miércoles, 27 de septiembre de 2017

The AfD Heartland; A Visit to Germany's Flyover Country

The right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany raked in over 30 percent of the vote in many areas of the eastern state of Saxony. It is a region with few foreigners but plenty of anti-immigrant sentiment. Why?

By Heike Klovert

Yes, it was a risk, says Ramona B., a saleswoman in a clothing store on the town square. Alexander Gauland, the overtly racist lead candidate for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, is a catastrophe, she contends, adding that it is important to fight against climate change and for the European Union. Nevertheless, the 59-year-old clothing saleswoman cast her ballot on Sunday for the AfD. "Something has to change."

A lot of people in the small town of Wilsdruff, located a 30-minute drive west of Dresden, agree with Ramona B. Fully 36 percent of voters in the town cast their ballots for the AfD, significantly higher than for the second-place party, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, which received 32 percent of the vote in Wilsdruff.

Ramona B.

The town is located in an electoral district in Saxony, the German state which shows the strongest support for the AfD. It is the district that Frauke Petry, the erstwhile co-head of the AfD who announced on Tuesday that she is leaving the party due to its stark rightward shift, calls home. In total, 36 percent of voters in the district overall voted for the right-wing populists, with some municipalities returning results of over 40 percent. Everywhere in the district, AfD emerged as the strongest political party.

But why?

Ramona B. says she couldn't make up her mind for a long time, until she saw a photo on television shortly before the election. It showed a blonde woman allegedly being cornered by dark-skinned men at the new year's eve celebrations in Cologne in 2015, when dozens of women were sexually harassed and some raped. The same TV report, however, pointed out that the image was a photoshopped montage. "Still," she says, "something did happen in Cologne!" She says she has nothing against foreigners, "but when they get the upper hand, it's not good for the country."

A Mistake

The conversation quickly turns to immigration when you ask people in Wilsdruff about the AfD's victory in the region. Not far from the clothing store, a stocky, 64-year-old man with a brown buzzcut turns into a side-street. He, too, voted for the AfD, he says, as did most of his friends and acquaintances.

"I need to know who is coming to our country," he says. Merkel, he says, should have admitted that it was a mistake to allow so many foreigners to cross the border into Germany. He argues that the money now being spent on integration could instead have been used to renovate schools and build more kindergartens.

He also says that he believes the EU and climate protection are important, nor does he have much regard for either Gauland or the AfD's ambiguous pension plan. But, he adds, domestic security is extremely important. He also doesn't really care that his district's representative in German parliament, Frauke Petry, has said she won't be part of the AfD parliamentary group in Berlin. "I voted for the party, the people are interchangeable," he says.

Neither the 64-year-old man, who asked that his name not be used, nor Ramona B. say that they have had any concrete problems with refugees. According to the town's administration, Wilsdruff is currently home to 10 asylum-seekers -- compared to an overall population of 13,900 residents. Right-wing violence of the type seen in towns like Freital and Heidenau, both of which are in the same electoral district, haven't been seen in Wilsdruff.

Nevertheless, many people here are plagued by fears of foreigners and of terror -- even those who didn't vote for the AfD. More must be done to prevent attacks, says Marie-Christin Saalbach, 21, while taking a walk with her young daughter and grandmother on the town square. That was a decisive factor in casting her ballot, though she ultimately chose the business-friendly Free Democrats instead of the AfD.

'An Insurgency Against the CDU'

Still, it is clear that in Saxony, Chancellor Merkel and her Christian Democrats are still closely identified with the decision to allow in hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2015 -- even though a lot has changed since then. Merkel has repeatedly emphasized the importance of securing the EU's borders, she has massively limited family reunification rights for asylum recipients and she was also instrumental in negotiating the EU-Turkey deal aimed at putting a stop to the influx of refugees flowing into Greece.

Ralf Rother is a member of Merkel's CDU and has been the mayor of Wilsdruff since 2003. He says he has often been asked recently why there is so much money available for migrants but what people view as a lack of funding for education and new teachers. People in his town, he says, have often expressed a lack of understanding for what they perceive as a significant problem.

