Populism and Europe’s Future

Populist sentiment may be just a groundswell of discontent among a minority, but it can
also affect major political developments, depending on its momentum and the issues involved.

by Paul Kieffer
November 16, 2010

Populist movements have played an important role in calling for change in democratic – and nondemocratic – countries over the last 150 years. Derived from the Latin word populus (people), populism generally refers to a political movement that capitalizes on dissatisfaction with the status quo, social conflict or fear and unrest. Populism often rears its head during times of rapid societal change and is usually identified with a charismatic personality who leads the movement or personifies its goals.

The Encyclopedia of Democracy defines populism as "a political movement that emphasizes the interests, cultural traits, and spontaneous feelings of the common people, as opposed to those of a privileged elite. For legitimation, populist movements often appeal to the majority will directly – through mass gatherings, referendums, or other forms of popular democracy – without much concern for checks and balances or the rights of minorities" (Seymour Lipset, ed., 1996, p. 985).

The recent Tea Party movement in the United States is characterized by some, such as Howard Fineman writing in Newsweek, as populist sentiment that "is nothing new. If you don't count Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, it goes back at least to the anti-immigration Know Nothings of the 1840s . . . In the decades after [the Civil War], populist movements rose on the left, from Wobblies to progressives. Their energy and agendas found their way into electoral politics, especially in the first half of the last century, and in the civil-rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and early 1970s" ("Party Time," April 6, 2010).

Fineman's perception that populist agendas are later reflected in electoral politics is evident in two populist movements dating back to the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. The Populist Party advocated a graduated income tax and the direct election of senators (two ideas that became popular among the larger two political parties and resulted in Constitutional amendments establishing them). The Progressive Party in the early 20th century promoted regulations for business and civil service reform (both ideas became reforms of the government, involving such ideas as antitrust legislation and civil service exams).

In these examples, what began as a groundswell of concern and discontent wound up influencing legislation. In other words, when populist ideas get too popular to successfully resist, they can be adopted by the established political parties to prevent erosion of their base of support. In this way, populist movements "can provide a useful 'wake-up call' to elites and public officials who have grown too cozy with their privileges and too remote from the concerns of public opinion" (Marc Plattner, "Populism, Pluralism, and Liberal Democracy," Journal of Democracy, January 2010, pp. 88-89). Moreover, modern populist movements may provide a challenge to the political correctness practiced by governments and the established political system.

Islam and political correctness in Europe

One major challenge in Europe is the acceptance of the Islamic religion and culture in an environment that has been predominantly non-Islamic for centuries. The tension created by what some view as Islam's "encroachment" via population growth generates the kind of fear that provides a fertile ground for populist sentiment.

If the growing Muslim population in Europe is creating a breeding ground for apprehension, the political correctness of Europe's traditional political parties and governments is adding fertilizer to the mix.

Consider that mainstream European media and political leaders often emphasize that the vast majority of Muslims living in Europe are peaceful and nonviolent – that it is only a minuscule minority of radical Islamists who are giving their religion a bad name.

Europeans concerned about the population growth of Europe's Muslim minority are wary of Turkey's bid to join the European Union. Were Turkey to become a member of the EU, the percentage of Muslims living in the EU on that day would jump from about 5 percent currently to more than 20 percent. Supporters of Turkish EU membership generally follow the politically correct position of proclaiming the need for Turkey to be fully integrated into Europe's institutions. However, it is no small number of Europeans who are more concerned about the potential onslaught of Muslim migration from Turkey into countries like France, Germany and the Netherlands, once Turkish citizens are granted the right to live and work anywhere in the European Union.

In 2005 an opinion poll in France showed that 35 percent of those who voted against the EU constitution were influenced by the possibility that Turkey might some day become an EU member. In what might be considered a populist move, former French President Jacques Chirac – recognizing the misgivings his countrymen had about Turkish EU membership – promised that France's decision on Turkish EU membership would be made by a national referendum.

Populist sentiment grows in Germany

The perception of a threat to traditional European culture by a growing Muslim community provides a classic impetus for populist sentiment. Last summer traditional political parties and news media in Germany were surprised by the support voiced for Thilo Sarrazin, who at the time was on the board of directors of Germany's federal bank (Bundesbank).

In August Sarrazin published a book titled Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab: Wie Wir Unser Land Aufs Spiel Setzen (Germany Is Eliminating Itself: How We Put Our Country at Risk). In the book Sarrazin criticized Muslim immigrants for being unwilling to integrate fully into German society, causing additional social costs to German taxpayers. Sarrazin's opinion on this subject had not changed much since September 2009, when he said in an interview that he did "not have to acknowledge anyone who lives at the expense of the state that he rejects, does not provide for the education of his children in a reasonable manner and continually produces new little girls wearing a head covering."

The "official" reaction to Sarrazin's book and a controversial speech he had given in June was predictable. Politically correct politicians and media criticized him for being intolerant, and he later resigned from the Bundesbank's board of directors. Others, however, welcomed Sarrazin's book as an opening to discuss subjects that have been off-limits in Germany for years. A public opinion poll conducted by the Allensbach Institute found 60 percent of those surveyed describing Mr. Sarrazin as saying "many things that are correct," while only 13 percent disagreed with his viewpoint.

Populist sentiment was also evident when Dutch Member of Parliament Geert Wilders spoke in Berlin on Oct. 2, 2010, to 700 invited guests who had assembled to celebrate the birth of a new political party in Germany: the Freedom Party of conservative Berlin politician René Stadtkewitz. Stadtkewitz had earlier been expelled from the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for having invited Wilders to Berlin. Called a "rightist populist" by German media, Wilders had no qualms about describing his perception of what Germany needs in his Oct. 2 speech:

"Germany needs a political movement to defend German identity and to oppose the Islamization of Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel says that the Islamization of Germany is inevitable. She conveys the message that citizens have to be prepared for more changes as a result of immigration. She wants the Germans to adapt to this situation.

