How to deliberate fundamental values? Notes from Brandenburg on our approach and experiences.

By Hans Blokland


People hardly ever change their mind. The more they feel forced to justify themselves, the more they feel questioned, criticized, disrespected, and the smaller the chance that they will open their mind to other positions. This certainly is the case when values are involved: more than anything else, values – ideas on the good life and the good society – define someone’s identity, and therefore their self-respect. Open, direct queries on values are almost always taken personally.

In the autumn of 2016 we started series of deliberative workshops in Brandenburg with young male refugees between 17 and 24 years.[i] In the workshops we discussed, among others, ethical and political pluralism, democracy, civic society, freedom (of expression, association and religion), personal autonomy and emancipation, tolerance, human rights, identity, socialization, masculinity, femininity, sex equality, and homosexuality. Hence, values and perspectives were deliberated that are pivotal to the western cultural tradition and that a number of newcomers do not or do not entirely share. At least, that’s the impression held by many Germans, Europeans and Americans.

The project was made possible by the Integrationsbeauftragte des Landes Brandenburg (Ministerium für Arbeit, Soziales, Gesundheit, Frauen und Familie) and the Brandenburgischen Landeszentrale für Politische Bildung.

One group of participants consisted of refugees from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. Another group came from several African countries, including Eritrea, Somalia, Ghana and Nigeria. The third group predominantly consisted of Syrian refugees. All participants volunteered.[ii] The majority arrived about a year back in Germany. We mostly spoke German and occasionally English, and for one series we made use of a translator. We met on several occasions, during the day, in the evening, during holidays or over weekends. On average we deliberated for about 15 hours in total. The number of participants ranged from 5 to 17 people per meeting.

We also organized two series of workshops with German citizens, volunteers assisting refugees to integrate in German society.[iii] This project was supported by the Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge. These groups had each 15 participants, predominantly well educated women between 25 and 35 (in Germany mostly women volunteer in the civil sector). We met also for about 15 hours in total and discussed the same themes, as well as, how to deliberate these themes with other people.

In 2017, we will implement many more series of workshops with a variety of compositions: just female refugees (assuming that some topics are easier discussed when men are absent); only male refugees; both sexes together; participants with a wider range of ages; migrants from different cultures or countries together; just natives; and, most promising, migrants and natives together. In open pluralist societies where people with very different orientations have to live together, and often also want to live together, workshops where the participants reflect this diversity would be ideal.

Our aims are to further integration and civic participation, and to counter populism and radicalization. We have tried to develop new ways of meaningful citizen participation and to advance new strategies to strengthen civic and political competences. Obviously, as the surge of political estrangement and populism in almost all Western democracies shows, more than just talks with newcomers are called for. It is about time that Western citizens themselves start to communicate with each other about the values, ideals, ideas, and perspectives that are supposed to hold their societies together.

So far the deliberations have strengthened our beliefs in the possibility to talk with people from all walks of life and from different cultures about critical topics in earnest and thoughtful ways; on condition that participants are taken seriously and the social context in which the deliberations take place is inviting, accommodating and courteous. We addressed demanding subjects, but our participants proved very able to discuss them with eloquence, respect and often deep insight. Sometimes we disagreed, but our disagreements never closed doors for enduring engagement.

How did we do it? What did we learn? Below, we start with an explanation of our scholarly points of departure and motivations. After that we describe our deliberative approach. We illustrate this approach by going into a typical deliberation on democracy and pluralism. And we conclude with some remarks on what we can reasonably expect of 15 hours of deliberation on fundamentals like democracy, freedom and human rights.


1 Scholarly points of departure

At the start of every series of workshops we make explicit what our intentions, goals and assumptions are. For obvious reasons, the refugees in our workshops were often suspicious, even scared of those they view as authorities in Germany. They don’t like to talk about politics and values with strangers. Typically they came from countries where expressing views on politics meant trouble. Trust had to be built up. A good start here is explaining who you are, why you are doing this, what your assumptions are, and what you want.

Why do we organize these deliberative workshops? Obviously, our participants were keen to know. As social and political scholars we are interested in democracy, political participation, civil society and, especially, in finding new ways for political and social engagement. Many of the debates in Western social and political science and philosophy in the last decades have centered on concepts like citizenship, social cohesion, social capital, or deliberation. Apparently, there is a widespread concern about “diminishing democracy”, about citizens participating less and less in social and political associations, about citizens understanding less and less about social, economic and political processes and structures, and about citizens becoming more and more receptive to easy answers to complicated problems. We urgently need to find new ways to participate meaningfully in social and political activities and, by participating, to increase political competence (Dahl 1950, 1989, 2000; Fishkin 1995; Putnam 1993, 2000; Blokland 2006, 2011). Therefore, we do not organize these deliberative workshops just for refugees and migrants, but also for native Germans and other Europeans. We do not think that refugees are a particular “problem”, no more, at least, than natives.

On top of that, we have a special interest in normative or philosophical questions like, What is freedom? How far does the freedom of expression go? Do people have the freedom to build organizations aimed at dismantling democracy? What is democracy? To what extent should the state stay neutral towards different ways to live a life? Are there values or ideas that are shared by everyone in the world? Are people really that different? Citizens in our societies need to talk much more about this kind of fundamental topics. For too long we avoided discussions on basics, because we were afraid that these would never lead to any workable consensus and would only create conflicts that could escalate. For many years, avoiding discussions on fundamental values was also the advice of many political scholars (cf. Blokland 2011: 40ff).

Not talking about fundamental issues creates societies without knowledge and understanding of their own foundations, and, consequently, societies that in the end are unable to justify and defend themselves. Moreover, this abstinence nurtures political communities without the ability to decide what is important and unimportant, and to decide in which directions it should steer itself. Not talking about these fundamental issues creates societies at the mercy of blind social and economic structures and processes that few understand, societies that broil hidden and undirected resentment, societies that fall apart. Obviously, in political communities that undergo quick change, for instance because of the migration of substantial numbers of people or because of rapid economic transformations due to globalization and technological innovations, there is a need to discuss and to delineate what binds people together.

Furthermore, we believe that most people are able to think sensibly about topics like these and are capable to reach agreements or workable compromises. Also in our workshops we have found that many people, certainly the young people we talked with, have an interest in thinking and deliberating about these topics – and often simply like to play with big ideas – provided that the social environment in which they are invited to do so is right. In this context, the confrontational, hostile election campaigns and debates that have become common in many Western democracies are counterproductive from the perspective of democratic deliberation: they close citizens’ minds. They are also dangerous because they undermine the pillars on which democracy rest: the willingness and the ability to listen, to discuss, to evaluate, to compromise and to tolerate.

A next set of assumptions we communicated explicitly to the participants is, firstly, that we believe that we can learn something valuable from almost every other culture. We think that contemporary Western culture has important shortcomings and that we as Europeans or Westerners can learn a lot from other cultures, for instance, with respect to community, hospitality, solidarity, or “companionship”. Our Western civilization went wrong in important ways, destroying not just the natural environment but also key conditions of human wellbeing (Lane 2000), and it is time to correct the course of blind rationalization we have taken (Blokland 2006). Other cultures could inspire us here. Therefore, we did our best not to enter our deliberations with a superior, paternalistic, Eurocentric perspective: let us tell you what to think and how to organize your life. This arrogance is out of place.

But, secondly, we also made clear that we are not cultural or ethical relativists; neither are we postmodernists. Not everything goes. A pluralist midway exists between absolute cultural relativism and absolute ethnocentrism, and this midway is what we have to respect as our common ground (Berlin 1997, Taylor 1992, cf. Blokland 1997, 1999, 2011). [iv] We believe there are values which are universally recognized, and we believe we can rationally discuss and criticize values and cultures. Values unavoidably clash and have to be balanced. Values have distinct weights in distinct contexts and, consequently, are balanced differently in different contexts. Nevertheless, the values, their frictions or clashes, and the need to balance them, are universally recognized. We also do not balance them at random, but in reasoned ways. In addition, there are ideas on democracy, pluralism, freedom, tolerance and gender – ideas also grounded in German, European and international law – that have a well thought-out, plausible, scholarly basis. We can explain, justify, and defend these ideas and show how they are interrelated and mutually supportive.

With scholars ranging from John Stuart Mill (1859) and Karl Mannheim (1940), to Isaiah Berlin (1988), Jürgen Habermas (1981), Robert Dahl (1989) and James Fishkin (1995) we believe that ideas and values only survive when we discuss them in the open. These ideas and values, and this open discussion, have been eroded from within by those who believe values and the ways we balance them cannot be rationally defended, and by those who have never been challenged to do so. Therefore, an unexpected but welcome outcome of an open exchange with refugees coming to Europe could be a better understanding of our own European cultural tradition and identity. The open discussion with representatives of other cultures about pivotal values will broaden our own minds, will relativize, but also revitalize our own cultures. It could help us to trace back and to redefine the European identity that should form the fundament of a European Union.


2 Deliberative approach

2.1 Mutually building up an argument and an understanding

Typical for our deliberative communications is that we do not “teach” or “lecture” the participants via, what the Germans aptly call, “Frontalunterricht[v]” what is right or wrong, and correct or incorrect. In many educational settings, even at universities, it is still the norm that an authority is standing in front of a group of people delivering a long monologue telling students what to think. Numerous European “integration-courses” are like that, and their number seems to be on the rise, under the influence of anti-migration populist movements. They do not work because in the end they are often based on disrespect, and easily recognized as such.[vi]

Instead, we try to build up, together with our participants, a mutual understanding of pivotal values and concepts. In collaboration with the participants, we try to explore, to examine, and to think through their often hidden assumptions, their explanations and justifications. Together with the members of our workshop, we explore how ideas on concepts like democracy, freedom, tolerance and emancipation hang together, feed each other, are ultimately based on our understandings what it means to be a human being and what it means to live in a decent society. Together we try to develop an understanding of a complex web of mutually reinforcing values, ideas and perspectives.

Usually we ask our participants what comes to their mind when we say, for instance, “democracy”. For that matter, we could also start with “freedom” or with any other “essentially contested concept” of our political and cultural tradition. Characteristically, these concepts are strongly interrelated and get their meaning in a somewhat consistent and coherent network of related concepts. Any discussion of a particular concept creates at some point the need to discuss the other concepts as well (Blokland 1997: 6-7). As inferred above, these concepts always get their meaning or definition in the context of a social and political theory, a theory that ultimately rests on visions on man, society and world. Since these visions are inescapably philosophically inspired, these meanings are always open to debate. But this does not imply that every meaning given to these concepts is equally plausible.

