Established Players and Outsiders
in Politics

Meüs van der Poel und Anja Mutschler , 14.10.2021

After the federal election in Germany, we see a change in political power relations. There are no longer two large parties dominating the scene, but the German voters’ election has become more diverse. Meüs van der Poel and Anja Mutschler explain how the world systems theory helps to understand the outcomes of the current federal election and the transition of power from established political players to outsiders.

In 1974, the American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein first launched his world systems theory. In a nutshell, this theory is based on a world system in which the international economic order is one of dependency and therefore of exploitation. He distinguishes three areas in the world: the core, the semi-periphery and the periphery. The core areas use the periphery as suppliers of raw materials to pursue their own prosperity. The semi-periphery acts as a kind of broker between the two. Although this theory is primarily a critical reflection on the world economy, it contains a number of interesting concepts that can also be used in other social spheres, such as (team) sports and politics.

In team sports, we also distinguish established players who are in the centre of the playing field. They owe this position to several interacting factors: they have a long tradition and a great reputation, they reach a socially dominant audience, they have a widespread supply and/or use a known and valued methodology. Players who are more on the periphery do not have these characteristics and privileges or do so to a much lesser extent. Those who occupy a central position would like to retain it. Organisations focus on the consolidation and further growth of their offerings. They have a responsibility to their customers and staff and to the legacy they manage. They have a reputation to uphold. Those who find themselves in a peripheral position realise only too well what they are missing and aspire to occupy a more central position. After all, centre and periphery are not static.

Jetzt reinhören: wie begeistern wir Menschen (wieder) für Demokratie und Mitbestimmung?

Central and peripheral positions can ideally change based on political and social choices and on social and demographic developments. Thus, organisations that respond to these developments can become or remain relevant to the context in which they operate. After all, they contribute useful solutions, form an indispensable link in the local fabric and become/remain a valued policy interlocutor.

The dynamics of centre and periphery, however, not only lead to central players, but also create outsiders. Some occupy a peripheral position because of their subject matter, organisational form, location or mode of operation or a mix of motives and circumstances. But redistributing power is not the same as breaking through the mechanism of centre and periphery. Players who evolve from the periphery towards the centre, in turn, often exclude new players. Once the (more) central position is taken, few manage to break through this mechanism. It is therefore a subcutaneous mechanism that is stronger than individuals and organisations.

Certainly, in sectors that depend heavily on community resources, the arrival of new players threatens the established players. If the cake does not get bigger, there is less for everyone. Government funding does not follow, or follows too slowly, the quantitative and diverse increase of players in the field.

At the moment, we see a redistribution in German federal politics. No longer are two large parties dominant, although the 5% electoral threshold still maintains the party cartel. The theory of centre and periphery also helps to clarify the position of the AfD. And the change in power from the Laschet generation to Jens Spahn, Daniel Günther and Tobias Hans can also be explained by this.


We find it interesting to look at the election from the point of view of pluralistic democracy. We had the impression that voters really do vote according to their interests. The proportion of “other” parties has also grown, e.g. Tierschutzpartei, dieBasis, die Partei, Volt. From this point of view, is the need for a three-party Federal Government not to be welcomed? On the other hand, the analysis of first-time voters clearly shows that the question of who is established and who is not can be rather detrimental in an age of change. The theme of “the little guys” vs. “the big guys” is a defining theme of German politics. Gerhard Schröder used the expression of “Cook and waiter”, with the SPD being the cook, of course. And even until recently the SPD said they were now negotiating with “the little ones”. Personally, we are curious to see whether we will get a new multi-party reality like you have in Holland or whether the German voter’s longing for “clear proportions” can result in small parties becoming bigger (“new” people’s parties) or if the big ones will recover (reformed people’s parties).

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