What to do about Trump & Co.? – Our recent „Aktionswochende“
Donald Trump’s election win in November 2016 served as the straw that broke the camel’s back in many ways. For us, it meant that we felt unable to just watch democracy take its course: we couldn’t be sure anymore that things would turn out “just fine”. Instead, we felt compelled to engage with and take action against the illiberal populist tendencies that brought Trump to power in the US and that are also clearly manifest in many European countries. The big question that we were unable to answer, however, was what exactly we should do. This is when the idea for our recent event, which we suggestively entitled “Aktionswochenende” (action weekend), was born. It aimed to provide the space and inspiration needed for individuals to figure out what they as a private citizen could do to oppose and counteract the extremely worrying rise in populist tendencies.
What to do?
It became clear very quickly that it was not just us who were unsure about what to do: we received more than 300 expressions of interest in joining the weekend. (In the end, we had to limit participation in the weekend to 120 people).
The basic premise of the „Aktionswochenende“ was that a better understanding of the causes for the rise in illiberal populist tendencies would help guide and inform what we should best do to oppose them. Hence, the first day of the weekend was dedicated to improving our understanding of these causes, from the perspectives of many different countries, including Germany, the US, the UK, Hungary and Austria, and many different disciplines, including history, sociology, psychology, political science, philosophy and economics. Speakers from academia, including Prof Dr Vincent Hendricks of the University of Copenhagen and Prof Dr Paul Nolte of the Free University of Berlin, among many others, as well as politics, including representatives of the SPD, CDU, Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Ministry of the Interior, shared and debated their thoughts with us. The second day was dedicated to developing concrete courses of action we as individual citizens could all take to counter populist tendencies. To this end, on the one hand, we invited a number of inspiring existing initiatives to share their perspectives and discuss scaling up with us. These included Eutopia, Die Offene Gesellschaft, Das Progressive Zentrum, „Hotline für besorgte Bürger“, betterplace lab and Köln Spricht. On the other hand, creative techniques were used to develop new ideas and to concretise them sufficiently far that they could be implemented immediately.
What’s behind the recent rise in populism?
In our workshops on the causes for rising illiberal populist tendencies, across the countries and disciplines covered, some common themes emerged. Many of these conclusions may appear obvious, but nonetheless – we feel – interesting as they seem to be shared across countries, disciplines and, to a large extent, political leanings:
- First, experience across countries suggests that „populists“ instrumentalise both real and perceived divisions in society to create notions of „us“ vs. „them“, whether along intellectual, social, ethnic or economic dimensions. This is very much in line with academic definitions of populism.
- Second, changing communication patterns, e.g. a greater reliance on news sourced from social media, are being exploited by „populists“ to address and activate a very specific audience. Examples include Trump’s election campaign but also the FPÖ in Austria.
- Third, the lack of a clear vision being articulated by established parties for the future of society has enabled anti-establishment parties to thrive across countries. We need to ask ourselves what notions like „nationality“ or „citizenship“ mean to us and what we expect from the European Union.
- Fourth, the urgency of addressing economic inequality was reaffirmed in all discussions. However, it also became clear that recent developments cannot be solely explained in economic terms. Big societal changes since the 1970s from economic liberalisation, cultural liberalisation, sexual liberalisation and the globalisation of values can mean that people fear being left behind not only economically but also societally.
- Fifth, all workshops concluded that it remains important to „use“ existing democratic institutions, for example by engaging with or joining existing political parties and by actively fighting the political disassociation of many people in our societies.
(If you’ve like to read more, we’ve pulled together a fascinating reading list on the causes for the recent rise in populism, which you can review here.)
Based on these findings, participants developed a range of different initiatives that they are now implementing. One project („Nous Sommes“) has already started. It is sending postcards with a personal message about what Europe means to the sender to French “swing villages” where Front National had substantial backing in the last election. A second initiative („Partypeople“) aims to support and facilitate the process of joining existing political parties, to engage with them at local, regional or national levels and to improve inner-partisan and cross-partisan networks. A third project („Passionism“) wants to raise awareness among pupils in schools on the how the media, on- and offline, functions and how best to inform themselves through workshops.
If you are interested in finding out more about any of these projects, get in touch with us. Furthermore, we have developed a list of exciting existing initiatives, working to promote democracy and counter illiberal populist tendencies, that you might consider supporting or joining. Finally, a local offshoot of the „Aktionswochenende“ took place in Freiburg recently: read more about the event and help grow the new initiatives developed here.
Get in touch
You can find a detailed report on the weekend here. If you have comments or ideas, do get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org! For updates and more information please have a look at our website or find us on Facebook.
Über Marcus Mikulcak
Marcus Mikulcak, geboren 1987, studierte Technische Informatik in Berlin und Stockholm. Er promoviert an der Technischen Universität Berlin über die Verbesserung der Qualität sicherheitskritischer Software.