Opinion: Bertelsmann makes me wonder if I, too, am populist | Opinion | DW | 25.07.2017
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Opinion: Bertelsmann makes me wonder if I, too, am populist

A specter is haunting the world - the specter of populism. But so-called experts can't agree on what populism is or how dangerous it might be. DW's Felix Steiner doesn't even know whether he's a populist or not.

"Am I a populist?" I kept asking myself as I read the recent study by the Bertelsmann Foundation. And, if the answer turned out to be yes, would that really be so bad? Thirty percent of Germans are explicitly populist and another 34 percent "partially populist," according to the study. People always talk about the "two-thirds society," in which the more-impoverished third of the population is denied opportunities available to the rest. This time, though, it's the nonpopulists who are shut out.

Populism, especially when it's used in the context of right-wing populism, is considered a dirty word. Less so with left-wing populism. In school I was taught that populism was when politicians made promises to the people without having any idea how they could be implemented. By this definition, the biggest populists are the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Left party, with their never-ending calls for justice - which apparently costs a ton of money, but no one knows from where that would come. The most recent example is the vocational training fund proposed by SPD chancellor candidate Martin Schulz that would give jobholders 20,000 euros ($23,000) toward relevant courses.

The Bertelsmann Foundation's study uses the answers to eight questions to determine who is a full-on populist and who is a partial populist. Populists are characterized by three attributes: opposition to the establishment, anti-pluralism and favoring the will of the people. So let's take the test.


DW's Felix Steiner

No, I'm not against the establishment, not even when it comes to politics. In fact, I am of the attitude that the people have the right to be governed by the best the country has to offer. This is why I think it's scandalous that the chancellor earns about 15,000 euros a month - your typical bank manager earns more than that. Our elites should be worth something. And that can be reflected in how much they get paid. 

Am I for the will of the people? Underlying that view is the desire for referendums at every possible opportunity. The British had the bitter realization 13 months ago that some complex questions are not necessarily appropriate for a referendum. The Germans, too, would have decided "wrongly" on certain key decisions in history, such as rearmament in the 1950s and the NATO Double-Track Decision in the early 1980s. It's also a good idea to look at the individual states and municipalities in which referendums are held: Most of them are decided by the fact that the necessary percentage of people don't go to the polls because democracy doesn't interest them at all. No - when the best and the brightest hold seats in my parliament, then they have my confidence and the mandate to simply decide on the questions being asked. 

Difficult to understand

One question remains: Am I an anti-pluralist? Definitely not! Nothing made me angrier during the last legislative period than the cultivated boredom in the German parliament. There was almost no sense of a pluralism of opinions. The welcoming of more than 1 million displaced people over a two-year period, many who had no proof of identity, was apparently not worth a single debate. Permitting marriage equality and introducing limitations on online hate speech were also debated for about a minute each. There was more discourse on TV talk shows and at the dinner table than in parliament during the past four years.

In this respect, I approve of having the Free Democrats (FDP) and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) - two parties not aligned with the grand coalition factions, the Greens or the Left - in the Bundestag this fall. That would make the lower house of Germany's parliament finally a little more pluralistic. 

It's silly that only supporters of the AfD are labeled "populist" by the Bertelsmann Foundation. Even the FDP's followers are considered more populist than, say, people who vote for the Christian Democrats or the Greens. Does it make me a populist if I wish for the party's success?

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