Transatlantic Conference 2016: The Rise of Populism on Both Sides of the Atlantic

Conference participants discussing the rise of populism (Source: FNF)

Political trends in America and Europe often show parallels, which is also true for the rise of populism. Populism has many dimensions such as an alleged “grass-roots democracy”, a political party representing the “common man”, or the “underdog against the elites”. Populism is not at all a new phenomenon but it is becoming an international trend, raising concerns on both sides of the Atlantic as populist leaders adopt extreme views to win over the electorate. The many dimensions of populism on both sides of the political aisle and its influence on American and European politics led to vigorous discussions during the annual Transatlantic Conference of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). Along with identifying the root causes and peculiarities of populism, these discussions also created ancillary topics on the implications of a populist political agenda based on simplistic answers to complex issues.

The participants in the conference concluded that populism usually peaks during or after difficult economic developments such as increased unemployment. In addition, the trends of isolationism and anti-globalization, which often emerge from increased security threats, were debated as possible building blocks for the populist movement. Populist leaders make use of the mood in a country. They win over voters by addressing the hopes and fears of the general population and promising to change the status quo. Yet, there seems to be a pull-and-tug of wanting change and fearing that it confuses the message of political populist leaders.

Conference participants discussing the rise of populism (Source: FNF)

In Europe, populist extremist parties present one of the most pressing challenges to European democracies. Over the past years, the European debt crisis as well as the refugee crisis and increasing migration flows have fueled populist trends on both sides of the political aisle. In Greece, for instance, the radical left movement joined forces with a right-wing party to govern their country. The glue that holds these parties together is populism. This kind of populism in Greece has created a climate of suspicion and antipathy.

In the US, movements such as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have signaled a resurgence of populist politics. The current mood of the country is to get politics out of political elitist circles and out in the open where the people have a voice in political decisions. A large slice of the country feels that their government does not work and that the political system is rigged. There is a lot of discontent driven by economics and a complete loss of faith in the political system.

During this year’s election cycle, two phenomena appeared on the scene – Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, both with populist messages that gained international attention. Trump and Sanders can be understood as two sides of the same coin. Yet, Donald Trump clearly dominates the debate. Trump has given power to the populist movement and his rhetoric is described as dangerous and unpredictable. Just like Americans, Europeans seem to find Trump a fascinating character, whether they are for or against him. The demographics of voters that are attracted to Trump do not paint a clear picture of who might vote for him in November. No one can predict if Trump will lose in a landslide or if it will be a close election.

Conference participants discussing the rise of populism (Source: FNF)

Donald Trump is known as the master of new media, a tool that is considered important for the growth of populism. While this type of new media would appear to offer access to a wider variety of political perspectives and encourage people to educate themselves and to question their opinions, new media also supports populism as people can choose to only follow specific channels that do not represent other viewpoints and thus reinforce their own limited views.

The conversation on the rise of populism led to some very valuable dialogue about the root causes of populism. Yet, it also raised new questions about the future of populism and the challenges political parties and leaders will face with regard to countering it. The TAD will continue these debates to contribute to the broader discussion happening on both sides of the Atlantic.