Photo Gallery: Angry Voters Take Aim at the West

Foto: Jeff J Mitchell/ Getty Images

Electorate Tremors The Era of the Angry Voter Is Upon Us

Whether they are fans of Donald Trump, supporters of Brexit or Marine Le Pen voters in France, "angry voters" have one thing in common: They've been left in the dust by globalization. By SPIEGEL Staff

Paula Heap and Joel Coe live 6,400 kilometers apart. They don't even know each other, but they share the same sense of outrage.

She voted for Brexit and he intends to vote for Donald Trump in November. She hails from Preston, a city in northwest England that never truly recovered from the decline of the textiles industry. He's an American from the small town of Red Boiling Springs in northern Tennessee. His textiles factory, Racoe Inc., is the last of its kind still in business in the area.

It's Heap's view that globalization has created a lot of winners and a lot of losers, and that Preston is among the losers. She describes the EU as an "empire" that regulates her electric water kettle but doesn't create any prosperity. She's riled by the many immigrants, saying the pressure on the labor market and the health system is increasing. "We want to retain control over immigration," she says.

Heap is a career advisor, whose motto could be "Make the UK great again," to borrow a line from Donald Trump's US presidential election campaign.

Coe, the Trump backer with bulky upper arms and a bushy, reddish beard, blames the NAFTA free trade agreement for the fact that jobs in his industry have been relocated from Tennessee to Mexico. A little bit more of the America of the clattering sewing machines -- which are still standing behind him, operated by around 50 women who sew jackets and pants for the US military -- disappears each year.

'Running Against the System'

Coe says he plans to vote for trump because the candidate has "never been a politician." Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has been "bought by large corporations and is corrupt." He says if Trump weren't in the picture, he would probably vote for Bernie Sanders. Both candidates, he says, are running against "the system."

He says he doesn't know a lot about Britain, but he has the feeling that the British vote against the EU is somehow related to his own battle. "It's good that Britain is leaving the EU," he says. "Each country has its own identity."

The phenomenon of the angry voter currently appears to be making significant strides toward conquering Western democracies at the moment. The outrage is directed against elites in politics and in the business community, against the established political parties, against the "mainstream media," against free trade and, of course, against immigration. Many Brexiteers are among these angry voters, as are Trump supporters in the United States or Le Pen voters in France.

"Take back control" was one of the main slogans used by Brexit supporters in the United Kingdom. It could stand is as the cry for help from angry voters all around the world. In an era when increasingly complex free trade agreements or unknown EU commissioners are determining peoples' own living conditions, voters once again yearn for borders, national legislative control and closed economies.

It's a phenomenon that didn't just pop up yesterday. But the rage has reached a boiling point this year, fueled by the financial and euro crises, by destabilization in the Middle East and the refugee flows it has spawned, by the rise of China and by the deindustrialization that has taken place in recent decades in many Western countries. In the Internet, this rage has found a forum where it can thrive.

Financial Impotence

Now, much that seemed impossible only a short time ago suddenly feels plausible. Britain leaving the EU? That's what the majority of British want. Donald Trump as president of the United States? It's unlikely, but what do we know? Marine Le Pen the next French president? Never! But what if she does win? And what happens if, one day, the Dutch  or the Austrians hold referendums on future EU membership?

Voters have become unpredictable. Many are turning away from the traditional political power centers and toward the new populist movements. The outrage of these voters is often neither oriented clearly toward the left nor to the right, and yet it poses an internal threat to Western democracy.

For the most part, the movements that tend to profit from these voters are authoritarian, xenophobic and nationalist in nature. The kind of people open to Trump, Brexit or Le Pen are often less educated, older people who come from rural or former industrial regions.

This says a lot about a world in which fortunes are being accrued like none other seen before, but which not all are profiting from. "The advantages of globalization do not apply equally to all classes of society," says American political scientist William Galston of the Brookings Institution. "They haven't sufficiently reached the middle and working classes."

Since 1999, the average annual salary of a US family has fallen by around $5,000 to $53,657 in 2014. Economists have even come up with a harsh term to describe the phenomenon: financial impotence. The American Dream promises that everyone has the opportunity to become prosperous -- but, unfortunately, it no longer applies to many. At the other end of the spectrum, 400 Americans possess as much wealth as two-thirds of the rest of society.

A poll published last week found that 71 percent of Americans believe the economic system is "rigged" in favor of certain groups. It's a term that socialist candidate Bernie Sanders used during his campaign and it was then coopted by Trump. When the presumptive Republican Party presidential candidate stated in Pennsylvania the week before last that trade ties with Asia had led to the loss of 68,900 jobs, his comments were met with bellicose approval.