2.2 Starting with abstract values and perspectives

In the process of deliberation it helps to start with abstract values like democracy and freedom, and then slowly translate the insights we developed collectively into concrete issues. Immediately bringing topics to the table like arranged marriages, head scarves and burkas, not to mention homosexuality or the right to express very unpopular opinions and the right to offend and to insult, is often counterproductive: people get into fights on symptoms and not on causes, they disagree immediately, cannot track the sources of their disagreements, and stop communicating, feeling misunderstood, misjudged, disrespected.

2.3 Discussing normative ideas, not empirical situations

For the same reason, we invite the participants to discuss normative ideas and not empirical situations or states of affairs. Immediately going into the supposed reality of Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Brandenburg or Pennsylvania leaves implicit the measures used to evaluate the respective situations and creates intangible, unsolvable disagreements.

People often immediately translate normative questions to their own personal experiences. Democracy? We do not have that in Nigeria, Afghanistan or Syria; or Brandenburg or Pennsylvania for that matter. It is all one big sham. It is a lie. Discussion closed. Understandably, participants are also regularly tempted to bring the discussion back to the question: who is to blame? This is not very productive either: people easily feel attacked and get emotional, much stays implicit, and what people have in common and what they agree about, stays out of sight.

We often have to explain in our workshops that there is a difference between empirical and normative questions, that there is a difference between what is, and what should be, and that we want to talk about ideals, about what we think constitutes a Good life and what constitutes a Good society where this life is possible. When we would like to agree about how to live together, we first have to make explicit our normative ideals on life and living together and have to try to reach a minimal, workable consensus on this.

Not surprisingly, it turned out that our participants share, with other refugees and with us, a lot of ideas about the good life and the good society. Finding this out together, already takes away a lot of anxiety for both sides.

2.4 Setting cornerstones

Furthermore, in the process of jointly searching plausible understandings of concepts like democracy, freedom, identity, emancipation we mainly ask questions, and we allow ample room for the participants to do the same. It is again a matter of respect to give the participants the opportunity to influence the agenda: it is a dialogue. As social and political scholars and as ethical and political pluralists, we do have some cornerstones that we want to set, and our questions are not randomly formulated, and if necessary we steer the discussion in the direction to get to those foundation stones, but how the house looks like between the cornerstones is open to debate.

2.5 Overcoming language and knowledge barriers

Most of our participants select themselves. Consequently, they are probably more than averagely motivated to talk about these kinds of topics. For this reason, they can be considered as potential “multiplicators”, relatively influential people starting deliberations in their own communities, spreading the ideas we collectively developed in the workshops. Still, despite their high motivations, they are not trained social and political theorists. In our deliberations we need to adjust to their abilities and knowledge. We usually cannot deliberate in the same language as in this article; we constantly have to adjust to the available language skills, to the existing knowledge and to the available abilities to reason in abstract terms. This all varies per person and per workshop. Apart from asking a translator to clear up communications, we constantly need to be ready to use other formulations, other telling examples, and other indirect ways to get messages across. For this purpose we also make use of short documentaries, clips, pictures, drawings and cartoons. Moreover, we always have ready some provoking citations and theses to start the conversation or to keep it going.

2.6 Creating a safe and inviting environment

People do not like their values, hence their identity, to be questioned. Any setting that gives people the feeling they are under attack, that they are not respected, isn’t productive from a deliberative perspective. Also therefore, we invest in creating a friendly environment where people feel at home and that invites them to reflect. The style of chairing a meeting obviously is crucial here. But also eating and drinking together, as the Greeks knew, is important. Equally important is being in a place that is neutral and warm, like a community center or a library. We also prioritized taking refugees out of their refugee-home: we address them as citizens, not as refugees-with-a-problem.

Furthermore, the refugees often had bad experiences with politics and with formulating standpoints on politics, values and worldviews. Participants regularly seemed afraid that the expression of views could have personal consequences for their position and status in their new home country. Thus, we needed to make clear that we were not a government body, but an independent civil organization and that we had no connections to the “Ausländerbehörden” (Foreigners Authority). True, we depend on state subsidies for this project but in our classrooms we are successful in keeping the state out. Everything that we would discuss, would stay between us: we would inform nobody about an individual’s opinions and everybody would stay anonymous.

Related to this, we show respect by making plain that we are not social workers working on personal problems, but social and political scientists and philosophers. We bring to the table what we think can be plausibly defended, by general standards of sound reasoning and empirical justification. We can understand that many refugees have had terrible experiences and are traumatized. We feel bad for them, but in our workshop we are not going to talk about that. We do not define them as people with a social or psychological problem, but as citizens able to deliberate sensibly about fundamental topics. In fact, most of the refugees are relieved to be treated this way.

2.7 Preventing direct comparisons and confrontations

We try to avoid unproductive tensions and frictions by going into comparisons: at our place, in our superior Western world, women have the same rights than men, theoretically. Tell us, how is the situation in your native country or culture? Even when people are not content with features of their native culture or country, they will feel tempted to defend these features abroad. They often feel personally attacked. Therefore, instead of talking about women rights in Afghanistan, Iraq or Eritrea, we talk about the ways the rights of women historically have developed in a country like Germany. When did women get the right to attend a university, the right to vote, the right to open a bank account, the right to buy a car, the right to report rape in a marriage? We show our participants empirically how women have entered the labor force, how careers and specific jobs became also available for women (in principle), and how the roles of men and women have evolved over the years.

Previously, we discussed with our participants socialization and identity, and tried to show how identities are to an important extent the product of socialization, how everybody is a product of his family, neighborhood, culture, tradition, religion and time. We explored how identities are socially constructed, how people can have several identities at the same time (a father, a musician, a lover, a Muslim, a sportsman, an American, etc.), how people play with their identity, and how identities are evolving, always in flux.

The general observation is: societies and people change, people rethink values, norms, habits, expectations, also when these values, norms, habits, expectations are based on specific, seemingly unshakable, interpretations of holy books like the Bible and are enforced by churches and other tradition bearers.

Nonetheless, the fact that the ideas and laws in the Western world on the positions of men and women have changed profoundly, does not mean that all change has to be welcomed. For instance, Western societies still have not found a balance between career and family. The expectation that women have a career as well as a family, has not be paired with the corresponding acceptance that men have to take a care role in their families often at the expense of their careers. Hence both sides are faced with unattainable standards and scant political support. This has created an overburdened society, where family life has been eroded and where, partly as a consequence, a decreasing number of people want to have children. In this sphere, Western societies need to learn, to adjust, and to change.


3 Excursion: Deliberation on democracy

The above is somewhat theoretical, so let us give an example how a deliberation might unfold in practice. We did not always completely accomplish the following deliberation, which predominantly has to be read like a kind of road map, but sometimes we certainly came close.

We usually start a deliberation by asking the participants the meaning of a concept like “freedom” or “democracy”, as remarked above. Some of the participants habitually answer that democracy is about elections and voting. We go with this answer, just to start the discussion. When it is about voting, should the majority then always decide, we ask? Yes, the reply regularly is, that’s democracy! The people should decide! But what when the majority decides that the minority should pay all the taxes? Or that the minority should no longer be allowed to speak its own language? Or should no longer have the right to vote? Some participants saw this trouble coming, they often fled from countries where majorities or dictators did not respect minority rights. No, that’s not democracy, most participants would recognize. But why exactly is this the case, we ask? And are there any other topics they would not want to be decided on via majority decisions? Why these, we question? More and more topics are usually brought up by the deliberators. They then often start to talk about constitutions, about having inalienable rights that cannot be taken away from them. They frequently also start to talk about freedom, respect and equality. Some values – think of language, culture and religion – are that precious to people, that they will never accept majority decisions on them. Taking “democratic” decisions on these issues undermines respect for the “democratic” procedure to come to collective decisions, they would feel disrespected in their humanity, they would feel their freedom to live their identity curbed, they would feel treated unequally to other people, people belonging to majorities whose languages, cultures, religions, or identities are apparently considered superior to theirs.

Time to bring the discussion back to voting. Is democracy just about voting or does it need something more? Voting on what, we ask? We need alternatives to vote on, somebody declares, real alternatives. In our native country it is always the leader who decides from of which alternatives we are allowed to choose. They call it democracy, but it is a sham. But what exactly are real alternatives, we propose to ponder? How do you know which alternatives are preferable? And how do you get significant alternatives? We need an open discussion; we have to talk it over, some reply. We also need to learn, at school and from each other, others fill in. Ignorance and democracy do not go well together. And for this open discussion we need freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of the press. We then also get alternatives, some participants assure, because people have different ideas. And when we allow people with comparable ideas to unite, to organize, we get organizations like political parties that can offer alternatives at elections.

Thus, we conclude together, democracy is not just about voting, but also about discussion, about the open exchange of ideas and visions, for which we need freedom of expression and association. And when we finally vote, we do not take decisions on every possible topic via majorities. People have rights which cannot be taken away from them, and about some topics is it better not to vote at all, but instead to let the people or particular minorities decide for themselves.

Apparently, we deliberate, we need freedom for democracy to function. At the same time, democracy is no guarantee for freedom: democratic majorities are an enduring threat to the freedom of minorities. Power seems to be the problem, irrespective where is comes from. Sometimes we cite on a PowerPoint the American president Woodrow Wilson, who stated a century ago: “Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of it. The history of liberty is a history of resistance. The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it” (1912).

So, a democracy needs to control power, we need to disperse it. How can we do that, we ask our workshop members? Somebody repeats we need a constitution where rights are defined which no democratic government can overrule. And we also need, somebody else fills in, an independent authority that makes sure that the constitution is respected: an independent judicial system. And we need a parliament that keeps the government under control! And we need regular elections so that we can vote governments out of power that abuse their power or that we do not like for other reasons. And we need the freedom to criticize the government, we need a free press, and we need the freedom to associate ourselves with likeminded people into political parties, and other civil organizations, that keep an eye on government, other authorities, and each other.

People by now regularly get overexcited at the thought of disempowering government. A picture emerges of a democratic society were everybody expresses opinions, debates the opinions of others, where every power is curbed by other powers, and where at the end of the day nobody can get anything done. We throw in another theses: A multitude of political parties, civic organizations, and press creates predominantly confusion and disorder, weakens the nation and makes it impossible to make correct and clear decisions.

