BERLIN — Mr. H. gives off mixed signals with his socks and sandals, all purpose vest, angry eyes and friendly smile. He sits in front of his house in a sprawl of high-rises on the border of the city. It's early summer, and no one has put up campaign posters just yet. But Mr. H is already thinking about the elections in September.

Mr. H. is a man with a long, varied history. He's been a police officer as well as a railway employee. He's also diabetic, was unemployed at one point, and retired early. "Maybe that's too many details," he says. "Who really cares? No one," he asks and answers. Mr. H, to use his own words, feels "disenfranchised." Everyone out here feels disenfranchised. Forgotten by politicians. Ignored by everyone else.

Die Abgehängten, or the disenfranchised. The term was thrown around a lot in the early part of the summer. Politicians used it. So did journalists. It was discussed and written about extensively.

This group was used to explain many things, from the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to online bullying, street brawling and populism in general. It was posited too as proof of other phenomena: aloof politics, the arrogance of the elite, social division. The concept mixed with others like "the enraged citizen" and "protest vote." It was a symptom, it seemed, as well as a warning.

But then the disenfranchised fell silent, just as the popularity of the AfD dipped in the national polls.

Tracing the narrative

So who were these people? Did they exist at all? Or have the forgotten become forgotten once more? The concept took shape last year in the months leading to Donald Trump's election, which was interpreted very quickly as the "revenge" of the marginalized — and not just in the United States.

The narrative back then went like this: There were areas, particularly in the countryside and the Rust Belt, once the industrial heart of the American Northeast, where people had been ignored for a long time, people who were not heard, who were in precarious social circumstances. And soon the narrative went global. This wasn't just an American trend: Look at Britain and Brexit, France and Marine Le Pen, Germany and the AfD! Populism had an audience everywhere. Everywhere, people on the geographical and social periphery who had once been forgotten were being remembered.

Trump himself bellowed during the election campaign: "I love the poorly educated." In Germany, around 40% of all AfD voters felt "isolated," according to an October 2016 Allensbach Institute study. But hardly anyone declared that in public in Germany — on the contrary. The term "disenfranchised" also expressed what the supposedly marginalized were resisting: the perceived arrogance of the elites.

Very soon there were postscripts to the narrative, based on analyses of populist voters. The phenomenon was not just a matter of the people who were economically marginalized. It had to do with people of different backgrounds, too, those who felt marginalized by the urban, cosmopolitan, liberal elites who dominated the public discourse and, admittedly, now led the discourse on the marginalized.

The populists' message appeals to people across social strata.

But was that narrative accurate? From an empirical standpoint, argues sociologist Harald Welzer, the concept has been "highly questionable" from the very beginning, at least in Germany, which has a completely different situation compared to the United States. Germany, he argues, is also unlike France, where de-industrialization and centralization played a significant role in the rise of right-wing populism. "To compare these situations is humbug," the sociologist insists.

The discussion about marginalization has centered around the idea that society has failed to address social inequalities, Welzer argues. But this ignores an important point, "that the populists' message appeals to people across social strata." And populists have always existed. "It is in no way a new phenomenon," Welzer says. The one thing that has changed is that populists now have more ways to draw attention to themselves.

Werner Patzelt, a political science professor from Dresden, has experience with the self-proclaimed disenfranchised. Among other things, he studied the populist, anti-Muslim Pegida Movement from the outset — some say too closely, others say with less prejudice than anyone else. Patzelt spoke relatively early of a delicate "those up there/us down here" attitude, spread by people from different backgrounds. It was the first symptom of right-wing populism, a political fashion that eventually spread.

Carnival float of "AfD yesterday, today, tomorrow" in Düsseldorf — Photo: Kürschner

His most recent study deals with anxiety over the future and resentment. He argues that "disenfranchisement" is also a "convenient shorthand" for many other things. "Not everyone who doesn't belong to the elite is disenfranchised." But he says the phenomenon is clearly a warning signal.

The man on the street

Many see it this way, and so politicians and editors have decided to investigate the phenomenon in deserted villages and dreary high-rise housing complexes. In eastern and western Germany, the media ran reports on the precarious situation of people like Mr. H, in low-income housing zones, small towns, and so-called urban hotspots.

Unsurprisingly, they came across people with similar backgrounds. Some seemed unapproachable, but others spoke up. There was a policeman in a leadership position who no longer trusted the state with security policy; an unemployed worker who didn't trust anyone, least of all himself; and a nurse who saw her job threatened by less costly laborers, among others.

In addition to these sample surveys, a recent study and survey commissioned by the Bö​ckler Foundation, affiliated with the Green Party, found that susceptibility to right-wing populist ideas is tied to the subjective perception of one's own circumstances, not an objective social situation. One's political persuasion often stems from a personal sense of a loss of control, privately and politically.

Politics cannot create a perfect world.

Sociologists have for years made a connection between modern times and the loss of control, a sense of insecurity and anxiety. Globalization and digitalization contribute to the feeling of being marginalized.

"What's new," says Welzer, "is that this view is accepted everywhere, that the situation is dangerous even though nothing has really changed in our comfortable lives. That goes for all layers of society."

Still, others see very real and persisting problems. Green Party lawmaker Britta Hasselmann says social inequalities are growing and people are noticing. "This needs to be countered by targeted promotion of structurally weak regions as well as by strengthening the social security systems, the creation of fair employment and the promotion of education and training," she said.

Patzelt, for his part, also believes that the phenomenon is a symptom of real problems, namely the feasibility of the welfare state, the question of fair wages amid international competition, and internal cohesion in an immigrant society. The underlying problem, he says, is that people are experiencing alienation. "We have gradually discovered that politics cannot create a perfect world." What then, is the solution? Patzelt doesn't have the answer, but suggests good will and fatalism. And beginning with small solutions one can live with.

In the forest of high-rise complexes where Mr. H. has lived for several decades, the AfD won many votes in the last state election, but no party can claim a majority. More than half the people here are expected to skip this month's federal election. But not Mr. H. No matter what, he still plans to vote, and he's already convinced some of his friends to join him.


See more from World Affairs here