"It is an insurgency against the CDU," says AfD politician Tobias Fuchs, 43, who lost to Rother in March mayoral elections in Wilsdruff. The region used to be a stronghold of CDU support, but Fuchs says the party isn't nearly as conservative as it was just 10 years ago. "AfD took over many of their issues," Fuchs says.

Plus, he adds, "AfD bashing" from politicians and the media contributed to his party's success in the general election. "There hasn't been a serious debate about the demands being made by the AfD."

The 64-year-old AfD voter with the buzzcut says that such bashing actually served to confirm his decision to vote for the party. "As soon as you say something against the government's refugee policy, people think you are a right-winger," he says. "That isn't the kind of democracy that we once wanted," he adds, referring to the state's East German past.

lunes, 25 de septiembre de 2017

The Rise of Branding in Politics: A Historical Perspective

Rubén Weinsteiner

I have the opportunity to work on crafting the messaging and shaping the face of what brands look like every day. This experience has driven my personal passion for branding, as well as its role in political strategy. It’s what I wrote my senior thesis on in college. I believe politicians and their campaigns are a close relative to any brand looking to make a crucial connection with their consumer—and the similarities between the these two worlds are striking.


Since the United States’ inception, presidential candidates’ strategies for campaigning have constantly evolved to keep up with changing forms of media, the whims of their audience and the election process. It’s easy to forget that before Reagan had bumper stickers and Obama had a Twitter account, presidential candidates throughout history had carefully considered campaign strategies.

The first real presidential race in 1796 pitted Federalist Vice President John Adams against Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson (the previous President, George Washington, had won the executive position unanimously following his unprecedented leadership during the American Revolutionary War). The race between Adams and Jefferson shaped up to be a heated rivalry—despite the fact that candidates were chosen by an electorate of rich, land-owning white men by something they called “legislative choice” rather than popular vote. Campaigning wasn’t really even necessary.

In 1828, as legislative choice began to die out and the popular vote gained importance, campaigning in earnest became a necessity. Candidates were no longer speaking only to certain segments of the electorate, but to all men. To wow and appeal to their new constituencies, political propaganda and memorabilia were born.

The Democratic candidate that year, Andrew Jackson, began utilizing his nickname “Old Hickory” to portray an image of strength. His grassroots supporters even placed poles made of hickory all around the country as a campaign tactic. Republican John Quincy Adams used print media to his advantage, blaming Jackson for the deaths of American soldiers in the War of 1812, painting him as a murderer. Adams’ campaign even used coffin imagery on posters to represent each killed soldier and to drive his point home (brings a whole new meaning to attack ads, no?). Andrew Jackson prevailed, becoming the seventh President of the United States, thanks in large part to the grassroots efforts of his supporters and the use of memorabilia to deliver messaging to constituents.


A turning point in how elections were run came during the 1960 presidential campaign with the advent of the presidential debate. Now, instead of judging and forming opinions solely on the tone of someone’s voice and the content of their speech, voters began to form their opinions by watching them in action.

As a brand builder, I know that a brand is an experience and each exposure counts. Politicians began to realize this too during the 1960 election when Richard Nixon, fresh out of the hospital, found himself standing next to a young, handsome, athletic and charismatic John F. Kennedy on national television. Americans listening to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won, but viewers of the same televised debate picked Kennedy as the winner by a landslide. Kennedy’s virile image helped catapult his brand over Nixon’s, even if his ideas weren’t necessarily any better. It was quickly becoming apparent that political brands hinged on so much more than ideologies or even logos and bumper stickers.


While logos aren’t new in political campaign branding, coherent and consistent communication systems are. Simple, bold wordmarks were the cornerstone for candidates’ brand messaging for decades, and they all looked the same: American. Color palettes of deep navy and bright red, icons of stars and stripes and bolded, all-caps, sans serif typography shouting the last name of the political hopeful were ubiquitous. I think Armin Vit, owner of UnderConsideration.com, put it best in 2008: “If a candidate wants to be American, they must look American.”

