. Its use is completely arbitrary and, above all, quaintly trivialising. The developments in Poland, Hungary, the USA, France and Germany are all lumped together in this way, although they are ever so different. I am always appalled at how unconsciously the media, politics and even academia deal with this issue. A prominent journalist of a leading German magazine told me: “You may well be right with your concept of "authoritarian national radicalism", but we need ‘pithy terms’." He is not interested in the fact that using pithy terms makes people short-sighted.
The aforementioned unwieldy term is consequently more accurate because it is based on theory-driven empirical criteria, i.e. on the self-evident academic tools of the trade. For Germany, this means: First, the "authoritarian national radicalism" with its three elements for an authoritarian model of society with a high level of control, hierarchies as well as confinement of lifestyles and exclusions. Second, the political model of liberal democracy is to be transformed into a nationalist version with German supremacy and as homogeneous an ethnic composition as possible, which is to be concerned with a reinterpretation of German history. Third, it is about radical boundary crossings especially against marked weak groups, with different origins, beliefs, sexual orientation, etc. The extremely critical factor is that, on the one hand, right-wing populist actors are only interested in public states of agitation, while on the other, violent right-wing extremism is intent above all on spreading terror on streets and squares. The "authoritarian national radicalism" of the AfD with its trail of success is between these two. It aims to destabilise social and political institutions - and ultimately the system. That is why it wants to infiltrate the police, the military, the cultural spheres, the trade unions, the schools, the judiciary, etc. - all so for the sake of "system change!"
What significance do you attribute to the new social media such as Facebook and the like for these developments?
There is no question that they are ever so important. Among all German parties, the AfD is the one that is most effectively positioned on this front. There are numerous problems. To mention just two, far-reaching cooperation between big internet corporations would be needed to curb hate crime. This will not come about, because it is a capital-driven market model that has no interest in social peace or social integration. It would not bring any added value. It is the brutal capitalist logic of exploitation with politically destructive consequences. This advanced process can no longer be tamped through nation-state politics. The second major problem is that we are no longer dealing with a public sphere in which arguments are exchanged. There are now public spheres (in the plural) represented in separate and sealed "filter bubbles" and "echo chambers." There are homogeneous groups that are not interested in debating social problems in regulated communication conflicts, but only in a self-affirming build-up in an upward spiral of rage.
Right-wing authoritarian movements and parties are a European phenomenon and, in view of the USA and Trump, one of the Western world as well. Why do you think this development occurred comparatively late in Germany with the AfD?
In Germany, we are actually some 20 years “behind” Austria with Haider or France with Le Pen. One of the reasons is German history with its deterrent effect against nationalist and authoritarian temptations, as I see it. There was the deceptive social self-assurance: "We have learned our lesson from history." This widespread perception also contributed to the dismissal of our annual publications in the book series "German Conditions" and in many mass media, especially by the conservative political parties and also by journalistic elites: It’s all alarmist brouhaha that has nothing to do with our intact, humane society. Moreover, the right-wing extremist party NPD was not particularly attractive to bourgeois voters. Then there was a stable party loyalty for a long time to relatively large popular parties such as the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. These three political factors have become less important, while the interrelationships of economic, social and cultural factors described at the beginning have gained in significance with the crises. Then the AfD, which was actually oriented towards economic criticism of the euro was “hijacked,” whereupon it proceeded to develop its own instruments for success with a new track record.
Do you see signs or trends that indicate that "authoritarian national radicalism" will continue to normalise and possibly even grow in the future?
The normalisation processes pose a big problem. Everything that is considered normal can no longer be examined critically. This is clearly the path we are on. In 2018, I wrote that if "authoritarian national radicalism" is not dismantled from within, a process of political growth cannot be ruled out. There appear to be three reasons for this: First, the causal contexts listed at the beginning continue to operate without being effectively changed on the political front. Second, we do not yet know what authoritarian temptations will arise when the economic and political consequences become visible once the coronavirus crisis with all its social distortions has been somehow overcome at some point. Last, but far from least, we live in a "darkened" Europe. Authoritarian temptations and "right-wing threat alliances" can be found everywhere. The latter is the subject of the new book.