The Rise of Global Populism

Tuesday, October 30, 2018
Marko Djurica/Reuters
Sheri E. Berman

Professor of Political Science, Barnard College

Justin Gest

Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Schar School of Public Policy, George Mason University

Edward Luce

U.S. Columnist, Financial Times

Bruce Stokes

Director, Global Economic Attitudes, Pew Research Center

Panelists discuss the recent rise to prominence of populist parties around the world, the policy priorities of populist leaders, and the consequences for international relations and cooperation.

STOKES: OK. If I could get your attention, we’re going to start. My name is Bruce Stokes. I am the director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center here in Washington, and I welcome you all to what I think is going to be a very provocative and stimulating discussion of “The Rise of Global Populism,” an issue which obviously is of great interest to many of us.

We have with us today Sheri Berman, who’s a professor of political science at Barnard College; Justin Gest, who is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason; and Ed Luce, who is the U.S. columnist for the Financial Times.

I’d like to welcome you all on behalf of the Council on Foreign Relations and remind you of a couple of things. One is that we are going to be having a conversation with the panelists initially, and then we will open it up to the questions. And I promise to get you out of here by 1:30, so we’ll try to stay on schedule if we can.

I’m not—it’s not clear to me, are we on Chatham House rules, or?

MR.     : We’re on the record.

STOKES: On the record. We’re on the record today. So that’s a rarity for CFR presentations, so use it on social media and elsewhere if you want.

So let me start, if I could, with Ed. We had an election on Sunday in Brazil where a right-wing populist was elected president. We had an election in Hesse, the home state for Frankfurt, in Germany, where the AfD garnered I think thirteen percent of the vote, the AfD being the Alternative für Deutschland, the right-wing populist party in Germany. And now AfD will actually have seats in each of the German state parliaments for the first time. What does this tell us about the rise of global populism? I mean, is it confirmed the fact that it’s on the rise, or are—or are there reasons why this—we shouldn’t be as worried as maybe some people have been?

LUCE: Thanks, Bruce. And it’s a pleasure, as ever, to be at the CFR.

It tells us about the rise of global populism. It’s not something that’s happened recently and erupted in the last few months, or even in 2016. If you look at Germany, which is a great example because it’s probably the most stable large democracy in the West in terms of voting patterns and support for establishment parties—center-right, center, center-left—the combined Christian Democrat-Social Democrat vote has been shrinking for really the better part of twenty years now. They used to get eighty-five percent or so between them in classic postwar German elections. In the last general election, in 2017, they were down to fifty-three percent, which is a low—by far a low—and they’re continuing to fall.

Merkel has in some ways very, very admirably—you know, she took in a million Syrian refugees in 2015. She has kept the CDU in the center. And the SPD also, very admirably, has remained a sort of centrist social democratic party. But in so doing, they have created more and more space on the extremes. And you see that manifested, really, with every (learned ?) election. The one country where the center-right and the center-left conventional parties have done the opposite to what Merkel and the SPD have done in Germany—namely, that they have moved to their respective extremes—is Britain, where the Conservatives and Labour remain strong because the Conservatives has basically become UKIP and Labour have moved very, very far to the left. So, you know, one of the disturbing things about the German results in Bavaria and Hesse over the last two, three weeks is the SPD are saying, well, where is our future? And the answers coming back is the model is Jeremy Corbyn.

So, yes, the rise of populism is continuing apace.

I know less about Brazil, but I’ll just note one point. Trump calls Bolsonaro after his victory on Sunday and tweets his call in a huge congratulations to him, and says we’re looking forward to cooperating on economics and the military. And, you know, there is a very, very sort of strong anti-Venezuela sort of rhetoric coming out of Bolsonaro, and Trump has Venezuela—has a Venezuela phobia too, with understandable reasons even if you’re not Trump. But the sort of mutual back-scratching that goes on between these populists, with Trump as a sort of king populist—Duterte in in the Philippines, I suspect now the new president of Brazil, Salvini, Viktor Orbán, and even with the American ambassador in Germany the AfD—Rick Grenell possibly is going to replace Nikki Haley as the ambassador to the United Nations—is they’re openly aiding and abetting the far right in Germany and across Europe. So there is a mutual back-scratchingness to this, which makes it more than just the sort of rise of global populism. This is more—this is more dynamic and more disturbing.

STOKES: Sheri, about twenty years ago you wrote a book called The Social Democratic Moment. Is this now the populist moment? I mean, as—I mean, as Ed has chronicled, the social democratic parties, especially in Europe, have just been going down and down and down in every election. Is there a—do you anticipate a further rise in global populism, especially in Europe, or is there some ceiling there that they probably won’t puncture? I mean, what’s your view on that?

BERMAN: So that’s a great, if somewhat depressing, question. And I think that, actually, the decline of social democracy or center-left parties in Europe is really a kind of good mirror reflection of the rise of populism, because not only were social democratic parties perhaps the parties, along with Christian democratic parties, most associated with the postwar economic order, with postwar stability, with the kind of consensus politics that seem to have made democracy work so well in Europe for many years. And so to a large degree the populists reflect the inability of social democrats and center-right parties to maintain the stability of this system through the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

As for the question of sort of whether or not, you know, the populist wave has reached its crest, I mean, that will depend, I think, again, more on what traditional parties and democratic governments in Europe, and to some degree perhaps in the United States, manage to do to address a lot of the problems and the concerns and the fears of citizens, because people vote for populist parties because they believe that, again, the establishment parties and existing governments have not responded well to their concerns. And what’s happened in a place like Germany I think is also very indicative, right, which is we now have in Germany the largest party on the left pollingwise being no longer a sort of, again, traditional social democratic party, but a party of the new left, the Greens.

