Answering the Populist Call
From Washington to Brussels, the last year has shown that the populists matter. From Brexit, to Donald Trump’s ascendance to the Presidency, on both sides of the Atlantic the message is clear: populists hold political clout.
And this clout has important implications for sustaining and advancing the transatlantic relationship, as it is no secret that populists have been one of the most vocal critics of modernizing the transatlantic partnership. Their influence rose out of a generation of being ignored. Since the Marshall Plan, the West’s elites have created a clear consensus – in enacting policies like those supporting immigration and free trade – while those who disagreed were pushed to the political fringe, and disregarded.
Yet, with recent events – the populists can no longer be overlooked. The old Washington and Brussels consensus showed signs of fading after the 2008 economic crisis, but only recently have come to be aggressively challenged. As European Council President Donald Tusk noted in January, “the new [American] administration seem[s] to put into question the last 70 years of American foreign policy.” The consensus has been tested, and supporters of the transatlantic relationship need to account for this change. Atlantische Initiative’s Atlantic Expedition is predicated on modernizing transatlantic relations in a successful and long-lasting manner. Therefore, crafting an appropriate narrative to demonstrate why a transatlantic relationship is not just for the mainstream political parties and their supporters – but also for everyday Americans and Europeans is integral to success.
1. Who are we targeting with this populist narrative?
The foreign policy establishment in Washington and Brussels does not need to be convinced of the importance of a transatlantic relationship. The partnership’s significance has been a part of the consensus since the Marshall Plan. Our focus has to be on driving support amongst the populist voters on both sides of the Atlantic. From disillusioned Trump voters in West Virginia to hardened Le Pen supporters in the Southeast of France, a sustained, continued transatlantic relationship is dependent upon demonstrating its benefits to these ‘forgotten’ groups.
Secondly, the disillusioned populist voter will not be convinced by U.S. and E.U. political elites. As Political Scientist Cas Mudde has argued, the populist perceives its greatest threat to be “the corrupt and traitorous elites.” And as former UKIP leader Nigel Farage argues, the rise of populism in the United States and Europe has shown power to be consolidated in personalities, not formal titles.
Therefore, our narrative has to target populist leaders on two fronts – sure, attention should be given to national populist leaders. Yet, convincing these leaders will be difficult as the basis of their candidacy is in rejecting global institutions and partnerships that the Atlantische Initiative looks to support. The more promising solution is in targeting local and state leaders. The populist movement believes itself to have been forgotten and unnoticed by the bureaucratic elites. Targeting local and state leaders is targeting those leaders that interact with those populist supports on a daily basis in their hometowns. By building critical partnerships with local leaders, the benefits of modernizing the transatlantic relationship will best be demonstrated by those leaders populists are willing to listen to.
2. What are we arguing with this populist narrative?
The basis of a populist-centric narrative will be in highlighting and emphasizing the first Atlantic Expedition’s proposed modernization of the transatlantic partnership from a populist perspective:
On trade, the populist narrative aligns with the inclusive narrative the first Expedition laid out. In emphasizing the benefits to small companies from increased regulatory convergence, the Atlantische Initiative would be giving local and state leaders an example of how this works for those constituents that have been swept up in the populist movement. In supporting the argument of ‘taking back control’ of the globalized economy, the populist narrative could look to explain that transatlantic cooperation is a means to reassert control from a rising China (which is thought to have taken manufacturing jobs). And lastly, the Blue-Collar Workers Exchange program would demonstrate that this modernization is not exclusively meant for the rich on the United States’ east coast or prominent businesspersons in London, but provides opportunities for those historically abandoned.
On immigration, the populist narrative would articulate that increased cooperation does not mean open, unregulated borders. Organizational partnership for refugee asylum and protection would ensure more information sharing and coordination to ensure our countries remain safe, while adhering to our humanitarian responsibilities. Yet most importantly, by granting more control to local communities in the immigration process – it will go a long way in ensuring the populist is not alienated in decision-making regarding immigration, and that local leaders are working with communities to ensure favorable integration.
On climate, the populist narrative would emphasize the First Expedition’s commitment to an inclusive energy transition that encourages investment in former fossil fuel and manufacturing communities (strongholds for the populist vote). And similar to Trade Adjustment Assistance in the United States, the populist narrative would note the partnership’s responsibility to assist former fossil fuel and manufacturing workers become the leaders of our sustainable energy future – so that the populists are not losing energy jobs or moving their families, just changing jobs within their community.
And on security, the populist narrative would explain why the populist should recognize the clear and present danger that the transatlantic partnership would look to defend against. After the Marshall Plan’s enactment, transatlantic cooperation was deemed a necessity to counteract the Soviet Union. The Soviets’ nuclear stockpile was clear, and nuclear drills throughout classrooms and offices from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Manchester, England made it increasingly present. Today, threats like Russia’s hacking of U.S. and European elections are clear – but not clearly as present in the lives of everyday Americans and Europeans. In explaining how Russian hacking does not only affect prominent politicians like Emmanuel Macron or Hillary Clinton, but also banking and financial institutions as well as personal devices throughout the Western world – the populist narrative would provide concrete examples as to why the populist supporter benefits from increased security under a transatlantic partnership.