A Second Look at the Politically “Left-Behind”

Interview with Johannes Hillje, who has been asking people who live in right-wing populist bastions about their discontents and worries.

Image: of Progressives Zentrum

People in structurally weak regions with a high proportion of right-wing populist voters feel abandoned by politics. That was one finding of a survey carried out by the Progressive Center, in which 500 people were polled in twelve municipalities of Germany and in France where right-wing populists had garnered high vote totals. We talked to the principal author of the study, Johannes Hillje.

FES: For this study, pollsters rang 500 doorbells in France and Germany. How open were the residents and how did your conversations with them go?

Hillje: In all, we actually knocked on 5,000 doors, which resulted in the 500 interviews. This success rate is in the normal range for qualitative social research, which is to say that our target group was not unusually reluctant to talk. On the contrary, when they were willing to talk, they were quite communicative and spoke at great length. On average, the conversations lasted about 25 minutes. That suggests how much these people needed to speak and be heard—when you talk with them rather than about them.

The study concludes that the political dissatisfaction felt by many people stems from local grievances and not, let us say, from xenophobia. How do you prove that?

We identified three distinct patterns of interpretation employed by those people. First, there is a “comparative logic of denigration applied to migrants” that operates rather abstractly at the federal political level. In this instance, their denigration of migrants reflects the disrespect shown to them when their own problems (e.g., being among the “working poor”) are neither acknowledged nor solved by political actors. Second, the frustration they feel when the problems they experience are not solved is reinforced when other issues such as foreign policy or refugee policy (again) are accorded a higher priority. And third, people sense that they have been abandoned by the social and commercial infrastructure, for example when the shop around the corner closes or when public mailboxes get removed. Generally speaking, they feel disrespected both in terms of the work they do and in their personal social circles. In reaction to that, they denigrate migrants.

When a lot of citizens charge that the issues regarded as important locally do not get enough attention in public debates (for example the rebuilding of infrastructure), but instead are overshadowed by other ones (such as migration), does that mean we have been talking too much about flight, migration, and integration? Or does it mean we have said too little, because people are simultaneously worried that they are being shortchanged as a great deal of money is devoted to the intake of refugees?

As far as I am concerned, the media agenda is oftentimes driven by hype, and reportage tends to become obsessed with a single issue. In the last few years, migration rightly has become a mega-topic; yet at the same time there are many other issues that have been highly relevant to society for years, but made it into public discourses only infrequently because they don’t generate big headlines. Working poverty, infrastructure, climate change and educational policy furnish examples of this point. You could count on the fingers of one hand the number of talk shows in the past year devoted to those issues. In this context it is worth mentioning another interesting finding of our study: When it comes to the things that are really meaningful to these people and of which they are really aware, some of the favorite narratives of the right-wing populists--such as skepticism about Europe, the threat of Islamization, or a broad-gauged critique of the media--have played almost no role. That is to say: other parties should be more critical and probe behind the popular consensus, asking whether populist narratives that resonate with the media actually have been taken up by the citizens themselves before they go chasing after those narratives.

What conclusions can be drawn from these findings? Is it possible to roll back right-wing populism and xenophobia by instituting better social policy?

Right-wing populists benefit from “political abandonment,” which has arisen due to the disappearance of infrastructure and the fact that the problems experienced by the people who live in left-behind places have not been represented adequately in public discourses. Right-wing populists entice such people with the promise that they will give them a voice again. At the same time they set up citizens’ advice bureaus in regions such as these and supply a “troubleshooter.” In my view, besides developing an improved social policy and adequate social safety net, other parties should also re-establish a physical presence in these communities. As participants in civil society, they should once again make themselves useful at the local level. For example, I could imagine that citizens’ advice bureaus could evolve from being purely sources of information into something more like political co-working spaces, where citizens, associations, and initiatives could craft solutions for local problems together with the parties.

One explanation for the outcome of the last Bundestag elections is that many voters who had once supported the “big-tent” parties voted for right-wing populists as a protest. So what was said in people’s doorways about the democratic parties and their policies?

People are disappointed about the way politics is carried on in our country. They complain that parties and politicians are too remote from ordinary citizens and too close to big economic interests. The positive aspect, however, is that there are no fundamental doubts about our party democracy. But people do desire innovations in both programs and organization, especially in the case of the big catch-all parties. When asked who is best suited to solving the country’s problems, one of the responses was: “A Social Democratic Party that returns to its roots.”


Johannes Hillje is a political and communications consultant in Berlin and Brussels. He advises institutions, parties, politicians, corporations, and NGOs. During the 2014 European elections he served as the campaign manager for the European Green Party. Previously he worked in the communications field for the United Nations in New York and in the heute.de editorial office of the ZDF media network in Germany. In 2017 he published a book entitled Propaganda 4.0 (Dietz Publishing House). Hillje received a Master’s degree in Politics and Communications from the London School of Economics as well as a Master’s in Political Science and Journalism from the University of Mainz.


You can download the study here.

You can find further input on this issue on the web page of the Progressive Center.

Events, projects, analyzes and background information:

  • Displacement: Worldwide, more people are leaving their countries of origin than ever before.
  • Migration: Migration is to be expected in an interconnected and globalized world.
  • Integration: How do we want to live together in a diverse society with peace, safety and equal participation for all?

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