Recent years have witnessed a surge of populist movements across North America and Europe. 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.
There is considerable confusion of the differences between the respective political systems of the EU and the US. This results in a lack of recognition of the value of the transatlantic relationship. We must help maintain the balance between national sovereignty and international cooperation for promoting free and flourishing society. Digital media should be leveraged to explain these political systems; in particular, we advocate setting up a transatlantic YouTube channel, on which political leaders, representatives of each government and academics have free and open debates about controversial policy questions. This would allow the public to become more acquainted with the intricacies of governance issues and the different approaches to solving them. Active engagement is a critical piece of any strategy to carry transatlantic values into the future.
In addition to digital platforms for public discourse, there is great value in using physical platforms to narrow the void of misunderstanding between policymakers and the people. The format should be modeled on US-style town hall meetings, where elected officials invite the public to discussion panels and answer questions from the audience. Such face-to-face meetings would allow for greater opportunities to inform the public of the nuances of policy decisions and for receiving their direct feedback. This model can, and should, take place on the transatlantic level. To that end, we recommend fostering more robust transatlantic city partnerships that give political representatives the chance to discuss pressing problems of local governance with their counterparts and share best practices.
2. Strengthening Political Structures Which Promote Interconnectedness
The chief aim of political structures in a 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. Therefore, we suggest to strengthen politicians’ embeddedness in their respective societal contexts.
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, inhibits 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 can result in a shift away from the concerns of the citizens and towards the trappings of power. Term limits serve as a useful tool in preventing the very disconnectedness that results in popular unrest. Essentially, they are conducive to depicting politics as a respectable profession and countering its perception as an unfounded popularity contest.
3. Fostering Transatlantic Exchange Programs
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 needs to understand the transatlantic relationship and its importance firsthand. Paid internship programs require funding to offer more transatlantic postings. To this end, we recommend offering foreigners professional stints in political bodies like the US Senate, the European Commission or the German Bundestag.
The establishment of a transatlantic blue-collar workers exchange program would help to broaden the spectrum of demographic groups that actively participate in the transatlantic partnership. The program should involve apprentices and aim not only at promoting their professional skills but also intercultural learning, the strongest weapon against the lure of populist political offerings. In addition, a state-subsidized transatlantic student exchange program in the spirit of the successful intra-EU “Erasmus” program could be set up to lay the foundation for future transatlantic relationships. Knowledge is gained and decisions are made by those who show up. It is time to add more seats to the table.
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 an Italian-American, who has lived his entire life in Germany and is studying German law at the ‘Universität des Saarlandes’.
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 pursues a master’s degree in international relations at Jacobs University and University of Bremen and works for the 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.