Engaging with Populism


Thoughts about becoming a real boundary crosser

Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.

The AfD Party in Germany.

Hugo Chaves in Venezuela.

Nigel Farage and the Brexiters.

Donald Trump may be monopolizing the headlines, but the rise of Populism is a worldwide phenomenon. Politicians, both on the left and right, promising easy solutions to some of the most pressing challenges of our times – all while calling into question our democratic institutions.

What is Populism, exactly? Simply put, it is a political approach that foments anger towards established institutions. It can be “paired” with any number of ideologies, from fascism to libertarianism, but the common thread in all cases is an effort to energize a vocal base of supporters by framing all opposition as corrupt, failing, fake, and even downright evil.

Sound familiar?

Populism turns complex, nuanced social and political problems into simplistic, black and white moral ones. The ‘good guys’ have to take down the ‘bad guys.’ In virtually every case, the ‘bad guys’ just so happen to be the very people who have spent their careers and their lives working to solve these complex issues.

Scientific and social experts are pegged as ‘elite.’

Career public servants are ‘corrupt’ or ‘out of touch.’

Seasoned journalists are ‘liars’ and ‘paid shills.’

I’ve experienced this myself, more than once. In 2016, members of the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland won seats in the local council of the Berlin district of Neukölln, where I live. I’m an appointed member of the Council’s education committee, and we were in the midst of an effort to rename a street that’s named after a German colonel known to have committed atrocities during colonial times. Somehow, despite the fact that this is a local council and we were focused on a question of German history, these AfD council members were convinced that The Nation of Islam was behind our measure to rename the street!

And just last summer, I posted on Facebook to announce a course my colleagues were organizing that explored the new wave of authoritarianism, simplistic solutions, and “alternative facts.” A high school classmate I hadn’t spoken to in fifteen years responded by saying that authoritarianism was, in fact, me “punishing people for openly and honestly talking about the savagery that is Islam, Europe’s collapsed birth rates, and the massive waves of people flooding into Europe and colonizing it.”

As Uri Friedman says, in his article in the Atlantic, “The notion of one virtuous people and one vile elite is a fiction, even if it does reflect real divisions and power dynamics in a given society.”

I see shades of those real divisions in my classmate’s accusation, but I also see the way those divisions have been manipulated to produce his anger, resentment, and aggression. There’s little space for dialogue or thoughtful debate. As far as my classmate is concerned, this is combat, and the battle lines have been drawn.

How are we to understand and respond to this phenomenon?

Where is it coming from?

If left unchecked, where will it take us?

This past fall, I was asked to design and teach a course on “Understanding and Responding to Populist Speech” to graduate students at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. It’s clear that we’re all still at the learning edge when it comes to effectively responding to populist speech. But as I prepared for this course, and as I spent time in deep dialogue with my students, it became clear to me that we cannot counter populism if we don’t seek to understand it.

Often, encounters with people whose political positions are so far from ours leave us either paralyzed or angry. Communication shuts down. But if, for instance, I can’t figure out how to surface the deeper sources of fear and pain driving my classmate’s anger at refugees and immigrants, then we will never find a productive place to move forward. We will always be at odds. Differing perspectives and opinions are essential to a thriving democracy. But those who seek to eradicate all other perspectives are anathema to it.

If we don’t work to understand the roots of populism, then it could undo the very democratic institutions that have allowed populism to flourish.


This approach is unusual because it is rooted in strategic empathy. If the populists want ‘war’ and we give it to them, then we are doomed from the start. We will have fulfilled the very prophecy they’ve been shouting about to anyone who will listen.

We must not go to war with populists.

We must gather together and find a new path forward.


You see, I don’t think populism is the true problem. I believe it is the symptom of deeper, underlying societal challenges. I have some ideas about what those challenges might be, but my voice is just one. We need to work together to understand these challenges and the perspectives on them. In my course at the Hertie School of Governance, my students came from all over the world, and they brought cases of populist speech with them. Brazil. Venezuela. Germany. The UK. Turkey. The United States. So many examples of the problem, that it often felt overwhelming.

But instead of succumbing to that overwhelming feeling and throwing up our hands, we spent time diagnosing these challenges, understanding the perspectives that various factions of the population have on the challenge, the values that underlie them, and what stories they are telling themselves. In the process, my students honed their listening skills, learning to lead with questions, not with assumptions.

We then moved from diagnosis to intervention, with students designing and delivering responses to their chosen pieces of populist speech: How might challenges be re-framed to create a compelling common story that challenges the populist narrative and makes room for a plurality of voices? How might we acknowledge the losses people are feeling on the ‘other side’ in ways that compel us to cross the bridge and work together? How might we foster compassion and common ground? And when is it time to sound a provocative wake up call?

crossing bridges.jpg

In this day and age of online echo chambers and offline social divides, this is all easier said than done. But I’ve seen firsthand how people from all over the world can discuss these complex issues in ways that do not discount the feelings and needs of those who are angry or feeling left out.

As we stand at this precipice, we must ask ourselves:

Are we willing to cross these boundaries?

Not merely, as Dean Williams puts it, as tourists, but as curious explorers, who seek first to understand so that the deeper challenges can truly be understood?

The answer must be yes.

The democratic fabric of our world is at stake.


Elisabeth Heid

Berlin, April 2018


For an in-depth primer on the subject of populism, this article in The Economist, and this article in The Atlantic are both excellent.