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?