Many participants, natives and migrants, have heard this argument before. But how to counter it effectively? We need to bring the discussion to an even higher level. First we need to ask ourselves why we allow this cacophony or plurality of competing ideas, values, perspectives, interests, actors and powers to develop. Chaos seems to be the result. It is time to discuss pluralism and monism, a philosophical issue about which many of our participants love to talk about, despite the fact that it also regularly bewilders them. It is an issue that comes back in many other discussions: freedom, tolerance, civil society.

We start again with a provoking thesis: Every question has only one right answer and all correct answers can be ordered in one coherent, consistent system. Some people, philosophers for instance, have more knowledge of all the correct answers. These people should rule.

Most participants have to chew on this. Many, Westerners and non-Westerners alike, have a strong temptation to agree with the first thesis. We then ask these people: “What is the need of a discussion or a vote, or a democracy at all, when all questions have just one correct answer?” Good point. For what kind of questions do we have answers that have some universal validity or plausibility, answers we do not need to vote on?

When we feel the group can handle it, we bring up and discuss the difference between scientific and philosophical questions. Even for PhD students this often proves to be a difficult issue. Science is about empirical observation and logical reasoning, we explain. For philosophical questions we do not know, or do not agree yet, how to answer them. “Where is my coat?” is a scientific question. We can come to a generally accepted answer via observation (“look, it is hanging there on the wall!”), or via logic (“I cannot find it here, but I left home wearing a coat, so I must have left it on the SBahn”). But how to answer questions like: what is the meaning of freedom or democracy, is freedom more important than equality, how should we distribute our national income, what is a good life, what is a good society, is there a reality behind or above the reality we observe, is there life after death? Some people believe they know final answers here, but the simple fact that they are not able to convince all the others of its truth, begs the question.

We return to the thesis and introduce the difference between monists and pluralists. Monists think that all questions, even ethical questions about right and wrong, or questions about beauty, have only one correct answer and that all these answers can be organized in one consistent, coherent and frictionless system. Often they also believe that some people have more knowledge of the ‘correct’ answers. We can leave government to them.

Monist can be found all over the world and at all times, we stress. The history of thought in the West is a history of a battle between monists and pluralists, and only recently the pluralists got the upper hand. But still, monists can be found everywhere, and often at unexpected places.

Pluralists think that ethical questions often have several plausible answers. They think there are many different values, each itself worthwhile, but that these values often clash. When that happens, compromises have to be made, values have to be balanced. We cannot have it all. And this is a tragic truth, typical of the human condition.

We ask the participants whether they can think of examples of values that collide and have to be balanced. We propose freedom and equality as examples: The freedom of the wolves is the death of the sheep. Unlimited freedom leads to inequality and consequently to the diminishing of the freedom of those at the bottom. Trying to get a more equal society diminishes the freedom of the winners. Another example: the wish to have an adventurous life with constantly new experiences is at odds with the wish for security, continuity, serenity.

We get back to democracy: Many questions in a democracy are philosophical by nature. Are there any experts, we ask, on the question how much money should be spend on education, defense, the building of roads and bridges, art and culture? Are there any experts with ultimate, universal answers to the question whether we as a society, a democratic community, should focus on economic growth or should prioritize happiness? But what is happiness, and how could governments contribute to it? We ponder, every question a society needs to answer, even the ones that seems entirely technological or scientific, have a philosophical or political component. What decisions with regard to nuclear power cannot be left to experts? Is the question how many hospitals should be built in a country, purely technological or scientific?

Democracy apparently exists because we do not have purely scientific, objective answers to many questions we need to answer in every society. We do not accept that specific people have a bigger say in providing answers to these questions, we do not accept self-appointed authorities, we demand that every person has an equal say, an equal vote. For the same reason we value freedom, another topic that we go into at length: there are no final, universal and eternal answers to the question how to live one’s life, each person has to make up, and is able to make up, her own mind, and therefore it is a matter of respect to leave people room to make their own decisions.

People get tired. It’s time for lunch!


4 What effects to expect?

Illustrated above is the way we try to investigate together with our participants how values and concepts hang together, and constitute an interwoven, mutual reinforcing, to some extent consistent and coherent, set of values, norms, ideas, concepts. Just by asking whether democracy is about voting or discussion, and whether majorities should always have their way, we entered into discussions on minority, constitutional and human rights, into discussions on freedom, autonomy, equality, pluralism and monism, relativism and absolutism, tolerance, dispersion of power, political parties, civic society, etc. On top of that, we tried to show how this all hangs together. One topic leads to another, and many ideas are interrelated.

Still, research has shown over and over again that people have a remarkable ability to be and remain inconsistent. They also have a great capacity to ignore facts that contradict their standpoints. Although guilty of this habit themselves, academics, politicians, journalists and other opinion-makers are regularly amazed by the inconsistent and incoherent thinking of people not working with ideas on a daily basis. Explaining to people that they are inconsistent rarely makes them admit their flawed reasoning. Usually, this explanation is experienced as an insult to their intelligence: “You think I’m stupid?”. Consequently, their intelligence and self-respect needs to be protected at the costs of consistency or plausibility. Hence, wallowing in inconsistencies and fact-denial is hardly ever productive in the context of deliberation. It is better is to illustrate how consistency looks, and in doing so to seed some doubts, doubts that may become effective later, in a different context.

Again, people do not change their mind easily, and even when they did change their mind, they will not readily admit this. Therefore, it is very difficult to find out to what extent people have come to other positions during deliberative workshops. We do not try to answer this, for instance by bluntly asking participants at the end of our meetings how much they have changed. They do not know, they do not want to tell, and changes might appear much later, silently, working in the background.

What can you expect of in total about 15 hours of deliberation? First of all we want to show and to experience that it is possible, useful, enlightening and even entertaining to discuss with other citizens fundamental values, ideas and perspectives that too often are not talked about in our societies. It is a general experience in citizenship, deliberation, reflection, civility, social and political participation that hopefully will prepare the ground for many more deliberative exchanges.

Consequently, the aim of our deliberative workshops is not just to communicate ideas and values hold pivotal for an integration into European culture, but to create a social setting in which people are able to discuss these ideas and values freely and courteously. We offer an experience and training in the communication of often very sensitive topics, topics that can lead to misunderstandings, frictions, conflicts and radicalizations. The workshops aim to help people, migrants as well as natives, to express and openly discuss in a respectful way ideas, values, orientations, and habits that often stay implicit and therefore develop into unproductive, disruptive conflicts. We try to resolve frictions, before they become unmanageable struggles.

We cannot be certain that all the participants fully understood everything that was put forward during our deliberations. But do academics or professional politicians always fully understand each other? Furthermore, even when not everything is fully comprehended, the experience that it is possible to talk sensibly on this kind of topics, is essential. The discussions on homosexuality are an extreme example: in many cultures nobody ever talks about the topic, it is a taboo. Some participants might have talked about it openly for the first time. We might not have changed their mind. But we certainly demonstrated that one can have a consistent, coherent discussion on it. The rest hopefully comes later.

Perhaps counterintuitively, we have found that in comparison to their colleagues with a migrant background, the German participants in our workshops did not always have more elaborate, thought through answers to many of our questions. Often they were also amazed by this themselves. An important motivation of our German volunteers to participate in the workshops was precisely that they regularly had experienced in their encounters with refugees, that they were short of answers when the refugees were asking them about democracy, freedom, tolerance, equality between the sexes, or homosexuality. The situation is not different for many other citizens.

Last but not least, what we in the end can achieve and aim for is to seed some doubt, to create some cracks and open windows for reflection. By going into democracy, ethical and political pluralism, freedom, tolerance, or identity we show that there is not much we can be really certain and therefore dogmatic about. Values clash and need to be balanced. Values have different weights in different circumstances. We want and we need freedom because there are no eternal, universal truths about how to live one’s life. We want and need democracy basically for the same reason: we need a procedure to reach compromises and agreements because people have different, regularly conflicting, ideas, interests and values, and because there are no king-philosophers or other dictators that know all. Identities are, to an important extent, the product of coincidental times and places; they are flexible and changing. Consequently, much is fluid, unstable, in the process of change. But this does not mean that anything goes: on the contrary, there is a constant need to talk things over, again and again, and we can do that in sensible, fruitful ways.

This willingness to reflect, rethink, reconsider and deliberate we found abundant among the young participants of our workshops, wherever they came from. Young people are still looking for answers, refugees from wars and extremism have a lot to think about, and people entering other cultures are searching for something to hold on. As a society we need to invest in these people, as we need to invest in our native citizens that have forgotten to ask themselves the very same questions we are asking the refugees. We basically have to choose between easy, invalid answers to more and more complex questions, on the one hand, and the opening of new meaningful ways of social and political participation and of strengthening political competence, on the other hand.


Potsdam, Mai 2017


Thanks to Sarah Coughlan, Nils Wadt, Jesse Kalata, and Johannes Kuhnert for their comments on earlier versions of this paper. Also thanks to the many participants of our workshops for sharing their thoughts with us. Obviously, only the author is responsible for the content of this paper.



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Blokland, Hans T. 2006. Modernization and its Political Consequences. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Blokland, Hans. T. 2011. Pluralism, Democracy and Political Knowledge. Burlington (VT) and Farnham: Ashgate.

Blokland, Hans. T. 2015. Some important lessons from political science on political participation and democratization.

Blokland, Hans T. 2015. Why social scientists should help people to find out what they want.

Blokland, Hans. 2016. Debating values and cultural identity with newcomers and natives in Europe.

Blokland, Hans T. 2016. How to debate values in a diverse Europe.

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Habermas, Jürgen. 1981. 1981. Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns. Vol. 1: Handlungsrationalität und gesellschaftliche Rationalisierung. Vol. 2: Zur Kritik der funktionalistischen Vernunft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

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[i] A description of the project can be found here:

[ii] We will publish a separate article on the, often challenging, recruitment of participants.

[iii] A description of this project can be found here:

[iv] cf.

[v] Teacher-centric learning

[vi] For an example, watch this video from the Guardian on an integration project in Norway. Every migrant in this country is obliged to attend classes on female rights and respect for women. The lessons were made compulsory after a string of sex attacks by migrants in Stavanger. Jenny Kleeman meets the students and asks whether “western” values can really be taught in a classroom.