Now, some people have celebrated this, and perhaps it is a good development, but it’s important to note that what the Greens represent is a very different vision of the left than the SPD represented. The Greens represent folks like us in this room—highly educated professionals with relatively liberal social and cultural views who are not actually as traditionally left on economic issues as something like the old SPD would have been. And so replacing, again, the main party on the left with a new left party has a lot of implications, I think, for the way democracy will work in Europe and with where constituencies find themselves on the political spectrum. That is to say, a lot of the constituencies in the past that voted for the SPD are not probably going to vote Green; they’re going to vote for populist parties.

STOKES: Justin, to what do you attribute this rise in populism? Is it just “the economy, stupid”? Is it cultural and social change? Is it we just want to stick our thumb in the eye of the establishment? I mean, how do you weigh the different motivating factors here or the fuel that’s fueling this?

GEST: Well, I think that Ed and Sheri have done a really good job of talking about the structural factors. You know, what my research looks at is the people behind these trends. And, you know, from a popular perspective, what many of the people who are actually supporting a lot of these populist candidates and parties are feeling is that the recession for them didn’t start in 2007 from an economic perspective; it started in 1977. This is a forty-year denouement. And around the same time is when you all sort of began to see the diversification of their societies. And so you have these twin social and economic factors that are taking place.

But during this period, Bruce, what also was taking place was a really profound change in the partisan landscape, particularly in Western Europe and the United States, and in North America more broadly, and that was that the left—center-left parties that Sheri has studied so closely began abandoning their sort of focus on economic justice and began to focus on social justice. And even though to me they’re not mutually exclusive, it began to emerge amongst these sort of identity-based working-class populations that suddenly these parties, which were their protectors, were no longer there, and that actually they had other groups of people in mind, and that they traded that concern for the sort of heart and soul and the economic backbone of their societies for these newcomers who had just showed up.

STOKES: Right. Well, let me—let me further—dig a little further. I mean, I grew up in a—you wrote a book about the white working class. And as you mentioned, it’s not just men, it’s women these days, so we can get into that. But the white working class that I went to high school with, two-thirds of those men didn’t go to college. In fact, two-thirds of the women didn’t either. And the men had a prospect of going to work in the local steel mill. They were going to make a good living, just like their father did. Well, that didn’t quite work out, and by my twenty-fifth high school reunion the typical profession of those people was an aluminum siding salesman. So they had a job; they just didn’t have the economic prospects that they, you know, probably anticipated when they first left high school.

At the same time, you had a tripling of the—of the nonwhite portion of the population and you had a tripling of the foreign-born portion of the population. You’ve had women who—a majority of women worked inside the home when I got out of high school. Now a majority of women work outside the home. So the role of the—of the sexes had changed. In my hometown, for example, the biggest employer is women in the hospital, and they make more money than the steelworkers. So, I mean, all the kind of gender dynamics have changed in these communities.

So I’m just curious, is this about immigration? Is it about the changing role of women? Is it the fact that, you know, those two—those two women who lived down the street, and weren’t they lovely people, and they gave out great Halloween candy; well, actually, they’re gay and they’re married and they’re out—(laughs)—and that wasn’t the case? I mean, is it unease about that? I mean, how do you weigh all these things?

GEST: You can’t. The fact is that this is a really large and complex social phenomenon, and so it can’t be explained in simple terms.

I mean, the way that I would explain—many people are quite confused about white working-class people’s sense of marginality because they say, you know, this is the quintessential insider, right; why are they feeling on the outside? This is a population that has had so many advantages in invisible wages of whiteness; how can they feel like they are, you know, suddenly disadvantaged?

And really there are three components to the way they feel. One—and these are all perceptive, meaning they’re attitudinal. They’re felt, not necessarily actually objectively true.

The first is that they feel outnumbered. So they feel like they have lost the number in their group, their core identity group.

The second is that they feel external. They feel excluded from boardroom meetings, from government offices, from meetings like this. I don’t know how many of you would classify yourselves as white and working class.

And then, third, they feel discriminated against. They believe that they lose out on places for housing, education, jobs, welfare by virtue of being white and poor.

And all of these represent the sort of mélange of influences of both social disorientation, economic disorientation, and really importantly, I think, among the male population is domestic orientation. They are no longer the principal breadwinner in their family in many cases because when the economy shifted from manufacturing to the service sector the jobs that were created were typically associated with women, or women were more likely to be qualified for those jobs. And so these various coinciding senses of disorientation and marginality have produced a backlash that is not always—people are not always able to actually articulate exactly what it is that’s bothering them, but they’re angry.

STOKES: Sheri and Ed, I’m curious, our surveys show at Pew that both in the U.S. and in Europe average people don’t believe that elected officials care about what they think, they don’t trust their Congress or their parliament, they don’t trust the media. Two-thirds of Americans, for example, and seventy percent of Europeans want more direct elections, want more chance to vote directly on major issues facing the country. And maybe the most disturbing statistic is that one in five Americans and one in four Brits, Hungarians, and Italians would actually support rule by a strong leader who wasn’t constrained by parliament or the courts. So there are elements here or evidence that at least some small portion, but not an insignificant portion, of the population would prefer some other approach to governance and is very anti-establishment.

So what does this tell us about how elites and governments have responded to these public concerns, especially some of them that are inchoate? It’s not—it’s just not “the economy, stupid.” And how would we—would you recommend, both economically but maybe more importantly now socially and culturally, we address these issues, or the establishment addresses these issues? Either one of you want to start.

