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All Quiet on the Populist Front?

January 21, 2021

Because every country is different, the ignominious exit of a political figure like US President Donald Trump does not necessarily tell us anything about the fate of authoritarian populists elsewhere. Just as populists tend to learn from one another’s successes, so will they heed others’ mistakes.

BERLIN – Liberals around the world are daring to hope that there is a silver lining to the violent denouement of Donald Trump’s presidency: namely, that the inciter-in-chief’s ignominious exit from the political stage will chasten authoritarian populists elsewhere. Unfortunately, their optimism is naive.

Liberation

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Remove and Ban Trump Now

January 7, 2021

Although it is a serious matter to deny individuals their basic civil rights, outgoing US President Donald Trump richly deserves such a punishment. For Republicans to avoid being devoured by the insurrectionist movement they have unleashed, they must support Trump’s impeachment, removal, and permanent exclusion from political life.

BERLIN – A year ago, jurists and pundits were debating whether impeaching an American president is primarily a matter of law or of politics. It is both, of course, and there is nothing wrong with the political part. Under the US Constitution, it is politicians, not courts, who are supposed to judge whether a president has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and, crucially, whether a

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Merkel’s Last Chance

December 9, 2020

Faced with the threat of a veto from the Polish and Hungarian governments, many in the EU are now counting on the German Chancellor to broker a deal to secure passage of the bloc’s next seven-year budget and recovery fund. But given that the dispute involves fundamental European values, there should be nothing to negotiate.

BERLIN – This week’s meeting of the European Council has rightly been called a “doomsday summit.” It is overshadowed not just by a ghastly winter wave of COVID-19 infections and the prospect of a chaotic no-deal Brexit, but also by a showdown with the governments of Hungary and Poland, which have taken hundreds of millions of people hostage by threatening to veto the European Union’s 2021-27 budget and the

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Truth and De-Trumpification

November 5, 2020

After four years of outright corruption, norm busting, and democratic decay, the United States cannot simply move on or act as though Donald Trump’s presidency was a fluke. Without a process to ensure a truthful record of history and accountability for wrongdoers, the risk of repetition is too high.

BERLIN – Among Democrats and many Republicans, there is a great temptation to dismiss US President Donald Trump’s administration as a bizarre aberration. Just as Republicans may try to blame the many transgressions of the past four years on Trump, hoping that their enabling role is quickly forgotten, Democrats might want to make a show of observing democratic norms, by graciously refraining from litigating the past. If

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Democrats Must Finally Play Hardball

September 25, 2020

Generally speaking, responding to violations of democratic norms with rule-breaking of one’s own simply hastens the erosion of the entire system. But the situation in the United States today shows that there are rare occasions when the only way to save democracy is to fight fire with fire.

BERLIN – Around the world, right-wing populists are hollowing out democracy and the rule of law. But unlike many twentieth-century dictators, today’s aspiring authoritarians have tried to preserve the façade of the institutions they are destroying, which creates a dilemma for opposition parties. Should they play by the rules of a game that is rigged against them, or should they start writing their own rules and risk accusations of

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The Parties Must Go On

September 2, 2020

Amid the tawdry spectacle of the Republican Party behaving like a subsidiary of the Trump Organization, one shocking aspect stands out: the party has no platform. The GOP’s transformation into an ideas-free cult of personality is bad news not just for US conservatives, but also for the American political system.

BERLIN – The recent Republican National Convention was scandalous for many reasons – from the misuse of the White House as a campaign prop (in violation of the Hatch Act and longstanding norms) and the brazen mendacity of its speakers, to the parade of Trump family members. Amid the tawdry spectacle of the GOP being transformed into a subsidiary of the Trump Organization, one shocking aspect stood out: the

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Beware Viral Enabling Acts

March 31, 2020

It is crucial that opposition parties are broadly on board with measures taken to address what seems like a once-in-a-century public-health crisis. But the line between government and opposition must not be blurred in the name of “national unity,” and the mechanisms of political accountability must be strengthened, not weakened.

PRINCETON – There is no doubt that the coronavirus is a global emergency. There is also no doubt that governments will use this emergency to add to their powers. And some of them probably won’t relinquish their new powers once the threat is over.
Insuring the Survival of Post-Pandemic Economies

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Christian Democracy or Illiberal Democracy?

