Angry people vs. the establishment

Some thoughts on modern populism and what to do about cultural bubbles, democracy and political journalism.

First there was Brexit, now we got Trump. Both political events point towards some serious problems in our democracies. Some may call it ‘populism’ but we may need to dig a bit deeper to understand it.

[Warning: This is a piece without clear answers. As an editor I would probably send it back to the author asking for a clearer line of argument. But it was written in a moment of confusion — with the aim to clarify thoughts and ideas. It is NOT exhaustive as it only touches on a few points that seem relevant to the debate.]

Today we are all experts of populism. Of course the term ‘populism’ may also be part of the problem as we are dealing with a more complex phenomenon that taps into political exclusion, cultural capital, lack of opportunities, social media bubbles as well as media and political literacy. Voting for someone like Donald Trump may only be the end of a journey. Look at how the working class in the US resents professionalism, admires the rich and value directness.

Both, Trump and Brexit can only be seen through an anti-establishment lens (despite the fact that both ‘movements’ are deeply embedded in the establishment; in fact, both would have failed if parts of the elite had not actively supported it). In Britain and in the US we have heard statements like ‘I voted for Trump [in the UK: Brexit] to shake up the system’. Take back control. Make Britain / America great again.

For me that was only a slogan. I never understood who controlled or stole the country in the first place, I never got it why people desperately needed it back — and, above all, I could not find out what they wanted to do with it. This has been my personal political moment of confusion in 2016. But, let’s face it: It is a very powerful rhetorical device and seems to resonate with a lot of people.

So, what can we do? Let’s try to understand it.

Blaming people for their anger does not work. Trying to convince someone who is angry with facts and reason also seems like a futile exercise.

Populism, turnout and why we need to reinvent democracy

There is a powerful argument to be made about the weakness of the political centre, also known as ‘mainstream politics’. Low turnouts in elections always favour outsiders and political insurgencies. Trump was only possible with a rising non-vote and a creeping radicalisation of the Republican Party. Especially the latter seems to be the real danger to Western democracies. Pandering to the ‘new populists’, trying to ‘out-populist’ populists is not going to work. Integrating populists is even worse as you will end up like the GOP: radicals will slowly hijack your party.

The actual vote for the Republican candidate did not change compared to previous elections. The underlying question is a simple one: Why are people not going to the polls? Are they just lazy? Of course in this case we can put some of the blame on Hillary Clinton. She was not able to mobilise Democrats across the US.

This brings us to the issue of turnout. A turnout of around 50–55% suggests a much deeper disenfranchisement with politics. And this is the real problem. There is a similar trend in Europe. For several years we have seen a 10–30% potential for a populist vote in almost all European countries. Add low turnout to this and you may end up with a ‘populist’ government.


Fighting this new breed of modern populism seems straight forward. We just need to increase turnout at elections, right? But I feel that this is not the main problem. If someone like Donald Trump can become president of the United States we are dealing with a more fundamental crisis of democracy.

We need to ask ourselves some difficult questions: What is democracy in the 21st century? What sort of politicians do we want? How do they need to communicate? What is the role of citizens in a democracy? How can we reform political parties? What should be the role of businesses? How to increase opportunities for political participation? How can we reform political systems that they become more responsive / more effective /more democratic?

Make democracy great again. Make politics great again.

It is probably relatively simple: We can’t just complain about politics. We need to engage beyond facebook and twitter: join (or even found!) a party, run for office, get into the nitty-gritty of legislative work, join campaigns — and make politics great again!

Everyone has an obligation to shape the future of democracy. Political culture is a reflection of those who decided to engage in politics. Of course this takes time and effort. It is annoying and frustrating — but what’s the alternative?

Or is it in fact an issue linked to political education? We can only have a debate about politics if we agree on certain principles and rules. Do citizens know enough about politics and democratic principles? What about rethinking political education classes at school? How can we make sure that everyone in society has a similar grasp of how our democracies work and how to get involved?

Many questions. No easy answers.

The divided society — or why nobody pays attention

In the UK, the US or Germany we see another familiar pattern. People in bigger cities think and behave differently compared to people outside these cities. Rural areas and small towns think differently. This periphery/urban cultural divide may define politics for a generation.

The space between the centre and the periphery is growing. It is exactly in those areas where we usually see an ‘anti-establishment’ sentiment developing. But maybe for a good reason?

Think about it. All cultural capital is concentrated in bigger cities. Politics, media, theatre, debates, restaurants, corruption, jobs, cafes, start-ups, new infrastructure. If you are not part of it — you may feel excluded from it. Words like “Washington” or “Brussels” feel far away for those living in the cultural periphery. It is not difficult to imagine that a (healthy) scepticism towards ‘the centre’, a general negative view of ‘the elite’ and a sense of victimhood provide a fertile ground for politicians who know how to exploit it.

This does not necessarily mean we are dealing with an economic divide. This has more to do with identity. It is a cultural thing. How to be part of society if you are invisible in its culture?

