A conversation with Martin Eiermann 

The rise of populism in Europe is not a fad, as Berkeley’s Martin Eiermann claims in a recent study on voting trends, conducted with Yascha Mounk and Limor Gultchin for the Tony Blair Institute. Their data shows that right-wing extremism has already changed Europe’s political landscape — and it is here to stay.

Görlach: Martin, some would argue populism is entering the stage periodically, being an utterance of protest. After a while it would vanish. You have conducted some research on populism in Europe that indicates otherwise: populism forms a base in the European Union over time and is here to stay. Is that observation correct?

Eiermann: Yes. Political change often occurs in uneven bursts and spurts. Take two defining events of 2016, for example: The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum. Both were historic events of a caliber that we don’t see very often. But if we take a step back, we can also see that these events occurred within a longer history of political transformation. In Europe, for example, the number of populist parties and their national vote share have roughly doubled since 2000. We’re now facing a situation in Central and Eastern Europe where it is possible to drive from the Baltic Sea to the Aegean without ever leaving a country that is governed by populist parties. The trend lines in Western Europe looks similar, although support for populist candidates tends to be somewhat lower. But if you look at what has been happening in the UK, France, Austria or now in Germany, you can see that the political agenda is often set by small but very vocal populist parties. The rhetoric and policies of the populist right diffuse into the mainstream. As a result, the political center of gravity is shifting towards the right. And in some cases, the outcome has been outright bizarre. In the UK, the May government is pursuing a Brexit agenda with which many of its own ministers and MPs disagree. It sometimes seems to me that the political mainstream finds itself in a state of paralysis precisely at the moment when the biggest political transformation since the end of the Cold War is affecting Europe. Or do you disagree?

Görlach: I share your analysis. Understanding the underlying reasons is decisive. The Cold War is always mentioned in such contexts. Some would argue we have re-entered a similar set-up once again: There’s now a prevailing “us versus them” rhetoric when it comes to identity politics. Politics comes before policy. It’s about defining who we are, which then leads to specific policies. For example: We are the Christian Occident, so we don’t take in Muslim migrants. There is no logic to this argument when you approach it from a theological or spiritual standpoint. It only makes sense when you see it as what it is: a re-definition of the system itself. There is the new antagonism between China and the West, and also a clash of unhinged American-style financial capitalism with environmentalism and human rights camps. What took in my opinion so many countries you mentioned by surprise is that the political parties didn’t perceive the starting unrest in the early 2000 — to me it was mostly symbolised in referendums against the European constitution in France and the Netherlands, which were in fact votes against the full EU membership of Turkey – as the opening chapter of a new battle over identity. Nobody back then simply thought that liberal democracy itself was at stake.

Eiermann: One recent analysis of populism stands out to me. It’s by Rogers Brubaker, a sociologist at UCLA. He argues that the substantive politics of many European populist parties are characterized by a civilizational stance. They often talk the language of nationalism and national self-determination, but their politics are more broadly aimed at insulating Europe against non-Western and specifically non-Christian influences. For example, the Dutch far-right has long proclaimed to be a defender of gay rights and women’s rights against the alleged intolerance of Muslim immigrants. Of course this is not really about the protection of minorities or about Christian faith. Christianity is instead used as an offensive weapon to define and exclude “the other”. As you say, it leads to an us-versus-them nationalism that rubs uneasily against liberal-democratic norms and that has never served Europe well in the 20th century. It worries me that center-left parties have often ceded these discussions to the populist right. It’s surprisingly rare today to find moderate politicians who are even willing to talk about the nation — either because they’ve accepted the globalization of capital and the mythical power of financial markets, or because they defend international institutions by downplaying their disconnect from people and places. But there’s a long tradition of progressive patriotism: It defines a community not on the basis of blood or soil or religion, but welcomes the integration of people who participate in it and enrich it. And it understands that isolationism often harms the nation rather than securing it. All big challenges of our time — inequality, migration, terrorism, climate change — require at least some international cooperation.

