As Germany Preps for election and the uk tries to find its waY, what can populist votership tell us about modern society?
Populism means something different to everyone.
It can be used to describe a tradition of political thought, movement or a form of rule. And most experts consider the first democratic society of Athens as the blueprint for it. But in the 21st century, populism's mostly associated with snappy slogans and charismatic provocateurs.
Today, only Switzerland gives citizens more power than in a representative democracy. It's this, the direct involvement of people in democracy, that many populists aspire to.
But real populists have become a rare phenomenon in our age. More often than not, they have been replaced by pretenders, more interested in themselves than the needs of society.
Local problems or national politics, global movements or individual insecurities, can all motivate people to vote these people who are populists only in name. Many are fed up with boring campaigns and 'same old same old' politicians. They want something different. Especially if the current system doesn't work in their favour.
It's unsurprising that poorer people have less trust in political parties. In Germany, over 40 percent of the respondents to a study with a net household income of under €3,000 did not trust any political parties whatsoever, while the same was true of significantly less than 30 percent of those in higher pay-grades. Joblessness and stagnating income are a barrier for many who want to take part in social change. They feel left out.
But one of the greatest drivers of populism has been shifts in economic sectors. Because of them, many feel they have lost identity and become vulnerable. Local communities are forced to alter business structures, leading to unemployment under those not suited or willing to adapt. Areas traditionally reliant on secondary sector industry in both the UK and Germany are now at an apparent economic disadvantage and yearn for ‘levelling up’ – something Boris Johnson cleverly exploited in his 2019 election campaign.
Saxony, greatly reliant on secondary industries such as machine construction, has also seen nearly 30 percent of people voting for the populist AFD in recent elections, more than in any other German state. But Katja Kipping, former leader of Germany’s Left party, sees a different reason for populist sentiment than regional inequality. “ Whether you lose your job or are dependent on welfare because of illness makes no difference to those who are affected. The nurse who runs out of money at the end of the month because of the high rents doesn't have it any easier than the production assistant who has to turn over every Euro twice due to the low wages ”, she tells me.
Moreover, progressive social views in western societies have become so dominant, that they have provoked a cultural backlash from traditionally conservative rural populations. Many are under the impression that the differentiation between cultures has been replaced by an overly accepting multiculturalism, creating not only a degradation of “patriotic” attitudes but breaking up communities that act safety nets for many. Culminating in the 2016 Brexit referendum, the roots of nationalist and realist populism in the U.K lie largely in the EU’s percieved focus on “non-British interests”.
And despite increasing wealth, prospering culture and a renewed importance on the international stage, even those who have not jet benefited from the globalized world in Germany consider their existences threatened.
A 2018 study conducted by the university of Leipzig 39 found that over 43.8% of AFD voters agree to some degree with the statement that "there are secret organizations that have a big impact on political decisions”, more than any other mainstream party. But Alexander Gauland, former leader of the AFD, rebuked this in a private message to me, arguing instead that “the primary reason (for the AFD’s success), is the marginalization of real conservative politics”.
Similar trends can be examined across the U.K , where what is seen by many political scientists as pillars of traditional English society have broken up. A stringent class system, patriotic individualism and strong regional ties have given momentum to opposition of moderate politics.
Academic Samuel P. Huntington explains this phenomenon in his 1996 Essay “The clash of Civilizations”, which predicted that the main future cause of conflict would be cultural identity rather than political ideology.
With loss of cultural capacity, and large numbers of people unaware of the government's responsibility for it, many will consider immigration and European liberalization to be responsible for Britain's problems. This could explain why in 2019, 56% of British citizens felt immigration into the country had been much or a bit too high.
And the drive towards mass higher education has led to a “divergence between better and worse educated” too. Over 90% of academics voted to remain in the European Union. While they probably made the right descision, those who do not feel part of the ‘liberalist clan’ see no other option of showcasing their discontent at wider societal phenomenons than populist vote.
Populism is not always negative. It can act as an inclusive movement for people of all persuasions and backgrounds in democracy, strengthening and protecting it from interior or exterior harm. It can provide common ground and create social consensus. It can, however, also polarize and reinforce stigmas.
The largest difference between British and German populism lies in the fact that German populism appeals to those who feel they have (or are going to) lose out as individuals or members of a certain region while society as a whole gets richer. British Populism in turn speaks to those who feel that the worthiness and pride of their country has already been undermined in the last years, resulting in the collective succumbing to a hostile new globalism dominated by historic enemies such as China or Russia and emphasized by gentrification or fiscal measures such as austerity.
The same emotions have dictated the rise of populism in Germany and the United Kingdom, but they are responses to different stimuli. Populism is the answer to today’s liberal and globalized mainstream and represents the fears of those who see factors such growing inequality and hybridization, sovereignty loss and disenfranchisement as issues threatening their very existence.