See for example this piece about the culture of the US working class or this article that describes what it’s like to grow up in Trump land. If you read German you may want to read this comment thread in which a user called ‘right-wing populist’ tries to explain a world view that centers around a cultural divide.

The question is how to deal with these issues? How to bridge these gaps in our societies?

Again, important questions. No easy answers.

The invisible filter bubble — and why we enjoy a feeling of superiority

Increasingly, we are exposed to a filter bubble that only shows us news that confirm our belief system. Too many people consume news by relying on the recommendations of friends and family. This is mainly a technology-driven issue but it also tells us something about the state of political and media literacy.

Everyone is screaming — nobody is listening.

The filter bubble makes us behave differently. We think we are ‘in the right’ all the time. It gives us this comfortable feeling of superiority. It makes us more furious — more quickly. We are outraged as soon as we are confronted with opinions that are outside of our bubble. We encourage each other to question less. We look down on others who are not in the same bubble. Tweet before you think. Scream but don’t listen. On the internet we seem to forget our manners. The result: polarised debates. Trump’s twitter stream. Easy answers to complex questions.

But is this how we want to debate politics in the future? Can we fix it, or is it too late? Can we make it more civilised? How to build political literacy in a post-fact/filter bubble era?

Again, many questions. No easy answers.

What’s even more worrying is that we lost touch with the ‘other side’. Society is becoming more fragmented — common physical spaces that used to serve as meeting places are disappearing. We simply don’t meet ‘the other’ anymore. Even more worryingly, if we meet someone from ‘the other side’, we fail to understand what they talk about, we even tend to be ‘afraid of them’. No wonder our societies become more polarised. Stephen Colbert makes this point more eloquently than I could make it:

A crisis of political journalism

Citizens perceive politics through the lens of political journalism — and journalists need to understand this. Journalists still shape the debate. On social media they act as important reference points. But instead of using this privileged position journalists simply copy the mechanisms of social media: Opinionated articles, editorialised headlines, and clickbait seems to become ‘the new journalism’. (Of course it could also be the case that journalism does not even reach those that we think should engage with it. In Germany you get the sense that people who complain about ‘Lügenpresse’ (lying press) are mostly boycotting mainstream media…)

In the run-up to Brexit journalists allowed lies to dominate the debate. Instead of focusing on what really matters, calling out lies and asking the right questions, we have seen too many superficial debates that helped create bubbles.

Political journalism is in a deep existential crisis. (more on this point here and here) There are many issues that are worth mentioning: The failure to spot the important stories and realise when your are being used for propaganda. The false creation of balance for political arguments. The idea that there are always two sides to each story. The truth is that sometimes there is no story at all — and sometimes there are ten sides.

Journalists may have misunderstood Trump. His language was ridiculed (despite being carefully crafted!) and the message was ignored. There is also a point to be made about using a simple language to reach voters, journalists don’t seem to like it. The big question is how to deal with politicians that follow a ‘post-fact strategy’? In Britain, journalists allowed lies to dominate the political agenda (during the referendum campaign but also in the years before Brexit), in the US all the fact-checking did not seem to work or failed to reach certain audiences.

Dealing with fake stories, lies, disinformation, conspiracy theories and filter bubbles will be a huge challenge for journalists and citizens alike. To get an idea how this plays out on facebook, check out WSJ’s experiment showing a red and blue facebook stream side by side.

Political journalism tends to make politics funny and entertaining — no, politics is serious, let’s keep it that way. If political journalism is treated like entertainment, you end up with Trump and a cynical audience. Nobody needs political journalism that is driven by clickbait.

Politics is not fun. Nobody will enjoy a political culture based on clickbait.

Then there is far too much commentary in today’s media. Get rid of your op-ed sections, use the money to travel the country and do some old-fashioned reporting — and most importantly, get to know the electorate. Opinionated journalism with its focus on op-eds, pundits, so-called round tables, editorialised headlines is probably the main issue that makes people think that the media can’t be trusted.

Opinions are not journalism.

Focus on policy and not on politics. People are sick and tired of the reporting of all those fake political battles. Yes, politics is about power and politicians but it is also about policy. Political journalists need to get back and tell people stories about different policy proposals and the effect of individual policies. Here is another piece of advice: Don’t be afraid of long features and interviews. Make politicians talk about one issue for one hour — don’t allow them to move to another topic. (as it happened in the case of Trump)

It’s education, stupid!

Political journalists are also educators. Not everyone knows that much about politics. Most people are not really interested. A majority spends maybe a few minutes on political news each day — on facebook reading headlines. Short attention spans and an off-putting political language make people switch off political news. How can journalism help people to become smarter and inform their political thinking?

Media focuses on capitals — local journalism is dead. We don’t seem to have business models to make journalism relevant for different groups of people. Again, this is a city-non city divide.

The bottom line?

Our democracies need a reboot, we need to rethink our personal relationship with the political world — and political journalism needs to get back to the basics.

This is an enormous task and the bad news is that it may take a generation to really change things.