Political artifacts and memorabilia were forever changed when Barack Obama launched his presidential campaign in 2007. Working with designers and strategists from his home base in Chicago, Obama created a fresh, holistic communication system for his White House bid. Regardless of personal politics, the beauty and effectiveness of Obama’s brand is evident. Americans wanted hope and they got it; from the Palatino/Gotham typeface combinations, to the bright, optimistic photography—everything laddered back to the fresh, “new day in America” messaging.

The oppositional brand of Senator John McCain had been leveraging his military background with a black and silver color palette and Optima typeface (the same as what’s used on the Vietnam Veteran War Memorial). The photography was mostly black and white, depicting heroic imagery from his time as a soldier in Vietnam. Over the course of the campaign, as the gap in the polls between Obama and McCain grew, McCain’s website suddenly transformed, to exactly mirror Obama’s in a last-minute attempt to adopt a similar hopeful message. Unfortunately for McCain, it didn’t work—Obama won by a sizable margin, in large part thanks to his consistent, coherent and holistic campaign branding and strategy.

Rubén Weinsteiner

domingo, 24 de septiembre de 2017

Far-right AfD enters German parliament: What it means for German politics

The far-right AfD will be the third-largest party in the Bundestag. This will have no immediate effect on policy per se, but will alter the political tone. In a nutshell: things are about to get a lot nastier.

For the first time in the modern history of the Federal Republic of Germany, voters have elected a far-right party to the country's parliament. But what does "far-right" mean and how will political culture change? The answers are both very complicated and really simple.

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) promotes itself as a patriotic, democratic, conservative party. However, critics from across the political spectrum say it's an association of right-wing extremists. In a pointed reference to the AfD, Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel bemoaned the fact that "true Nazis" would once again be part of the Bundestag.

A complex identity

Speaking to foreign journalists, Germany's leading academic expert on political parties, Oskar Niedermayer, defined the AfD as follows: "The spectrum of positions represented in the AfD cannot be summed up by one word. I call them a nationalist-conservative party with increasing connections to right-wing extremism."

That's the complicated bit. The simple one is the AfD's lone effective issue. The official party platform may be 76 pages long and offers many positions on everything from taxes to public TV to animal rights, but a recent study by the respected Bertelsmann foundation found that the only topic upon which significant numbers of Germans believe the AfD had any expertise was immigration.

On election day, the party listed seven reasons to vote for the AfD on its website – the first four were about asylum seekers, immigration and Islam. Party platform notwithstanding, the AfD actually offers only one thing to many people: fear of and hostility toward those considered foreigners.

"The conglomerate of refugees, terrorism and Islamism is what the AfD has as a core brand right now,” Niedermayer said.

That doesn't mean that all AfD voters are would-be Nazis, but there is no overlooking the fact that the party sees the German people as not just one group equal in worth to all others, but as an ethnic-cultural unit that is superior to, for instance, people from Northern Africa. Nowhere is this more apparent than when one looks at the individuals the AfD put forward on lists of potential parliamentarians.

Jens Meier is one of the likely new AfD deputies accused of having extremist views

A parliamentary group full of right-wing extremists

As things stood on the evening of September 24, initial exit polls indicated that the AfD stood to win around 87 Bundestag seats. The vast majority of those — if not all — were to be filled from lists of candidates in each of Germany's 16 federal states. Those candidates reflect the character and views of the party nationwide. The controversial statements made by party leaders Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel — some say intentionally — have been extensively reported on, but the party's parliamentary group is hardly likely to now temper its stances.

In the past, AfD party members — many of whom are now virtually assured of Bundestag seats — have declared that the "constitution is not written in stone," demanded an end to "the cult of guilt" surrounding the Holocaust, warned against "the creation of mixed peoples" (Mischvölker - also translatable as mongrel peoples) and called Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leading mainstream politicians "traitors to their people."