LUCE: You first.

BERMAN: I’m happy to start.

So, I mean, one of the things that we know from surveys like the great ones that Pew does is that one of the best predictors of voting for populist parties in Europe, and in the United States let’s say vote for both Trump and Sanders, were people who expressed high degrees of dissatisfaction with the way their political institutions were working. They don’t trust the government. They don’t trust parliament or Congress. They don’t trust their politicians. So if you look at those numbers—and this is true, by the way, in Europe and actually in the United States as well for both left- and right-wing populists. This is something that they actually share. Those groups both vote very—poll very highly on, again, they distrust government, they distrust politicians, they distrust political parties.

And so a lot of what you’re seeing, again, I think as Justin pointed out in his comments, is a set of folks who really feel like democracy hasn’t been working for them—that elites were not responsive to them, that parties no longer represent their interests, that governments are taken up with, again, responding to the needs of some kind of, you know, other group, businesspeople or immigrants or something else. And so these are people who really feel like the system is not working for them. And I think that’s something that we can and should take very seriously without necessarily agreeing with the solutions that they choose, which is to vote for populists who perhaps many of us believe are not really actually going to either give them what they want or solve our country’s problems more generally.

But this is, you know, a time when a lot of people feel not just aggrieved, but ignored, and that is a very dangerous thing. And that’s why, again, many of them are willing to vote for parties that promise, again, you know, to blow the system up, to be as anti-establishment as possible. They feed off real grievances, I think, without necessarily offering really good solutions to them.


LUCE: I mean, I think that where have the elites sort of gone wrong is a really good question, and there are good current examples. I mean, I think the tendency to ascribe everything that we’re seeing to deplorability, to racism, to deep prejudice, to misogyny, is—becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s kind of kicking people when they’re down. There are for sure—there is for sure plenty of racism out there. And there’s plenty of cultural anxiety, as Gallup euphemistically describes it. But, you know, we’ve gone through now twenty years—as Angus Deaton of Princeton and Justin’s been well describing—twenty years now of rising morbidity amongst white non-college graduates, which make up, you know, let’s not forget, forty-five percent of the electorate. You know, if you have the elites, particularly the liberal elites, insulting them all at a time of collapse of morale for a huge section of society, and declining life expectancy, and rising suicide rates—all the sort of wrong indicators—then you’re going to reinforce the entire narrative that plays into the hands of people like Donald Trump.

So we have this situation today—well, pretty much every day—where there is a very alarming sort of viscerally worrying event, you know, whether it’s the massacre in Pittsburgh, whether it’s the pipe bombs, whether it’s Trump sending five thousand soldiers—soldiers—to the border to prevent an invasion of people who want to swamp us and kill us. He said that at rallies: they want to come here and kill us. These are children and, you know, economic refugees, and social refugees from Central America. And then he says we’re going to get rid of the Fourteenth Amendment, right, citizenship if you’re born here.

It’s very easy, understandably so, to feel that anybody who’s supporting this is just beyond the pale—they’re neo-Nazis, they’re white supremacists. But I think we’ve got to understand—we’ve got to separate Trump and his diabolically sort of clever tactics at whipping up the base from people who vote for him, because a lot of people who vote for him, you know, have no sort of personal record in their lives of being racists or deplorables, but are so cynical about the elites and are so cynical about politics as normal that they’re saying, look, even this guy is better. And I think we’ve got to sort of learn better, if we are speaking for elites, to separate those two, Trump from his voters.

STOKES: Justin.

GEST: Yeah. And I just want to emphasize that it’s not just white working-class people who feel this way. White working-class people are, you know, the kind of crucial swing vote, and they were the necessary group to make Trump a winner. But he couldn’t have won without lots of suburban, you know, white voters in America that were just sort of casual Republicans, broadly speaking. But what really unifies this group is a sense of fear. Many people fear out of control. And one of the—one of the reasons why is immigration. It sort of encompasses all of these sort of global currents that are disorienting things, which is why it is this pivotal issue, because it is about humanity. And like all of humanity, we can map onto it any fear that we have—whether that fear is of employment, or of crime, or of terrorism, or of social differences, and social change, and religious change. Anything can be mapped onto it.

But what’s fundamental here is this idea of racism, I think, because of the way it’s been used politically and misused and abused politically. So while I was in the field in Barking and Dagenham in the outskirts of London, I noticed that about two dozen of my respondents would preface their statements to me by saying: No, I’m not a racist, but—and then it would come. And what cam was often really, really racist, but—(laughter)—to be fair. (Laughs.) But other times, statements were made that had nothing to do with racism at all. And it left me wondering, why are these people making these odd prefaces? They hadn’t gone through some kind of weird CFR, you know, sensitivity training. (Laughter.) And what I began to realize is that racism, for my subjects, was a way of invalidating what they say. It was a disqualifier. Don’t listen to what she has to say, she’s a racist, he’s a racist, so it doesn’t matter what he thinks. It’s a mute button that people press on the white working class and just generally Trump supporters.

And so by saying to me, now, Justin, I’m not a racist, but, what they were actually trying to say to me was: Listen to the words that are going to come out of my mouth and don’t dismiss me. Listen to what I’m going to say. And this wraps up everything that Sheri and Ed have been talking about, about feeling left behind, and dismissed. And so when the left dismisses their opponents supporters—forty percent of the country in many cases—as simple racists, to broad-brush them, it actually reinforces the sense that they’re not welcome underneath the other side’s tent. And the problem is this has led to the polarization of our politics, because they have been fundamentally now about identities.

