Democratic discourse European Union

Europe's democracies are transforming and ‘populism’ is a poor explanation

After Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, many observers predicted doomsday for democracy in Europe in view of a string of 2017 elections (Netherlands, Austria, France, Germany and the Czech Republic). Reality has been less dramatic, but there is a sense of a transformation in Europe. More voters support parties that challenge the status quo. Some of the new players are centrist, pro-European parties (like France’s En Marche), others are right-wing parties with extremist elements, such as Austria's FPÖ or Germany's AfD.

Analysis suggests that in particular ‘white men’ are prone to vote for extreme right-wing parties, but it is not clear why. Economic inequality, globalisation, immigration, the effects of social media and Russian propaganda are some of the explanations offered for the rise of these parties. While broader trends are observable, it is worthwhile to understand the specific context of each European country. For example, the causes and expression of authoritarian tendencies in Hungary and Poland are different.

There has been an inflation of the label 'populist' to describe and explain these new political parties, especially when they have an anti-immigration platform. However, that label obscures more than it illuminates. Many journalists and some academic analysts make no effort to distinguish between aspects of ‘populist’ political platforms that challenge democratic norms (such as attacks on the judiciary or media) and those that are right-wing but acceptable in a democracy (such as being against immigration or advocating for leaving the EU). This lack of specificity helps anti-democrats, which portray themselves as being unfairly attacked for political opinions.

These new parties have seized the transformation of the public space by social media to advocate their platforms. Traditional gatekeepers of information, like newspapers or TV stations, have lost their role because anybody can post news or comment on social media. This has expanded the democratic space, but it also creates new challenges: Social media are less democratic than it may seem, because money can buy a lot of attention in this new medium. Funding sources of social media campaigns are often opaque. While there exists a range of opinions on whether and how social media should be regulated more by states, most people agree that social media are  not a business like any other. They have become an essential feature of the democratic infrastructure which carries special responsibilities for social media providers.

These were some of the conclusions of DRI’s debate forum ‘Stronger now or eroding at its foundations – Democracy in Europe one Year After Trump’ – held on 28 November 2017 in partnership with the Mercator Centre Berlin, which also financed the event. The debate brought together 25 academic experts such as Ivan Krastev, Ilke Toygür, Richard Youngs and Takis Pappas as well as diplomats and civil society representatives from ten European countries. A debate report will be published shortly.

Read our paper "False frames. How we undermine democracy with careless language", available for download below.


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Tags: Polarisation