Many have been linked to smaller right-wing extremist parties like the NPD and Die Republikaner (the Republicans) and are connected with the PEGIDA and Identitarian movements, which are both kept under observation by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

There are, of course, relative moderates in the party, led by party co-chairwoman Frauke Petry, but as Gauland made clear after the first exit-poll prognosis when he vowed to "hunt down" the new government and Merkel, the election result is not going to encourage the AfD to back off its more radical positions. After examining the views of 94 candidates with a realistic chance of gaining a Bundestag mandate, Spiegel magazine's Bento platform deemed 35 of them "right-wing extremists."

Thus Germans can expect words, phrases and concepts which haven't been in currency since the Third Reich to be used in the Bundestag.

The AfD election party in central Berlin drew crowds of protesters

AfD likely to be political pariahs

Precisely what role the AfD will play in the 19th Bundestag of the Federal Republic won't be clear until a governing coalition is formed. With the SPD ruling out another coalition with the conservatives, the AfD likely won't be the largest opposition party. And in any case, lacking any allies in the Bundestag, the AfD will have little to no influence on any legislation passed in the coming four years.

New parties in parliament, as both the Greens and the Left Party experienced, usually have a difficult early time of it. And the particularly controversial AfD will hardly be an exception.

"They won't have any real effect at all on German politics," said Niedermayer. "No one will form a coalition with them. They'll be excluded. Their motions will be shot down. If they put forward reasonable motions that other parties might agree with, they will be voted down, and the other parties will put forward slightly modified motions."

For instance, the Left Party vowed to initiate a parliamentary inquiry about what Weidel called Merkel's "illegal" decisions, but it is well-nigh unthinkable that they will be able to persuade any of the other parties to support that endeavor.

What the AfD will have is a soapbox beyond the considerable speaking time the party will enjoy in the next Bundestag. Political talk shows and other institutions of German political culture will now have no choice but to give spokespeople for the far-right party a platform. That will make the tone of German politics far less measured, far more coarse and cutting, than it is now.

It remains to be seen how Merkel, who is known for being absolutely unflappable, will fare in a new daggers-out environment.

AfD co-chair Frauke Petry's future remains undecided

Is the stage set for a power struggle?

Another open question is whether those who voted for the AfD will be satisfied with verbal barbs toward the chancellor without any concrete legislative results and whether the party leadership will rip itself apart in fights over the spoils of power.

For a long time, the "moderate” Petry was the party's most recognized and popular figure, but she declined to stand as a top candidate and has been marginalized somewhat by a party conference that went against her. Gauland and Weidel have filled the vacuum and are certain to resist if Petry tries to reclaim her top-dog status.

"Gauland has said he wants to lead the party's parliamentary group with Weidel,” Niedermayer explained. "If Petry decides to put herself forward for that function we'll see where the power lies.”

On the other hand, there is also possibility for tension between the 76-year-old hardliner Gauland, who is more connected with extremists, and the 38-year-old Weidel, an economist who lives in a same-sex partnership and is considered more "moderate." The AfD's lead could also represent the fault line along which the party breaks apart.

"I still think that the AfD only has a chance to establish itself in the long term in Germany, if they draw clear boundaries between themselves and right-wing extremism," Niedermayer said. "It's never happened in the history of the current Germany that such a party has established itself, and it's difficult under any circumstances for any party to establish itself. Because of our past, I don't see this happening.”

For the time being, though, AfD are celebrating a historical election result that redefines the parameters of German political culture — and not in sense that promises to increase social harmony in the country.

The #youthvote and the "cool politician"

Rubén Weinsteiner


Before the mid-20th century, young people weren’t exactly a prize demographic, largely because the voting age was 21. In the 1960s, however, young people became involved in politics despite their voting ineligibility. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was formed in 1960, formally integrating black youth activists into the Civil Rights movement. In 1961, both black and white college students traveled by the busload from around the nation to register black voters in the South. In 1964, student activists at UC Berkeley, many of whom were involved in Civil Rights activism, began fighting for free political expression on campus. This so-called Free Speech Movement shaded into the campus Anti-War Movement (led by the group Students for a Democratic Society) as military activity in Vietnam escalated.