We have gone down to name-calling the other side’s supporters and classifying them as this monolithic group. And it’s unclear to me what social democrats and people on the left are going to do to actually try to regain the trust of people who they have dismissed as simple bigots thus far.

STOKES: Well, let me—let me—all three of you have done an excellent job of analyzing the problem. But before we turn to the audience I want to press you. I realize your analysts and not policymakers. But let’s assume you were in the White House—maybe not with this president but in some future president. And he or she says: OK, what do I do? You know, you’ve just told me it’s not just economics, it’s not just race. It’s anxiety about change, et cetera. But I can’t stop change. And if I could, I’m not so sure I’d want to. But nevertheless, how do I address what I think Justin has identified as really this anxiety about the fact that the pace of change in modern society has accelerated and there is a portion of our population who’s having real trouble with that. And they vote. (Laughs.) So calling them a racist, or calling them a misogynist, or a homophobe, or whatever doesn’t work. And we shouldn’t—we should get beyond that. But the point being, what are the one, or two, or three things you’d say, OK, try this or try that? Any thoughts?

GEST: Well, I would start not being in the White House. I would start in Youngstown, Ohio. I would start in Gary, Indiana. I would start in, you know, Great Falls, Montana.

STOKES: OK. But what would you do?

GEST: And in those places, I would be listening to what people are saying and actually turning my politics into one that is actually—that transcends social boundaries, rather than reinforces them. And I think that every time a spin master, or politician, or analyst is thinking to themselves about what kind of policies or rhetoric they want to create, they need to ask: Is this going to reinforce the social boundaries that are narrowing the scope of my party, or are these actually going to transcend those boundaries?

STOKES: Sheri, any thought?

BERMAN: So, I mean, yes, I’d like to follow up and continue, I think, with some of the thoughts that Justin just put out there. I mean, if you look at, for instance, psychology literature, or anybody in this room who had kids or maybe has been to therapy, one of the most powerful things that someone can do in engaging in a conversation is acknowledge the fears, concerns, you know, of whoever your interlocutor is. So dismissing the fact that there are folks out there who feel that they are being left behind, for whatever reason. Maybe they’re members of the white working class. Maybe they’re members of a sexual or racial minority.

It’s very important, I think, for us to understand that we live in an incredibly diverse country and people have very different sets of concerns and problems. And that to govern in such a place, even when you’re talking about at the local level, means acknowledging the fact that our communities have people with a wide variety of interests and concerns. And so I think it’s very important for politicians, for activists, to recognize that even if you’re going to disagree with someone that it’s very important, again, to acknowledge their humanity and their legitimacy and to be able to speak to them, again, not necessarily because you’re going to convince them, but to recognize that they have a—you know, that their viewpoints have validity and that you accept them as a legitimate interlocutor. So I think it’s very important, again, just to reiterate what’s already been said, that we try less to kind of demonize our opponents and to dismiss them, and rather to try to engage them.

More specifically, I think, for Democrats, you know, going beyond that, which I think itself would probably be quite important, is to think about the economic issues that really cut across a lot of other divides. That’s the way that the Democrats, I think, can win. Survey data seems to indicate, for instance, that there’s a lot of space for them on economic issues. Lots of folks are concerned about things like hollowed out communities, declining social mobility, infrastructure that’s crumbling. And these are places I think where Democrats really can attract not only their core constituency, but a lot of those folks in the middle who have been turned off by partisanship and polarization and might come back to a party that spoke to more concrete concerns without dismissing, again, you know, the particular grievances and interests of the various constituencies that make up not just the United States but the Democratic Party in particular.

STOKES: Ed, you’re a pundit. Give me two or three policy recommendations.

LUCE: Well, I would agree, just as a sort of premise for these recommendations, with both what Sheri and Justin have just been saying. You’ve got to have a left. I mean, this is assuming you’re not going to be a Trump White House. You’ve got to have a Democratic Party that resists going down the rabbit hole of identity politics, that builds a sort of broad case for broad-based growth for all Americans, regardless of color. I do think that liberalism nowadays is becoming illiberal. And the whole point of liberalism is that as an individual you can choose to be what you want to be. If you’re seeing them as their demographic, you are essentially providing the sort of negative print to right wing minority politics, for white minority grievance politics, that Trump’s so good.

So there are two or three things that I would very quickly recommend. One is the budget’s got to be transformed. Right now, only about twelve percent of the federal budget is spent on what I call tomorrow, which is infrastructure, education, training, and so forth. More and more of the budget is being eaten up by the military and yesterday—which is valuable programs, right, Medicare and Social Security—but also interest rates on past debt. You’ve got to liberate more money to invest in the future and in a broad-based growth program. Secondly, that’s going to require more fiscally progressive policies. I mean, there’s just no way around that. If you look at the trends over the last thirty years, a lower and lower share—a lower and lower share of tax is being taken by the federal government. There’s simply got to be more public investment. And that does involve some redistribution and investment in, as I say, the skills of—and the infrastructure for tomorrow’s workforce.

Finally, quite separate to those points, we need to put civic education back at the heart of the education system. I think the United States and Britain in particular, political literacy has just disappeared from our curricula. And I think, you know, Germany, although we’ve been focusing on the worrying trends there, particularly former West Germany has been least susceptible to extreme populism than almost any democracy in the West. And I think a lot of that has to do with just how seriously they take citizenship, because of their history. And we don’t, because of our history. Because we’re complacent. We just think we can take for granted the politics that we have. And so I think if we’re going to teach to the test it shouldn’t just be math and English. It should be civics as well. It’s a—it’s a training we’ve lost.