Görlach: There is this essay by Ernest Renan titled “What is a nation?” Despite the fact that Renan was also very much unaccepting of Islamic culture, I think one notion in this article is worth mentioning. He said that it’s not geography, not religion, nor language that defines a nation per se. Nations are bound by a common cause, by destiny, by the tabus a society agrees about, by the history it endured together. The German word “Schicksalsgemeinschaft” comes to mind. And you are right with your observation that the quest for a civilizational survival of the West (let’s discuss whether that is needed) is in the hands of the right wing extremists and populist. I would argue that Europe is – other than the United States – in fact very deeply shaped by Christian Weltanschauung, humanism and ethics. But what is that supposed to mean when the majority of today’s Christians live outside of Europe? Christianity doesn’t work as an alleged bulwark in an us-versus-them fight, just as it doesn’t work when it comes to defining who we are today in the West. Christianity is no distinctive feature. I believe with René Girard that we are witnessing an Occidental culture that has trapped itself in too many quests and fights, and now searches and finds a scapegoat that seemingly covers up all the differences and uncertainties of our own culture. Back in the days, the Occident used to turn on the Jews when a common enemy was needed. Nowadays in Europe, the Muslims are the scapegoat. In the United States, it’s the Mexicans. The list is endless. My guess is that Europeans, knowing that they of course can handle something like the Syrian refugee crisis, implicitly fathom that this may not be the last incident where a large number of people seek to come and settle on European land. That causes fear. To tackle inequality, migration, terrorism and climate change you would, that’s my take, need more collaboration and multilateralism and not retrieve to national tidings and mythological narratives that do not help solving todays problems for the tiniest bit.

Eiermann: I want to hear more about what you mean by “the civilizational survival of the West.” I have to say that I don’t find the concept of “the West” particularly useful as an analytical tool or a rhetorical strategy. I have yet to read a defense of “the West” that doesn’t make a caricature of “the rest” or “the Orient”: It belittles the other to make itself appear big. So I would rather be precise in saying what we should defend. For example, the scientific method or civic liberties aren’t unique to “the West”. They have had net positive consequences wherever they have taken root, and we can defend them on their own terms. The challenge, of course, is to weave these individual defenses into a larger narrative. Here, a pragmatic and progressive defense of the democratic nation-state strikes me as a better option that appeals to vaguely defined “Western values”.

Görlach: The West is a coined term, its not that I invented it. It is basically Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia. When you look for instance into European and US American value surveys they find large overlap, with one exception, the use of force. But aside from that the overlap of shared values is tremendous. I would personally also include Latin America to the West, as I am working on a project with Carnegie on that subject matter: culturally, by language, ethics and religion, all the intellectuals I spoke with in Latin America would perceive themselves and their countries Western. I would say most of the time they mean European as the history with the United States is difficult. So what we describe as Western is in my view the cultures that emerged out of a synthesis of Ancient Greek and Rome in the religion of Christianity, which has itself roots in the culture and religion of Judaism. Its is widely accepted to say that Christianity changed its nature by the encounter with what later would be called German ideas and culture. One has to be beware, especially in the debates about the “Christian Occident” that after the French Revolution, latest with Industrialisation and henceforth ideas and ideologies such as communism, the Christian framework has shattered and it only partly alive. Elias Canetti put it like this in his book “Crowd and Power”: Mobilisation through Christianity would be impossible in Europe for people lost faith an an afterlife. I think this is utterly correct. Yet there still exist the framework that distinguishes Western Culture from others. In my ideas, however, a central feature of “Christian Europe” is that it lives by its diversity, that it has become aware of its plurality. The European Union reflects that. “Occident” therefore can and should become an inclusive term what its partner, the “Orient” highlights and heralds not only linguistically. So this explains why many Western standards or achievements have gone elsewhere, such as our calendar or English. Having said that, Greek ideas also went Eastwards and shaped parts of Asia. The order of the last seventy years which is at stake now is by far not Western, but international. At this point it’s about defending multilateralism and inclusiveness.