January 29, 2020

In considering whether to expel the increasingly illiberal Fidesz party, the European People’s Party must not allow Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to hold himself out as a representative of Christian Democracy. True Christian Democrats reject chauvinistic nationalism and have been indispensable to European integration.

PRINCETON – For years, a conflict has been brewing between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the European People’s Party, the supranational organization of Christian Democratic and center-right parties in European Union member states. After much hesitation, the EPP suspended Orbán’s party, Fidesz, last March, and is now deciding whether to expel it.
Britain Enters the Unknown

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Can Direct Democracy Defeat Populism?

September 18, 2019

For three years, we have been told that populist upsets such as Brexit and US President Donald Trump’s election are the predictable results of giving too much power to the unwashed masses. In fact, populists owe their recent successes to elite complacency and complicity, and they have as much to fear from referenda as anyone else.

SARAJEVO – Ever since the double disasters of 2016 – the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and US President Donald Trump’s election – there has been widespread anxiety about a “global wave” of populism, and hand-wringing over the follies of so-called direct democracy. In the UK, the electorate was asked to answer an overly simplistic in-or-out question; in the United States, the 2016

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The Pre-History of Post-Truth

April 26, 2019

In an age of “alternative facts,” many insist that we have entered a new phase of history in which truth no longer matters. But epistemic conflict is as old as democracy; what’s new is the role of special interests and specific policies in degrading public discourse.

William Davies, Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World, Jonathan Cape, London, 2018.Bernhard Pörksen, Die grosse Gereiztheit: Wege aus der kollektiven Erregung (The Great Irritability: Ways of Coping with Collective Agitation), Hanser, Munich, 2018.Sophia Rosenfeld, Democracy and Truth: A Short History, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2018.PRINCETON – Since the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and the election of US President

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What’s Left of the Populist Left?

February 21, 2019

After decades of convergence by mainstream political parties around centrist neoliberalism, voters across Western democracies are desperate for a genuine choice, and left-wing movements are more than capable of offering them one. But if the left goes down the road of exclusionary nationalism, it will squander a historic opportunity.

PRINCETON – As Venezuela’s crisis deepens, conservatives in the United States and elsewhere are gleefully pointing to the disaster of Chavismo to warn of the dangers of “socialism.” And, with Spain’s left-wing Podemos party apparently splitting and Greece’s Syriza steadily losing popularity since 2015, even impartial observers might conclude that the “pink tide” of left populism is nearing a low

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Reviving Civil Disobedience

December 21, 2018

Nonviolent but confrontational forms of civil disobedience have a strong track record of success in exposing injustice and countering creeping authoritarianism. But those who embrace this tactic today will have to adapt it to a fractured and polarized public sphere.

PRINCETON – With populism and authoritarianism on the rise around the world, there has been considerable talk of “resistance,” especially in the United States. A rather broad term, resistance could refer to everything from supporting opposition candidates to the life-threatening work of those who went underground to sabotage Nazi occupations during World War II. Such vagueness is helpful, if one wants to appeal to as many citizens as possible; but it can also cloud

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Why Freedom of Assembly Still Matters

November 13, 2018

For all of the talk nowadays about the decline and fall of democracy, not nearly enough attention has been given to attacks on the right to assemble and protest in streets and public squares. In fact, protests are essential to the democratic experience and can never be replaced by online activism, much less voting.

PRINCETON – It is now common knowledge that many democracies around the world are under pressure. But mounting threats to a particularly important democratic right have not received nearly enough attention. Through various means, governments are making it harder for citizens to assemble and protest.

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Can Liberalism Save Itself?

April 6, 2018

Liberalism, the set of ideas that has underpinned Western political and economic systems since the Enlightenment, now appears to be in crisis. This has prompted a welcome debate among well-meaning liberals, but it has also opened the door to opportunists who would impose their deeply anti-liberal – and anti-democratic – vision on society.
PRINCETON – The causes and consequences of what is often described as “the rise of populism” are matters of deep dispute. But if there is one thing everyone can agree on, it is that populism is primarily an attack on liberalism. As such, a number of avowed liberals have authored books in which they take a long, hard look at their own values and institutions, even as other critics call for liberalism to be rolled back. In principle,

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The People vs. Democracy?