"The Christian-Democrat leader said: 'More than before mosques will be an integral part of our cities.' My friends, we should not accept the unacceptable as inevitable without trying to turn the tide. It is our duty as politicians to preserve our nations for our children . . . A Germany full of mosques and veiled women is no longer the Germany of Goethe, Schiller and Heine, Bach and Mendelssohn."

In the same speech, Wilders also indirectly addressed the controversy over failed intregration policies in Germany by referring to a controversial visit made by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan to the Turkish community in Cologne in 2008:

"When the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan visited your country in 2008, he told the Turks living here that they had to remain Turks. He literally said that 'assimilation is a crime against humanity.' Erdogan would have been right if he had been addressing the Turks in Turkey. However, Germany is the land of the Germans. Hence, the Germans have a right to demand that those who come to live in Germany assimilate; they have the right – no they have a duty to their children – to demand that newcomers respect the German identity of the German nation and Germany's right to preserve its identity."

A small group of protestors assembled across the street from the hotel where Wilders spoke, carrying signs warning about the danger of neo-Nazism, including caricatures of Adolf Hitler. Perceptive analysts realize, however, that Wilders is no neo-Nazi. Instead, the response to his message – along with the reaction to Thilo Sarrazin's book – reveal a potential populist vote perhaps as high as 20 percent "to the right of the CDU," Chancellor Merkel's own party.

Germany's conservative shift

As noted earlier in this article, "populist movements can provide a useful 'wake-up call' to elites and public officials" (Plattner, ibid.). As quoted earlier, Howard Fineman observed in Newsweek that populist "energy and agendas found their way into electoral politics" in the United States. Are there indications that the same thing is already happening in Germany, the country that Geert Wilders further described as "a benefit to all of us, because the well-being and prosperity of Germany is a prerequisite for the well-being and prosperity of Europe?" (Berlin speech, Oct. 2, 2010).

If populist sentiment were to mobilize 20 percent of eligible voters in Germany "to the right of the CDU," the big losers would be the CDU itself and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Socialist Union (CSU). One reason for the current sentiment is that the CDU/CSU coalition itself is no longer as conservative as it once was.

In her keynote address at the CDU party convention in November, Chancellor Merkel appeared to respond to populist concerns in the ongoing debate on the assimilation of immigrants: "Whoever wants to live here has to learn German. Whoever lives here has to respect our laws and values . . . Those who do not follow the rules can expect to face sanctions" (http://www.dw-world.de).

Merkel went on to say that Germany's problem is not too much Islam, "but too little Christianity. We speak too little of our Judeo-Christian heritage" (Der Spiegel, Nov. 15, 2010) She called for more emphasis on Christian values – an interesting statement at a time when Pope Benedict XVI has declared the "re-Christianization" of Europe to be a major goal of his papacy. 

It is clear that leaders of Merkel's sister party are also considering the impact of populist sentiment. On the weekend that Wilders spoke in Berlin, CSU minister of defense Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg called him "one of those charlatans making the rounds these days." However, Zu Guttenberg admitted what was obvious: "We haven't sufficiently led the discussion" on citizens' concerns about Muslim immigration.

Zu Guttenberg's CSU party colleague, Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer, pulled no punches in an interview and a speech given just two weeks after Wilders' visit to Berlin. Seehofer said that Germany "did not need any additional immigration from Turkey and Arab countries," adding that Germany "is not the welfare office for the entire world." Seehofer's comments on immigration from Islamic countries would have been unthinkable just 10 years ago, but public opinion surveys showed roughly half of those responding agreeing with him.

Seehofer also denounced the multicultural approach of so-called parallel societies existing with each other. "Multicultural is dead," he declared, emphasizing that immigrants had to be absorbed into the dominant German culture (Leitkultur) with its value system based on the Christian heritage. Just days after Seehofer's speech, Chancellor Merkel agreed with him that the multicultural approach had failed.

How far will Germany's conservative political parties go in their response to growing concerns over Germany's immigration and integration policies? What if they are unsuccessful in assimilating those motivated by populist sentiment? When asked about the ongoing debate over the Muslim community in Germany, former chancellor Helmut Schmidt admitted that Germans had not been able to integrate the 4 million Muslims already living in his country. He also indirectly confirmed the negative connotation that "populism" tends to have in Germany. "So far," he said, "we don't have that [rightist] party" to the right of the CDU/CSU. "The reason is Nazism and Auschwitz. This is the reason for the time being, and hopefully for the future" (as quoted in "Germany Risks a Lurch to the Right," New York Times, Oct. 11, 2010).

In today's liberal environment in Europe, there would have to be a radical shift in thinking for a neo-Nazi movement to gain a following large enough to infuence German – or larger European – politics. A more likely possibility, based on current developments, is a future combination of populist sentiment and reawakened religious fervor.

The papacy's emphasis on promoting a rebirth of Christianity in Europe, coupled with populist concerns over growing Muslim influence, could prepare the stage for a future charismatic Christian leader to play a dominant role in shaping Europe's future. Bible prophecy indicates that this scenario is more than just a speculative possibility. It will one day be the wave of the future.

Developments in Europe will surprise a world unaware of what the Bible has to say about the time leading up to the prophesied return of Jesus Christ. However, you don’t have to remain uninformed. I recommend the free booklets You Can Understand Bible Prophecy and The Book of Revelation Unveiled, both available free of charge upon request.

• Paul Kieffer, November 16, 2010