GMF’s Brussels Forum: Addressing (Popular) Discontent at Home and Abroad

A Young Transatlantic Network Member Perspective

By: Amanda Brown, Young Transatlantic Network — Washington Chapter

Over the last eighteen months, “populism” has been the word on everyone’s lips and the phenomenon on everyone’s minds. As it has swept the globe, spurring the rise of far-right parties, energizing the election campaigns of Duterte, Modi, Duda, and Trump, and occasioning the Brexit referendum, policy-makers and civil society alike have struggled to address its challenges.

The German Marshall Fund rose to the occasion, drawing on the experiences of government officials (ranging from the municipal to supranational levels) and leading think tanks to answer the pressing questions: why has populism emerged as so powerful a force? How do we minimize the damaging consequences of populism at every level of government? Will populism remain a long-term challenge?

A Historical Turning Point

Walter Russell Read introduced the panel by proclaiming that we are in a historical crisis and turning point, where the natures of the economic and global systems are changing faster than people’s ideas about how to manage them. Elites are increasingly unable to successfully govern or answer where the jobs of the future will come from — meanwhile globalization erodes the foundations of our social order. The debate amongst populists has therefore become: are the elites stupid or are they evil? This allows space for authoritarian leaders to claim that the future belongs to the fresh new voices of authoritarian populism. Though we have overcome similar challenges in the recent past, we cannot become complacent that we will do so again. We need a new kind of leadership to overcome globalization-induced populism.

A Multi-Faceted Challenge

Hailing from markedly different regions of the U.S. and EU, the panelists concurred that the nature of populism on each side of the Atlantic differs. Populism in Europe is always linked to nationalism, and rooted in ethnicity rather than values. When things do not work at the EU level, people start turning away from the EU and begin looking for solutions at the national level. Populists then start placing their national interests above EU interests. In a thinly veiled indictment of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, the panelists raised the alarm that populists can be pragmatic at the EU but be authoritarians at home.

Conversely, populism in the U.S. is driven by anxiety over the changing nature of work and toxic partisanship. The US has no populist parties at any level (even if it has a party that has been co-opted by populist rhetoric). Regardless of the nature of populism, the panelists agreed that a lack of leadership and vision by political leaders is contributing to the crisis.

Leadership that brings people together — not empty words — will be imperative to addressing the challenge on both sides of the Atlantic.

An Era of Action

The panelists were not short on ideas of how to address the challenges of populism at every level, but a few clear themes emerged. They emphasized that it is politicians who shape public opinion, not the other way around. Populists win when societies are divided because they can demonize the opposition. Using political power to confront populist narratives and promote the vision of the EU project is therefore paramount.

Several panelists noted that local politicians were not under the same pressure to take populist stances as higher-level politicians, because they are closer to the people. Generating more interaction with citizens, empathizing with their perspectives, and facilitating a sense that they are a part of the process are strategies for higher-level politicians to resist resorting to populist tactics and minimize populist sentiment toward them.

Finally, drawing leaders back to the political center must be one angle in which populism is tackled. Reforming the primary system in the U.S., using the model of California’s open primary system, in one concrete way of doing so.

Despite the challenges, there was widespread optimism for the future. Brexit was its unlikely source, as its fallout demonstrates the failures of populist-led initiatives. The question is, at what cost?

For more on GMF’s Brussels Forum, check out for all of the session videos, transcripts, blog posts, and more.

The ideas expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.

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