Skip to main content

On Wednesday, I watched Germany descend into a political crisis. For the first time since 1945, a German parliament – in the state of Thuringia – elected a premier with the votes of an extreme-right party. That party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), last year won almost a quarter of the state’s seats on a campaign that played mainly on voter fear of immigrants. The party prevailed on Wednesday, and broke Germany’s long-standing taboo on extreme-right participation in governing coalitions, because a politician from an otherwise moderate party, the Free Democrats, had decided that it was better to go along with this rhetoric.

A day earlier, I watched half the United States recoil in horror. Their President, in his State of the Union speech, delivered a long, pornographically violent narrative involving an “alien” on a rampage of murder and crime in California – another piece of his long campaign to prey upon (or create) voter fear of immigrants. Yet the next day, Donald Trump dodged an impeachment verdict because the more moderate members of his party had decided that it was better to go along with this rhetoric and support the policies behind it.

In both these incidents, we saw mainstream parties struggling to respond to an approach to politics that draws on a belief, held by some voters, that their lives and livelihoods are threatened by immigrants. There are two ways to respond to this problem: Assume the fears are based on real cultural or physical threats and support policies that change realities on the ground, or recognize that they’re based on fallacies and deal with the fear itself.

Some scholars, such as Eric Kaufmann at the University of London and James Kirchick at the Brookings Institute, have argued that even otherwise liberal parties should “protect” white majorities who feel threatened or “replaced” by limiting immigration numbers or putting racial restrictions on immigration, to assuage their fears and prevent them voting for extremists.

The political logic might seem a bit twisted – if slashing immigration really prevented people from voting for Trumps, why on earth would Donald Trump be attempting it? – but it might be worth trying, if there was anything to it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with lowering immigration numbers; if it could prevent the politics of “never again,” it might be worth a shot.

But it won’t. To understand why, take a look at the places where the crises are unfolding.

Thuringia, which has the highest level of support for the anti-immigrant AfD in Germany, is literally the least likely place in Germany to encounter an immigrant or minority. Of Germany’s 16 states, Thuringia has the smallest foreign-born population – only 1.9 per cent (and the majority of them are Polish or Russian, so are not particularly visible). It also has the lowest proportion of Jews and Muslims – a tiny fraction of 1 per cent.

This makes Thuringia very much typical. If you look at a map of Europe or the United States showing places where people vote in large numbers for anti-immigration parties or candidates, and then look at a map showing where immigrants and minorities live, it would be like seeing a photographic negative.

With very few exceptions, the only places where you’ll find more than fringe levels of support for candidates opposed to immigration are places where less than 5 per cent of the population are from immigrant or racial-minority families. Or, to put it differently: Hardly any people voting for Mr. Trump, for Matteo Salvini or Marine Le Pen or the AfD or the Sweden Democrats or Fidesz would be affected in any way by a cut in immigration levels, because they live in places where it’s close to zero. White people living in “majority-minority” cities – those who could be said to be numerically or culturally “threatened” – do not vote for such candidates in more than minuscule numbers.

Anti-immigration votes clearly have no relationship to actual immigration. Look at Britain, where on the eve of the 2016 Brexit referendum, almost 60 per cent of voters said immigration was the most important issue to them. In the four years since, that number’s plunged to 10 per cent – even though immigration numbers haven’t changed at all. The only thing that has changed – other than the names of the Conservative prime ministers in charge – has been the complexion of those immigrants. There’s been a plunge in immigrants from the European Union (who are mostly white) and a corresponding rise in non-EU, mainly Commonwealth immigrants (who are less likely to be white). Yet the fear of immigrants as a voting issue has all but vanished, because the language has changed.

These voters clearly do have a problem. The way to solve it, however, is not to indulge those who feed their fallacies. It’s to change the subject.

Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international-affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe