Why Is Germany's Anti-Immigration AfD Party So Popular?

Frauke Petry gestures during a party congress of the German right wing party AfD (Alternative fuer Deutschland) at the Stuttg
Frauke Petry gestures during a party congress of the German right wing party AfD (Alternative fuer Deutschland) at the Stuttgart Congress Centre ICS on May 1, 2016 in Stuttgart, southern Germany. / AFP / Philipp GUELLAND (Photo credit should read PHILIPP GUELLAND/AFP/Getty Images)

At the top of the agenda on Sunday morning was the sharply-worded bill proposed earlier that day by the German right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany, otherwise known as AfD, in Stuttgart. The bill essentially stipulates: Germany is not a country of immigration, because immigration is fundamentally flawed.

The basic agenda at this AfD party meeting was in no way moderate: it is radical right to the core, because it questioned basic German values. But there is something to be said for the fact that the more extreme elements at this party assembly were, in many aspects, unable to assert themselves, at least in terms of shaping the agenda.

This could be a good opportunity to start a public debate about the AfD. Instead of being angered by individual absurd demands posed by the AfD, we should ask ourselves how this party came to be and why it has gained so much support.

The truth is that the AfD belongs to Germany -- as bad as that sounds. It has emerged from within German society. The AfD is not just popular among people who were left behind after the German reunification, with lost patriots, or flag-wagging fairground demagogues -- even if it appears that way after watching Björn Höcke on TV. The AfD's strength comes from the fact that it has managed to attract followers not merely from communities with radical right-wing positions, but also from mainstream German society.

This becomes apparent when considering the speakers at the Stuttgart meeting. Immigration, Islam and the radio tax were the primary topics of debate on Sunday. More than two hours were spent on a lively discussion that was certainly reminiscent of earlier Pirate Party assemblies.

The truth is that the AfD belongs to Germany -- as bad as that sounds. It has emerged from within German society.

Xenophobic and misanthropic statements bounced around the room. For instance, one AfD party member said that Islam is not protected under the German Basic Constitutional Law the same way that Christianity is -- to applause. Meanwhile, a member was booed for his appeal to the assembly to differentiate between Muslims and Islamists.

There were people that value good manners and etiquette at the dinner table but forget such niceties once gathered around the delegate table. People rejoiced at the announcement that Justice Minister Heiko Maas' speech at a May Day demonstration was disrupted by right-wing protesters.

In general, immense rage against the elites could be felt in the room. The mostly male participants openly expressed their "concern" at the opinions of the majority and brainstormed ways to shift popular opinion. One gentleman was convinced that news anchors Ingo Zamperoni and Claus Kleber were both agents of a conspiratorial "German-American alliance."

Other voices were more moderate. Young women alerted the party assembly to the fact that the radicalized rhetoric surrounding abortion as a "cut-off criteria" discourages many women adherents. Some Christians warned against taking on too sharp of a tone in the immigration debate.

The AfD exhibits some positions that were once held by conservative Christian Democratic Union party members back in the 1990s. This may say something about where these people are coming from. And possibly, where they are going.

What is the antidote to this poison?

The AfD has recently experienced an upswing in the polls, and their support ratings seem to spike when their positions are most extreme. When AfD-party member and European party delegate Beatrix von Storch, for instance, said that unarmed refugee children should be shot, it didn't matter that she later retracted that statement. The idea of the firing squad was already out there, and had seeped into people's minds.

Another German anti-Islam, right-wing organization, Pegida, had a similar tactic in Dresden: Their speeches at the Monday demonstrations increasingly were more vitriolic than any papers published by Bachmann and his associates. Everyone knew what they were saying.

This game is even more dangerous because it contributes to the radicalization of mainstream German society. Gradually, the "think blanket of civilization" is being torn apart. And in the end, there is no longer common ground holding this 70 year-old democracy together. This is why the AfD party agenda should be read as a snapshot of the present. Even when some East German party members might be disappointed today.

What is the antidote to this poison? Certainly not rage and indignation. Whoever really wants to combat the AfD should reexamine the values they are contributing to the debate. Because the best weapon against right-wing populism is credibility. This is the only way to prevent AfD populism from sucking in more of Germany's mainstream population.

A version of this post first appeared on HuffPost Germany.