The Era of the Angry Voter Is Upon Us
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 theGuardian 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.