Update 3: European Political Polarization – Globalization

Hey everyone,

It’s been a busy two weeks for me! After my return, I’ve been dedicated to the task of transcribing the audio recordings of the interviews I conducted while abroad. In my final paper, I will be anonymously citing the words of the subject matter experts I interviewed (in keeping with the IRB requirements). I needed to have a record of what each person said, so that as I transition to writing my research report, I can easily look through each response.

The title of this blog post mentions globalization, and the reason is because most of my interviews in the UK, France, and Germany all quickly began talking about the role and impact of globalization. Generally speaking, it seems like the left-right divide is a lot less salient. To be clear, I’m not saying that that the left-right divide does not exist. There is still a substantive difference between the mainstream political parties. However, there is also a new divide developing, and that is on a more cultural scale.

Now, I want to be careful when I talk about the UK, France, and Germany all together. While the effects are similar, because all three are developed, powerful, western European countries, this does not mean that they are identical.

In the UK, the mainstream parties still exhibit more control than in France or Germany. One of the explanations of this is one that I hypothesized going into this research project: the fact that the UK has single member districts with representatives elected using a first past the post system (as in the US). What’s first past the post? Basically, whoever gets the most votes, wins (different from proportional representation systems). However, in the UK, we can still observe the rise of UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party). While the first past the post system prevents them from entering the House of Commons, the European Parliament (the elections which determine representatives to the European Parliament) used a proportional representation system. Because of that UKIP took 24 of 73 seats. What does UKIP represent? Well their main platform is Euroscepticism, but they are also representative of a developing right-wing populist movement.

Moving on to France, I found that it occupied a place in between the UK and Germany, in almost all senses. Their mainstream parties still have a substantive difference, but the National Front is a real force in the elections. The National Front is an established right-wing political party, and while they hold few seats in the National Assembly, their rate of popularity growth makes them a very realistic contender in the Presidential elections (given the unpopularity of the Socialists). Now, would the French elect Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, as their President? At the moment, it seems unlikely. However, the growth of the party is staggering. Part of what has fueled the growth of the National Front is the fact that the French presidential election uses a two-ballot system. On the first round of voting, there are numerous candidates. People vote, and often times vote for a more extreme choice (this is where the National Front gathers so many votes). If a candidate does not secure 50% of the vote (which very rarely happens, because of so many candidates), then there is a second, run-off election with the top two candidates. Now, these top two candidates have been of the main left and right wing parties so far, but the idea of this changing has scared many.

In Germany, I observe that of the countries I am studying, polarization is least strong. The UK has always been Euroskeptic (they never even joined the Euro Zone, the countries using the common currency of the Euro). Germany, on the other hand, has been fairly pro-European Integration (France is somewhere in between). One factor that I didn’t really expect (but makes sense) is that Germany’s history has made a big impact on its political culture. Multiple experts took note of the fact that the German people do not like hard-line politicians, appreciate compromise, and are not that comfortable with charismatic politicians (due to their “bad experience,” one professor noted). However, in Germany, as in the rest of Europe, you can find the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing populist party, that received 4.9% of the vote in the last election (critical because the German parliament has a 5% threshold for entry). Given the rising popularity of the AfD and the proportional representation system that Germany uses, it is a near certainty that the AfD will make it into the Bundestag (the parliament) in the next election.

You might find yourself asking what’s the relevance of all this, and what does it have to do with globalization? Well, the rise of these right wing parties is extremely similar to the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders effects in the US. That is, a revolt against the mainstream and establishment elements of the political system. One explanation that has started to take hold is this idea of the winners and losers of globalization. The chart below, which I found online, can help explain this:

Real Income Growth 1988-2008 by Percentile

So this chart shows how much income has grown from 1988 to 2008, broken down by percentile on the X-axis. So we see that for the left half of the graph, the 0 to 50th percentile of the world’s income, there has been massive growth with the rise of globalization. If we look towards the very end of the chart, the 95th to 100th percentiles, we see comparable growths. And in between those two, we see basically nothing. A huge, sharp drop. This is where most citizens in the countries I’m studying (and the US) lie. The western world’s middle class, on a scale of all global incomes, lies closer to the right end. And you can see why people would get frustrated. Simply put, their paychecks have not seen the booms of globalization. Just about 10% growth is not nothing, but when they look around, they see everyone else receiving gains of 70%, even more sometimes.

What do people do then? Well, they turn to other political parties and candidates. Perhaps some that promise to “Make America Great Again”


  1. This was a great article, and extremely well-written. I think this concept is very interesting, and it’s good to have people studying it. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about putting this into a historical perspective. For example, I’ve often wondered if fifty years from now history textbooks will talk about the growing pains of globalization and frame this era as a time of great but temporary uncertainty, or if this is the new normal in some respects. I think the impact of the spread of terrorism is a factor in the rise of some of the movements you referenced, though as you mentioned so is inequality. Ironically, terrorism itself is in some ways a backlash against globalization. Have people mentioned this idea? Anyway, I’m excited to see your future posts and conclusions.

  2. smehrotra says:

    Hey Daniel,

    People have definitely talked about terrorism, but it’s been more in the context of European migration. One of the main points of contention is this question of what does it mean to be German? (Or Irish, British, or French). People have cited these nationalist identity issues much more than the threat of terrorism. I don’t want to speculate too much, but I think part of the reason could be that the past of all these nations are much more violent than the US’s. And to that extent, while terrorism poses a real threat, these times are still more peaceful than the 40s and 60s. Just as an example, the terrorism in Ireland is much lower now than during the Troubles and the guerrila war for a unified Irish free state.

  3. sherriman says:

    This is some really interesting work. With respect to your graph, what is the relationship between the X-axis percentages in the people groups represented? I’m not very clear as to how 80% on the X-axis represents the US lower middle class, while 60% represents China’s middle class. Thanks, and nice work!