Members of the AfD and the CDU in the plenary hall of the Thuringian state parliament: The firewall is destabilized
Photo: Martin Schutt / dpa
The other day, I struggled to stop myself from publishing a half-baked gag on X. It would have read: "You have to be able to admit mistakes: I am very sorry that we progressive forces in society have gendered the CDU Thuringia into cooperation with the AfD." The joke is that all too many conservatives are so irrationally opposed to social progress – such as gender-neutral language – that they prefer to work with right-wing extremists. Moreover, with right-wing extremists who openly announce that they want to destroy the CDU and, by the way, are also targeting democracy itself. I didn't publish the joke because, on closer inspection, it contains more than just a grain of truth. Only in a different way than conservatives and especially right-wing extremists believe or hope.
The AfD's soaring popularity is driven by its struggle with the present on the one hand and reactionary misanthropy and racism on the other. The reactionary misanthropy that is always evident in the right-wing extremist AfD, but in most cases seethes beneath the surface of this anti-democratic party, distinguishes it from conservatives. Conservatives are not misanthropic. Or they at least hide their misanthropy well under several layers of compassion and civility. However, there is an interesting and dangerous overlap between right-wing extremists and conservatives.
It's not that leftists and progressives don't have political oddities in front of them, on the contrary. Not seeing problems because you don't want to see them: left-wing specialty. To hope far beyond the limit of meaningfulness that things will go well in some kind of semi-magical way: the core competence of progressives. In the meantime, to gloss over what does not fit into one's own worldview: both are excellent.
A present shader in the taste of nostalgia
But what right-wing extremists and conservatives have in common, despite all their differences, is the shading of the present, and in a taste of nostalgia. A few years ago, Jens Spahn spoke openly about it in an interview. He said: "To be conservative is to reduce the speed of change so that it is tolerable." Translated, this means that conservatives simply take longer to notice and come to terms with the further development of the world that is perceived as left-wing or progressive. Or to redefine them conservatively and henceforth claim that they are actually conservative basic values. A well-understood example is the "marriage for all", which was fiercely opposed by conservatives for a long time before people like Jens Spahn said something like: "It's primordial conservative values when people form a covenant of life and stand up for each other!" In the meantime, however, until the change is conservatively tolerable, one struggles with the present.
More on the subject
AfD problem of the Union: "The CDU now does not need democracy tutoring from the north"By Florian Gathmann, Christian Teevs and Steffen Winter
Cooperation with the AfD: firewall? There are only a few fire extinguishers left here! The SPIEGEL editorial by Ann-Katrin Müller
The present shader is dangerous because it corresponds to the intellectual bridge between the far right and the conservatives, i.e. it destabilizes the firewall. Habit then coagulates into a perceived right, the equalization of privileges is considered discrimination, change is viewed only from the side of danger. Conservatives get into the present shade especially when they do not govern. For conservatives, opposition is an annoying accident, which is why they are so fabulously bad at it.
There is no other explanation for the fact that Friedrich Merz wants to halve the AfD, that he declares that the AfD is "openly National Socialist", and a few annoyances later he talks to CDU functionaries in the East about what a cooperation with the AfD could look like if it is not allowed to look like a cooperation light. Worse still, the head of the CDU's Basic Values Commission, the historian Andreas Rödder, is open to the idea of a minority government of the CDU in Thuringia, even if it were supported by the AfD from time to time. Something like this shows how shaken German conservatives are by the present, and how incapable many of them are in distinguishing between political decisions and social developments.
In times of strong and comprehensive change, the present shader is reinforced by the assumption that politics can control almost everything – but simply does not. Depending on your perspective, this is unfortunately or fortunately wrong. It is true that politics has greater sovereignty than it currently exploits, because self-carved obstacles such as bureaucracy, investment aversion and regulatory frenzy stand in its way. But the major, extremely effective lines of world change such as globalization, digitization and the course of the world can only be slowed down or mitigated by politics for a short time. Which, in turn, often makes it more difficult to control later.
The traffic light communicated spectacularly unfavorably
More or less any other democratic government would have taken most of the decisions of the traffic light in a similar way, because they could hardly have been made differently between practical constraints, restless world running and preparatory reason. The traffic light has merely communicated its decisions spectacularly unfavorably. As a result, in the eyes of larger sections of the public, the fear of change has shifted to those who have been forced to respond to it. Where sometimes quite understandable present shading leads to fear, the firewall burns.
The extremism researcher Peter R. Neumann recently published the book "Logic of Fear", in which he describes the fear of change as the most important driver of the shift to the right. Especially in the face of ultra-naïve right-wing openers like Grundwerte-Rödder, it is good and important to argue against right-wing extremism from a clearly conservative side, and that is what Neumann does. The accusation that he depoliticizes the right through the quasi-excuse that people are just afraid is not really true.
Reality Shock: Ten Lessons from the Present
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All the fear in the world does not justify misanthropy, but the analysis of fear as a driving force can help to fight right-wing extremists in a targeted manner. Because that's what all democrats and conservatives have to be concerned with – fighting right-wing extremists. With all democratically exhaustible means, including, of course, party bans. In the meantime, this means dissolving the present shader between gender debate and migration in such a way that more voters perceive the conservative parties as a better solution. But – this must not lead to the equating of positions from the outside.
Every word counts
And this is where the role of progressives as indicated at the beginning comes to the fore. It is not the case that leftists and progressives are to blame for the fact that people who just voted for the Union are already switching to the AfD. But if the Union is too often branded as "right-wing extremist" by leftists and progressives, if it is too often pretended in the public debate that there is actually no difference between conservative and right-wing extremist positions, then one is doing the business of the right-wing extremists.
Somehow, democratic politics has to get along with the people who are entitled to vote, and if they are certified by the AfD itself as well as by leftists and progressives that the difference to the Union is actually not that great, then that has an effect. The firewall was thankfully erected by conservatives, and its existence depends on conservatives and their resistance to the right – but it can be damaged from the left.
To stay with the image of the unmade gag from the beginning: This does not mean that leftists and progressives should stop gendering in order not to drive poor conservative voters into the arms of the right-wing extremists. However, it is said that leftists and progressives must abandon their rigorism and the sometimes lack of tolerance of conservative attitudes – in order to be able to better differentiate between conservative and right-wing extremist. Unfortunately, this is not so easy as long as the present-shading, fragile part of the conservatives sees the mere use of a gendered term as an attack on their freedom. Because, in his shock at the change in the world, he equates "I would like to gender" with "I really want to tell you how to speak". But I am cautiously optimistic.
To paraphrase Jens Spahn, it is only a matter of time before this change has always been primordially conservative.