STOKES: Excellent. OK. We’re going to turn to the audience here. And I would ask if you could identify yourself, keep your questions short, and have it be a question not a speech. So why don’t we go right here in front to start?

Q: Jill Schuker—(coughs)—excuse me. Jill Schuker of the OECD.

Your comments have focused, when you’ve talked about party, on what—(coughs)—excuse me—on what the Democrats need to do. And yet, I think the findings in polls and such are that people are rejecting party. So where does that take us in terms of where we need to do?

 GEST: They’re not—they’re not rejecting party. What you’re seeing actually more than ever partisanship is driving—statistically speaking, probabilistically—partisanship is basically the best predictor of how people will vote. So they’re sticking with their parties, but they’re just not necessarily wed to established candidates and entities inside the parties. They may be upset with parties. They may want to see outsiders enter. But they’re actually—partisanship is the number-one predictor of how people vote.

STOKES: And also, I mean, our analysis is that even though you—a plurality of Americans now say they’re independents, they aren’t really independents. That if you look at their values, they are either leaning Republican or leaning Democratic. And that the percentage of people who are true independents may be as low in the single digits. I mean, it’s—but it’s the partisanship, yeah.

OK, right here. Yeah.

Q: Marc Plattner, Journal of Democracy.

Excellent discussion covering many causes of our present discontents. But it seems to me, one issue that often is cited by people didn’t receive a mention at all, which is the rise of social media. And I wonder to what extent you think that has had an important causal influence on where we are now?

STOKES: Well, yeah, and if I could amplify that by saying, you know, we might all agree that social media has played a role here. The question is what to do about its negative aspects, or is there anything to be done?

LUCE: There’s a lot of debate going on at the moment on both sides of the spectrum about regulating the big data, big tech companies. The left, more understandably, because of 2016 and the role that fake news played and the vector that Facebook and others provided. But increasing on the right, accusing big data and California of algorithmic bias. I mean, I think this is a pretty false flag kind of story, but they’re making it a more balanced attack on the neutrality of these platforms. Personally, as a journalist, you know, I’m not a huge fan of Facebook. They are—you know, you used to say software is eating our lunch. But Facebook’s eating our breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (Laughter.)

And there’s an extraordinary sucking of revenues from local media and from—so what I would—I would—I don’t—I won’t forecast what the big tech regulation is going to result in, but I do think if Zuckerberg wants to regain some standing in popularity, funding local journalism—which has been where the real destruction has happened and where, you know, the real sort of media presence and lack of accountability is most manifest, I think—because we’re all based in New York or Washington these days. You know, we’re foreign correspondents when we go to America. (Laughter.) Is to fund local journalism.

STOKES: Yeah. OK. And we’re going to go back there in the back.

Q: Henry Farrell, George Washington University.

Two questions. One for Sheri. There’s another story which is about the ways in which—it’s a structural story about the ways in which parties have had structural reasons to pay less attention to their base than in the past. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about whether there are any solutions for that. And the second for Ed, building on what he last said. He—Ed tweeted a couple of days ago suggesting an advertiser boycott of Fox News. And I’m wondering, to what extent do we blame Fox for some of the—for populism? And what are the solutions? And whether that might be one way to start?

STOKES: So, Sheri.

BERMAN: So, thanks, Henry. That’s a great question.

And what’s interesting actually about that question, as I’m sure you well know, is that actually the problems in the United States and Europe are, to some degree, diametrically opposed.

STOKES: Could you define structural—I mean, yeah.

BERMAN: I will.


BERMAN: And by to some degree we’ve had similar outcomes. So in the U.S. the complaint is that candidates rely now so much on private funding that there’s a bias towards the wealthy, towards business interests, yada, yada, yada. And so poor folks, and poor folks of all different groups, end up getting disadvantaged because there’s less incentive for politicians and parties to respond to their interests.

GEST: And the middle class.

BERMAN: Yes. And the middle class as well.

Now, interestingly, as you well know, in Europe the complaint is precisely the opposite—that parties have become increasingly reliant on government funding, and so they therefore don’t rely on cultivating mass memberships and responding to those memberships. And yet, we’ve seen somewhat similar trends on both sides of the Atlantic. Now, that is not to say that these things don’t matter. Clearly, you know, from at least a social science perspective, funding issues of campaigns, lobbying, all these kinds of things in the United States have—there’s lots of evidence that it’s warped the types of people who vote—who run for office, the types of people who win office, and what they do once they get there. You know, so clearly that is an issue that we need to think more about as a society.

In Europe, again, you know, the question is, can you return to a model—a political party model where you are membership-based—that is to say, not only where you get your funding from your members, but members have a much stronger role, again, in determining who runs and, you know, what kind of policies there are. Clearly some move between those two poles is probably correct because, again, moving towards either extreme has produced, oddly, somewhat similar effects, despite the fact, again, that they seem diametrically opposed to each other.


LUCE: So, yeah, the tweet. It was perhaps ill-advised on my part. If we can move to Chatham House rules for a second. I said—I said that if Americans want to do something in addition to voting, they should a pressure of the advertisers on Fox to boycott Fox, whilst it’s spewing out this sort of poison that goes straight from the studio to Donald Trump’s head, and to his Twitter feed, in fact. But it does look—because my title is U.S. national editor—it looked like it was an official Financial Times tweet calling. So I probably was a little ill-advised. And that’s the danger of Twitter. And if you delete, you just draw more attention. (Laughter.)

