Populist movements have arisen across North America and Europe in recent years. These political movements, often centering on a perceived disconnection between political elites and average citizens, lay claim to exclusively represent the will of ‘the people.’ Populism is not tied to a specific political ideology but instead galvanizes traditional elements from both the right and left. The task of policymakers is to discern a path that addresses legitimate concerns that give rise to popular unrest in order to rebuild faith in governing institutions.
1. Leveraging Digital and Physical Platforms for Public Discourse
Much of public discourse now occurs online. It is vital that political, cultural, and business leaders intentionally engage this new digital media world. This applies to the national, district/state, and local level. Government officials should prioritize high quality digital outreach, and use more effective communication to interact with the public. Through social media engagement, in which politicians explain and defend their policies and goals.
The transatlantic relationship is the most consequential in terms of communicating democratic values to the world, yet this relationship is in an identity crisis. Many Americans do not understand the EU, while Europeans misunderstand the system of federalism in the U.S. All of this results in a lack of recognition of the value of the transatlantic relationship and how joint leadership can be a force for good in the world. We must help maintain the balance between national sovereignty and international cooperation for promoting free and flourishing society.
Political leaders and policymakers must think differently about their approach to the body politic. New generations approach politics and communication differently. Passive public engagement is no longer effective. Active engagement is a critical piece of any strategy to carry transatlantic values into the future.
Moreover, to narrow the void of misunderstanding between elected policymakers and the people, elected officials ought to invite the public to discussion panels or, as they are called in the U.S., town hall meetings. Free and open debate, conducted by representatives of competing viewpoints, will close the gap between the public and political leaders. Face-to-face meetings between the public and political leaders would allow for greater opportunity to inform the public of the nuances of policy decisions while also allowing the public to directly convey their feedback. This model can, and should, take place on the transatlantic level.
2. Political Structures Which Promote Interconnectedness.
The chief aim of political structures in free society ought to be focused on the individuals who comprise the body politic, itself. That is to say, citizens are the rightful focus of our governing institutions. It is from the individual’s consent to be governed that our political structures find their power.
To achieve this goal in a practical sense, elected officials should pass laws to implement term limits, or commit to voluntarily self-limit their time in elected office. The public is best served by electing political leaders who limit their own power. The lack of term limits on legislators, for example, limit the diversity of individuals who would otherwise be willing to serve. Moreover, term limits keep elected officials closely connected to their life outside of power, reminding them of the lives of average citizens. Long periods of time spent exercising political power frequently results in a shift away from the concerns of the hard working individual and towards the trappings of power. Term limits serve as a useful tool in preventing the very disconnectedness that results in popular unrest.
3. Transatlantic Exchange Programs.
On a smaller scale, effective exchanges of people and ideas need to be replicated. Professional exchanges such as “think transatlantic” and Congressional Study Groups need to be executed on the grassroots level. The next generation of leaders need to understand the transatlantic relationship and its importance firsthand. Defunct programs, such as Presidential Classroom, need to be brought back and programmed on a transatlantic level. Existing programs need to involve exchanges with their transatlantic counterparts. Paid internship programs with embassies and foreign ministries require funding to offer more transatlantic postings. The establishment of a transatlantic workers exchange programs that allow employees of multinational corporations and their families to spend time abroad would help broaden the spectrum of demographic groups that actively participate in the transatlantic partnership. Knowledge is gained and decisions are made by those who show up. It is time to add more seats to the table.
These are just the first steps to consider towards the goal of responding to the popular unrest that has arisen across Europe and North America. Transparent leaders, better connected to the lives of average citizens, who intentionally engage the public will not only raise the level of public discourse, but provide productive outlets for political disagreements to be discussed and resolved.
Jason Cowles is a current M.A. candidate in International Relations at Freie Universität Berlin and is committed to revitalizing public diplomacy in the 21st century.
Lutz-Peter Hennies is a former Fulbright student in New York City with an academic background in philosophy and economics and work experience in management consulting.
Rachel Hoff is Director of Defense Analysis at the American Action Forum, a center-right think tank in Washington, DC.
Jared Holst is studying the global political economy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and has spent nearly a decade working in sales, marketing, and business development for business-to-business technology startups.
John-Markus Maddaloni is a twenty two year old Italian-American studying German law at the Universität des Saarlandes in Germany.
Brandon James Smith is a lawyer currently working in state government in the United States, he previously worked for a legal and policy think tank in Washington D.C., and as an adjunct professor at American University.
Ingmar Sturm is a graduate student of international relations at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany, and works for his NGO “Island Ark Project” to help climate refugees.
Steffen Zenglein is a graduate of Master in Economics with a focus on international trade at the renowned Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich.