Roundtable in 2016: Strategies against Populism

International Roundtable at Das Progressive Zentrum on December 7, 2016

"arrows" (CC BY 2.0) by Dean Hochman

Against the grave background of the populist surge and rising disenchantment with democratic politics, Das Progressive Zentrum launched the project Countering Populism and Political Disaffection. The second roundtable took place on Wednesday, December 7, 2016.

The first roundtable in 2016 assembled a number of highly distinguished speakers from France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Germany:

  • José Ramón Montero, Autonomous University of Madrid
  • Paul Taggart, University of Sussex
  • Paula Diehl, Humboldt University Berlin
  • Dorothée de Nève, University of Giessen
  • Aurélien Mondon, University of Bath
  • Sophie Gaston, Demos
  • Marc-Olivier Padis, Terra Nova
  • Giuliano da Empoli, Volta

Academics and political actors have long been proposing (and implementing) a number of remedies to populism and disaffection. These range from the short-term strategic considerations of political parties to long-term transformative ideas for the whole of society. In this roundtable series – which consists of four separate roundtables in total – we want to assemble and discuss mid-term to long-term strategies against right-wing populism, which take into account the underlying phenomenon of political disaffection in different European contexts.

Opening speeches were delivered by Dominic Schwickert (Director, Das Progressive Zentrum) and Heiko Geue (Head of Department, German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth). Subsequently, the roundtable debated the contributions of José Ramón Montero (Professor of Political Science, Autonomous University of Madrid), Aurélien Mondon (Senior Lecturer in French and Comparative Politics, University of Bath) and Dorothée de Nève (Professor of Political Science, University of Giessen) on the issue of political disaffection

Within the discussion, political disaffection was characterised by traits such as the absence of a sense of belonging, the depravation of the own political voice and not feeling at home in the political community. Furthermore, this phenomenon was seen to include developments such as the dwindling confidence in political institutions and dealignment as a reduced party alignment of voters. Deliberating the broad continuum of motives for non-voting, two central types of non-voters were identified: unplugged citizens as sophisticated citizens who consciously choose not to vote, and stand-by citizens as disinterested citizens which are prone to media influence. As there is no single typical non-voter, a diverse mix of strategies is necessary in order increase voter turnout. Instead of only reacting to and countering populist advances, democratic political actors should set their own agenda. This agenda should accept and act upon citizens’ feelings of social or cultural insecurity in the short term, and initiate a society-wide debate on the nature of politics in the long run.

In the second part of the roundtable, Paul Taggart (Professor of Politics, University of Sussex), Paula Diehl (Senior Lecturer in Political Theory, Humboldt University Berlin) and Sophie Gaston (Head of International Projects and External Affairs, Demos) shared their insights regarding the core characteristics of populism. Populism incorporates a hostility towards the establishment, a fetishisation of the people and opposition to the system of representative democracy. Since the strategies of excluding or ignoring populists have not proven to be very successful, a feasible strategy for countering populist advances might instead be to actively engage with their agenda. Concerning the peculiar relationship between populism and the media, it was argued that populism works as a bridge between right-wing positions and the mass media. This makes it possible for populists to “win without winning”: even without entering government offices, they often succeed in setting the general political agenda. In the final session, Marc-Olivier Padis (Director of Studies, Terra Nova) and Giuliano da Empoli (Director, Volta) discussed possible strategies against populism for think tanks and other societal actors.

The programme of the roundtable can be found here. More pictures are available here. You can watch video footage of the roundtable here.


If you have any questions concerning the roundtable or the project, please contact Sven Altenburger. In cooperation with the German Federal Ministry of Families, Senior Citizens, Women, and Youth as part of the federal programme Demokratie leben!.