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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

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Wednesday, 7/6/2016   07:06 PM

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.

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