Over the past year, growing support for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has raised concerns that Germany is headed toward its most profound political crisis since the end of World War II.
To be sure, the AfD, which was polling as high as 22% nationally earlier this year, has recently been shaken by scandals. But despite these setbacks, the rise of extremist movements across Europe, particularly the shocking victory of Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands’ 2023 election, has caused many Germans to fear that the far-right’s political ascent might be unstoppable.
The growing support for parties like the AfD across Europe is often attributed to public anger over immigration and Covid-19 safety protocols, such as lockdowns, mask mandates, and vaccines. The perception that governments are advancing toward a green-energy transition too quickly, potentially hurting some of the poorer segments of their populations, is also blamed. But a 2023 paper by Harvard economist Stefanie Stantcheva and others suggests that the rise of left- and right-wing populist parties is driven by a broader societal shift toward zero-sum thinking.
Stantcheva and her co-authors define zero-sum thinking as the belief that for one group to gain, others must lose. Political populism, online conspiracy theories, and nativist sentiments, the authors note, “all have at their roots in the belief that one group gains at the expense of others – whether it be a global elite, the ‘deep state,’ or those from other countries.”
Unsurprisingly, the authors identify a link between zero-sum thinking and support for economic redistribution and anti-immigration movements. When wealth accumulation is perceived as coming at the expense of the less fortunate, zero-sum thinkers expect the government to intervene. By contrast, those with a positive-sum mindset believe that everyone benefits when the rich get richer – a rising tide lifts all boats. Zero-sum thinkers often view immigration as inherently harmful to native-born citizens, making them more likely to support restrictive policies.
What drives zero-sum thinking? The authors find that such sentiments tend to prevail during periods of economic stagnation, when resources are scarce. Conversely, societies experiencing robust economic growth and greater social mobility are significantly less likely to view the political economy in zero-sum terms.
This may explain the recent sharp rise in support for the AfD. Much like other European economies, Germany had barely recovered from the 2008 global financial crisis before being hit hard by the pandemic and the energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Interestingly, the authors find that younger people are more prone to zero-sum thinking than their older counterparts. This tendency is closely tied to economic conditions: when young people face limited job prospects and see little chance of upward mobility, they are more likely to adopt a zero-sum mindset. Young people today, according to the study, are much more likely to have demotivating views, such as the belief that success is more dependent on luck and connections than effort. A recent trend study confirms that German young people have become more zero-sum, with 22% of people between the ages of 14 and 29 reporting that they would vote for the AfD if there were a federal election today, up from 9% in 2022.
The political consequences of this shift remain unclear. While the AfD, which opposes both immigration and redistribution, does not fit neatly into the zero-sum category, a new German party aims to capitalise more consistently on zero-sum sentiments. Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht, established by former members of the far-left Die Linke, is anti-immigration, pro-redistribution, and opposes economic and military support for Ukraine. It is poised to siphon voters away from the AfD, potentially curbing its rise.
Nevertheless, the most effective antidotes to political populism remain robust economic growth, an abundance of opportunities for younger people, and a high degree of social mobility. Unless Germany moves away from zero-sum thinking and re-motivates its young people, reduced innovation and slower growth could cause substantial long-term economic harm.