Political Signals and Populist Noises

Following the two party conventions last month in Cleveland and Philadelphia, many undecided American voters and many millions watching from around the world might have concluded that they had just watched two very different movies about the United States. One depicted a country in free fall, while the other presented a picture of a promising future for all. Both were theater productions, scripted—one much more than the other—and predictable. Trump was crowned head of the Republican Party and Hillary Clinton Queen of the Democrats. Yet there is more noise than clear signals surrounding both campaigns, with discords from those who were not happy with either coronation. With Bernie Sanders supporters registering their objections to Hillary in Philadelphia and Never-Trump supporters trying to block the candidate’s nomination in Cleveland, there has been more noise in the exchange of attacks between the two campaigns than efforts put into defining what is at stake in the next four years.

In the coming weeks, as the din of personal attacks, insults, and defamation of character will overpower central issues at stake for the country, that noise will only grow louder. That has a lot to do with Donald Trump’s aggressive campaign style and his hyperbolic rhetoric. Besides, there is more than enough mud slinging in this presidential race, which is drowning out chances to discuss the challenges ahead.

There are many explanations as to how we got into this mess, but there is no doubt that the fierce political combat not only is destructive for the domestic environment in the United States, but also is preventing a very urgent discussion of the course of American foreign policy. It distracts from debating the right signals we need to send to our allies and our enemies about U.S. priorities and America’s ability to implement them on the global stage. Instead, we are caught up in an ugly contest of polarized demonization. In the process, we are embarrassing ourselves and risking our ability to regain our balance once this election is over.

Will this situation change after the election? The experiences of recent decades are not encouraging. The institutional gridlock in Washington has been intensifying for decades, while both the political parties as well as their respective constituencies have become increasingly polarized. The United States as a society has been sorting itself into different tribes at different levels, confining themselves in different echo chambers which block out what they don’t want to hear. Real facts are sometimes shunned in favor of fantasies with an unending supply of ammunition in social media feeding that demand.

That trend does not end on November 8. It only continues.

Despite the incomparable resources available to the United States in its foreign policy and military portfolios, how to utilize these recourses seems to be increasingly uncertain. That is partially due to the political acrimony about recent memories of disasters and failures, like the painful experience in Afghanistan and Iraq and the tragedy on September 11, 2001. Increasing terrorist threats and attacks within and beyond U.S. borders and confrontations with authoritarian governments on the global stage also wears on the public psyche. The feelings of vulnerability in large swaths of American society—through either the prism of perceived external threats or the awakening to domestic social and economic hardships—generate immense resentment and backlash amongst people who feel helpless to respond to these challenges. It is a volatile mix that can fuel political opportunists on all parts of the political spectrum.

Amplifying this trend is a declining level of confidence in the legitimacy of institutions, governments, industries, the media, and others that have been cornerstones of confidence in the past, as well as those who represent them. Public trust in government and politicians is diminishing. The reaction is to reach toward populist responses, offering the simplest explanations for complex challenges. When those explanations don’t work, anger and frustration abound. Some desire to simply want to burn the house down, starting in Washington, DC.

This is not a uniquely American phenomenon. We see it on both sides of the Atlantic. The Trump movement in the United States bears striking resemblance to many populist leaders throughout Europe on both ends of the political spectrum. From UKIP which supported Brexit in the UK, to Marie La Pen’s National Front in France, to Alternative for Germany, to those who do not vote at all, populist elements all over Europe initiated the blowback against what represents the mistrust of “the elite.”

The same anger is also directed at the European Union, which has resulted in an upsurge of nationalist sentiments in many countries. And it should be noted that such trends are a welcome development and are being directly supported by Russia which has an interest in the fraying of the EU.

What is playing out in the United States in this presidential election will continue on electoral stages in the coming year in French elections in the Spring followed by German elections in the Fall, along with those in the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, and Serbia.

Germany is of particular significance in this context as Chancellor Merkel faces reelection challenges in September next year. While the immigration issue is bound to play a central role in the campaigns of all politician parties, there is no doubt that right wing forces will have sufficient support to send the newly emergent Alternative for Germany party to the Bundestag, where critical noises toward Merkel’s strained relations with the German public will be significantly amplified. During her eleven years in office, Merkel has for the most part enjoyed steady popular support. However, the immigration crisis, tensions with Turkey and Russia, terrorist threats, Brexit, and the continuing Euro crisis have combined forces to rattle the minds of the German public. There is no guarantee that, even if Merkel will be elected for a fourth term, future events will not undermine her positions. Further more, Merkel’s role as the sole cornerstone leader of the European Union for sustaining its momentum could be at risk. The question is if the German voters will fully appreciate the significance of their choice a year from now.

Liberal democracies are based on the formula of effective government, stable legal system, and accountability to its stakeholders—citizens. These formulas are capable of decaying, as Francis Fukuyama points out, when institutions and processes are no longer serving the purposes they were designed to fulfill and when the signals of legitimacy are no longer heard over the noises of populist anger. The current populist insurgence is the incubator for centrifugal forces which can pull societies apart and open the door to other models of government other than liberal democracies.

The election campaign noises in the United States in the coming weeks will not offer many answers to tackling the social, economic, and political challenges we face. We will see signals emerging from debates about dysfunctional governance and the spiral of polarizing anger. The difficult question is how do we reconcile the poisonous mix of hostility toward the political establishment and governing a noisy democracy. This will be a challenge on both sides of the Atlantic in the coming years. Challenges, dangers, and needs that confront the rest of the world are not effectively dealt with while Americans wait to vote. But they are not going to be dealt with any better after the elections if dysfunctional governance and the spiral of polarizing anger continue.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Jackson Janes

President of AICGS

Jackson Janes is the President of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics from 2005-2010.

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Atlantic Council of the United States. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee , Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS), the Robert Bosch Foundation Alumni Association, and the American Bundestag Intern Network (ABIN) in Washington, DC. He is a member of the Board of the German American Fulbright Commission and serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. He is a member of the Cosmos Club in Washington DC.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.