Nevertheless, personally I think that’s the kind of action Americans should be taking. Sheri and I have discussed this before. I think a couple of years ago I was asked if you could reduce to two words what the problem had been with Western Democracy in the last generation, this not being a recent phenomenon. And I thought about it. And I came up with the answer: Rupert Murdoch. (Laughter.) And I feel very strongly that the pollutionary effect of Murdoch, not just in the United States but also in Britain and in Australia, to some extent, is under—is continually underestimated. The lowering of standards, the creating of scapegoats.

I mean, there’s no better—there’s no better way of observing the effect of that than watching what’s said on Fox and Friends every morning. Whether it would be about caravans of invaders bringing disease into America or, you know, Middle Easterners and ISIS. I mean, for—why would ISIS want to fly to Honduras and then join a caravan of—(laughter)—you know, there’s got to be smarter ways of infiltrating America. But that kind of propaganda—this isn’t journalism; it’s propaganda—is now going straight into the head of the chief—commander in chief of the United States of America. And that commander in chief is sending troops down to the border.

So this kind of propaganda has got to be stopped in some way. And consumer boycotts, you know, obviously the First Amendment is sacrosanct. But consumer boycotts have shown themselves to be very effective tools to get companies, advertisers, to change their behavior. That said, it’s my personal view, not the view of the Financial Times.

STOKES: OK. Back there. Yeah.

Q: Hi. I’m Peter Ackerman.

I must say, your comment about the fact that so few are really unaffiliated with either party is just plain wrong. And let me give you three data points. First, if you read Mo Fiorina, wrote a book called Disconnected (sic; Disconnect) he makes the point that the American people are still the same old sine curve they were, slightly center right, but the two parties are disconnected from that in the sense that they’re serving up—both sides are serving up more extreme examples.

I have two personal cases that I’d like to share with you. The first is—

STOKES: And that’s not really a question. We have a lot of people who have questions, yeah.

Q: Well, the first is I went out—so the answer, to explain this—I went out with organization, called Americans Elect. We basically stopped four million people in forty-one states, asked them: Would you like to see somebody on the ballot other than a Democrat or Republican. And seventy percent signed and gave their—gave their names and their addresses, and then basically said—and basically said you can make my name public. And second, is that if anybody has followed what’s happened in Maine with respect to ranked choice voting—which was a battle between citizens and the two parties—citizens, two parties—that took eighteen months, it was won, it would just belie your argument that a minor amount of the American people are basically unaffiliated. It’s now probably closer to fifty percent. It’s just they’re being served up extreme examples and they’re forced to pick between one or another. So if you could comment on that—

STOKES: Yeah, but our point was that their values are leaning Republican or Democrat. Not what they say they are.

Q: That’s just not true.

GEST: Of the four million people, did you ask if they’re affiliated with either party?

Q: Did I ask if they were affiliated? No. No, the point is they are—that’s proof of—

GEST: My guess—my guess would be they’re affiliated with one of the two. Even if they don’t like them, they’re probably still wed to one of them.

Q: Well, that’s because they don’t have the choice.

GEST: Exactly, yeah.

Q: So you can’t say that’s their preference if they’re given choices—

LUCE: There’s a chicken and egg—there’s a chicken egg here.

STOKES: OK, well, let’s—why don’t we move on here. Right here.

Q: Amitai Etzioni, George Washington.

I wondered if any one of you agrees that the issue may be deeper than even populism, because the people that are disaffected are much larger than the white working—uneducated white working class or—and the whole idea that government can govern is what’s being challenge. The accumulation of issues, from the environment, we want to fix inequality, we want to fix—end crime, fix opiates. In a sense there’s a complete disconnect between the notion that we can govern at all. And we need a major change in culture as to what we expect from the government.

STOKES: Any thoughts on that?

BERMAN: Well, I mean, I think on some level you’re correct. And this really, you know, sort of allows us to kind of look at examples, not only from Europe and the U.S. But Bruce started off asking about the Brazilian election. I mean, if you look at what motivated people to vote for Bolsonaro, right, who’s much more openly anti-democratic than populist leaders in Europe or Trump is in the United States, what do they name? They name corruption. They name crime. They have a government unwilling or unable to deal with an incredibly deep economic slide. And so, again, I think it is important to recognize that there is some real Democratic dysfunction underlying problems across not the West, but in many new democracies as well, right?

And so the question, again, is, is there some way to kind of revitalize liberal democracy so that it is more responsive and more effective? I think a lot of the questions in this room, for instance, have brought up a lot of the things that have helped to make, again, governance somewhat more problematic—money in politics, inequality, perhaps technology. These are all challenges that I think have come together over the last couple of decades and really, I think, perhaps, made our institutions less responsive and less effective in some ways. It does not strike me that they need to be that way, but I think, again, there’s been a sort of overwhelming set of changes over the last decades that liberal democrats and liberal democracies have to be able to deal better with or folks, again, are going to vote for people who say that they can offer them a better kind of governance solution.

STOKES: Well, it seems to me that implicit, though, in that question is, is the problem set now facing advanced economies—Brazil aside, emerging market—such that the—what worked in the 19th century or the 20th century in terms of eventually dealing with those problems, that kind of governance just can’t work anymore? I mean, that’s a pretty depressing prognosis, but the point is, you know, implicit in your answer is, well, democracy can figure out how to do this. We’ve figured this out in the past. Well, maybe the problems are too big for that, for democracy. Any thoughts on that?

BERMAN: I don’t—I don’t think that that’s true. I mean, I think we’ve faced very serious problems in the past. I mean, maybe a lot of folks in this room are old enough to remember the 1960s. I mean, there were some serious demands for change, some serious concerns about how democratic democracies were, about how corrupt governments were, about whether or not they were willing or able to respond to social, cultural, and other kinds of grievances. And to a large degree, they managed to adapt. I mean, the great thing about liberal democracy is it does have that ability. And so I don’t see any reason to lose faith in it just because we can also acknowledge that there are some very serious challenges out there that folks perhaps have not done such a great job of responding to. But the evidence that another form of government will do a better job I think is nil.

