Political polarization is a global phenomenon. The young and the progressive tend do live in cities favoring openness, diversity, and the freedom of self-determination.  Rural areas, on the other hand, are the place for aging and more conservative populations who prefer the familiarity of local traditions and conventional lifestyles.

Over the last two decades, we’ve witnessed this dichotomy in one political event after another: in the Arab Spring, Brexit, Donald Trump’s 2016 election, as well as in the 2017 electoral successes of right-wing populists in Austria, France, and Germany.

Who in Europe is likely to vote for a right-wing populist generally hinges on one question: “Do you think that globalization is a threat or an opportunity?”[1]

This is one of the questions that eupinions posed to respondents throughout Europe in “Fear not Values: Public opinion and the populist vote in Europe” study. While all respondents see globalization as the movement of goods, capital, culture, and people across borders worldwide, they vary in their judgment of it.[2] In Germany, more than 50% of respondents think globalization represents an opportunity, while the others see it as a threat. The numbers for those who think globalization poses a threat are particularly high among voters on both ends of the left-right spectrum. Some 78% of Alternative for Germany (AfD) voters and 54% of Die Linke (The Left) express explicitly negative views about globalization. Among those who vote for other parties, those viewing globalization negatively ranges from 23% to 38%.

Throughout Europe, viewing globalization as a threat – not education or income level – is the common denominator among those who support right-wing populists, with Germany’s AfD voters showing the highest percentage in all of Europe in this regard. Those who support right-wing populists, instead of challenging the established sociopolitical order, focus their criticism on modernity. This suggests that such voters, in terms of personality traits, will feature a low expression of openness.[3] Open individuals enjoy traveling to foreign cultures and trying out different cuisines. They are interested in individuality and creativity, and are comfortable with complexity and ambiguity[4] – things that globalization ushers in. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study also shows that the younger the European, the less the fear of globalization. Indeed, among those under 25, only 33% of respondents see globalization as a threat, whereas more than 50% of those over 56 express anxiety about it.

As it brings new peoples, technology, working environments, and lifestyles to us, globalization poses a severe challenge not only to jobs and markets, but to traditional certainties as well. And despite what we see in print, over and over again – those who vote in support of right-wing populists are not poor or economically disenfranchised. This is illustrated by the case of AfD voters, who are represented in near-equal parts by people from lower, middle, and upper classes.[5]

Nevertheless, those on the right do feel socially disenfranchised. This underlying mood must be taken into consideration in efforts to explain Europe’s shift to the right. Many analyses tend rather to focus on economic factors or specific events such as the financial crisis of 2008 or the “refugee crisis” of 2015 which, as phenomena associated with globalization, clearly had a profound impact. However, specific events can lead to right-wing radicalist thinking only in environments with fertile ground.

Drawing on Dani Rodrik’s work, Philipp Manow argues that it should come as no surprise that left-wing populists have celebrated electoral successes across southern Europe (Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain), while right-wing populists are making gains in central and northern Europe.[6] While populists across the board – right and left – see globalization as a threat, they differ in their threat assessment.

Put in somewhat oversimplified terms, the inflow of foreign cheaper goods into Europe’s southern states have posed harsh competition for products in domestic markets. Europe’s industrial northern states, however, have profited as export countries from globalization. Here, right-wing radicals tend to see those who arrive from distant countries as freeloaders looking to take advantage of the welfare state. The two camps also differ in their anti-establishment views. Leftist criticism of elites is typically anti-authoritarian, and more fundamentally skeptical of power. Right-wing criticism of the establishment is generally more in favor of authoritarian structures, as it targets elites not in the hopes of dismantling elitism per se, but rather to replace those currently in power.[7]

In contrast to progressives, traditionalists and right-wing radicals feature a low expression of openness. Their response to surprising input is rarely positive, and they tend to prefer instead structure, order, and things or people that are familiar to them.[8]

As opposing inclinations, openness and closedness help explain why globalization is widening divisions in societies around the world. Just 20 years ago, it was easy to be a traditionalist. One assumed the faith practiced by one’s parents; friendships were made at work; an education led to a lifelong career; and owning a car was a matter of pride. However, in the age of Tinder, Snapchat, home offices, and self-driving cars, the force of progressiveness is everywhere.

Indeed, behind these changes are open-minded individuals, that is, people driven by curiosity and a love of experimentation. Disruptions of this nature demand openness from everyone, but also reward those who feature this personality trait and penalize those who resist such change.

[1] Vries/Hoffman (2016) “Fear not Values. Public opinion and the populist vote in Europe”

[2] Follow-up study: eupinions.eu/de/text/globalization-and-the-eu-threat-or-opportunity/

[3] Dana Carney et al. (2008) “The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives: Personality Profiles, Interaction Styles, and the Things They Leave Behind” Political Psychology 29 (6): 807–840

[4] Bergmann, Knut, et al. (2017) “Die AfD: Eine Partei der sich ausgeliefert fühlenden Durchschnittsverdiener?”  Zeitschrift für Parlamentsfragen (ZParl), Heft 1: 57 – 75 (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316353763_Die_AfD_Eine_Partei_der_sich_ausgeliefert_fuhlenden_Durchschnittsverdiener)

[5] Manow, Philipp (2018) Die Politische Ökonomie des Populismus. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, p. 42 f.; Rodrik, Dani (2018): “Populism and the political economy of globalization” Journal of International Business Policy 1 (1): 12–33 (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/s42214-018-0001-4)

[6] Hübl, Philipp (2018) Bullshit-Resistenz. Berlin: Nicolai Publishing and Intelligence

[7] Natalie J. Shook and Russell H. Fazio, “Political Ideology, Exploration of Novel Stimuli, and Attitude Formation,” in: Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 45, Nr. 4, 2009, p. 995–998 (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/222420509_Political_Ideology_Exploration_of_Novel_Stimuli_and_Attitude_Formation); Douglas R. Oxley et al., “Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits,” in: Science, Vol. 321, Nr. 5896, 2008, p. 1667–1670 (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/321/5896/1667)

 (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-9221.2008.00668.x), Hirsh, Jacob. B. et al. (2009).

[1] “Metatraits of the Big Five differentially predict engagement and restraint of behavior” Journal of Personality. 77 (4): 1085–1101 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19558442)