Populist groove or move?

Besides the disappointing result in the German national elections for the Social-Democrats, who dared to put the question of more justice on the agenda of a campaign in one of the richest countries of the world, the most worrying outcome was the success of the far right Afd. (Alternative for Germany). Their smart blue and red logo barely disguises the politically brown shade of their ideas. The even more worrying fact is that the two-thirds of voters who gave them the vote did so as a sign of protest. Afd attracted 1.2 million new voters, taking roughly 980,000 from the Christian-Democrats, 400,000 from the Left and 470,000 from the Social-Democrats. The protest, albeit motivated or justified, is just one side of the coin. The other side is the impact that the introduction of far-right ideas will have on society. Many European election outcomes, not just the German ones, show that among its demos extremist sentiments have found their way through.

Too often campaign strategists just think that everything is about messaging, but what proved to be more important in this campaign were those people who were knocking on doors and got an understanding of what moves and concerns the hearts of citizens. Progressives cannot simply ignore those who are on the edge of society, experiencing poverty and exclusion or being under threat of both. Neoliberal policies focusing unilaterally on growth and competitiveness, on self-regulation of the markets have opened the Pandora’s box of these forces and their (sometimes confused) ideology.

Connecting with people and restoring confidence are the core tasks for progressives. They have to rebuild a political alternative in times when what can be considered progressive or left is more and more divided. In many countries, traditional social-democracy has lost its leadership and hegemony for many reasons. It is too early to think that the end has come, we are not yet at a Jim Morrison and the Doors moment. Besides reconnecting and rebuilding, the debate should shift to a reformist way of finding a balance within a liberal society and between markets and democracy. It is time to change the balance of power between capital and labour, which is currently creating more precariousness through flexible work arrangements dressed up as the “digital economy”. But change must be more than just economic, it has to be political and cultural. It is about how we live together in our societies, how we overcome the “they” and “us” for our mutual benefit.

For those who – like us – understand that civil society also has a political role, it is about reconnecting and giving citizens opportunities to engage, about living democracy within our networks and really becoming more a civic movement than a service provider. The challenge for democracy is also our challenge as part of what we call the progressive family! The challenge is: how can we become more popular than the populists and extremists? How can we make our democracies attractive again for those who have turned away for the time being?

This editorial appeared in the Weekly Round Up of 29 September 2017.