Brexit De-Brief: 10 Things Learned at Tower Center ‘Populism’ Talk

European political insider Sergey Lagodinsky was guest speaker for the recent “Populism in Europe and Germany” event sponsored by SMU’s John G. Tower Center for Political Studies. Lagodinsky, a Berlin-based attorney/author/political commentator who heads the EU/North America Department of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, was introduced by Tower Center Director James Hollifield. (Photo credit: Flickr)

1) “Reactive populism is on the rise in Europe and the U.S.,” Hollifield said before the talk. “Until recently Germany has escaped this trend. The bitter experience of Nazism seems to have inoculated Germany from radical-right politics. But will Germany continue to buck the trend?”

2) “Welcome to the Age of Populism.” Opening his discussion with this remark, Lagodinsky explained that while populism in America traditionally has been viewed as a positive reinforcement of democracy, “in Europe it carries a negative connotation of nationalism, distrust of government, anger over a stagnant economy and, chiefly, the growing migrant crisis.”

3) Populist parties vary, but share one “zero point”: “The European Union represents everything they dislike,” Lagodinsky said.

4) Is it the “House of Cards” effect? Lagodinsky laughed at this thought (he’s a fan) but thinks the idea has merit. The wildly popular Netflix series – about an innately evil, criminal, greedy world of politics – fosters distrust in politics and, in general, politicians, “many of whom are making very little money to just do what they think is right,” he said.

5) Fueling Grass-Roots Fires: Far-right populists in Europe, including Marine Le Pen of the National Front Party in France and Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party, are keenly aware of how to stoke fears (and sometimes violence) using revolutionary-tinged rhetoric bordering on or fully exhibiting racism, according to Lagodinsky.

6) The U.S. isn’t immune to No. 5. Across the pond in this country, “Americans are grappling with a political candidate who’s doing pretty much the same thing,” Lagodinsky said.

7) Authoritarianism is increasingly equated with safety and superiority. “Russian President Vladimir Putin is an example of European populism in power,” Lagodinksy said. Additionally, “People underestimate the power of Eastern Europe and its fondness for Russia.” Natives of the former Communist region, even ones living in other countries, he said, pine for the days “when things were, well, simpler.”

8) Befuddling “bromance”: In light of No. 7, Lagodinsky is intrigued that Republican Party presumptive nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed respect for controversial strongmen, including Putin, and North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un.

9) People underestimate the power of social media–for good and bad. While the ‘Arab Spring’ showed that social media can have an emancipating aspect, recent political turns have shown it also can have a debilitating effect: “Self-selection of biased newsfeeds can make people feel like they’re in the majority, when in many cases, they’re not,” Lagodinsky said.

10) Everyone wants to be a victim. But there is a solution. “Name-calling never works. To call someone a ‘fascist’ instantly shuts them down, leaving no room for further discussion,” Lagodinsky said. We need to encourage a dialogue that examines the positives and negatives that each party represents or wants to achieve – then let people decide in a well-balanced, reasoned forum of ideas.”

Denise Gee

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