Taking people seriously: a new approach for countering populism and furthering integration.

by Hans Blokland

In our deliberative democracy and integration projects[i] we treat our participants – natives as well as migrants – as citizens, able and willing to discuss in a rational way the big themes like democracy, freedom, tolerance or emancipation. We assume that rational deliberations on these topics are possible, provided that the social context is right and that mutual understanding and even consensus are reachable. We know about cultural differences, but we nevertheless believe that across cultures and times understandings of, and agreements on, fundamental values are possible. People have too much in common; have too many shared ideas, goals and experiences, to make the opposite assumption plausible.[ii]

The reactions of many policymakers, politicians, practitioners and volunteers active in integration and political education to our deliberative approaches range from disbelief, skepticism to cynicism. We have often been surprised by this and we did not always anticipate these reactions appropriately.

Our different points of departure – the assumption that we are dealing with rational, sensible citizens, and the assumption of a universally shared horizon of fundamental values – have far reaching consequences.


Personal backgrounds obscure the essentials and suggest relativism

First of all, because we think that there is a basis of shared fundamental values  on which we can build a rational deliberation, we do not feel it necessary to give much room in our deliberations to the personal, cultural, ethnic, religious, historical or social backgrounds of the participants. These backgrounds are often very interesting, we know that many people love to talk about it, and in taking backgrounds into consideration we can sometimes better understand some standpoints. Nevertheless, in a deliberation on fundamental questions like “what is democracy”, “what is tolerance” or “what is freedom”, these backgrounds are to an important extent dispensable.

Giving too much room for individual histories can even hinder deliberation. This can be because people get distracted, bored and annoyed. Some people just cannot stop trying to justify their opinions with their life story, and in these stories truth and relevancy are often difficult to assess. More importantly, these digressions can make reaching mutual understanding and agreement more difficult because they obscure the essentials and regularly suggest the existence of something totally unique and distinctive, something that is, consequently, incomprehensible for people with different backgrounds. In allowing these kinds of personal histories, the suggestion is that it is only possible to understand an individual’s approach to a topic like democracy through their unique lived experiences. In other words, these deviations suggest and allow cultural relativism: every culture is unique and cannot be understood and criticized from the standpoint of another culture. This relativism is at odds with the assumptions and aims of deliberation, and, for that matter, with the assumptions and aims of the integration of natives and migrants in open, pluralist democracies.


Political theorists and universals

In our encounters with decision makers and practitioners in the fields of integration and political education we are often seen as social and political scientists that, unfortunately, do not really know how to deal with real people. We might know something about ideas, but what do we know about flesh and blood? This is the terrain of social workers, social pedagogues, or social therapists. This is illustrated, for instance, by project calls of organizations like the German Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge[iii], the Bundesministerium für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend[iv], the Bundesministerium des Innern[v], or the Dutch NGO Vluchtelingenwerk.[vi] Many of their calls have a strong tendency towards social work, pedagogics, therapy, treatment. Consequently, many existing projects in the spheres of integration and political education do not directly address the topics that are in need of discussion, but instead address these topics indirectly: in the context of cooking and eating together, crafting together, celebrating together, making music and theatre together, gardening together, hiking together, etc.. First we have to get to “know” each other, and only after that we might get into some real issues, the assumption often seems to be.

Basteln 3We have no doubt that social workers, social pedagogues or social therapists do important work. We also strongly believe that deliberations only have a change of success when they take place in a respectful, courteous, non-aggressive and pleasant environment. We devote much attention to this in our own workshops too.

Nevertheless, the approaches of social workers, social pedagogues or social therapists should not cover the entire domain of political education and integration. There are two reasons for this. First, these approaches suggest a relativism which demotivates participants and hampers the search for compromise and consensus. Second, these approaches are counterproductive because they do not take the ideas of the “clients” as ideas, but as personal problems in need of treatment. Regularly, this enrages the clients, making them drift further away from the broad democratic conversation.

Academic political scholars are tempted to assume the existence of, and are tempted to search for, tendencies, generalizations, laws, universal theories. Certainly, political theorists assume it is possible to formulate a normative political theory about, for instance, democracy across times and cultures. They evaluate a theory on the basis of rational consistency and coherency, and on the basis of the plausibility of the assumptions regarding human beings and societies. These assumptions are partly empirically inspired or grounded and can to some extent be empirically tested. Political theorists know that values clash and have to be balanced. And they also know that values have different weights in different circumstances and that, consequently, they are also balanced differently in different circumstances. But this can all be encompassed in one theory; one does not need new theories for every new situation.

So when a political theorist deliberates democracy with a refugee from Syria or Iraq, he understands that this refugee might consider law, order and security more important than freedom of expression and freedom of association right now. But that does not imply that he cannot agree with the refugee about the importance of these freedoms for human dignity and democracy. They can wholly agree on conceptions of democracy, freedom and tolerance, and they can wholly agree on their inspirations, ambitions, and strivings regarding these values. And they can agree that their current priorities in Syria should be different than in Germany. What they should not agree upon is that democracy, freedom and tolerance are just contemporary European values, not relevant to other times and places, incomprehensible  for people with other cultural backgrounds. Bashar al-Assad, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Bin Laden, or Kim Jong-un might like to think that, but it is not a proof of open-mindedness and cultural tolerance when we would agree with them.

Social workers, social pedagogues or social therapists are less tempted to search for general or universal ideas and values. Problematic behavior, ideas or attitudes are more quickly understood in the context of personal circumstances and backgrounds. When individuals do not function well in a particular social, political environment, social workers are tempted to treat the individual; they are not tempted, as social and political theorists would do, to question the environment. Often this is a valid approach. But it also harbors a relativistic element that endangers the formulation of a common ground, a common point of departure, a shared understanding of the foundations of an open society. Addressing personal backgrounds relativizes what is and should be universal and abstractly, rationally justified. This relativism hampers a political education of migrants or natives that aims to establish an understanding of the fundamental, constitutive ideas of a pluralist democracy.


Stupid ideas should just be treated as stupid ideas

This approach also becomes counterproductive when people, natives or migrants, correctly, get the impression that their thoughts and preferences are not really taken seriously. A fundamental driving force of populism is that the citizens concerned do not feel heard, represented and respected by the political, societal and media establishment. Therefore, they cut their ties with mainstream political parties, journalism (Lügen Presse), interest and other societal groups, and lock themselves up in bubbles of like-minded “victims”. Getting these citizens to return to the broad societal conversation is one of the most pressing vocations of contemporary western democracies. In trying to get these citizens on board again, it is not helpful to address them implicitly as “social problems”, as people with social, psychological, educational, or occupational flaws in need of therapy and not able to have a straightforward, rational discussion about their ideas and views. This paternalism and disdain is apparent to the people concerned and strengthens their belief that they are not taken seriously as citizens. Many citizens and migrants might have different ideas and values, but they do not immediately have a problem that is in need of treatment. They simply have different ideas, albeit sometimes uninformed, undemocratic, dangerous or stupid ideas, but still ideas about which we can and should have a rational discussion.

Taking their ideas and views seriously is a precondition for being taken seriously oneself. Showing people that their conversation partners assume that they are fully capable of thinking rationally about social and political issues, addressing them as social and political scholars specialized in ideas and facts, and not as social workers specialized in social problems, empowers people as citizens and makes it possible that people can be convinced by better, more coherent arguments as opposed to so-called “alternative facts”.

Alle Kids sind Vips, Botschaftertreffen, FanatiX, Aschaffenburg, 26.02.2013

In our workshops with refugees we often had the very same experience. After having been treated, implicitly or explicitly, too often as children or as representatives of an inferior culture, they were relieved finally to have the opportunity to talk about fundamental themes. Not surprisingly, they often also turned out to have rather sophisticated thoughts on topics like freedom, democracy and tolerance: as refugees, they had had a reason to think about these topics. Because we respected them as rational beings, they were also prepared to respect us as social and political scholars, sometimes, not always, better able to think through and evaluate standpoints or ideas on societal values.

With the same attitude this year we will also try to get in a conversation with groups of frustrated, angry citizens in Brandenburg, Germany (for a summary of the project, click here). We will trace them via the messages they left behind on a multitude of social media, messages showing dissatisfaction and resentment, and a tendency to support right wing populist positions. We will listen to these citizens carefully and seriously and we will not treat them as social problems. From their side, we expect the same.

They will not disappoint us.



[i] For descriptions of some projects of 2016, see: An explanation of our deliberative approach so far, offers: Blokland, Hans. 2017. How to deliberate fundamental values? Notes from Brandenburg on our approach and experiences. Potsdam: Social Science Works.

[ii] For a deeper justification of this, see: Blokland, Hans. Berlin on liberalism and pluralism: a defense, The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms; Journal of the International Society for the Study of European Ideas, Vol.4, Nr.4, 1999, pp.1-24.


[iv] „Demokratie Leben! Aktiv gegen Rechtsextremismus, Gewalt und Menschenfeindlichkeit“

[v] „Zusammenhalt durch Teilnahme: Programm für bürgerschaftliches Engagement und demokratisches Handeln“

[vi] (

The Center Does Not Hold: The Supply and Demand of the New Right’s Success

The year 2016 experienced unheard of electoral turbulence. While many thought that Brexit would mark the political event to be remembered for a generation, ‘The Donald’ put paid to that. These processes have tempted some commentators to ask whether we are witnessing the end of the West as we know it. As the presidential election in France draws, it is important to explore why the New Right is on the rise and what makes them so attractive for wider parts of the electorate in this particular time in history. The argument put forth below is that the New Right offers a comprehensive interpretative framework about the causes of the cultural and economic changes which make so many people feel left behind as well as the solutions needed to solve the problems they bring about.

The New Right’s Ideological Core

In the following paragraphs, the term ‘New Right’ will be deployed, as opposed to right-wing populism because it captures better the ideological core of the parties and movements surveyed here. The term populism, which emphasizes the virtuousness of the ‘common man’ and the people as opposed to elites and special interests, is a contested concept and can be used by a wide array of political actors from left-wing to right-wing and even the center, as Emmanuel Macron in the current French elections shows. Furthermore, populism itself does not necessarily work against liberal democracy but can be a rejuvenating method and may even expand democratic procedures (Rovira Kaltwasser 2012).

The New Right wants anything but. On the contrary, it seeks to dispense with the basic building blocks of liberal democracy, such as checks and balances or minority rights, and wants to establish an authoritarian illiberal or defective democracy where elections are held and votes are cast but the ‘general will’ tramples over any dissenting voice (Ágh 2016). At its center lies the belief in ethnopluralism, an ideology which holds that cultures are homogeneous entities with an unchanging and essential core specific to a certain cultural group. This culture belongs to a particular locality or region. Other cultures are not inferior to one’s own as in traditional Nazism or Fascism but must remain within their proper boundaries (Spektorowski 2003). In short: Separate but equal and Germany for the Germans. Any notion of mixing cultures or multiple, changing identities is deemed negative and destructive to the local culture.