Wiping Out the Middle Class?

In a speech before thousands of supporters last Tuesday, Trump said: "The wave of globalization has wiped out our middle class." It's a sentence that could just as easily have come out of the mouths of Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen or many Brexit voters.

Trump has broken with the Republican Party on several core issues. He rants against free trade agreements like NAFTA in North America, the TPP agreement between the US and Asia, that has not yet gone into effect and the TTIP deal between American and the European Union, which is currently being negotiated. These agreements ease access to foreign markets for corporations, but many workers also blame them for the loss of industrial jobs.

The acceptance of China into the World Trade Organization at the end of 2001 "opened the floodgates for imports of all types," says Brookings researcher Galston. Globalization has created wealth, but it has also transformed the world.

Post-industrial societies have risen out of the former Western industrial societies and their factories are now located in China, Malaysia and Taiwan. Workers are no longer manning assembly lines in Manchester and Detroit, but in Kuala Lumpur and Wuhan.

The consequence of this structural change has been that the West now needs workers with new qualifications and no longer the skilled workers who formed the backbone of the Western economies for decades. College graduates and programmers are needed -- people who are mobile, networked and cosmopolitan. In Britain, such people voted overwhelmingly to remain a part of the EU.

The result is that dividing lines in today's political debates are often no longer based on worldviews, but instead run between modernization's winners and losers. The world is divided between those who profit from the barrier-free world and those who believe that world has left them behind.

The Brexit movement succeeded in reaching the heart of disillusioned England. The referendum on future EU membership exposed the conflict between the wealthy center in London and the less prosperous English periphery, between the capital of money and the deindustrialized hinterlands. The working class feels it has been robbed of its purpose. Its jobs are disappearing.

'A Howl of Rage Against Exclusion'

In France, meanwhile, Front National has for years been the country's biggest workers' party by far. It too plays to the desire for a France of the past -- a country with fewer immigrants and a state controlled economy. Under the label of "intelligent protectionism," the party peddles the illusion that the country's economy can return to the glory days of the 1960s.

Marine Le Pen is fond of speaking of those who have been "forgotten;" they are her constituents. Front National has long performed strongest in the former industrial centers in the north and in the structurally weak south. Increasingly, though, the lower-middle class has also felt threatened, making it vulnerable to the populists as well.

In his 2010 book "Fractures françaises," French social geographer Christophe Guilluy wrote that Front National is gaining most voters in so-called periurban areas. These once rural areas, located outside of major cities, are often struggling with urban problems today. They've also lost the most economically.

Guilluy writes that the ruling political classes "still haven't understood that ideological and cultural divides have long separated them from the simpler classes." The "overwhelming majority of French may be convinced of the necessity of building social housing," he writes, but given that they are largely inhabited by immigrants, they nevertheless oppose their construction.

In absolute contrast to educated elites, angry voters in all countries feel threatened by immigrants competing for the remaining jobs. In the United States, the white lower class views itself as threatened by Hispanic immigrants, whereas the well-educated often welcome immigration because it contributes in terms of economic growth, demographics and a society's cultural richness.

A Failure to Find Appropriate Responses to Globalization

The feeling of having been forgotten by the political system is one that dominates among angry voters in all countries -- regardless which government is currently at the helm. "In recent years, it didn't matter in Western democracies if it was a center-left or center-right government in office," says Brookings researcher Galston. "They have all failed to provide an appropriate response to the effects of globalization."

Leftist British journalist George Monbiot wrote  in the Guardian that the Brexit vote was "the eruption of an internal wound inflicted over many years by an economic oligarchy on the poor and the forgotten." He described it as a "howl of rage against exclusion, alienation and remote authority. That's why the slogan 'take back control' resonated. If the left can't work with this, what are we here for?"

Writing in his New York Times column  a few days after the Brexit vote, conservative David Brooks noted, "When people feel their world is vanishing, they are easy prey for fact-free magical thinking and demagogues who blame immigrants." He added that "the elites pushed too hard, and now history is moving in the opposite direction. The less educated masses have a different conception of the future, a vision that is more closed, collective, protective and segmented."

Even American columnist Thomas Friedman, generally a champion of globalization, has come to a similar conclusion . "People are feeling deeply anxious about something," he writes. "We have globalized trade and manufacturing, and we have introduced robots and artificial intelligence systems." But this has also left a lot of people "dizzy and dislocated."

Scorn and Radicalization

And because our political system has yet to find any solutions to these problems, particularly to the fears of the less well educated, many are responding with scorn for the elite and with radicalization. This provides a tremendous opportunity for movements that, in the past, never would have stood a chance of even sniffing power, much less influencing politics through elections and referendums as we are now seeing.

