By Stephan Manning.
The political climate in the U.S. and Western Europe is changing dramatically – authoritarian populists are on the rise: Donald Trump keeps winning primaries and is likely to become the Republican U.S. presidential candidate. At the same time, nationalist parties are gaining ground across Europe. Recent example: The ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD), a populist right-wing party that campaigns against refugees, climbed from zero to double-digit percentage figures in the latest state elections. Supporters of Trump and European right-wing populist parties have several things in common: they are mostly male, yet rather diverse in terms of age and socio-economic status; they are not loyal to any political party, yet concerned about order and national identity; they are anti-establishment and include many prior non-voters. For example, in the German state Saxony-Anhalt, the AfD received a record-breaking 24% of votes mainly thanks to prior non-voters making up 40% of their votes. Trump is betting on such voters as well, and according to him, his supporters will start ‘riots’ if the Republican National Convention blocks his nomination. Where does this nationalist movement against the establishment come from? What drives prior non-voters to ballot boxes in favor of authoritarian leadership? And what does that mean for democracy?
In my opinion, both Trump and European nationalists have been able to do something established political parties are failing at (or are refusing to do): making ‘pub talk’ acceptable in public. ‘Pub’ literally means ‘public house’, a place where traditionally mostly men meet and debate life and politics while having a drink. It is a public space where norms of communication adjust to the amount of alcohol consumed. The more you drink the easier it becomes to express anger, to call things out ‘as they are’, at least how you instantly feel about them. I am not suggesting that supporters of Trump & Co. are pub regulars, but that the tone of debate many appeal to resembles ‘pub talk’. After a few drinks, building a wall along the Mexican border to stop illegal migration, as Trump proposes, may suddenly make sense. And it may seem ok to turn violent if people disagree with your viewpoint, and Trump’s call to ‘knock the hell out of people’ who throw tomatoes at him does not seem so outrageous anymore. An eye for an eye. Conflicts and controversies meet easy and agreeable solutions – if you don’t think too hard about it later on. But why has pub talk recently become an acceptable means of political communication outside the pub? Why do people cheer for Trump and right-wing populists simply because they ‘say things out loud’?
Inclusion, diversity and inequality. Life in Western societies has become more complicated. On the one hand, society has progressed in recent decades, e.g. in granting more rights and opportunities to women and minorities; in allowing freedom of religion, various sexual orientations and partnerships; and in raising the overall standard in the way people treat and talk to each other. On the other hand, certain problems have remained the same or gotten worse, such as socio-economic inequality. Developing and maintaining inclusion and diversity as values in an unequal society requires a lot of effort – while being enriching when things go well, they become easy scapegoats when problems or conflicts arise, or previously privileged groups feel threatened. Aside from that, some may ask what’s ‘in it for me’? What if your own life is not benefitting from greater inclusion and diversity? Several studies suggest that Trump & Co. have benefited from the backlash to equal rights regulation, especially from white working class men.
Global threats and media negativity. Aside from growing complexities at home, the world has become more interconnected, which threatens many people. Free trade agreements are a good example – while many U.S. politicians welcome collective gains from trade, Trump is paying close attention to the worries of many Americans that their jobs and incomes might be in danger. For the same reason, Trump, like Bernie Sanders, is very critical of the abuse of H-1B temporary work visas replacing U.S. tech workers with cheaper, mostly Indian staff. Similarly, while most established parties in Germany largely support efforts towards helping and taking in Syrian refugees, the AfD clearly expresses what many Germans think to themselves: We don’t want that and it’s too much for us. The media thereby plays an unfortunate role in amplifying anxiety among people. In emphasizing conflict, violence and protest, media has a negativity bias in presenting reality worse than it actually is. A recent documentary on anti-refugees protests in a little town in Saxony, Germany, illustrates that: Even before refugees arrived, the media covered in great detail how citizens came together to protest and express their anxieties. After the refugees had actually arrived, the town calmed down; nothing happened to provoke any anger. Yet the media stayed away from reporting this rather peaceful outcome – it was not ‘newsworthy’. No wonder anxieties about various global threats escalate in massive support of nationalist politicians.
Political correctness and the spiral of silence. Another thing both Trump and European nationalists do very well is break the ‘spiral of silence’. According to German political scientist Noelle-Neumann, many people share a fear of isolation which leads them to remain silent when they feel their views do not match the majority opinion. Only in ‘safe settings’, maybe among drinking buddies, those suppressed viewpoints surface. Again, mass media play an important role in setting spirals of silence in motion. Trump & Co. now reverse this principle by condemning established media and politicians for being overly ‘politically correct’ – a term that initially referred to avoiding offense to anyone, especially minority groups. By questioning established norms of communication, populists like Trump open the door for unfiltered ‘pub talk’ to enter the political arena. This lowers fear of isolation and in part explains why all of a sudden prior non-voters feel free to express their viewpoints, not least at the ballot box. Yet, studies also show that many Trump supporters, especially from the middle class, are afraid of revealing themselves in public. This however strengthens Trump’s position as an opinion leader of the ones feeling ‘silenced’.
Now what does that mean for democracy? I admit that I partly agree with what AfD politicians said right after the state election: The AfD – whose views many regard as ‘undemocratic’ – managed to mobilize way more new voters than any other party, thus serving democracy. And indeed the rise of populists unveils an often neglected dimension of democracy: the need of people to be heard, no matter if this improves their situation or solves any deeper structural problem. At the same time, in order to function, democracy requires respect for minorities, human rights, and freedom of opinion. But the current trend also shows the danger of expecting too much from people, e.g. their willingness to accept large numbers of refugees, rather than allowing them to adjust to new situations through their own experiences. The case of the little town in Saxony is a good example. Yet, how can democracy become a ‘lived experience’ rather than a matter of political correctness? How can representative democracies better manage the gap between pub talk and public debate, between what people think in private and what they can vote for? And what role can the media play in better informing democratic processes?