Hence, while liberal multiculturalism holds that people from different cultural backgrounds may live within one society and decide on how to live with each other, ethnopluralism wants a homogenuous society where the individual has to appeal and assimilate to a common ‘Frenchness’ or ‘Russianness’. Newcomers are not welcome and rarely, if ever, become an equal citizen. That makes the New Right attractive not only for right-wing extremists and hate groups but also to conservative forces, providing the latter with a tougher profile and the former with some badly wanted dédiabolisation, a normalization strategy by the New Right shedding old symbols and slogans associated with Nazism to appeal to a broader audience. However, that seems to be no more than a marketing strategy. It is no coincidence that Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon founder of Alt-Right online propaganda site Breitbart, borrows his thought from traditional Fascist ideologues. But if the notion of ethnopluralism and strong populist leadership is just rebranding, how is it that the New Right has become one of the most daunting actors in the political arena, influencing not only discourse but policies? The answer lies in the interpretation schemes the New Right offers to voters and the tying together of those schemes into a more or less coherent narrative about the problems faced by society and the remedies to resolve them.

The Demand Side of the New Right

No political ideology or discourse can be successful if it does not answer the pressing questions of its time. That is why it is important to note the social setting we are living in. The New Right tries to offer solutions for several pressing issues like socio-economic deprivation, meaning that vast sectors of society become poorer or have to work more for less, globalization and its subsequent hollowing out of democracy as well as issues of solidarity reworked as a question of national identity.

In political science, it has become common to explain the success of political parties by dividing electoral behavior into a demand side and a supply side, the former being the voters’ attitudes and the latter being the parties’ proposed solutions. Even though this demand-and-supply metaphor does not capture the whole picture of the political process, it can serve as a simplification and give us a first glimpse of what is happening at the moment. Let us start with the voters’ attitudes, or, in political scientific parlance, the demand side: In a paper for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris have looked at two factors which are brought forth to explain the rise in support for the New Right. The first account is the economic inequality thesis and the second is the cultural backlash thesis (Inglehart and Norris 2016: 11).

Economic Inequality:

According to this account, voters’ turn to the New Right can be explained by growing economic inequality as the ‘losers’ of economic globalization in the 21st century try to fend off new challenges to their livelihood, be it international competition or the arrival of immigrants as competitors on the job market. In the last 30 years, Western societies have experienced a widening gap between economic growth and the rise in income to the working- and middle-classes. While real income has stagnated or even declined for a vast majority, the benefits of economic growth went to the often cited ‘1%’, meaning entrepreneurs, wealth holders and anyone trading in financial markets. Nothing sums up better this development than Branko Milanovic’s ‘Elephant Curve‘. Milanovic looked at the global income distribution over recent decades. However, he did not take the average income of countries as his measure, as is usually done in such studies, but took individual households into account. According to him:

The biggest losers (other than the very poorest 5 percent), or at least the ‘non-winners,’ of globalization were those between the 75th and 90th percentiles of the global income distribution whose real income gains were essentially nil. These people, who may be called a global upper-middle class, include many from former Communist countries and Latin America, as well as those citizens of rich countries whose incomes stagnated.” (Milanovic 2012: 13)

Those people who find themselves to be among the 75% to 90% richest people globally have seen no gain in their income. This group where one finds the lower- and middle-classes of the industrialized Western countries. In other words, the middle- and working-classes of the West have been left out of any economic growth for nearly three decades. While societies in East Asia and wealth owners in the West have gotten richer and more affluent, the majority in Western countries have seen no progress and might be even poorer than they were 30 years ago. Is it any wonder that Donald Trump made China a big talking point in his campaign?

But not only has inequality risen throughout the Western world, but working conditions have also deteriorated. Jobs now are usually low-paid, insecure and characterized by long working hours. Hence, Oliver Nachtwey (2016) has coined the term Abstiegsgesellschaft, roughly translated as a descending society, which describes Western societies as an escalator going down. In order to remain at the same place, one has to run faster and faster up the escalator. Those who are fit enough may earn the same income as before but at the price of worsening labor conditions and exhaustion, while the ‘weak’ fall down the escalator into poverty. This economic pressure and decline – and this is crucial – leads to “in-group solidarity, conformity to group norms, and rejection of outsiders” (Inglehart and Norris 2016: 11).

Cultural Backlash:

Another way to look at the causes of the voters’ turn to the New Right is the cultural backlash thesis. According to that view, the high voter turnout for Donald Trump, Brexit or now Marine Le Pen is a reaction of some parts of the electorate to the cultural changes experienced in the last 20 or 30 years. The story goes as follows: As democratic capitalism succeeded in satisfying the material needs of the vast majority of citizens, people started to worry about other issues than economic hardships or the gap between rich and poor. As social and economic security was a widely held experience, broad sectors of society started to care about post-material problems like the environment, the integration of minorities or women’s rights (Inglehart 2008). However, this cultural change also sparked a negative reaction among older and less educated strata of society, articulated first by conservatives and then by the New Right.

The shift in cultural values has been long in the making and has replaced themes of economic redistribution at the top of the political agenda. This development was strengthened because both center-right and center-left parties seemed to adhere to the same economic vision: liberalization, free markets and international economic integration. For the mainstream parties, the only way to meaningfully distinguish oneself was to highlight questions about lifestyle or citizenship leading to cultural issues being predominant in the political arena.

This change, also called the ‘silent revolution’, put in question the social position of many hitherto privileged groups in society: ‘old white men’ (and women) in both the middle-classes and blue-collar jobs. Until recently, they formed the majority of Western societies and hold rather traditionalist and materialist views. As political debate progressively shifted towards environmental issues or the inclusion of groups formerly frowned upon and seen as second-class citizens – if citizens at all – those older sectors of society now felt themselves excluded and saw their privileges vanish: “Over time, therefore, the traditional values often held most strongly by the older generation, less educated sectors, and men have gradually become out of step with the changing cultures of contemporary Western societies, with this displacement generating resentment, anger, and a sense of loss.” (Inglehart and Norris 2016: 14)  According to some, this nostalgic reaction explains much, if not all, of the New Right’s success in recent years. I, on the other hand, would argue that both factors, economic inequality and cultural backlash, influence and strengthen each other and form the demand side of politics on which the New Right tries to mold its image.

A Sense of Loss on Three Fronts

Overall, the demand side consisting of voters with affinities for the New Right might be explained as a loss which unfolds on three lines:

  1.  An economic loss because wages and income are stagnating and declining;
  2. Cultural loss because the shift in values and the ethnic make-up of societies frightens a lot of voters;
  3. Loss of control over one’s life both in the private and public sphere. The third factor has not been mentioned so far but relates closely to the first two. As I would argue, many people, not only those voting for the New Right, are experiencing a loss of control over their lives.

In the private sphere, those people sense that they are left behind economically, trying harder and harder to keep up with the new demands forced on them, and culturally as they see their social environment change, leaving them to wonder what their place in society is and whether their beliefs remain a reference point in guiding their lives. Modern capitalism, for many, is a rat race with no end in sight (Dörre 2014: 8). Change for these people has not been a positive experience and leaves them with a pessimistic view of the future. This leads to an attitude which tries to stall and hold back any rapid transformation of contemporary Western societies. 

Without private means to address these problems, voters look to the political realm. But here too, no salvation can be found with mainstream center-right and center-left parties unable to deliver on their promises. Not only have both wings in the political spectrum converged on major issues, but they also seem to be incapable of pushing through legislation which would tackle problems of economic well-being and social cohesion even if they wanted to. Globalization and international competition are on the rise, hence parties face structural difficulties to tackle issues like inequality, material well-being or migration. Current governments are more occupied with fulfilling the demands of international financial markets and companies competing globally than serving the common good articulated by their citizens, scrapping democratic capitalism of its much needed output-legitimacy. While democratic capitalism until the 1970s was capable of embedding the market in a national framework and its political regulations, liberalized markets outgrew the boundaries of the nation-state. What previously had been markets embedded in society, and hence open to democratic control, have transformed themselves into societies embedded in global markets (Streeck 2016: 22). With the status-quo and its representatives unwilling and unable to deliver, a growing part of voters looks to new actors with new solutions to pressing issues of the time. Here, the pessimistic attitude regarding the future combines with a lack of a forward looking, positive vision of change. Having experienced better times in their lives, those disaffected voters long for a glorious past in which their beliefs mattered, their incomes grew steadily and elites, at least to some degree, had to give in to their demands.

The Supply Side of the New Right

It is exactly this void into which the New Right steps. The feeling of loss and betrayed life chances seeks a political vehicle. Campaign slogans like Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’, Brexit’s ‘Take Back Control’ or Marine Le Pen’s ‘Putting France Back in Order’ all play to the sentiments mentioned above: a perceived loss which has to be re-established. Political Parties act as the supply side of electoral politics because they offer their policy solutions to voters. The New Right, in this case, presents a convincing argument of how to (1) gain back democracy to win back control over public life through national sovereignty, and (2) how to address economic inequality and cultural change through the concept of national solidarity.


National Sovereignty

Historically, the nation state has been the place where democratic politics was located. It is here where political actors struggled for influence and tried to cope with pressing issues at hand. The legacy of the nation-state is ambivalent. Too vivid are the memories when in the name of ‘the people’ terrible crimes were committed and wars were forged. The 20th century acts as a witness to unimaginable atrocities for the sake of the nation. Nevertheless, the nation state also made possible a hitherto unfulfilled promise of democracy, freedom and civil rights. So far, no other political institution has accomplished the same degree of civilized political debate with checks and balances and the guarantee of basic human rights (Habermas 2011: 72).

However, the nation state is at a crossroads because, as mentioned above, markets have outgrown its regulations and complex global issues like climate change or migration can hardly be dealt with nationally. The European Union offers one way to cope with these problems but it suffers from a severe democratic deficit (Offe 2016: 27). Its institutions do not fulfill democratic standards because the European Parliament is weak and without strong legislative power. At the same time, many laws and regulations come from Brussels and therefore limit the sovereignty of nation states, the only place where voters have meaningful channels of influence.

