Booming Populism - On the Practice and Language of Political Polarization
• German Center for Research and Innovation (GCRI)
• Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences (BIGSSS)
• Columbia Journalism School
• ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius
• German Research Foundation (DFG)
On November 17th, 2016, the German Center for Research and Innovation (GCRI) New York, the Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences (BIGSSS), Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius as well as the German Research Foundation (DFG) hosted the panel discussion “Booming Populism - On the Practice and Language of Political Polarization.” In the course of the Brexit referendum and the U.S. presidential election, both the EU and the U.S. have witnessed a rise in political populism. During the event, distinguished experts discussed the current booming political populist movement and the effect that the media has on political communication.
Dr. Joann Halpern, director of the GCRI New York opened the panel discussion and welcomed the attendees. Stefan Altevogt, program manager at the German Research Foundation (DFG) spoke about the DFG’s diverse activities. Christian Peters, the managing director of BIGSSS, provided introductory remarks about the topic of the evening and introduced the moderator, Michael Werz, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a professor at Georgetown University.
Michael Werz welcomed the graduate student fellows who had participated in a think lab at Columbia University from November 14-16, 2016. The fellows approached the topic by incorporating empirical sociology and political theory into their presentation on the current socio-political situation and how right-wing parties have gained popularity in Europe and the United States.
Mr. Werz referred to this year’s U.S. election results as “a possible game changer.” Although the U.S. has a diverse population, it has been a politically stable country. He pointed out that this may affect upcoming elections and referenda in Germany, France, and Italy in 2017.
The next speaker, Alec MacGillis, a journalist for ProPublica, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post, spoke about the current political situation in the United States and the reasons for the election results, e.g. the high rate of academic and working class Republican voters. Another major trigger, according to MacGillis, was the growing regional and geographic inequality across the United States, in which major prosperous cities are isolated from the rest of the country. Determining factors related to the geographical inequality are the rising income gap across the country as well as the rising resentment towards the media. Mr. Werz pointed out that the key to Mr. Obama’s election triumph was winning voters from Midwestern states, which Hillary Clinton lost.
Jan-Werner Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton University, who has conducted research on populism for his book, “What Is Populism?” emphasized the dangers that populism poses to democracy. The critical attitude towards elites and the claim that only real people are a part of the populist movement poses a risk to today’s democracy. According to Mueller, populists are known to emphasize the ineligibility of opponents in a very personal manner and will question those who are not supporting them. They have a tendency to reject open discussions and prefer to only make their voice heard, and this phenomenon is very similar in many countries.
Martin Nonhoff, a professor of political theory at BIGSSS spoke about how today’s populist movements are based on groups dividing themselves into structural communalities with a populist formation. The populist movement is a movement against the current non-pluralistic state. Right-wing and left-wing populists view themselves as people against corrupt elites. Additionally, right-wing populists believe that minority groups should also be suspected of favoring the elites.
The final speaker, Todd Gitlin, a writer and professor of journalism at Columbia University, provided an overview of the development of populism on a world historic level, pointing out that populism has accelerated over the years. With respect to the Brexit and the current U.S. election results, it seems as though populism is the current Zeitgeist ofthe moment. The development of this phenomenon is associated with a cultural and emotional crisis. A crisis can be viewed as a clash of different answers to fundamental questions. One of those questions is the question of belonging, while another question is who is the enemy? Mr. Gitlin indicated that over the last two centuries these two questions have been essential in most Western countries. This is why emotions like rage, resentment, and solidarity have been on the rise. In terms of institutional development related to the recent election outcomes, the decay of the unions could be observed. On the other hand, two forms of politics, protest politics and established party politics, have clashed.
For a final round of discussion, Mr. Werz asked Mr. MacGillis to bridge the gap between academic theories and real life experiences. Mr. MacGillis viewed the theory of the populistic party as the new and only alternative as very applicable to this year’s election results. Mr. MacGillis did not believe that most voters are typical Republican voters. Rather, they feel vastly disconnected from current democratic politics.