2016 has been a year of turmoil for the transatlantic relationship. Two electoral shocks – the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s presidential victory – highlight the simmering anger sweeping across western democracies, fueled by protectionism, xenophobia, and anti-globalization. At such a critical juncture in history, it is necessary to reassess the political landscape and identify the areas of the transatlantic partnership that require reinforcement. With national-level politics in the sway of fervent and unpredictable emotion, the institutions and individuals that make up transatlantic civil society will be the most important actors if the partnership between Europe and North America is to weather the storms that lie ahead.
There are several reasons why the current political turmoil elevates civil society to a more critical role in maintaining the transatlantic relationship. To begin with, politics on both sides of the Atlantic is increasingly a short-term game that can be hijacked by the loudest and most vociferous players. This is especially true in the United States, where hyperpolarization and the two-party system have led to a severe erosion of political moderation. In some cases, like the U.S. government shutdown in 2013 and the ten-month Supreme Court vacancy in 2016, democratic institutions have been weaponized in the pursuit of narrow political agendas. Although the multi-party systems of Europe shield against this, politicians in both Europe and the United States are forced to focus on immediate political considerations and not the long-term outlook of the liberal world order. In the ferocious world of polarized politics, it is easy to assuage voters who demand tariffs and an end to immigration. It is far more difficult – especially in a hysterical and fast-paced media environment – to make a nuanced case for liberal values like tolerance, respect for human rights, and the democratic process. Civil society, insulated from political pressures, can look past reelection concerns and take a long-term approach to policy. With politicians either falling prey to or actively cultivating populist electorates, it is up to civil society to protect the framework of liberal democracy.
This brings up a second theme that has emerged in 2016 – the long-time maxim that “all politics is local.” In the globalized world of the twenty-first century, it was easy to assume that politics had reached an irreversible plateau. This complacency led political scientist Francis Fukuyama to famously proclaim the “end of history” in 1992. Two and a half decades later, the shockwaves generated by Brexit and Donald Trump illustrate that a similar complacency has set in. Local elections allow extremist movements to establish beachheads that can be used to launch larger electoral conquests – the potential domino effect of Brexit is one example. For the European Union, the challenge of combining local politics with an overarching vision is especially pronounced, as the stark divisions over immigration and the Greek debt crisis attest. Over the next four years, civil society should commit to a renewed focus on local elections and examine how to connect individual voters with the values that underpin the transatlantic partnership.
A third theme, common to both Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, was the “post-truth” nature of political discourse in 2016. In fact, both President Barack Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel have spoken against the influence of fake news, with Obama bemoaning the impact of social media as “everything is true and nothing is true.” Although politicians have always distorted facts to suit their aims, the media environment of 2016 saw this strategy reach new heights. Social media promotes individualized echo chambers that play to the human bias to only accept information that aligns with preconceptions about the world. The only constraint to politicians deciding whether to lie is the fear that voters will punish them during an election. In a world that removes this penalty, lying becomes incentivized and we get farther from the level of intellectual discourse that allows democracies to navigate the inevitable friction of disagreement. This is another area where civil society on both sides of the Atlantic will be essential in safeguarding the integrity of political institutions.
Thus far, we’ve discussed some of the general trends that have emerged in 2016 – politics as short-term, politics as local, and our “post-truth” world – and showed why civil society is the key sector for maintaining the transatlantic relationship in the face of populist movements. Harder to define are the exact mechanisms through which civil society can reinforce the partnership between Europe and North America, but this will be a necessary conversation in the years ahead. One of the strengths of civil society is that it is an effective way to transmit lessons learned in one part of the world to other regions. Political events in Europe and the U.S. occur in unique contexts that differ according to history, culture, and the contemporary environment. Significant commonalities remain, however – the same current that swept Donald Trump into power exists in places like France, where the National Front’s Marine Le Pen has a real chance of becoming president. For this reason, electoral lessons must be shared between civil society in Europe and North America so that we can fight our similar political battles with applicable tools and tactics.
Civil society must take the setbacks of 2016 as an opportunity to sharpen their approach to electoral politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Countries across the globe face persistent and evolving transnational threats, including terrorism and climate change. These challenges require cooperation above all else, and for seven decades democracies on both sides of the Atlantic have shared a commitment to collaboration. As fragile democratic institutions surrender to short-term populism, civil society has an increasingly important role in promoting the transatlantic relationship and constructing a bulwark against extremist politics. The individuals and institutions dedicated to partnership on both sides of the Atlantic must learn from each other’s electoral victories and defeats, exchange ideas and tactics to combat the rise of populism, reinvigorate the importance of the transatlantic alliance at the grassroots level, and strive to help liberalism reclaim its optimistic and forward-looking narrative.