As Francis Fukuyama describes in his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay, there is a vicious cycle within modern liberal democracies that is apparent today: a feedback loop of distrust and disappointment in government and its leaders, undercutting the ability and authority of government to meet expectations, disappointing citizens more and creating greater distrust.

In Europe, one illustration of that cycle is mirrored in the current wave of demonstrations under the banner of the so-called “PEGIDA” protests. While those protests bring thousands of angry citizens out on the streets to criticize what they see as a dangerous rise in the influence of Islam over European countries, there is clearly more than that going on in these crowds: ugly xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, and nationalist rhetoric. This has all led to violence and even the recent murder of a young immigrant in Dresden.

Yet there is also fear and frustration. There is skepticism directed at political leaders, distrust of the media’s reporting, and a general feeling that protesters’ concerns are not being taken seriously. The fact that the protests are supplemented by some skinheads and neo-Nazi thugs spoiling for a fight does not alter the vicious cycle. Indeed, that all protesters are castigated by counter demonstrators as a group of neo-Nazi racists and bigots only adds to the vicious cycle. The fact that the chancellor herself took aim at PEGIDA in her New Year’s Eve address to the nation was an unusual expression of criticism which only inflamed its supporters.

Finding a Balance for Freedom of Expression

PEGIDA is a multi-purpose platform for protests made up of a confusing—sometimes contradictory—spectrum of issues and individuals with different motivations. But the common denominator is to express distrust of those who govern and those in the media, as well as anxiety about their own futures. They are motivated by the specter of the threat of radical Islam, but the sources of their fear are also found in their own uncertain lives.

Recent headlines have added fuel to this fire. The killings in Paris, shoot-outs in Belgium, and ramped up police activities throughout Europe have raised alarm of terrorism. But PEGIDA’s claims existed before the Paris murders, motivated by the alleged increasing Islamization in Europe and the need to stop it. What is perhaps surprising is the origin of Germany’s PEGIDA movement, Dresden, a city with a small Muslim presence. But its message has spread elsewhere in Germany and to wider Europe.

The fact that PEGIDA was immediately confronted with large counter demonstrations throughout Germany was perhaps not so surprising. German public sensitivity to perceived intolerance or hate groups remains high seven decades after World War II. Yet it was also a reflection of that same sensitivity when the cancellation of a PEGIDA demonstration in Dresden due to alleged terrorist threats elicited protests and accusations of suppressing freedom of expression. The majority of Germans take their most successful democracy very seriously.

While PEGIDA as a form of protest appears elsewhere in European democracies, it is watched most carefully in Germany, where history looms large. But beyond PEGIDA, there are changes underway in the German political system with the potential to impact the agenda.

Political Parties Amid the Protests

Political parties have always been the main vehicles of political mobilization in Germany. Yet most of them have seen a relatively stagnant or downward trend in party membership, with voters also becoming less predictable and reliable.

The liberal FDP just learned that lesson as it was forced out of the Bundestag for the first time since 1949 for failing to reach the 5 percent threshold. It will now have to figure a way back by reconnecting with enough voters on issues with which they can identify.

Today, Chancellor Angela Merkel runs a coalition government that controls 80 percent of the seats in the Bundestag. Yet the actual membership of her party, the Christian Democrats (CDU) has been declining, as has that of her coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD). Meanwhile, a new party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), has picked up enough traction in the past year by opposing the euro so that it is now represented in three regional governments and missed entering the Bundestag by a small margin. Meanwhile, the Left Party, whose roots go back to the legacy of the GDR, was strong enough in the eastern German state of Thuringia to not only topple a CDU/SPD coalition, but also become the strongest party and head of the state government. The Greens, too, must find their way back to the possibility of being in a national coalition after a decade in opposition.

On top of this, voter participation is down—a warning sign for politicians on all sides of the spectrum.

While PEGIDA supporters seem to suggest that they would cast their vote for the AfD, it is likely that by the time the next elections are scheduled in 2017, PEGIDA will have melted away and its supporters might still be attracted to the AfD or they might simply not vote at all. How that unfolds depends on how Chancellor Merkel and her counterparts across the political party spectrum assess and address the sources of PEGIDA protesters and their angst. Merkel enjoys record-level popularity right now in the German public, but she cannot take that for granted—nor can any political leader seeking voter support.

