How proverbial European voters explain a continent

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TIL IRISH breakfast is a feat of culinary engineering. Take a baguette, slice it lengthwise and butter it. Add a sausage, two fried eggs, two slices of bacon, hash browns and black or white pudding, cover with ketchup, then serve. At around 1,300 calories, it’s almost half of a man’s recommended daily allowance and is traditionally eaten during hangovers.

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He has a curious hold on the Irish psyche. A Tribute to the “Jumbo Breakfast Roll” was the best-selling song in 2006, beating Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie”. An academic carried out a sociological study: “The Rise and Fall of the Jumbo Breakfast Roll: How a Sandwich Survived the Decline of the Irish Economy”. But it is in politics that breakfast really dominates.

Breakfast Roll Man was a symbol of the Celtic Tiger. A construction worker having a hangover gorging himself after a big night out was a common sight in the boom years. They were the cash-rich workers, argued David McWilliams, an Irish commentator who coined the term, who came out and guaranteed Bertie Ahern a victory in 2007, just before the Irish economy collapsed.

Each European country has its Breakfast Roll Man, a proverbial voter who sums up the tune of the political times. For decades, the housewife of Voghera, a town in Lombardy, has been a shortcut for middle voters in Italy. In Denmark, it’s Mr. and Mrs. Kakkelbord, named after the ubiquitous coffee tables found in Danish suburbs. The couple emerged after a politician unwittingly insulted the common voter ‘s furniture choice. From the Swabian housewife, the image favored by Angela Merkel in her days of austerity, to the Mondeo man of Tony Blair’s time, each proverb is revealing in its own way.

Sometimes the proverbial voters are used as a political weapon rather than an analytical tool. Populists use figurative voters to present their base as the true voice of the nation. In the Netherlands, an imaginary couple called Henk and Ingrid dominate. Invented by Geert Wilders, the bleached blond anti-immigration politician, they are ordinary supporters of the Freedom Party (PVV). Alexander Pechtold, then leader of the Liberals D66-year-old even wrote a book – “Henk, Ingrid and Alexander” – chatting with the imaginary couple. During the pandemic, Mr Wilders blamed ‘Mohammed and Fatima’, the immigrant antithesis of Henk and Ingrid, for blocking beds in the hospitals of the Dutch-born. This sparked another round of speeches on Mr. Wilders’ conditions.

Repeating the frame of a rival only helps the rival, says Tom van der Meer, professor at the University of Amsterdam. Mr. Wilders exerts an influence on Dutch politics through his ability to lead parties towards his more radical positions. Although his party is usually the second or third in the Netherlands, he is unlikely to enter government. Frankly, there aren’t enough Henks or Ingrids to put it out there. Yet as long as Henk and Ingrid dominate the debate as the archetypal voter, politicians end up spreading Mr. Wilders’ message.

Where life is good, so is the life of the proverbial voter. Complaining about life in Scandinavia, one of the wealthiest regions on the planet, is like complaining that you hit your toe while celebrating a lottery victory. Where Henk and Ingrid struggle, the proverbial voters in Scandinavia are content. In Sweden, politicians talk about Medelsvennsons, who are concerned with “villa, Volvo, vovve” (house, Volvo, dog). If these categories are met, then they are happy. Things for “Bla Bjarne” – a well-paid middle-aged Danish craftsman – are pretty good. So good, in fact, that it can be tempted to the right by the promise of tax cuts.

Where life is worse, so is the life of the proverbial voter. Janusz and Grazyna, an imaginary Polish couple from the country’s provincial hinterland, provide the cruelest example. Janusz is a middle-aged man who drinks excessively, watches too much television, wears socks with sandals, and has a mustache. Online, he’s often portrayed as a proboscis monkey. His wife, Grazyna, is weak, enjoys chatting and shopping. Their son, Sebastian, is a rascal.

If the stereotype is mean, it is a reflection of Poland’s brutal policies. The country is the most striking example of the most important schism in European politics: the growing gap between the center and the periphery. The liberal cities of Poland are bristling under the government of the fiercely conservative Law and Justice party (PIS), who count on the support of Janusz and Grazyna. In turn, PIS the loyalists suggest that the townspeople despise them. Considering the portrayal of Janusz and Grazyna, that’s fair enough.

Windmill load

One problem with imaginary voters is that they are imaginary. Social Democrats are panicking over falling votes across Europe. But their imaginary target voter is overwhelmed, says Tarik Abou-Chadi of the University of Zurich. Rather than engaging with potential voters who actually exist, they look to voters who have disappeared, conjuring up images of manly minors they must win back. This has turned some politicians into political Don Quixote, charging voters who, like Spanish windmills, are not at all as expected.

The proverbial voters can confuse political reality as often as they reveal it. On the left, the same proverbial voter returns over and over: male, middle-aged, and manufacturer. Young people in dead end jobs in call centers are rarely represented. The Swabian housewife is perhaps the embodiment of Christian Democrat values ​​in the eyes of Angela Merkel. But the party should also focus on second and third generation Turkish-German voters tempted by the center-right. Yet when it comes to proverbial voters, these groups are invisible. Even when the proverbial voter rings true, politicians must remember to move on. Breakfast Roll Man has had its day. He likely moved to America after the crash, suggests McWilliams. A new voter, hopefully with better nutrition, will take his place. When politics change, the proverbial voter should change. ■

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Meet the proverbial voters”


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