A logical conclusion would be to fully extend democratic procedures to the European level. Yet, that path faces two major obstacles. First, any political community needs to draw from a more or less coherent common identity in order to build the solidarity necessary for the common good. How can solidarity be forged in the face of 400 million European citizens who have never met nor speak the same language? And secondly, even if that (weak) common identity could be developed, it seems that now is the most improbable time as the economic crisis pits Northern and Southern Europe against each other. For the New Right, this makes it particularly easy to agitate against the ‘dictates’ from Brussels and to propose not a deep reform of the EU but its complete destruction in order to restore democracy and make voters’ voices heard again.

But it is not only European nation states which face difficult challenges regarding globalization. Dani Rodrik (2011) developed his political trilemma of the world economy which every nation, large and small, faces. According to him, there is a tension between democracy, the nation-state and globalization of which we can only have two simultaneously. If economic globalization is pursued, we either have to sacrifice democracy or the nation state. In the former case, democracy kept to a minimum because the government tries to follow global rules and be attractive to foreign investors. Meanwhile domestic groups which seek higher taxes, protectionist tariffs or social security can not influence the government because that would threaten the interests of global capital. In the latter case, the nation-state’s role would diminish because economic integration would be governed democratically on an international level. In social science, this is called global governance. It is clear that this vision, even though partly realized in the EU, remains just that: a vision.

Because globalization is such a complex issue that undermines the capabilities of democracy and the nation state, it is no wonder that nationalist movements grow in Western societies. To use Rodrik’s trilemma, the New Right successfully positions itself as a democratic force which wants to defend the nation-state against global markets. This falls on fertile ground as pessimistic and nostalgic voters look for alternatives to bring back control over public life which these voters have so desperately looked for. ‘Choose France’ and ‘America First’ are just radicalized expressions of this futureless notion.

By doing that, the New Right does not only evoke a past experience in which democracy was properly functioning, as in the 1970s with a nationally regulated market, it also puts forth a new axis of conflict between those forces which seek to restore national sovereignty and democracy against those which favor an anonymous transnational governance which lacks the democratic procedures cherished by citizens. This axis of conflict, against global markets and their political representatives, can be described as a conflict on the vertical line. On the bottom the national citizens and the New Right and on top mainstream parties favoring economic integration and international capital. With mainstream parties proposing similar solutions to current issues, the New Right can successfully claim to represent national interests and ‘the people’ against self-serving ‘globalist’ elites.

National Solidarity

But globalization does not only happen from above. In contrast to economic globalization, a globalization from below is also taking shape in the form of migration from crisis ridden countries on the periphery to the countries in the center, the latter being Western societies which are highly industrialized and, on average, highly prosperous (Benton-Short et al. 2005). Due to a revolution in communication and transport technologies, which make it easier to cross huge distances, migration to richer countries on different continents is more affordable to a larger number of people than at anytime before. Whether the reasons for migrating to another country are wars, climate change or poverty; it is a rational individual response to hardships experienced in home countries in the Middle East, Africa or Latin America. The changing ethnic composition of Western societies, however, contributes to the three dimensions of loss for potential voters of the New Right:

  1. Culturally, as cities inhabit numerous cultures and languages which makes some citizens feel foreign in their own country;
  2. Economically, as the newcomers are seen as potential competitors for scarcer and scarcer resources like jobs, welfare and housing;
  3. Perpetually, control over public life because there seems to be no political actor to successfully address these issues. The threat of Islamist terrorism only aggravates the anxieties felt by potential voters of the New Right.

In addition to the vertical axis of conflict against elites, the New Right steps into these anxieties and opens up a new horizontal line of conflict against newcomers and culturally different people. This horizontal line represents a cultural and distributional conflict which pits national citizens against immigrants who come from outside the national boundaries. Here, it can build upon common sentiments that immigrants, or anyone new to a social group in general, should wait in line after the needs of those already there are met (Zick et al. 2016: 76). This sentiment is not necessarily racist as anyone knows from work life when new employees are promoted before their older colleagues who have spent a longer time in the company, but it can be easily reconstructed to serve ethnic and racist ideas. As potential voters of the New Right are pressured from above by worsening working conditions and betrayed life-chances, they grow extremely resentful to anyone who may be perceived as ‘skipping the line’, whether that holds true in reality or not.

Parties of the New Right intervene in this scenario and propagate a distributional conflict between those who fear of losing out – their voters – and those who are new to society – immigrants or their children and grandchildren. This is what political scientists have called ‘Welfare Chauvinism’ (Keskinen et al. 2016) which describes the attitude that social benefits and civil rights only accrue to the native population of the nation and have to be defended against people migrating into a country. It is clear that in this atmosphere, any claim to equal rights for migrants or even a special treatment out of religious reasons, as in the profane case of Halal meat in schools, sparks anger among those people in society who sympathize with the New Right.

In tumultuous times, whether culturally or economically, the New Right offers the promise of a renewed solidarity and the common good. But solidarity only to those who appear worthy of it. In times of crisis, when economic resources seem to be scarce, many turn to their kinship or ethnic identity to define the proper boundaries of solidarity – a terrain the New Right happily covers. Furthermore, solidarity has to be earned through a willingness to provide for one’s life. Any group of people who seem to benefit without contributing to society can become the target of the New Right whether they are bankers, unemployed or refugees. This explains the difference of economic policies by the New Right throughout the Western world, neoliberal on one end of the spectrum, protectionist on the other (Pelinka 2013: 15-17).

Conclusion or: The Center Does Not Hold

Voters of the New Right see themselves squeezed between global market forces from above, and migration from below. Both developments contribute to the three dimensions of loss mentioned before. The New Right tells a comprehensive story, or narrative, of who is to blame for the negative developments in recent decades and how to resolve it. With economic and cultural changes abound, parties of the New Right offer voters an explanation of why their lives are worsening. Vertically, the foes are global elites which have anything in mind but the interests of citizens. Horizontally, migrants, women and sexual minorities seem to outpace people formerly in the majority both in economic and cultural terms.

The story laid forth by the New Right has the considerable advantage that it can refer to experiences from a ‘glorious’ past, in which countries were ethnically homogenuous and did not have to serve interests of international business. They can connect to a memory, whether real or imagined, of a broad sector of society. A common factor to all the solutions of the New Right is that they try to scale back politics to manageable entities to again enable people to influence their life-world.

In lieu of a positive and achievable vision of the future, nostalgic and pessimistic voters increasingly find the roll-back of the New Right appealing. In order to combat these tendencies, political actors have to come up with their own sets of policies and their own political narrative in order to address pressing issues of economic well-being, democracy and solidarity in the 21st century – policies which need to be grounded in real-live experiences and should not come across as a moralistic education program for rednecks and hillbillies. If liberal values are only envisioned as liberalized markets which benefit the few, it is no wonder that the many turn towards illiberal solutions. As of yet, center-right and center-left parties seem incapable of forging a new narrative for the future which could stand against the New Right. Hence, it is upon other actors to construct it. That may take years, if not decades, to achieve. But it is about time we started.


Ágh, Attila 2016. The Decline of Democracy in East-Central Europe: Hungary as the Worst-Case Scenario. Problems of Post-Communism 63(5-6), 277–287.

Benton-Short, Lisa, Price, Marie D. & Friedman, Samantha 2005. Globalization from Below: The Ranking of Global Immigrant Cities. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 29(4), 945–959.

Dörre, Klaus 2014. Prekarität als Konzept kritischer Gesellschaftsanalyse – Zwischenbilanz und Ausblick. Ethik und Gesellschaft(2). Online im Internet: URL:

Habermas, Jürgen 2014. Zur Verfassung Europas: Ein Essay. Orig.-Ausg., 5. Aufl. Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Inglehart, Ronald F. 2008. Changing Values among Western Publics from 1970 to 2006. West European Politics 31(1-2), 130–146.

Inglehart, Ronald F. & Norris, Pippa 2016. Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash. HKS Working Paper No. RWP16-026.

Keskinen, Suvi, Norocel, Ov C. & Jorgensen, Martin B. 2016. The politics and policies of welfare chauvinism under the economic crisis. Critical Social Policy 36(3), 321–329.

Milanovic, Branko 2012. Global Income Inequality by the Numbers: in History and Now. An Overview. Policy Research Working Paper 6259.

Nachtwey, Oliver 2016. Die Abstiegsgesellschaft: Über das Aufbegehren in der regressiven Moderne. 5. Auflage. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Offe, Claus 2016. Europa in der Falle. Deutsche Erstausgabe, erste Auflage. Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Pelinka, Anton 2013. Right-Wing Populism: Concept and Typology, in Wodak, Ruth, KhosraviNik, Majid & Mral, Brigitte (Hg.): Right-wing populism in Europe: Politics and discourse. London: Bloomsbury, 2–22.

Rodrik, Dani 2011. The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Rovira Kaltwasser, Cristóbal 2012. The ambivalence of populism: threat and corrective for democracy. Democratization 19(2), 184–208.

Spektorowski, Alberto 2003. The New Right: Ethno-regionalism, ethno-pluralism and the emergence of a neo-fascist ‘Third Way’. Journal of Political Ideologies 8(1), 111–130.

Streeck, Wolfgang 2016. How will capitalism end?: Essays on a failing system. London: Verso.

Zick, Andreas, Krause, Daniela, Berghan, Wilhelm & Küpper, Beate 2016. Gruppenbezogene Menschenfeindlichkeit in Deutschland 2002-2016, in Melzer, Ralf (Hg.): Gespaltene Mitte – Feindselige Zustände: Rechtextreme Einstellungen in Deutschland 2016

Progressive Neoliberalism & the Pull of Populism

In the wake of the turbulent US election, social theorist Nancy Fraser wrote that the progressive neoliberal politics of the establishment served as a major factor in ensuring the success of Donald Trump in ascending to the presidency. In her article, ‘The End of Progressive Neoliberalism,’(1) Fraser described the way that politicians like Hillary Clinton, and her forebears, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, embodied this concept. Their platforms vociferously included progressive stances on issues like LGBTQ rights, equal pay for women, and affirmative action as a means of coaxing the left-leaning masses into support at the ballot box. Meanwhile, their neoliberal economic policies are generally overlooked or even willfully ignored despite the fact that these have far more substantive impacts on the world at large.


