Regional Inequality and Populist Voting in Germany and the United States

In this AICGS webinar AICGS/DAAD Fellow Michael Bayerlein addresses this regional variance in populist support in Germany and the United States through globalization-induced regional inequality and the regional provision of public services. He gives policy recommendations on how regional inequality and, ultimately, populist voting could be mitigated.

Although having lost the U.S. presidential election, the number of votes won by populist president Donald J. Trump still exceeded many expectations. In a similar manner, the populist German party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) experiences continuing support amongst voters. Experts on both sides of the Atlantic have vividly debated the reasons for this continuing wave of populist voting. United in their populist rhetoric, the AfD and Mr. Trump claim to speak for “the people” and against “the corrupt elite.” However, populist voting is not distributed evenly throughout both countries. Rather, especially high populist support is clustered in certain regions.

Event Summary:

Research question: How can the regional variance in populist support in Germany and the United States be explained?

Hypothesis: The higher the spatial inequality score of a county, the higher the populist vote share in that county.

Argument: Spatial inequality is a crucial component in explaining the variance in populist support. The connection between spatial inequality and populist voting is mitigated by the provision of public goods.

Globalization and spatial inequality (SIQ) measurement

(c-county, n-nation, MHI-median household income)

Finding: Spatial inequality correlates significantly with populist voting in Germany and the United States. Populist voting is less affected by spatial inequality if the provision of public goods is adequate.

SIQ in Germany:-74% to 27%

  • High: Gelsenkirchen and Duisburg (NRW, Ruhr area)
  • Low: Starnberg and Hochtaunuskreis (Germany’s two wealthy districts)

SIQ in the United States: -172% to 56%

  • High: Owsley, KY, and McDowell, WV
  • Low: Howard, MD, and Loudoun, VA


How does voting for the Left (Die Linke) affect the thesis of this project?

Although the general mechanism applies to the Left, the AfD has been more successful in exploiting the social polarization and framing societal conflicts in cultural terms among Germans. It will be interesting to analyze the Left, but it is not an absolutely left-wing party. There is also no left-wing party in the United States to make transatlantic comparisons.

If population movement is part of the process, isn’t it more directly connected to the right-wing populist view of the native population being replaced in its “demographic winter”?

The migration of young and highly educated people to the urban centers has significant impact on populist voting in both countries. Nonetheless, in Eastern Germany, the replacement is not really happening, and the population to migration rate is low.

Does the research take into account SIQ’s relation with race? In the United States, the preexisting cultural and economic cleavages do relate to social economic status, which is arguably closely related to race.

No, it does not. The societal dynamics and preexisting conflicts are different in these two countries. For the U.S. context, race is definitely an important component.

What is the projected future of SIQ and public goods provision in Germany and United States?

If the provision of public goods goes down even further and the regional wealth redistribution increases, then the research as of now shows that populist voting will increase.

Any thoughts on how to tackle the root causes of SIQ?

This is perhaps a social psychological issue. Abstractly speaking, the root causes can be tackled by investing more in education, making people sure of themselves, taking away fear of loss of social status during exchanges with other societal groups.

Why do the right-wing populists in Germany and United States respond to cultural issues stronger than those on the left? How does this relate back to SIQ?

In Germany and United States, the state and societal structure lend themselves to the cultural conflict but not a classical labor versus capital conflict as in South America or other European countries.

How do you reconcile the paradox of the mitigation of public good and the deep-seated sentiment of libertarianism?

This public goods provision is different than just the mere wealth redistribution, which is immediately coined as socialist propaganda or program in the United States. It is more like the state is the provider that allows someone to live freely and independently. For example, if you have to drive for 45 to 60 minutes to the closest doctor, this is not an example of the government impeding on freedom to make decisions. In this case, to fit with libertarian sentiments, states should leave people alone but need to provide people with basic resources to live their live freely without restrictions.

Could right-wing populism merely be the consequence of historical and cultural legacies? For example, the deep South in the United States was once the Confederacy and East Germany belongs to the former German Democratic Republic. And do your results indicate that nonetheless spatial inequality and public good provisions have independent effects?

Some studies have shown a strong correlation between populist voting and voting for the Nazi party in Germany. Recently, the American Political Science Review published an article about the correlation between Nazi concentration camps and AfD voting today. There is some sort of cultural heritage in certain regions contribute to the populist voting. Cultural factors cannot be mitigated by the provision of public goods. It needs to be tackled in another dimension.

Can SIQ can be so easily transmitted into voting for a particular party or individual, since we know that not every voter who shares a particular set of attitudes or perceptions of conditions will translate that vote the same way? 

The counties that had low public goods provision prior to the existence of AfD had high numbers of non-voters. After the AfD gained traction because of their views on economic and cultural issues, these counties turned to the AfD. I would say the same mechanism applies to the United States. SIQ probably makes people to abstain from voting or it makes them more prone to vote for populist parties because they seem to address these people’s grievances. Also, people’s voting behavior may be different from their own motivation and thoughts.

Will you include SIQ index for the cost of living?

Cost of living is an important component. However, cost of living in an ever more globalizing world has less importance than before. If you live in Saxony bordering other European countries, your cost of living is probably low. But if you buy something from Amazon, the price is the same. No matter if you live in Starnberg or other places, the cost of products from Amazon is the same. This applies to the situation in the United States as well.

Do women and men vote differently or similarly? What do the differences mean for your argument?

We know that there are gender differences in populist voting in the United States as well as in Germany. Particularly, women in Germany are less prone to vote for AfD than men. I have to think about the implication for SIQ in gender role. It may help us understand who is more susceptible to populist ideas.

Supported by the DAAD with funds from the Federal Foreign Office (FF)

December 10, 2020

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