Fighting Back “Economic Populism” – Strategies for the U.S. and Germany

Political Breakfast at Das Progressive Zentrum on February 24th

The Brexit referendum and the election victory of Donald Trump were the first major successes of right-wing populists in the Western world. Populist agenda, which often lacks valid arguments, proved to be convincing to certain parts of American and British society. Could this scenario repeat in continental Europe? To tackle this question Das Progressive Zentrum in cooperation with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation invited five American experts and political consultants to a political breakfast on February 24th.

After welcoming remarks delivered on behalf of the organisers by Philipp Sälhoff, Das Progressive Zentrum and Dr. Helene Kortländer representing the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a brief introduction to the topic followed. On the one hand, Trump’s campaign was particularly focused on economic issues and even if over-simplistic and biased, it managed to convince voters. On the other hand, different connotations of the term “populism” exist in American and German contexts. While in Germany populism is seen as rather disreputable, in the U.S. the term doesn’t necessarily have a negative meaning as it is seen as a method of mobilization. Thus, a dilemma emerges: how to deal with populism while avoiding demagogic arguments, and at the same time, embracing the broadest possible part of the general public with a clear and open message?

The American perspective was delivered by renowned experts and experienced practitioners from the U.S.: Mike Darner, Executive Director of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Daniel Hervig, Legislative Director Office of Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), Jenn Kaufmann, Senior Vice President, Revolution Messaging, Matt Stoller, Fellow, Open Markets Program, New America Foundation and Justin Zorn, Political Consultant, Upaya Strategies. Mike Darner started with a critical analysis of the Hillary Clinton campaign, highlighting mistakes and possible reasons for her defeat. He claimed that issues brought up by Bernie Sanders pushed Clinton’s agenda towards more progressive direction, but regardless of this synergy, she eventually failed due to the “lack of substance”. There was not enough on a concrete, coherent message and a huge public mistrust in institutions and the Democratic Party. Jenn Kaufmann continued with introducing the purpose of Sander’s campaign. His objective was to become a progressive voice in these elections and address long-ignored parts of the population. She claimed people were hungry for a politician who reached out to them directly and Sanders answered this crave, being rewarded with private donations.

A response from a German and European perspective complemented the exchange. Christian Odendahl, Chief Economist at the Centre for European Reform, presented three theses on economic populism.

Odendahl underlined the importance of the honest communication of economic challenges. In his opinion, politicians must talk about the impact of economy and trade agreements to compromise the thunder of right-wing populists. With an honest debate about the positive as well as the negative influence of economic policy, a successful message could be created.

Secondly, Odendahl claimed that economic theory and practice were not simply “good” or “bad”, but there are rather an upside and downside of it. Losing trust in experts is a challenge, however it can be utilised by the progressives to question the current (neo)liberal consensus. In the German case this would of course be more difficult than in other countries due to the country’s economically stable situation.

In his third point Odendahl demanded not to neglect the pleas for reclaiming control over the countries: immigration, borders and – most importantly – control over the economy – were issues very present in both Trump’s and “Leave” campaigns. Odendahl claimed it would be a mistake to leave this call unanswered, for these demands of right-wing populists need to be countered by a well-aimed progressive message.

Jenn Kaufmann reacted to these remarks by reminding that for some American citizens “kicking out the Mexicans” felt like something finally was going on, – taking radical and very tangible, however in the long run senseless actions, brought an illusion of regaining control. Thus, the more should progressives stand against racism and xenophobia, however avoiding the mistake of excluding “racists” – or rather those voters who bought Trump’s xenophobic agenda. She stated that an economy and social security system that worked for everyone would be the best remedy for rising discriminatory attitudes. Darner followed with the conclusion, that it was important to establish the message that economy can be steered and should not be seen as a non-contestable and de-politicized imperative dictating rules on society.

In the following open debate, moderated by Laura-Kristine Krause, a controversial question appeared from the audience: should we then really fight back “economic populism”? Or should we rather reframe it and produce a popular, inclusive, evidence-based progressive message, reclaiming the voters who felt neglected, who voted to express their frustration with falling neoliberal dogmata, who feared the growing insecurity of everyday life? Would a positive progressive populism be not only a possible, but also ethical solution? We hope to further discuss this bold statement soon.

The event was organised by:


War 2017 Praktikant beim Progressiven Zentrum. Studierte Politikwissenschaft und Geschichte in Rostock bevor er für den Master Politikwissenschaft an die Universität Bremen wechselte. Sammelte praktische Erfahrung in hochschul- sowie parteipolitischen Aktivitäten und seit kurzem beim Netzwerk für Demokratie und Courage.

Dr. Maria Skóra

Policy Fellow
Maria Skóra ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin am Institut für Europäische Politik und Policy Fellow beim Progressiven Zentrum. Zuvor war sie Leiterin des Programmbereichs Internationaler Dialog des Progressiven Zentrums.

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