A year after the “Pegida” marches in Dresden began, German politicians have come full circle. After first ignoring the (then tiny and distinctly local) group, they either branded them as neo-Nazis (Greens, most of the Left, most of the SPD), tried to engage in listening exercises (some of the CDU and SPD), tried to co-opt them (the local AfD), or, much later, to emulate them (the AfD in Thuringia). Then Pegida all but collapsed, and politics went back to normal. Media attention cycles moved on.
With rising numbers of asylum applications since the summer, Pegida has rebounded – a bit. Yesterday, on the anniversary of their first rally, they could muster 15,000 to 20,000 participants, by far the biggest number in months (with a somewhat smaller but still sizable number attending counter-protests in attendance). Since Sunday, various members of the federal government have come out with strongly worded statements, most notably the Home Affairs minister who described the Pegida organisers as “hard-core right-wing extremists” (are there any soft-core extremists?). SPD leader and vice chancellor Gabriel, who was in the past the Pegida-wise most visibly ambivalent figure within the SPD, was a bit late to the party with a statement to the effect that Pegida had radicalised and was now “right-wing populist with right-wing radical tendencies”. People who care about terminology may shudder, but the sub-text was clear: Gabriel that he had been right all along to (somewhat) engage with Pegida in the past, but now they were beyond the pale.1
Either way, everyone agrees now that they are radicalising, and so this is bound to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as fewer and fewer moderates will contemplate joining the rallies once the elites are united in their rejection. This is a classic social movement trajectory (see, e.g. Koopmans’ 1995 book on the New Social Movements). However, as Koopmans points out, the flip side of radicalisation and isolation is often the emergence of a moderate, integrated wing of the movement that is accepted by the elites. In my book, this development is the one to watch out for.
1Incidentally, The question of what Pegida is, or was, exactly, has not just split the public and the elites, but also the Dresden political science department.