Q: I didn’t say—

BERMAN: No, no, no. I’m not accusing you of that.

STOKES: No, no, no. I was just trying to Amitai’s point, you know, further.

Right here. Yeah.

Q: Hi. Maureen White. I’m in the Foreign Policy Institute at SAIS.

I just wanted to return to something that Professor Berman alluded to, and that is what’s happening in Germany right now. In the most recent elections in Bavaria, all the press coverage was about the demise of the CSU and the CDU. AfD came in at its trusty twelve, twelve-and-a-half percent, which it’s stuck at for the last couple years. The real story, and I think uncovered, was the rise of the Greens. The Greens are pro-European, they’re pro-immigrant, and they got more votes in the AfD, in a very conservative part of Germany. Maybe this is an outlier. Maybe it’s a canary in the coal mine. I mean, what, if anything, can we say about this aberration? Is it an aberration? Or is finding a left-wing solution to the populist outcry perhaps the future?

STOKES: And if you—if anybody wants to respond to that, I mean, the broader issue is it’s only in Germany. (Laughs.) Yeah, I mean—I mean, is there an equivalent of a new left-wing other parts of Europe emerging that would be the parallel to the Greens, even if they’re not called the Greens?

BERMAN: I mean, I’m happy to answer, although I’m sure my co-panelists have great responses as well. I mean, I think what you’re seeing—what’s happened with the Greens in Germany is they have captured that part of the electorate, again, that is socially and culturally progressive, right? That is highly educated. That is white collar professors and has somewhat mixed views on economic issues, right? And if that is the left of the future, I think as I alluded to before, I think we, again, are looking at some fundamental changes in the way governance happens in places like Europe and in, again, what we mean by the left, which is a trivial kind of thing.

Very different profile voting-wise, policy-wise from, again, the SPD or other traditional center-left parties. And so I actually think that what you’re going to see is the Greens also—and new left parties in Europe—top out also at some percentage of the electorate, again, that captures that educated, socially and culturally progressive, white-collar percentage of the population—twenty percent. Maybe twenty-five (percent). It’s hard for me to see that party retaining its current profile and aspiring to the type of, you know, pluralities, almost majorities, that social democratic parties got in the past. And that means a lot, again, for the way governance will happen if you don’t have strong parties anchoring center right and center left coalitions, potentially, anyway.

GEST: And, if I may, just to check what you said, I think you’re miscasting the Greens as a left-wing populist response. They’re not populists, right? I mean, this is just it. If you ran the Greens in Britain they would probably get the same amount of voters because they’re basically the refugees from the Tories and the Labourites, right? It would just be the refugees in the center that are left over. You know, the real populist response on the left is coming from groups like, you know, Alexandria Ocasio in the United States or Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. You know, these are—this is sort of the way the left has responded to populism—Bernie Sanders, you know—because they share that sort of mutual sense of mistrust and sense of alienation out there.

And really, I think what we’re witnessing is the sort of political Balkanization. You know, we’re so used to in our lives—and I’m not putting on my Millennial hat—but, you know, we’re so used in our lives to have everything catered for, to having our identity catered for, I mean, everything customized and tailored. And basically, what we’re seeing is that people want the same thing for their parties. They’re not willing to shed certain priorities to actually join a grander cause, a grander movement of left versus right, those big tents. The Democrats are completely intolerant of people who, you know, previously would have been inside their party, because they believe in gun rights or a pro-life approach to abortion. This is basically not welcome any longer. And you’re seeing the same thing in a lot of these parties. They can afford to be that way in Europe by having proportional representation permits this kind of preciousness, whereas in the United States they’ve had to kind of get rid of it.

STOKES: Yeah. Right here. Yeah.

Q: I’m Jeff Smith with the Center for Public Integrity. Thanks, Bruce, for convening this. This is a really excellent conversation.

The three of you agree that essentially what we’re seeing now, as something that’s provoking the rise of populism, is the denial of democracy. And not just perceived, but I would argue real. It’s happened in Brazil. It’s happened here. It’s happened in Europe. We haven’t talked about Hungary or Poland, but what I would like to understand better is when people get elected on the platform of restoring democracy, but don’t behave in democratic ways, they seem to preserve their popularity beyond everyone’s expectations. It certainly happens in the United States. We have a Cabinet that’s behaved in a completely undemocratic way in its personal conduct, for example. And this is obvious, but it hasn’t dented—it hasn’t appeared to dent the support that the president has, or his party has. So can you say more about why it is that people who are elected on the promise of restoring genuine democracy, when they transparently, overtly, and repeatedly don’t do that, have managed to hold onto some of the support that brought them into power in the first place?

STOKES: Well, let me add to that question. I mean, is there any evidence in Europe, to complement the evidence of the Trump administration, but the sense of we don’t really care if they actually address the problem, we just like the fact that they, you know, give the establishment the middle finger or they, you know, say the things that we feel, and that’s enough?

GEST: No, it’s not just that, no. Many of the supporters of this government believe that they are returning democracy to the United States. This is a group of people that felt that they were disconnected and excluded from American democracy for multiple generations, or multiple decades, at least. And they believe that democracy is becoming—is returning to the United States because their views suddenly matter. Democracy is about the people winning. Well, the problem is that we don’t allow people to lose, because that’s what democracy is really about, is tolerance for losing because you actually have the opportunity to eventually win.

