This is a response from Wolgang Heuer.
I am grateful for Roger’s opening of a controversy at Bard-College on populism as an expression of the crisis of democracy. The Hannah Arendt Center has always invited scientists, intellectuals and politicians with controversial opinions.
Marc Jongen is philosopher and politician and he has controversial opinions. In his talk, he expressed views which we also find in the CSU, the Bavarian conservative party that has been ruling Germany as minor partner of the nationwide conservative governing coalition for many years. The problem is not, what he said, because he distanced himself from racism and anti-semitism, but that he is a Member of Parliament of the new rightist party AfD.
The AfD’s origin is a symptom of one of the crises of democracy, namely the ruling grand coalition in Germany of conservatives and social-democrats and also greens. The crisis is that distinctions among the opposing parties became more and more indistinct. This broad consensus has increasingly marginalized criticism. No wonder, then, that during the Euro-crisis and the arrival of the refugees, a diffuse opposition emerged against this consensus. This opposition united national-conservatives, ultra-rightists, and neo-Nazis into a protest party, which had been founded originally by some politically inexperienced professors who were Euro-sceptics. These new rightists speak in echo chambers and conspiracy theories.
Shall we react to the new rightists with similar measures such as boycotts and the refusal of dialogue? Are we willing to prevent controversies from emerging in a country that suffers precisely from an evident lack of controversy? This dynamic was clearly visible during the recent electoral campaign for the German parliament. Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the “Origins of Totalitarianism” is characterized by her attempt to understand why so many people joined totalitarian movements. It may be hard to listen to the explanations and world-views of right wing politicians— and I exclude those who cross the red line into racism, anti-semitism and fascism. But should citizens who act and think critically not search to open controversies instead of muting them? And should critically thinking citizens not reject Tan understanding of politics which leads to exactly those forms of power—a strategic understanding of truths and the aim to occupy strategic posts—which contradict a republican understanding of politics? And is it not this lack of honest controversy which gave populism free play?