March 6, 2018

Are voters really so irrational and ill-informed that they make terrible choices, as the election result in Italy, the UK’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the US seem to suggest? If they are, as many liberals have come to believe, the obvious next step is to take even more decision-making power away from them.
PRINCETON – The election result in Italy, where populists and far-right parties topped the polls, following the twin disasters of Brexit in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump’s election in the United States, seems certain to harden a common liberal belief: the people brought these calamities on themselves. “Ordinary citizens,” according to this view, are so irrational and ill-informed that they make terrible choices. Some go a step further and

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Can Movement Politics Renew European Democracy?

January 3, 2018

One might expect diffuse, grassroots movements that emerge from large-scale street protests to be more inclusive, deliberative, and democratic than traditional political parties. But the proliferation of personality-driven movements on both the right and the left in recent years calls that assumption into question.
PRINCETON – Many people expected the big political story of 2017 to be about the triumph of populism in Europe. But things didn’t turn out that way. Instead, the biggest story was about self-styled “movements” upending or replacing traditional political parties.

The Year Ahead 2018

The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will

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How Populists Win When They Lose

June 15, 2017

VIENNA – Today, it appears that every single election in Europe can be reduced to one central question: “Is it a win or a loss for populism?” Until the Netherlands’ election in March, a populist wave – or, as Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party, put it, a “tsunami” – seemed irresistible. Now, however, the wave has suddenly receded: following Emmanuel Macron’s big wins in France’s presidential and legislative elections, we are supposedly living in a “post-populist moment.”

Unfortunately, this view of populism’s rise and fall merits the label often attached to populism itself: simplistic. The notion of an unstoppable wave took for granted that both the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election in the United States were triumphs

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Theresa May’s Other Citizens of Nowhere

June 9, 2017

VIENNA– British Prime Minister Theresa May has, of her own volition, stripped her Conservative Party of its governing parliamentary majority by calling an early election. If she stays on as prime minister, she will also strip British citizens of the political and economic rights conferred by membership in the European Union. But May’s habit of stripping away people’s rights and powers is not new: for years, she has been normalizing the practice of stripping certain Britons of their citizenship altogether, even at the risk of rendering them stateless “citizens of nowhere.”

During the United Kingdom’s just-concluded election campaign, May promised to change or nullify any human-rights laws that “get in the way” of fighting terrorism. This is a credible threat: May herself

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A Majority of “Deplorables”?

November 10, 2016

VIENNA – Barack Obama was right to say that democracy itself was on the ballot in the just-concluded US presidential election. But, with Donald Trump’s stunning victory over Hillary Clinton, do we now know for certain that a majority of Americans are anti-democratic? How should Clinton voters relate to Trump’s supporters and to the new administration?

Had Clinton won, Trump most likely would have denied the new president’s legitimacy. Clinton’s supporters should not play that game. They might point out that Trump lost the popular vote and hence can hardly claim an overwhelming democratic mandate, but the result is what it is. Above all, they should not respond to Trump’s populist identity politics primarily with a different form of identity politics.
Instead, Clinton supporters ought to focus on new ways to appeal to the interests of Trump supporters, while resolutely defending the rights of minorities who feel threatened by Trump’s agenda. And they must do everything they can to defend liberal-democratic institutions, if Trump tries to weaken checks and balances.

To move beyond the usual clichés about healing a country’s political divisions after a bitterly fought election, we need to understand precisely how Trump, as an arch-populist, appealed to voters and changed their political self-conception in the process.

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The Problem With “Illiberal Democracy”

January 21, 2016

PRINCETON – Poland’s turn toward authoritarian rule has set off alarm bells across the European Union and within NATO. Since coming to power in October, Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party (PiS) has attacked the country’s Constitutional Court, politicized the judiciary and the civil service, and launched an assault on media pluralism.
Critics of the PiS government, which is led by Prime Minister Beata Szydło (with Kaczyński, ruling from behind the scenes as he holds no official post), have described its actions as a blitz to install “illiberal democracy,” similar to what Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has done in his country over the past six years. But to call what is being constructed in Poland illiberal democracy is deeply misleading – and in a way that undermines efforts to rein in would-be autocrats like Kaczyński and Orbán. After all, it is not just liberalism that is under attack, but democracy itself.

The concept of “illiberal democracy,” attributable to a 1997 essay by the American foreign-policy thinker Fareed Zakaria, was an effort to describe regimes that held elections, but did not observe the rule of law and regularly overrode their political systems’ constitutional checks and balances. It was an idea born of disillusion. In the heady days after the fall of communism, a kind of democratic ecstasy prevailed (at least in the West).

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