The Broader Picture

While fear of Islam might be the current catalyst for protesters, the longer perspective will have to focus on their fears—fears that have emerged from uncertainty and from social change. Even though Germany has secured a level of economic strength and political influence that is the strongest in Europe, everything is relative. And Germans tend to worry about things around them. There is the concern about the violence in Ukraine, the economic instability in southern Europe, the alleged fragility of export markets, the environmental threats, energy supplies, privacy, Ebola…and all of these things go into hyper-drive when terrorist threats are seen happening next door.

Nor is it only happening in Europe. Some of this process has been visible across the Atlantic during the past few years. The rise of the Tea Party was not about the prospects of a third political party being viable in the American political system—that was never going to happen at the national level. Rather, it was about the opportunity for some politicians and parts of the media to ride a wave of opportunism on the current of voter anxiety—a very definable set of voters who were and are fearful of their role and resources in society and can be mobilized around very real concerns as well as handy stereotypes, racial or religious. That also has come with ugly sides to it during the past several years.

We will see how this plays out over the next two years in the run up to the 2016 presidential elections.

In Fukuyama’s book, the argument is made that American political development has begun to stall. Fukuyama argues that the state has become weaker, less efficient and more corrupt due to growing economic inequality and concentration of wealth. Another cause is the control of American political institutions by interest groups, which exercise a disproportionate influence on government. The result is gridlock with polarized parties and interest groups unable and unwilling to solve fundamental problems, all of which leaves voters alienated and caught in that vicious cycle of distrust. We arrive at a self-fulfilling prophecy. And Fukuyama sees similar threats on the horizon in Europe.

The United States paid a heavy price for losing control of that development in a civil war over 150 years ago. Europe paid a much heavier price in the twentieth century in which Germany was both catalyst and catastrophe in the first half of the century. It was a far different story in the second half.

PEGIDA does not represent an imminent danger to German democracy any more than the Tea Party does in the U.S. or other movements elsewhere in liberal democracies in Europe. It does represent a reminder that all liberal democracies are continually challenged to renew themselves—especially when they must balance governing with accountability to renew trust. That trust is the oil in the motor of democracy. Time for everyone to check the dipstick.

  • K Bledowski

    It’s interesting that PEGIDA is juxtaposed against the Tea
    Party. If both reflect resentment of rank-and-file against elites, then that’s
    where the similarities end. The Tea Party was/is an intra-legislative movement,
    pulling on the levers of power where it counts: in a parliamentary assembly.
    PEGIDA is a street movement because its adherents don’t bank on change coming
    through elected representatives. With a bit hyperbole, Americans throw out
    members of Congress who don’t vote as they’re told by their constituents. In
    Europe, dissatisfied voters throw in manure in front of city halls because they
    feel powerless to exact change through their representatives.

    German public opinion is becoming increasingly cross with a
    lot of things these days. The EU is not popular but neither is the ECB, nor is
    TTIP. Russia’s aggression is condoned in a lot of corners while the EMU (or
    euro) is subjected to sharp criticism. By contrast, the government supports all
    these things … Before the fringe parties take over, the European politicians
    should stop striving for “Chancellor Majorities” and their equivalents in
    legislative assemblies and focus on “people’s majorities”. The Germans are
    right to shout ‘wir sind das Volk’.

  • Rudy Mueller

    Nice perspective analysis. Trust is key and is being tested across the West.

  • K Bledowski

    Two further reflections.

    First, PEGIDA seems to aim beyond Germany (Abendland). That’s
    quite a change from the usual German indignation toward nations usurping the
    right to meddle in other countries’ affairs.

    Second, religion is a personal matter and it is hard to
    legislate in a free society. Burghers of many European lands have fled the
    continent several hundred years ago to escape religious persecution. In the New
    World, their descendants, as soon as they seized the opportunity, wrote into
    their Constitution the following article: “Congress shall make no law
    respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise
    thereof …” There is little sentiment in this country to pick a religious
    crusade (count in other “spiritual” societies, such as Japan or Poland).

    JJ is right that PEGIDA is way more than about religion.
    Yet, if the movement does not die down, its advocacy is bound to erode the
    enormously high goodwill that Germany enjoys here in America. It’s hard to
    predict the consequences.