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Is Germany politically divided?

Data from political surveys paint a clear picture

An increasingly harsh political tone, intentional disinformation and a growing prosperity gap are threatening the political climate in Germany. However, data from political surveys paint a different picture: supporters of the major parties do not fundamentally reject political opponents – except for one party.

By Ansgar Hudde

In some countries, party politics has become a central social dividing line. In the United States, for example, it seems as if there are two political camps that oppose each other with hostility. While this image may be somewhat simplistic or exaggerated, data suggest that Democrats and Republicans are harbouring increasingly negative feelings towards each other. Hence, we are dealing not only with ideological polarization, but also emotional, i.e. affective polarization.

Numerous studies have shown the consequences of such affective polarization: those who have very negative feelings towards certain parties also tend to avoid their supporters in private, and sometimes even discriminate against them – for example with regard to jobs or scholarships. Thus, strong dislike among supporters of different parties can put social cohesion at risk.

How is the situation in Germany? What are the attitudes of supporters of the different political parties towards each other? Is polarization already pronounced or on the rise? To find out, I analysed the feelings that supporters of all major parties hold towards their own party and towards other parties. The data is taken from the political opinion poll “Politbarometer” from 1977 to 2020, with a total of over 700,000 respondents.

If we look at party politics, Germany is not strongly polarized or divided. There is, however, a deep division between supporters of the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD) and supporters of all other parties. This divide does not run through the middlle. Rather, taking the results of the 2021 federal election as a reference, there is a 90:10 divide. This image of a division into two camps, which is sometimes painted in the media, would probably be a mix of exaggeration and the truth regarding the USA. For Germany in the 21st century, however, it would be completely unsuitable.

Germany does not consist of two, but of many political camps. In recent decades, the country has become much more diverse and fractionalized in terms of party politics. Consider this thought experiment: If we randomly select two voters in Germany, what is the probability that they will vote for different parties? In the 1970s and early 1980s, this probability was still at around 60 per cent. In the last two federal elections, it was over 80 per cent. If you do not actively set yourself apart, you are more and more likely to encounter supporters of other parties in everyday life. We can observe this increase in fractionalization in most western democracies, but in Germany it is particularly pronounced.

From neutral to positive

How much sympathy people have for a party strongly depends on the distance on the left-right scale. People tend to have warmer feelings for “neighbouring” parties than those that are further away on this scale. In most party pairings not involving the AfD, there is no strongly pronounced antipathy. Supporters of the major parties like the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the Greens (Bündnis 90/die Grünen) or the Free Democratic Party (FDP) harbour neutral to positive feelings for each other.

Dr Ansgar Hudde researches and teaches at the Institute of Sociology and Social Psychology (ISS). His research interests include family, gender and the life course, political attitudes and their impact on private life, as well as sustainability and mobility behaviour.

What is striking, however, is that the supporters of all other parties strongly reject the AfD. From the Left to the CSU, everyone is relatively united in this rejection. And remarkably, it is not reciprocated to the same extent. This asymmetry in the case of radical right-wing parties is a pattern that previous studies have also shown for other western democracies.

Is party political rejection more widespread today than decades ago? Rejection of the AfD by supporters of other parties has increased significantly in recent years. But in almost all other party pairs that do not include the AfD, feelings have been stable or trending positive. There has been a clear rapprochement, for example, between the Greens and the SPD on the one hand and the conservative parties CDU and CSU on the other hand. The relationship between the Left Party (Die Linke) and the conservative parties is also more relaxed today than it was decades ago.

To live in a diverse society means that you often encounter people who are different from you, for instance because they have dissimilar political views and support a different political party. Social cohesion can only function if people tolerate each other and cooperate across differences. That is, they need to encounter each other in a positive or at least somewhat neutral way. The data of the Politbarometer poll show: when it comes to party supporters, this is largely the case in Germany today.