I mean, one of the things that Donald Trump said in August 2016—he was in Nevada. And he was on his pulpit. And he basically said, in the most awkward way, I love poorly educated people. And all of us in Washington basically cringed and said, oh my God, who says something like that? (Laughter.) But my folks in Youngstown, Ohio said, wait, who says something like that? No one says something like that. This guy actually cares about, at least rhetorically. Maybe not sincerely. And so with his election to power, brought the sense that suddenly poorly educated people, that people who had the sense of discomfort about the racial diversification of the country, are actually—have been returned to power.

LUCE: A quick point.


LUCE: I would somewhat dispute the premise of your question. I don’t think the promise of certainly right-win populists is restoring democracy. I think it’s more restoring sovereignty. I mean, that’s not just a British thing. We’ll take back control. I think it was a Trump theme of make America great again. It’s about anti-globalism, whatever you take globalism to mean. And I think what Justin has just been saying about, well, Trump’s somebody who can speak for us and we are the true people, that’s a better way of looking at it. So I don’t think the sort of—I don’t think the goal here was ever sort of liberal democracy is in bad shape, let’s spruce it up. I think it’s a far sort of—it’s a far darker force.

STOKES: And I also think it’s one of those—a thing of I have been the victim of decisions over which I have less and less control. And all of a sudden, I have somebody who says that he is giving me back that control. And the—whether it’s true or not—you know, whether there’s effective control or not is not the issue. It’s the sense of actually exercising control.

GEST: And returning to your very last question to us, or your very last prompt about what the left should do, it—how can the left hold populists on the far right or far left accountable for these statements? Do you feel any more in control of it? Do you feel any less pain than you felt? Bill Clinton told everyone that he felt their pain. Donald Trump is an opiate that is distracting them from their pain. The pain is still there. And it is the left’s job to actually expose that pain, and to at least pretend like they can actually do something about it.

STOKES: Right here, yeah.

Q: I have two questions that may sound like identity politics, but I do want to really understand them. The one is gender and the role of women in all of this, and how they see themselves in global populism or any kind of populism. And the second is really more about whether we have any possibility of hopefulness by a younger generation of people who’ve grown up in a context of diversity. So.

STOKES: Any thought?

BERMAN: Well, there’s some—there’s some great research actually that’s been done on women’s activation in politics, especially since the election of Trump. And there’s a lot of evidence in fact that a lot of the exciting stuff that’s been going on at the grassroots level in the Democratic Party has actually been driven by women. Great research by Theda Skocpol and her students, have really documented how activated actually women have become in the last several years. And that’s reflected not just, again, in the obvious things, like an unprecedented number of female candidates, but, again, an incredible amount of activism at the grassroots level.

So in some senses, you know, you’ve seen, again, precisely what you’d want in a democracy, a group that feels that its interests have been, again, shat up, let’s say, by our president, and then have in return used the political system, used the electoral process, used political parties to make their voices heard. Young people—again, you know, the data is always the same. They differ in some fundamental ways in their attitudes from older folks, but they don’t get involved in the same ways that older folks do. And in particular, they don’t vote as much as they should. And so, you know, the question of whether or not those votes are actually going to be translated—whether those attitudes—I’m sorry—generational attitudes will be generated into political outcomes depends a lot—it depends in a democracy entirely on whether those people vote and whether they get involved.

There is evidence that they become more involved in different kinds of movements. But those movements’ effects can be, at best, indirect. They have to vote, and they have to get involved in political parties.

GEST: And they will vote in about ten to fifteen years. So don’t worry. (Laughter.) Just sit tight. As the guy that’s about five years younger than other panelists, I’ll address the young people. (Laughter.) So the—with young people—it’s different, I think, in Europe and the United States. In the United States, people who are my age grew up—and I went to public schools in Los Angeles, public in that these are state school sense, not where you went.

LUCE: I’ve lived here a while. (Laughter.)

GEST: OK. So, you know, we grew up in what America was going to look like. And my children will grow up in an age cohort where there is no ethnic or religious majority. And that’s going to be a very different way of living because they’re going to be socialized into that future and unfearful of it, right? Now, that may not be true, though, for vast parts of the United States. And so you are going to see sort of, again, a Balkanization of experiences in what these young people feel.

What’s interesting about Europe, I think, is they’re not there yet demographically. And so their experience in socialization is going to be different. But I think one thing that young people in Europe are accustomed to is the sort of rise of Europeanization and the loss of national distinctiveness. And what worries me is that there are a lot of young people outside of Britain—because Britain is very anti-Brexit amongst young people—but in the continent that are actually tired of having their national distinctions sort of washed away or washed—white-washed by Brussels and are actually looking for new forms of pride and nationalism. And I think that’s why you have seen some support and sort of a getting rid of political correctness. I think that’s one of the reasons why you’ve seen some young people supporting some of the far-right entities.

STOKES: We will know a week from tonight, or a week from tomorrow morning, whether women actually vote the way some people anticipate they will vote in this election. And more importantly, it seems to me, we’ll know whether young people actually vote. We did a study recently that showed that Millennials in the first three midterm elections that they’ve had a chance to vote in, voted at a statistically significant lower rate than the previous Generation X or the previous Baby Boom generation in their first three midterm elections. So there is a very high wall that Millennials have to leap over to even get up to where the Baby Boom generation was in their third midterm election. So it’s a big challenge. But, of course, this is a 435 election. So it could still have a big impact depending on where it was.

We’re, unfortunately, at the hour, the witching hour, where I promised to close this out. So I’d like to thank our panel. I’d like to thank all of you for some great questions. And look forward to this again. (Applause.)


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