Fraser concludes her piece by explaining that the American left’s approach to the issues facing the working populace is too obtuse in that instead of addressing their concerns, liberals dismiss them as backward or xenophobic. The result is that progressive politics become deeply intertwined with neoliberal platforms like that of Hillary Clinton, thus alienating the many ordinary people who are negatively impacted by the deregulation of the free market. Fraser, therefore, posits that the United States can combat the rise of the alt-right by assembling a ‘true left,’ one that is not going to bed with the corporate elite, instead critiquing the structures of capitalism as it ought to, whilst also advocating for the rights of minority groups.


The rise of rightwing populism in Europe makes the plausibility of Fraser’s proposed solution murkier. Surely, much of the same critique could be applied to the European Union, an institution that fundamentally marries progressive politics with neoliberal economics. With free and open borders, which challenge the problematic nationalist assumptions that ran amok hitherto its creation, many center left politicians and voters vehemently support the EU’s existence. Concurrently, there’s no doubting that the governing body of the EU is inherently undemocratic, and that its structures are predominantly in place to the benefit of multinationals and big banks.


Such is evident most acutely in Greece, which was forced into bankruptcy, largely thanks its entrapment within the Eurozone among a diverse set of more productive economies. To cope with its debt, Greece has since adopted oppressive structural adjustment programs as it attempts to pay back the bailout funds predominantly to private German financial institutions. In this way, the EU has formed a core-periphery model similar to what exists on the global scale between industrialized nations and developing ones, whereas wealth flows to the core, and those living on the peripheries are ridiculed for following the same current.


At the same time, the EU’s governing structures do little to take into account the interests of those living in the member states as a voting constituency.(2)  Between the powers of supranational law in decision making within the Eurozone and the 19% decline in democratic participation in parliamentary elections over the past 30 years, there exists a disjuncture between EU citizens and the institutions that govern them.(3) This sort of democratic deficit is in itself something that academics attribute to the rise of populism.


With all this in mind, it’s worth noting that a critique of progressive neoliberal politics is already embodied under the leftist political party platforms in several major EU member states. This means that voters already have the alternative that Fraser points out is lacking in the US, thus illuminating the fact that quelling the rise of the rightwing may, in fact, be lacking such a simple solution.


The UK

Under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, for instance, the UK’s Labour Party offers a more nuanced alternative to xenophobic nationalism, the likes of which Fraser would perhaps even praise.(4) Prior to the Brexit referendum, Corbyn was known for his EU-critical stances, whilst simultaneously remaining unopposed to free movement within the Eurozone. He both aligned himself with inclusionary politics and attempted shine light on the venal nature of the neoliberal political elite, saying (5), ‘voters were being wrongly told by “the establishment” that migrants are to blame for pressure on jobs and public services, when the fault lies with politicians in Westminster.’ These sentiments were combined with his assertion that the UK must simultaneously, ‘tackle exploitation by unscrupulous employers’ on the domestic front. He suggests doing so through granting the government repatriate powers to intervene in struggling industries like steel.


Despite the existence of a platform advocating both for workers’ rights and tolerance towards minorities, the specter of immigration—particularly of non-whites – was unbearable to enough British people that they are willing to vote ‘Leave’ anyway.(6) The media has likely played a key role in fueling the xenophobic stances that many have taken with regard to immigration and the changing demographic composition in the UK. Post-Brexit, Corbyn himself faced significant backlash in the public arena from so-called progressive politicians as well as in British news coverage by and large. Thanks to his critiques, following Brexit, Corbyn was widely portrayed as a leftwing populist whose ideas discouraged people from voting remain.(7)


Overall, in the UK, sentiments against immigration seem to have outweighed economic critique as a sole motivator for political action, even despite the presence of a leftist alternative with more inclusive stances toward minorities. That said, though Corbyn may have come the closest of any mainstream politician in the UK by pointing out the neoliberal nature of those governing from Westminster, he wasn’t explicit in opposing the EU on the basis of this same tendency. Evidently, offering a clear and concrete economic critique of the EU that resonates with enough voters, without simultaneously suggesting the dismantlement of the EU altogether is a fine line that Labour has had a difficult time in treading. It can be concluded that leftist parties like Labour failed to do so in a way that resonated with the British to a significant enough degree to garner support for its agenda.



In Germany, the notorious rightwing populist faction, Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) has certainly been gaining ground, and experts note that over the past couple of years they have been drawing voters from political parties across the spectrum (8) on a fairly even keel. In addition to rural populations, the main demographic to align with AfD is Germany’s lower middle class, whose way of life is most vulnerable to economic downturn in a globalized economy. As a result, a populist political platform would seem of natural appeal, but AfD isn’t the only party to align itself with the economic woes of ordinary people.


For instance, a robust critique of progressive neoliberal nature of the EU is generally considered common sense amongst the German left. Of late, Die Linke, (9) one of the more prominent leftist parties in the country, has largely predicated its platform on the idea that it can fight the rise of the extreme rightwing by providing a non-xenophobic alternative to those who are critical of EU neoliberalism.(10) Still, Die Linke has struggled to surpass AfD in popularity in many parts of the country.8


Furthermore, up until the election of Martin Schulz, the leftist Social Democratic Party (SPD) has lost voters to AfD as well. That said, according to polls, Schulz’s successful campaigning seems to be drawing many back to the left. Perhaps he can offer a glimmer of hope in embodying Fraser’s ideal for leftist organization and leadership that is strong enough to dissolve growing rightwing xenophobic fervor in Germany. Schulz has successfully shifted discourse away from issues surrounding immigration thanks to a tactful rebranding of SPDs platform. This point remains tenuous, however, as AfD still made headway in Saarland’s recent election while Germany’s quintessential establishment party, CDU secured 5 new seats in parliament, SPD gained zero,(11) and Die Linke lost two. (12)



One country that seems to defy all odds in terms of the rise of rightwing populism is Spain. Considering that its economy never recovered from the 2008 recession (13) and that popular opinion of establishment politics has plummeted thanks to a series of corruption scandals,(14) it would seem that Spain was poised for the rise of rightwing populism as in Germany or the UK.


Interestingly, despite these conditions, there has been no significant surge of collective anger directed at the presence of immigrants—whose numbers spiked during the years leading up to the recession– nor towards globalization more broadly. (15) According to a report in the Financial Times, (16) ‘“People here worry about jobs, not about migrants,” says José Manuel Carmona, a member of the Villacañas local council for the centre-right Popular party, the ruling party in a minority government. “If they blame anyone for the crisis it is the politicians.”’


What’s more is that Spain’s most prominent leftist party, Podemos, which is staunchly anti-austerity, has gained the most traction of any political faction in the country,(17) securing 21% of the popular vote in 2016. (18)  Thanks to the recent reign of Franco’s fascism, the Spanish harbor a lot of skepticism towards rightwing nationalism, which naturally conjures starkly negative associations.


For politicians, the regional fragmentation between different groups—Catalonian and Basque—makes appealing to a sense of collective Spanish identity even more futile, as these groups continually challenge its legitimacy. That in mind, Spain’s rightwing Popular Party already has a scapegoat in these groups so directing blame for Spain’s problems onto immigrants hasn’t been necessary.


As for popular opinion about the EU, Spaniards generally feel that Spain should stay part of the Eurozone. Indeed, unlike Germany or the UK, which have both functioned as two of the EU’s leading economies, Spain benefitted from EU sanctioned aid as its own declined during the recession. (19) Not to mention, there exists little tension around the idea that foreigners are stealing welfare resources like housing and welfare subsidies, as Spain doesn’t have such established systems in place as in other EU member states.


Experts and analysts believe that the current political climate in Spain is unlikely to turn towards rightwing extremism in the future, either. Still, the Spanish model doesn’t offer much help to other countries where rightwing populism is on the rise, as many of the conditions existing in the country are embedded in its unique historical and cultural context, (20) and are therefore, are not easily replicated elsewhere.



Perhaps the most topical example regarding the rise of rightwing populism and a growing skepticism of the EU is France. With a highly contentious election just days away, the whole of Europe and beyond waits as the results are cast because many believe they could decide the fate of the Eurozone in its entirety. With the increasing popularity of extreme candidates on both sides of the political spectrum, we see the clearest backlash against the progressive neoliberal politics of the establishment.


During his time in office, the current center-left president, Francois Hollande has experienced pitifully low approval ratings, that have at times hovered close to zero. (21) Most remarkable in his innocuousness as an emblem of the status quo, the Socialist Party’s replacement candidate in the impending election is the centrist Emmanuel Macron, who ranks first in national polls by a slim margin of only about 1%.23 His platform includes the typical neoliberal leanings of his predecessors. (22)  Despite this, analysts predict that he will secure a win in the election because a majority–albeit a slim one– will vote defensively against the ultra-rightwing National Front’s Marine Le Pen who has aggregated 23% of popular support (23) thanks to the nationalistic appeal of her political platform.22 The other noteworthy neoliberal establishment candidate is The Republicans’ Francois Fillon, who currently trails Macron and Le Pen, with 19% of the country in favor of his ascent to the presidency.23 As we have seen in various cases throughout Europe and in the US, Fillon has lost favor due to corruption and scandal, including the nepotistic ‘Penelope Gate’.(24) With these contenders in mind, it is no surprise that many are seeking something altogether different.


Under the radical Left Party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon offers a robust critique of the EU specifically as a neoliberal and undemocratic institution. (25) He has emerged from the fringes, rising to third place in the polls behind Macron and the ultra-rightwing National Front’s Le Pen, with a 19% rating.23 While for very different reasons, Melénchon has taken his EU critical stances to the same extreme as his rightwing counterpart, threatening to leave the EU altogether if it doesn’t undergo fundamental change. Unlike Le Pen, however, his anti-EU focus does not lie in an opposition of multiculturalism, but in EU wide austerity. He has been known, for instance, to use the prospect of Frexit as leverage to change the way that Germany imposes structural adjustment on other member states. Mélenchon also proposes to finance a greener economy through the redistribution of resources from France’s wealthy. His success in capturing voters’ disgruntlement towards the establishment and the EU has certainly garnered him more popularity than other pro-EU Socialist Party candidate, Benoit Hamon who hasn’t disentangled himself from more traditional leftist political strategy.22 That said, Mélenchon’s appeal has yet to outweigh that of Le Pen’s righwing populism, as she remains the second contender to Macron.23 Still, his extreme leanings and anti-EU stances could lead France and Europe at large into an uncertain future, particularly if he and Le Pen were to go head to head in the second round of the elections.