Eiermann: If “the West” truly extends from the Northern tip of Norway to the Southern tip of Argentina, perhaps it’s too diffuse a term to be useful. But I wanted to ask you about something else. You just published an op-ed in the New York Times that portrayed Angela Merkel as a fading politician. And if I understand you correctly, you don’t just mean her as an individual but her style of governing more generally. Describing Merkel, you write that “her political capital derives from her ability to react to crises rather than on her conceptualizing and shaping of the country’s political agenda.” Maybe this is a good opportunity to pivot towards a more strategic discussion. What kind of politics is necessary to confront and reverse some of the trends that I described in the beginning? It seems to me that three approaches don’t work as general responses to far-right populism. The first is a technocratic approach that splits the difference between center-left and center-right, and that defends particular policies by drawing attention to their “commonsensical” or “post-ideological” nature or their inevitability. I would put Merkel in this camp, or the short-tenured Italian prime minister Mario Monti. The second is a populism with a human face that embraces the basic logic of the far-right, but attempts to make it more palpable by toning down the rhetoric and ceding to domestic and international law. It seems to me that the German CSU is currently trying to drag the Conservatives into this direction in anticipation of a post-Merkel era. And the third is an internationalism that dismisses domestic voters as irrational and their anxieties as imagined. It can take the form of neoliberal politics, but I think it can also appear in a Left variant that casts voters as reactionaries and racists. What would I like to see instead? For example, a much starker difference of vision between center-left and center-right that makes for meaningful choices within the mainstream. A more assertive approach of the center-left in the management of markets. That might sometimes mean nationalization, but it might also imply an embrace of changing labor markets with a greater reliance on temporary and part-time contracts. At the moment, European welfare states are too reliant on an insider-outsider framework that funnels benefits to full-time employees but leaves non-traditional workers incredibly exposed. Or a greater focus on integration rather than immigration numbers. In Germany, we know quite well how difficult true integration can be — reunification still casts a long shadow more than two decades after the treaties were formally signed.

Görlach: I wouldn’t see why size would be a problem in defining a cultural hemisphere. The Muslim world is not much smaller in total, nor is the Chinese cultural sphere or is India. I guess in regard to denying the West to be having unique features is more a reflex of yours. To me it is important and crucial that the West how I see it, especially Europe and in Europe the European Union, have managed to make the concept of the West an inclusive one. Thats by far not the case in China, in Russia, als India lacks it. I do however share your latter analysis and would like to widen the horizon here a tiny bit, away from the framework of a national democracy. The larger picture to me these days, especially when it comes to analysing populism, is that the distribution battle we had faintest ideas about only, is about to start. We know that not only are around 60 million people on the run these days, being refugees. We also know that their number will increase over the course of the 21st century. The reaction so far has been: America doesn’t want to take them in, China has strong resentments against all that is not Han-Chinese. Latin-America seems not to be prepared and also not yet be a destination. During my time in Mexico there were however scenario discussed in which tankers full of African refugees may cross the Southern Atlantic and land in Latin America. Climate change, political stability and economic perspective will define the places on earth that people aspire to live in. They will come, at all costs necessary. The pan-European populist wave which is against humans from the Muslim World and Africa is clearly aiming at the fear arising from the perspective of this immense global migration. Because this thing in itself addresses deep human fears it is unfortunately not to be tackled with reason. The problem is that other than lip-servicing towards these fears hardly any politician shows the leadership to tackle the challenges that lie ahead of mankind. That’s the same on a local level, where an all-time low-bar CSU in Bavaria is hustling foreigners but doesn’t do much other then that. The same is true on an international level were not many precautions are made to combat climate change or migration while there is still time.

Eiermann: I think you’re right that the political fight is often about the distribution of burdens and benefits. At least since the 1980s, liberal politicians have often responded to these debates by talking about personal responsibility: What obligations do we have as welfare recipients? What duties do migrants have towards their new communities? Those are important questions. But it seems to me that we’ve lost track of the flip side: At some point, we have to confront the problem of solidarity. It is tempting to think that we can simply increase the size of the pie and avoid a classic Malthusian trap, and sometimes that it indeed possible: Everybody wins! But inequality won’t disappear just because GDP growth continues. Refugee flows won’t suddenly stop. The costs of climate change won’t suddenly dissolve into thin air. As a result, we’re forced into two necessary but deeply uncomfortable discussions: First, what costs must some of us shoulder so that others may enjoy the benefits? Second, for whom are we willing to shoulder these costs? For our neighbors? For the next generation? For immigrants? At the moment, unfortunately, the initiative in these debates comes from the far Right.