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Populism: In the Heat of the Moment

Original Broadcast Date:
April 15, 2017(UTC)

Xenophobia, nationalism, and a rejection of the current political order are spreading beyond national borders. Part of the issue is rising sentiment among citizens that increasing numbers of immigrants will steal their jobs and threaten public safety.

To appeal to these people, more politicians are drawing on populist tactics—using simple language and ideas that grab people immediately. In the United States, there is President Donald Trump. In France, there is Marine Le Pen, the leader of a far-right party.

Will this rise of populism lead to increased xenophobia and nationalism, widening divisions in societies? Will it create a political world where decisions are dictated more by popular feeling than by calm analysis? Worries are increasing that the answer to these questions is yes. Our theme this time is "Populism: In the Heat of the Moment," and our discussion took place in Paris, France's capital, just before the first round of the country's president elections. It was co-hosted by the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), a prominent think tank.

The panelists were Thierry de Montbrial, Werner Patzelt, Chantal Mouffe and Barry Bennett. The moderator was William Irigoyen.

The discussion began with the panelists' thoughts on what populism means in their own countries. Dr. de Montbrial noted that technological revolutions have led to increasing inequality. Dr. Patzelt said that there is an increasing feeling of dissatisfaction among the people that their voices are not being heard by politicians.

Mr. Bennett commented that the rise of populism has not been driven by ideology, but instead by the anger of a group of citizens. Dr. Mouffe followed up by saying that populism is not a set ideology, but rather a way to "establish the political frontier."

Next came a few thoughts about the left-wing style of populism specifically. Populism draws strength from anger and dissatisfaction, and left-wing populism has addressed the grievances of young people particularly well. From here, things segued into a more detailed discussion of how exactly populism has become so strong today.

At this point, the panelists turned to what would be a key theme of the discussion: "lack of choice." Dr. Mouffe noted that one element of people's dissatisfaction is the seeming disappearance of the distinction between left and right in politics. She said this was a result of globalization, or the spread of neoliberalism, and that she personally feels wary about this spread.
In response, Dr. Patzelt talked from a historical perspective about how, as a result of wars over the centuries, Germany has lost the left and right extremes of the political spectrum. Dr. de Montbrial added a comment in a somewhat different vein, talking about how there is very little to be inspired about in French politics today.

The next topic asked the important question, "Does populism play with people's emotions?" The panelists all agreed that ruling parties and elites have ignored the feelings of the people—that it seems like they don't care. Barry Bennett framed it as a "chicken or egg" kind of issue. Dr. Mouffe followed up by saying that the essence of politics is forging a shared identity from shared "Affect" (a German term for feeling or perception). She then criticized the left for being too rational—for shunning the idea that feeling can play a role in politics. Later in the debate, Dr. de Montbrial countered that there is danger in using excessive emotion in politics, because it can lead to fascism. He also noted that social media, and the media in general, are powerful tools to amplify emotions, and that they can destabilize political situations.

Those comments led into the next topic: the media in the age of populism. Overall, the panelists cast a critical eye on the old media. Mr. Bennett talked about how social media has even greater power to deliver messages, and Dr. Mouffe criticized the French press for expending a lot of energy on railing against certain candidates, without trying to understand why people might be voting for these candidates. Dr. de Montbrial took a step back and talked about how, in our world today, it is hard to see what the truth is, and what news we can trust—and that this development is very dangerous. Dr. Patzelt largely agreed, noting how these days everyone is finding their own individual truth in social media echo chambers, and that this is damaging to the very core of democracy.

After this, the discussion switched to the topic of whether "history repeats itself." Mr. Irigoyen, the moderator, asked the panelists if the current rise of nationalism is equivalent to the rise of the nationalism in the 1930s. Dr. Patzelt, using the example of a soccer game, said that although you do see similar situations and patterns reoccur, each game (i.e., each point in history) is different. Dr. de Montbrial agreed that history does not repeat itself, but said history is like a pendulum, where people go in one direction, and then, because they have forgotten about the past, they go back in the opposite direction. He gave the example of European integration—this has increased in past decades, but now the pendulum may be swinging the other way, even though that would be a mistake. From here, things segued into a more general discussion of the impact that populism might have on the EU. Dr. Patzelt made it clear he believes that European integration is the way forward, but that each country must have more independence to make its own decisions. Dr de Montbrial upheld that EU has an after-effect of rapid enlargement.

As the discussion reached its final stage, the panelists shared their thoughts on how to tackle populism. The main takeaway was that political leaders and other elites have failed to listen to the voices of the people. Dr. Mouffe said that one way forward is to really listen to what the popular classes are saying about the problems wrought by globalism and neoliberalism. Dr. de Montbrial added that we must recognize the world today is heterogeneous and complex, and that it is important to respect differences and not lead through emotion. Dr. Patzelt's view was that it was now necessary to engage in "close-quarters combat" with populism. Before, we dismissed populism, but now we must try to engage in discussions with populists and defeat them. This is one way to revitalize the public debate—and it would be good news for democracy.


Thierry de Montbrial

Founder and Executive Chairman, IFRI

Werner J. Patzelt

Professor, Dresden University of Technology

Barry Bennett

Founder, Avenue Strategy
Former senior advisor to Trump campaign

Chantal Mouffe

Professor, University of Westminster


William Irigoyen

Journalist, ARTE