A new study reveals the place-based grievances stoking right-wing populism in German industrial regions.
The debate on the causes of the rise of populism in Europe and North America is well under way. Following the global financial crisis in 2007-08 and the arrival of refugees in Europe, right- and left-wing populism surged in a series of electoral successes across Europe and beyond, such as in the United States and Brazil. One factor contributing to this political upheaval was the feeling of being left behind among people in former industrial heartlands, a phenomenon present in varying degrees in countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States, and France. In these structurally disadvantaged regions, many people felt that mainstream politicians had abandoned them and their social grievances, from insecure employment to the decline of local social infrastructure. This sense of devaluation specifically provided right-wing populists with a platform on which to run.
Our recent study on this socioecological transformation, based on over 200 interviews with residents in four structurally disadvantaged regions across Germany, arrives at a similar conclusion. The research shows that people in former industrial heartlands regard social justice and climate protection as the main challenges for the country as a whole. Yet, while people acknowledge the climate crisis as a problem, they consider social needs as more urgent. As things stand, many people in structurally disadvantaged regions of Germany regard social fragmentation and inequality as a major grievance, one that could be exacerbated by the socioecological transformation and by which they themselves are affected. Moreover, policies to address the climate crisis are regarded not as an opportunity for betterment but rather as a threat. This shows that regions which have been affected by structural change in the past are acutely aware of social injustices and fear that with further change they will further slip down the social ladder.
This is even more apparent when speaking to people about the future prospects of their own regions. More than half of those we spoke to expressed anxieties about “regional exclusion” (see Figure 1). People are not afraid their region may be left behind, but that it has already been left behind and that this will not change in the future. This is connected to the fact that many regions are still working through previous structural changes; for example, as a consequence of the decline of the coal and steel industry and deindustrialization in the wake of the German reunification in 1990. In effect, residents now can see these next big social challenges on the horizon before they have fully come to terms with numerous social hardships related to previous crises. Such experiences make it more difficult for people to trust future opportunities and the prospect of state structural support measures.
Worries about their region’s future, widespread in structurally disadvantaged regions, are rooted in the subjective perception of what we call a twofold insignificance: the feeling that people and places have not received enough attention in both a material and immaterial sense. The material dimension of insignificance refers to the immediate environment falling into a spiral of decline: firms and people move away, social infrastructure dwindles, and social mobility falters. The immaterial dimension is evident both in public discourse—regional representatives rarely appear in media, or there is little news reporting on a local region at the national level—and in relation to opportunities to set the agenda and propose solutions. Few residents feel empowered in developing their future, and instead see themselves as the objects of change, not as the actors shaping it.
What can be done in order to prevent a renewed populist surge in former industrial heartlands? While decisionmakers at the local and national levels across Europe and the United States have understood the necessity to address the material dimension, responding with significant spending plans on infrastructure (e.g. the US Infrastructure Law), there is little acknowledgment of the need for processual change. What the former industrial heartlands need is both: targeted investments (money) and broad opportunities to have a say (empowerment), so that their regions become known not for the negative side effects of economic transformation, but for the opportunities it catalyzes.