For our third event on Nationalism and Populism, we were happy to welcome Dr Takis Pappas to Freiburg. Dr Pappas has taught at the Central European University, the University of Macedonia, the European University Institute, and at the universities of Oslo, Strasbourg, and Freiburg. After obtaining his PhD from Yale in 1996, Dr Pappas concentrated on his major research fields in democracy and democratization, party systems and political leadership, as well as populism, ideological framing and crisis politics. He has also authored, amongst others, the books “Making Party Democracy in Greece” and “Populism and Crisis Politics in Greece,” and is currently working on the publication of “Democratic Illiberalism: How Populism Grows to menace Democracy.” With his extensive background knowledge in the field of illiberal democracies and populist movements, he was the perfect match for our lecture series and we felt very honored to welcome him in Freiburg.
“Why populism?” This was the main question that we asked ourselves this year, and Dr Pappas tried to answer it. He started off by presenting the mainstream liberal argument for the existence of populism, namely that the liberal idea is fading away and is being replaced by populism. He then introduced his own idea, that populism is a counterrevolution by the people who mistrust the liberal elites and feel betrayed by them. He underlined this idea with his main argument: “Why populism? Because of a shortage of trust of the people in open societies.” In order to explain this thesis, Dr Pappas gave the definitions of Populism as Democratic Illiberalism, and Political Liberalism. According to him, Populism consists of one single cleavage, “the people,” a political conflict that exists between “the people” and “the elites,” and a prevailing majoritarianism. Political Liberalism, then, he defined as having many cleavages (young and old, religion, sexuality), prevailing moderation, rule of law, minority rights, and an “overlapping consensus.” What the Political Liberalism has failed to provide to the people, in Dr Pappas view, is trust, not just in institution, but in the principles of liberal democracy themselves. But why do people increasingly mistrust open societies and liberalism?
According to Dr Pappas, two reasons play a major role in this distrust. The first one is what he called ‘the burden of freedom’. Is freedom valuable? How much freedom should there be? Is there such a thing as too much freedom in a world that might feel increasingly unstable? We came to the conclusion that moral individualism is tough, and that freedom can indeed sometimes be a burden. Especially we as students can probably relate to this: so many options to choose from for a future career and life, and so little guidance in making the right decision. Freedom can become overwhelming, and it might be that liberalism, in providing all this freedom, has left its populations uncertain in how to use it and how to find their place in it. In this context, Dr Pappas also picked up on the stereotype of the liberal, hipster, latte drinking “freak show” that is increasingly identified with liberalism. Is that what liberalism wants to be? Maybe a debate is needed for liberalism to identify its own values and develop a consistent narrative.
The second reason for the increasing distrust in liberalism, is that liberal elites often lack convincing visions. Whereas populists claim to give people some sort of belonging and security, liberalism often seems to only offer liberty. This leads to a storytelling gap, where liberals cannot provide convincing reasons to further pursue liberalism. Dr Pappas emphasized the need for telling and compelling narratives if liberalism was to respond to populism. He concluded his talk with the question: “If liberalism has enabled populism, is it the way to fight it?” This left us thinking about alternatives, and started a vivid discussion about how populism should be defined, how alternatives to liberalism might look like, and how liberalism might fill its storytelling gap. Overall, we could agree on a quote presented by Dr Pappas in the beginning: “Where there is no vision, the people perish”(Proverbs 29:19).
We have had a wonderful evening with Dr Pappas and would like to thank him again for his valuable input, but also express our happiness with the great attendance by the student body and the active engagement in the discussion.