Immigration, Empathy and the Decline of Social Cohesion in Germany

By: Shelby Steuart

The idea that welfare benefits should be restricted to “native citizens” is one that has gained popularity within the political right, both in the United States and Europe. In his new survey, international affairs professor Markus M.L. Crepaz dives into this ideology, called welfare chauvinism, to figure out what is driving it.

In Germany, welfare chauvinism is in sharp contrast from previous views of citizens taking pride in the nation’s comprehensive social security system. Germany is known for robust social welfare, including universal health insurance whose historical roots go back to 1883. Other social supports include heavily subsidized daycare, paid maternity leave, generous unemployment benefits, and substantial pensions.

However, over the past few years as crises around the globe led to a large influx of immigrants, pride and willingness to share the social safety net has crumbled into exclusionary feelings and the creation of a right wing, populist party, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), whose rallying cry is “welfare for us”, but not for “them”.

Dr. Crepaz argues that feelings of exclusion boiled to the top after almost 1 million refugees flooded Germany, mostly as a result of the Syrian civil war.

“Chancellor Merkel’s welcoming gesture towards migrants, dubbed ‘Willkommenskultur’ which was initially widely shared among many Germans, gave way very quickly to the infamous ‘Rapefugees Not Welcome’ banners, carried by PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) supporters,” he recalled.

This shift prompted Dr. Crepaz to design a survey that would get to the root of welfare chauvinism. He wanted to know why so many Germans were shifting their views: was it fear that there would not be enough benefits to go around? Or something more akin to racism or xenophobia? The survey questions also asked the respondents about their feelings toward racism, racist remarks, discrimination, economic stability in Germany, globalization, and the importance of immigrants speaking German. Dr. Crepaz also asked his native German respondents how much time they spent with immigrants, how much they trusted immigrants, and if they had ever been in similar situations as the immigrants among many other question items.

He was particularly interested whether empathy, the ability to put oneself in the situation of someone else, would affect respondents’ attitudes on welfare chauvinism. He applied a battery of questions tapping ethno-cultural empathy consisting of “empathic feeling and expression”, “empathic perspective-taking”, “acceptance of cultural differences”, and “empathic awareness”. The results revealed that people who could empathize with and trust those unlike themselves exhibited much lower rates of welfare chauvinism.

Similarly, respondents that had meaningful contact with people who were different from them had more inclusionary views as to who should enjoy the fruits of the welfare state. On the other hands, people who felt that immigrants are threatening Germany’s cultural and social life were most in favor of excluding immigrants from receiving welfare benefits.

Interestingly, personal economic experiences, like unemployment or dissatisfaction with household income, did not affect welfare chauvinism.

Of these results, Crepaz concluded, “The more people can imagine ‘putting themselves into the shoes’ of migrants and asylum seekers, the less welfare chauvinist they are.”

Crepaz’s work demonstrates that if we believe empathy is teachable, “it behooves those in the public arena with the biggest bullhorn to speak thoughtfully about immigration and migrants as such opinion leaders have the highest influence on shaping the public discourse.”

Crepaz’s work on empathy and welfare chauvinism will be published as a chapter in an upcoming book on national values and social cohesion, to be published by the European Consortium for Political Research.