Sociologist Michel Wieviorka, 69, a well-known French thinker, just published a book in which he dares to traverse an altogether new terrain to him: that of political fiction.

"Le séisme," or The Earthquake, begins on Monday, May 8, 2017, the evening before Marine Le Pen, the chair of Front National, is elected as French president after receiving 51.8 percent of the vote in a run-off against François Hollande. Wieviorka imagines Le Pen standing on Place de la Concorde in Paris with longtime Front National supporter Brigitte Bardot at her side. The newly elected president is cheered by the people.

It's Wieviorka's hope that the fictitious scenario played out in his book won't come true in real life. It is alarming though, he says, that the Brexit vote in the UK has lent his thought experiment a frightening degree of legitimacy.

Wieviorka himself recently admitted that he no longer votes because there are no longer any political parties he trusts. It's not something one would necessarily expect from a well-known sociologist. Wieviorka long described himself as a "friend of the left," but now he says: "The French left is dead" and that the crisis within the left has accelerated the downfall of the French political system.

Fear of Decline

Many French are infuriated, and the loss of trust between the people and their political leaders has never been as great as it is today. Those who society has left behind have the greatest potential for anger and, as such, also represent the most significant voter potential for the French populists, of whom Marine Le Pen is only the best known. The French politician has succeeded in coopting and taking ownership of the key issues held dearest by the left.

Le Pen has outfitted her party with an anti-liberal economic program that calls for greater protectionism and rejects free trade. She curses the elite, wants to put a stop to immigration and also seeks to give French people priority on the labor market. Under its charismatic leader, the party has become the third-strongest political force in the country and has also succeeded in breaking a two-party system that had prevailed for decades.

Fears of downfall, or at least of creeping decline, Wieviorka says, also pertain to the middle class. "We know that our children are not going to have better lives than we did," he says. On the contrary, parents these days often find themselves having to provide support for their grown-up children by subsidizing their lean wages or helping them buy a home.

In addition to the economic crisis, France -- along with many other European countries -- is also facing an identity crisis. French society is deeply divided and the republican ideal, that glue which used to hold the nation together, has lost its power to reconcile. "In France, there is no society left today -- all that remains is a state," says Wieviorka.

In Britain many people are unable to see how the country can find its way back to its lost greatness. In the US, there are fears that the superpower's importance is diminishing. It is a deep seated fear of decline that can also be found in many continental European countries.

Ultimately, the radicalization of many people is the response to a feeling that politics no longer provides answers to the most pressing issues. The situation is exacerbated in many countries in Europe by the impression that there are hardly any ideological differences  between established political parties any more and that they represent the same ideas. That there is little choice left in politics, partly because of the common European currency, which is forcing all euro-zone countries to implement austerity measures and reforms.

The Left's Struggle

It is the left that has suffered the most under this radicalization in the Western world. Whether in France, the US or Britain, it is quarreling over the question of how best to react to globalization. Part of this is attributable to the fact that the left-leaning electorate is divided into two opposing camps: the classic workers constituency and the urbane, well-educated and liberal milieu that counts among globalization's winners. This conflict is currently fracturing Britain's Labour Party and has long been wreaking havoc within the French Socialist Party.

Hillary Clinton is experiencing similar troubles in the United States. It was her husband Bill who once signed the NAFTA into law. She's a Democrat who is also viewed as a representative of the establishment. These days, though, there's no label in the West that is as odious as "establishment." That partially explains why Clinton was faced with an internal party insurgency by anti-establishment socialist candidate Bernie Sanders. Now she will also have to prevail over anti-establishment candidate Trump.

Clinton herself now says she is opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement. As a candidate, she too is seeking to court the angry voters, while at the same time appealing to reason. If Trump weren't as assailable as a candidate, Clinton's prospects would likely look dim.

And yet she suffers under the same difficulty that all politicians face when forced to run against populists: Angry voters don't defect to the populists because they find the details of their platforms to be persuasive -- they flock to a Marine Le Pen or a Donald Trump because they see those candidates more convincingly expressing their own anger. They are not bothered by the risk that an end of free trade or a withdrawal from the EU will lead to a further deterioration of their own situation -- or they don't believe it. They see themselves as underprivileged already.

The wall that Trump wants to build along the border to Mexico won't solve any concrete problems, but it would provide a powerful symbol. It's not dissimilar to Brexit voters who didn't necessarily desire to leave the EU, but wanted to send the message: "Hey, we are here. Take us seriously. Do something for us. We have had enough of you."

It's possible that the era of the angry voter has only just begun.

By Julia Amalia Heyer, Gordon Repinski, Mathieu von Rohr, Christoph Scheuermann and Holger Stark

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