“Freedom Riders” arriving in McComb, Mississippi, in December 1961. (AP Photo/Fred Kaufman)

By 1968, America’s young people had emerged as a vocal and powerful cultural and political force. The voting age was still 21, making most active students ineligible, but potential voters in their 20s were suddenly a demographic to be reckoned with, not ignored. The 1968 presidential election therefore saw the first overt attempts to capture the youth vote. In an attempt to appeal to youth of the dawning hippie era, Richard Nixon’s campaign made posters that were described by The New York Times as “quasi-psychedelic”. The groovy art was designed by a company called Jimini Productions. (For context, the musical Hair — with its breakout song “Aquarius” — had just hit Broadway that year.)

Nixon’s campaign went “quasi-psychedelic” in 1968. (Getty)

The voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971, creating overnight a new demographic numbering 11.5 million. The political establishment quaked in its boots. Youth suffrage threatened to “debase the voting pool,” wrote one concerned oldster; it would lead to “a more ideological politics” warned another, as though politics could ever be non-ideological. The town of Amherst, Massachusetts — home to the University of Massachusetts, Hampshire College and Amherst College — erupted in protest. “I don’t mind change, but they want to make a radical change,” said one older resident, in an article from 1971 titled “Amherst City Fears Youth Vote, Sees a Possibility of Students Taking Political Rule.”

But despite the misgivings of the older generation, the youth vote couldn’t be defeated. From now on, it could only be won or lost. Over the next few decades, horror at the youth vote turned into hunger for it; the 18–24 age bracket, it was discovered, might make or break an election, and strategists started paying attention.

In 1985, Maureen Dowd wrote a column asking, “Why are all the politicians watching rock video?” Professional political analysts on both sides of the aisle, she continued, “have begun watching MTV, the 24-hour all-music cable television station that is so popular with American youths.”

“Mr. Atwater says video music has established a new youth culture,” Dowd wrote, referring to Republican political strategist Lee Atwater, who had recently managed the campaign of the infamous racist Senator Strom Thurmond. “When Mr. Atwater watches video music, he often makes voluminous notes.”

In 1990, Virgin Records executive Jeff Ayeroff started an organization called Rock the Vote. The goal: get young people registered. The method: have Madonna say, “If you don’t vote, you’re gonna get a spanking,” on MTV. In addition to splashy celebrity-studded PSAs, the group also integrated technology into youth voter outreach. Rock the Vote set up the nation’s first register-by-telephone system, and later its first online voter registration system.

Democrats, in particular, became more brazen in their attempts to win young hearts and minds. Bill Clinton went on MTV’s Rock the Vote forum in 1992 and answered the question, “Boxers or briefs?” (It was briefs.) “At least he can relate to us,” said a student at the University of Georgia after hearing Al Gore give a speech where he name-dropped R.E.M. album titles like a cool uncle.

The Clinton-Gore ticket brought young voters back to the Democratic party after two decades of disillusionment and, believe it or not, right-wing ballot-casting. By the time Bob Dole visited a fraternity in 1996 to tell stories about pranks played as a frat boy — beginning feebly, “I remember being young once” — the damage to the GOP was done. Nixon’s psychedelic posters aside, the party had missed the boat on effective youth outreach, at least for the foreseeable future.

In 2008 Barack Obama set a new bar for youth appeal in a presidential election. (

But nothing before or since has rivaled the 2008 election that landed Barack Obama in the White House — and the mic-dropping, millennial-pleasing moments that have peppered his presidency. He was the perfect candidate, young, charismatic and personified change. If there was any remaining doubt that youth apathy can be overcome to dramatic effect, Obama killed it.

In some ways, Obama has ruined Hillary Clinton for millennials: he’s set an impossibly high standard of coolness for a 68-year-old who’s been in the public eye for three decades. Where Clinton’s “hot sauce in my bag” gambit might have worked in the pre-Obama era, it strikes today’s young people as phony — especially compared to Obama’s seemingly effortless pop-cultural fluency (and actual relationship with Beyoncé, for that matter).

Young people are savvy to the ways of marketing, they can embrace a brand, but only as long as they can trust it.

Rubén Weinsteiner

Voting UKIP because you don't like the other parties