As the results of the US election sink in and Europe braces for key national votes in the Netherlands, France, and Germany – polls that could potentially end with Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom and Marine Le Pen’s Front National victorious, and a reshuffling of the governing coalition in Berlin – liberals have been doing some deep soul searching. But it’s not their own souls they’re examining. In the hopes of stemming further losses, they’re trying to dissect the motivations of their opponents to see what, if anything, they could do to bring populist voters back into the fold. These barbarians at the gate – what do they want?
And therein lies the problem: They may not really want anything, at least not in terms of policy. Polls show that overwhelming numbers of right wing populist voters – whether they’re voting for Brexit, Trump, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), or Marine Le Pen – are simply unhappy with the general direction their country is heading in in a variety of areas, and are wiling to vote for any leader who promises dramatic change.
Take Brexit voters in the United Kingdom. There were a host of reasons for Britons to vote to leave the European Union, from frustration with having to pay into the EU budget to the UK’s traditional ambivalence towards mainland Europe and a desire to regain regulatory sovereignty – not to mention David Cameron’s clumsy politicking in Brussels. But towards the end of the campaign, the defining issue became immigration. It has been, after all, the most visible sign of change in Europe and the US, and it seems that change itself has stirred up discontent.
As far back as late 2014, UKIP voters were already unhappy with the direction British society was taking. According to a poll from the survey institute YouGov, 61 percent of Tories felt positive about prospects for British people over the next few years, as did 55 percent of Liberal Democrats and 33 percent of Labor voters; among UKIP voters, only 19 were optimistic. Conversely, when asked if they would like to “turn the clock back to the way Britain was 20-30 years ago,” roughly a third of the Tories, Lib Dem, and Labor voters said yes – compared to 68 percent among UKIP.
The same year, the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends survey asked Britons who thought EU membership was generally bad for their country why they felt that way. A 34 percent plurality said there was “too much authority in the European Union,” while 25 percent said it had “undermined British culture” – with both answers beating “the European Union has harmed our country’s economy” at 20 percent. In a survey published by Ipsos MORI this past January, 36 percent in Great Britain said they felt like strangers in their own country.
Brexit voters didn’t just want to go back to sovereignty – they wanted to go back in time.
The same pattern emerges among Trump voters in the United States. A Pew poll conducted just before the election showed a country sharply divided between optimists and pessimists. Two thirds of Clinton voters said the economy had gotten better over the past eight years, and 60 percent said the “job situation” has improved as well. Seven out of ten Trump voters, on the other hand, said both had gotten worse – and between 70 and 90 percent said the same of “security from terrorism,” crime, America’s standing in the world, immigration, and race relations. Many have ascribed Trump’s victory to working class economic woes, but Trump voters were just as likely to cite drug addition as one of the country’s biggest problems (62 percent), as well as “job opportunities for working-class Americans” (63 percent), and they were far more likely to be worried about illegal immigration and terrorism. They were not nearly as worried about income inequality either (33 percent). Seventy-two percent of Trump voters would describe themselves as “traditional”; the same percentage thought of themselves as “typical” Americans. In the same Ipsos poll, 45 percent of Americans feel like strangers in their own country.
So how does this bode for France? Well, not terribly well.
According to the Ipsos MORI survey, the French are more likely to say immigration should be stopped (40 percent) than are the Americans and British (38 percent and 31 percent, respectively). Forty percent feel like strangers in their own country; 77 percent had little confidence in their government, and 65 percent had little confidence in national institutions. The same survey showed that the French are open to some pretty alarming options: 59 percent would be willing to give up basic civil rights to stop terrorism.
With so much desire for change, it would be no wonder if the French wanted a strong leader to take charge – and sure enough, a poll released by Le Figaro on February 6 showed that 80 percent of French want a leader who “is ready to change the rules of the game,” twice as many as said the same in the United States.
To regain voters like these, mainstream politicians may be better off offering a time machine than a platform.