Why you should care
Because many countries are facing similar backlashes as voter demographics change quickly.
When hostile words smack Peter Tauber, they usually come courtesy of angry German liberals. But this time around, the secretary-general of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party faces another enemy: the right wing.
The sh*tstorm he’s in the midst of comes as somewhat of a surprise given that this 40-year-old is the self-proclaimed patriotic type who sings along to the national anthem — with his hand loyally (if not theatrically) placed over this heart. “Black, red and gold are not just any old colors for me,” he says. Even so, his push to make the CDU party “younger, more feminine and more colorful” has incited a backlash from conservatives who have taken to the Internet with a few choice words of their own. That Tauber is an “excessive do-gooder” and merely “brown-nosing” were among the kinder insults. Harsher attacks accused him of getting “more cheap slaves for the industry” — a comment that appeared on Tauber’s Facebook page.
Tauber’s plan is not altogether altruistic, of course. Just take a look at his party’s demographics. On average, Christian Democrat members are 58 years old, and around 75 percent of them are male. Among voters whose parents immigrated to Germany, the CDU rates considerably worse than its Social Democrat rivals. At the same time, a party to the right of the Christian Democrats — known as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) — has been established for the first time and is benefiting from CDU dissenters who have switched allegiances. “Of course we want to win back voters who have left us for the AfD,” says Tauber.
While some praised the CDU’s openness, much of the criticism was focused on the inclusion of Muslim immigrants.
His predicament is no anomaly. From the Tories in England, besieged on the right by the UK Independence Party, to establishment Republicans in the U.S. who might not pass muster with tea party constituents, moderate conservatives around the world are in somewhat of a bind. Whether Tauber ends up as an exemplar or as a cautionary tale, he is worth watching.
Well aware of what could happen to a major party that doesn’t adapt to changing demographics, Tauber issued an invitation last year to a “Conference on Immigration” in Konrad-Adenauer-Haus, the party’s headquarters. That’s where the drama began. Christian Democrats and immigration supporters came from all over Germany to attend the event, and Tauber openly welcomed them as “people with a history of immigration.” German chancellor and CDU leader Angela Merkel was also on hand, encouraging attendees to ignore mean-spirited name-calling. (As a woman from East Germany, she was once vilified as a Zonenwachtel — a word used to describe particularly pushy people from the other side of the River Elbe). Despite the party’s seemingly warm welcome with open arms, its speakers also emphasized that the “C” in CDU was not an arbitrary reference and that anyone who wanted to get involved with the party must profess “our values.” Cemile Giousouf, the first Islamic CDU member of the Bundestag, went so far as to say, “Being an immigrant is not a profession.”
Nevertheless, the event ignited a social media firestorm. While some praised the CDU’s openness, much of the criticism was focused on the inclusion of Muslim immigrants. Turkish-born author Akif Pirinçci, who is openly critical of Islam, even published a fictional reportage sprinkled with obscenities about the CDU’s Conference on Immigration. (Pirinçci did not respond to a request for comment.) Tauber then provoked further criticism when he was more recently filmed during a city tour of Berlin-Kreuzberg — an area known for its large immigrant population, and where he also visited a mosque.
Though controversial, Tauber’s approach with the CDU makes sense, some observers say, given that the next election in Germany will likely feature a fight for voters in the middle of the political spectrum. “It’s strategically smart to take immigration as a policy instrument out of hands of the liberal left party,” says Julian Pänke, a lecturer at the Institute of German Studies at the University of Birmingham. “If they have a tough stance on migration, they will lose urban elites, which is what won Merkel re-election.” In other words, “It makes a lot of practical sense to open the party up,” says Dan Hough, a professor of politics at the University of Sussex in Brighton.
Tauber has stood up for those who might be feeling marginalized.
But that hasn’t stopped some Germans from firing various accusations. The one that bothered Tauber the most was that the CDU was betraying its Christian identity. “Being a Christian means approaching people with open arms and an open mind,” says Tauber. “Distancing oneself in a chauvinistic, nationalistic way can never be Christian.” Although a networker by nature who has been known to participate in the comment sections following interviews, Tauber once responded to a hurtful comment by writing “haters gonna hate,” and then logged off. (Further insults ensued, asking whether the German language was no longer good enough for him.)
The conservative backlash may very well continue. “Although migration in general is seen as positive among Germans, it is a difficult time to support specifically Muslim migration,” says Pänke. Even so, Tauber has stood up for those who might be feeling marginalized. For instance, someone left a comment under a photo that showed Tauber with the U.S.-born Benno Harris, who is campaigning for mayor in the small town of Büdingen in Hesse, noting that they had “absolutely no problem with this mayoral candidate.” Tauber stoked the fire by asking whether the commenter would have had a problem with the candidate if his name were “Murat” or “Ping” Harris — presumably names more likely to be associated with immigrants of a different background. “It seems that some people are incapable of imagining that a Muslim can be German,” Tauber says. But clearly not everyone is incapable of seeing that.
Nathan Siegel contributed reporting.