Growing Populism in the U.S. and Germany

Seemingly in all corners of the world right-wing populism is rising. A more chauvinistic renationalization of politics, criticism of free trade regimes and globalization, and a general coarsening of rhetoric are salient. Although much attention has been devoted to the Donald Trump candidacy in the U.S. and the spiking support for the Alternative for Germany, we should not forget France’s National Front, the Brexiteers, or Vladimir Putin for that matter.

Furthermore, the promise of a rule-governed post Cold-War era of “perpetual peace” is fraying. Currently there are more international refugees than at any point since 1945. Violence or the threat of violence has occurred across the globe—from Syria, to Yemen, to the South China Sea, to Ukraine, to North Korea. More and more regimes are moving away from the liberal democratic ideal, most recently Turkey, Egypt, and the Philippines.

These two trends are interrelated. But looking specifically at the transatlantic arena, the issue of the moment is understanding where support for such populist movements is coming, what grievances or demands such citizens have, and how and if such groups can be accommodated, countered, or placated.

Of course, the nature of the political system matters immensely. A more majoritarian system like the U.S. can be more susceptible to populist pressures if one of the main parties and social actors is influenced by populism—as evidenced by the Republican Party. In a more consensual, parliamentary system like Germany, such forces can be “quarantined” in a parliament so that their influence is more constrained.

Yet, the media, civil society, and culture can and do play a role in responding to such movements. The most salient dynamic in the U.S. over the last years is how two very different Americas have evolved. Polarization extends much more deeply than the choice of presidential candidates. Media, civil society, and culture are quite distinctive today in “red” and “blue” America. There is massive distrust between the two camps and especially from the “red” American camp toward “the establishment” and “mainstream press” associated with the other side.

Many people have asked me about similar polarizing dynamics in Germany. Despite some troubling signs, I do not see that yet. The distrust of the Lügenpresse and “politicians” still seems confined to a more radical fringe. The pillars of the civilized postwar order—the Bundestag, the public media, the rule of law—still maintain a degree of authority. Although differences of opinion surely exist—especially in regard to the migration and other crises—they have not degenerated as in the U.S. to become a deep cleavage.

For me, the most important issue that this dialogue can address is an assessment of the capacity of German social, political, and civic actors to respond to the populist moment. Can Germany maintain its postwar civil traditions? Will political and memory culture continue to stress reconciliation and civil discourse inside and outside of the country? Or will the country succumb to the polarization of society and coarsening of politics so evident in recent U.S. experience with potentially destabilizing consequences?

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Eric Langenbacher

Georgetown University

Eric Langenbacher is a Teaching Professor and Director of Honors and Special Programs in the Department of Government, Georgetown University. Langenbacher studied in Canada before completing his PhD in Georgetown’s Government Department in 2002. He has also taught at George Washington University and the Universidad Nacional de General San Martin, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has given talks across the world. He was selected Faculty Member of the Year by the School of Foreign Service in 2009 and was awarded a Fulbright grant in 1999-2000 and the Hopper Memorial Fellowship at Georgetown in 2000-2001. His publications include Power and the Past: Collective Memory and International Relations (co-edited with Yossi Shain, 2010), From the Bonn to the Berlin Republic: Germany at the Twentieth Anniversary of Unification (co-edited with Jeffrey J. Anderson, 2010), Dynamics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary Europe (co-edited with Ruth Wittlinger and Bill Niven, 2013), The German Polity, 10th and 11th edition (co-authored with David Conradt, 2013, 2017), and The Merkel Republic: The 2013 Bundestag Election and its Consequences (forthcoming 2015). He has planned and run dozens of short programs for groups from abroad, as well as for the U.S. Departments of State and Defense on a variety of topics pertaining to American and comparative politics, business, culture, and public policy. He is also Managing Editor of German Politics and Society, which is housed in Georgetown’s BMW Center for German and European Studies.

He is a 2016-2017 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).