We have a word in German, “Wutbürger,” which means “angry citizen”—though like many German compound words, its meaning can never quite be captured in a pithy English translation. And yet nothing in either language quite frames this current political moment. It is a relatively new expression, with a derogatory connotation. A Wutbürger rages against a new train station and tilts against wind turbines. Wutbürgers came out in protest after the Berlin government decided to bail out Greece and to accept one million refugees and migrants into Germany.
Wutbürgers lie at both ends of the political spectrum; they flock to the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) and the socialist Linke (Left) Party. The left wing has long had a place in German politics, and Linke has deep roots in the former East Germany’s ruling party. And we’ve had a fringe right-wing since the postwar period began. But the populist anger of the AFD. is something new: Anti-establishment, anti-European Union and anti-globalization, the AFD didn’t exist four years ago. Today, 18% of Germans would consider voting for it.
The same thing is happening elsewhere in Europe: Many British Wutbürgers voted for Brexit. French Wutbürgers will vote for Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Perhaps the most powerful Wutbürger of them all is Donald J. Trump. Which raises the question: How was anger hijacked?
In its pure form, anger is a wonderful force of change. Just imagine a world without anger. In Germany, without the anger of the labour movement, we would still have a class-based voting system that privileged the wealthy, and workers would still toil 16 hours a day without pension rights. Britain and France would still be ruled by absolute monarchs. The Iron Curtain would still divide Europe, the US would still be a British colony and its slaves could only dream of casting a vote this 8 November.
Karl Marx was a Wutbürger. So were Montesquieu, William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr and the tens of thousands of Eastern German protestors who brought down the Berlin Wall in 1989. Now: Compare these spirits to the current parties claiming to stand for necessary change. Trump versus King. Sadly, the leaders of today’s Wutbürger movements never grasped the difference between anger driven by righteousness and anger driven by hate.
Anger works like gasoline. If you use it intelligently and in a controlled manner, you can move the world. That’s called progress. Or you just spill it about and ignite it, creating spectacular explosions. That’s called arson.
Unfortunately, a lack of maturity and prudence exists today among not just the new populist class, but parts of the political establishment. The governing class needs to understand that just because people are embittered and paranoid doesn’t mean they don’t have a case. A growing number of voters are going into meltdown because they believe that politicians—and journalists—don’t see what they see.
Sure, the injustices they see are, in historical perspective, less stark and obvious than in the days of Marx or King. The injustices of today are smaller, but they are more complex. And this is what makes them all the more terrifying.
The upper class has gained much more from the internationalization of trade and finances than the working class has, often in obscene ways. Bankers get bonuses despite making idiotic decisions that trigger staggering losses. Giant enterprises like Facebook or Apple pay minimal taxes, while blue-collar workers have to labour harder—even taking a second or third job—to maintain their standard of living. And this is as true in Germany, France or Austria as it is in Ohio or Florida.
In Germany, some 60% of AFD supporters say globalization has “mainly negative” effects. We live in a world, the liberal British historian Timothy Garton Ash noted lately, “which would have Marx rubbing his hands with Schadenfreude”. The grievances of white, often less-educated voters on both sides of the Atlantic are often dismissed as xenophobic, simplistic hillbillyism. But doing so comes at a cost. Europe’s traditional force of social change, its Social Democrats, appear to just not get it. When Hillary Clinton calls half of Trump’s voters a “basket of deplorables”, she sounds as aloof as Marie Antoinette, telling French subjects who had no bread to “eat cake”. In Germany, a deputy Social Democrat leader, Ralf Stegner, displays a similar arrogance when he calls AFD supporters “racists” and “skunks”. Media reports often convey the same contempt.
In Germany, a recent poll showed that only 14% of the citizens trusted politicians. This is an alarming figure, in a country where faith in a progressive, democratic government has been a cornerstone of our postwar peace. But this presumes that legitimate anger will be acknowledged as such. If this faith is rattled, democracy loses its basic promise.
Amid their mutual finger-pointing, neither populist nor established parties acknowledge that both are squandering people’s anger, either by turning this anger into counterproductive hatred or by denouncing and dismissing it. Clinton has the chance to change, by leading a political establishment that examines and processes anger instead of merely producing and dismissing it. If she does, let’s hope Europe once again looks to America as a model for democracy.
©2016/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.
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