The many nuances present in the European political situation suggest that the solution to combating the rise of the rightwing might be more complicated than Fraser’s analysis implies. In several European countries, there already exist leftist platforms that are both critical of neoliberal policy whilst simultaneously progressive when it comes to issues related to the rights of minorities. Even though this kind of leftwing populist alternative exists, there are many other factors at play, which dictate whether the rightwing gains traction within a given society. Such is exemplified in the above examples, whereas the culmination of social, political, and economic conditions seem to have at least as much sway.


It is certainly a compelling idea that the presence of a ‘true left,’ which successfully reveals the connection between the oppression of the worker and the oppression of the minority, calling for substantive structural change rather than meager incremental reform, is the key to staving off the rise of rightwing extremism. In reality, this is only one small piece of the puzzle. Even in in the American context, it would seem that Fraser herself even overlooks this notion in ignoring Bernie Sander’s failure to secure the Democratic Party nomination.


Clearly, combating the rise of rightwing populism is a complex situation with no one-size-fits-all solution applicable from one country to the next. Surely, economic insecurity is a fundamental aspect of this phenomenon, and there is a growing skepticism among member states about the functionality of the EU as a governing body. Nevertheless, it would appear that more case by case social science research is necessary for understanding how to mitigate the rise of the rightwing in Europe and beyond.



  2. Eur-Lex, 18 December 2016,*
  3. Scharpf, Fritz W, (1999), Governing in Europe: Effective and democratic?, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford University Press, p. 6.^


What We Can & Can’t Measure in a Brexit Deal

We are delighted to launch our first Second Opinion report! Written with the support of Expat Citizens’ Rights in the EU (ECREU), our paper What We Can & Can’t Measure in a Brexit Deal aims to give a second opinion to the report released by a group of UK-based scholars at UK in a Changing Europe titled A Successful Brexit: Four Economic Tests.

The complete report is available here: What We Can and Can’t Measure in a Brexit Deal: Social Science Works 2017

Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is one of the most important social, political and economic events in Europe’s post-war history. The ramifications of Brexit for the UK, the European Union and beyond will be felt for decades to come. While it is difficult to measure the degree to which the political actions over the next two years will directly affect these outcomes, there is a need to include the voices of social and political sciences in this debate and ask ourselves what we think a good Brexit deal would look like. Our paper adds to this growing debate by broadening the dimensions through which a Brexit deal should be scrutinised.

We argue that a Brexit deal cannot be considered outside of the context of the aims of the European Union. That is to say that we consider the following some of the key dimensions which a Brexit deal ought to be examined:

  • The political and social stability of the UK and the remaining member states;
  • The preservation of citizens’ rights of EU nationals living in the UK and UK nationals living in the EU;
  • The improved ability of the UK to push back against international forces;
  • Ongoing cooperation on matters of security.

In our Second Opinion report, we sought not only to add our voice to the debate, but also to demonstrate the relevance of a methodology for examining existing research, particularly when it is part of key, ongoing policy debates. A Successful Brexit: Four Economic Tests was conducted by noted scholars from the UK and as such we have found the quality of the paper to be mostly very high. That said, there were some areas, particularly in the realms of assumptions and definitions that have tilted its focus to looking at a future Brexit deal as an economic question. Our paper seeks to help to redress this.

The original paper asks how we can measure the success of a future Brexit deal for the UK. In doing so, it presents four economic tests relating to four thematic areas: public finances and the economy, fairness, openness and control. The paper makes it clear that it does not intend to offer a comprehensive framework through which to assess a future Brexit deal, and focuses only on economic considerations. In our conclusion, we argue that while A Successful Brexit: Four Economic Tests adds a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate on measuring the success of Brexit, it still omits many important criteria and indicators that go beyond the realm of economic data.

Download the complete report here: What We Can and Can’t Measure in a Brexit Deal: Social Science Works 2017




The Limits Of Survey Data: What Questionnaires Can’t Tell Us

All research methodologies have their limitations, as many authors have pointed before (see for example Visser, Krosnick and Lavrakas, 2000). From the generalisabilty of data to the nitty-gritty of bias and question wording, every method has its flaws. In fact, the in-fighting between methodological approaches is one of social science’s worst kept secrets: the hostility between quantitative and qualitative data scholars knows almost no bounds (admittedly that’s ‘almost no bounds’ within the polite world of academic debate) and doesn’t look set to be resolved any time soon. That said, there are some methods that are better suited than others to certain types of studies. This article will examine the role of survey data in values studies and argue that it is a blunt tool for this kind of research and that qualitative study methods, particularly via deliberation, are more appropriate. This article will do so via an examination of a piece of 2016 research published by the German ministry for migrants and refugees (the BAMF) which explored both the demographics and the social values held by refugees that have arrived in Germany in the last three years. This article will argue that surveys are unfit to get at the issues that are most important to people.


The Good, The Bad & The Survey

Germany has been Europe’s leading figure as the refugee crisis has deepened worldwide following the collapse of government in Syria and the rise of ISIS. Today, there are 65.3 million displaced people from across the world and 21.3 million refugees (UNHCR, 2016), a number that surpasses even the number of refugees following the Second World War. The exact number of refugees living in Germany (official statistics typically count all migrants seeking protection as refugees, although there is some difference between the various legal statuses) is not entirely clear and the figure is unstable. And while this figure still lags behind the efforts made by countries like Turkey and Jordan, this represents the highest total number of refugees in a European country and matches the pro capita efforts of Sweden. Meanwhile, there are signs that Germany’s residents do not always welcome their new neighbours. For example, in 2016, there were almost 2,000 reported attacks on refugees and refugee homes (Antonio-Amedeo Stiftung, 2017) a similar trend was established by Benček and Strasheim (2016), and the rise of the far-right and anti-migrant party, the AfD in local elections last year points to unresolved resentment towards the newcomers.

In this context then, it makes sense for the BAMF (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge), the ministry responsible for refugees and migrants in Germany, to respond to pressure in the media and from politicians to get a better overall picture about the kinds of people the refugees to Germany are. As such, their 2016 paper: “Survey of refugees – flight, arrival in Germany and first steps of integration”[1] details a host of information about newcomers in Germany. The study, which relied on questionnaires given by BAMF officials in a number of languages, and a face-to-face or online format (BAMF, 2016, 11), asked questions of 4,500 refugee respondents. For the most part, the study offers excellent insight into the demographic history of refugees to Germany and will be helpful for policymakers looking to ensure that efforts to help settles refugees are appropriately targeted. For example, the study detailed the relatively high level of education enjoyed by typical refugees to Germany (an average between 10 and 11 years of schooling) (ibid., 37) and some of the specific difficulties this group have in successfully navigating the job market (ibid., 46) and where this group turns to for help for this.

In addition to offering the most up-to-date information about refugees’ home countries and their path into Germany, the study is extremely helpful for politicians and scholars looking to enhance their understanding of logistical and practical issues facing migrants; for example, who has access to integration courses? How many unaccompanied children are in Germany? How many men and how many women fled to Germany? Here, the study is undoubtedly helpful.  However, the latter stages of the report purport to examine the social values held by refugees, and it is this part of the study that this article takes issue with.

Respondents were asked to answer questions about their values. The topics included: the right form a government should take, the role of democracy, voting rights of women, the role of religion in the state, men and women’s equality in a marriage, and perceived difference between the values of refugees and Germans among others. While this article doesn’t take issue with the veracity of the findings reported in the article, it does argue that the methods used here are inappropriate for the task at hand. Consider first the questions relating to refugees’ attitudes toward democracy and government. The report found that 96% of refugee respondents agreed with the statement: “One should have a democratic system”[2] compared with 95% of the German control group (ibid., 52). This finding was picked up in the liberal media and heralded as a sign that refugees share central German social values. It is entirely possible that this is true. However, it isn’t difficult to see the ways in which this number might have been accidentally manufactured and should hence be treated with considerable caution.

To do so, one must first consider the circumstances of the interview or questionnaire. As a refugee in Germany, you are confronted with the authority of the BAMF regularly, and you are also likely aware that it is representatives from this organization that ultimately decide on you and your family’s status in Germany and whether you will have the right to stay or not. You are then asked for detailed information about your family history, your education and your participation in integration courses by a representative from this institution. Finally, the interviewer asks what your views are on democracy, women’s rights and religion. Is it too much of a jump to suggest that someone who has had to flee their home and take the extraordinarily dangerous trip to Europe is savvy enough to spot a potential trap here? In these circumstances, there is a tendency to give the answer the interviewer wants to hear. This interviewer bias effect is not a problem exclusive to surveys of refugees’ social values (Davis, 2013), however the power imbalance in these interactions exacerbates the effect. The argument advanced here is not that refugees do not hold a positive view of democracy, but that the trying to find out their views via a survey of this sort is flawed. In fact, the report doesn’t find any significant points of departure between Germans and refugees on any of the major values other than the difficulties presented by women earning more money than their husbands and its potential to cause marital difficulties (ibid., 54).


The Gillard Government made a commitment in 2010 to release all children from immigration detention by June 2011, but still 1000 children languish in the harsh environment of immigration camps around Australia. The Refugee Action Collective organised a protest on July 9, 2011 outside the Melbourne Immigration Transit accommodation which is used for the detention of unaccompanied minors.

Protestors in Australia.

Asking Questions About Essential Contested Concepts

Beyond the serious power imbalance noted above, another key issue not addressed in the BAMF study is the question of contested concepts. Essential contested concepts, an idea first advanced by W.B. Gallie in 1956, are the big topics like art, beauty, fairness and trust. These big topics, which also include traditionally social scientific and political topics like democracy and equality, are defined as ‘essentially contested’ when the premise of the concept – for example ‘freedom’ – is widely accepted, but how best to realise freedom is disputed (Hart, 1961, 156). The BAMF survey uses these big topics without offering a definition to go with them. What do people mean when they say that ‘men and women should have equal rights[3]’ (BAMF, 2016, 52)? What does equality mean in this context? There are of course many different ways that ‘equality’ between men and women can be interpreted. For example, many conservative Catholic churches argue that men and women are ‘equal’ but different, and have clear family roles for men and women. Likewise, participants could equally mean to say that they believe that men and women should have equal, shared family responsibilities, there is no way to know this from this study. Hence, it is difficult to know how best to interpret these kinds of statistics without considerable context.

As part of the work undertaken by Social Science Works, the team are regularly confronted by these kinds of questions via deliberative workshops with Germans and refugees. In these workshops the team ask questions like “What is democracy?”, “What is freedom?”, “What is equality?”. In doing so, the aim of the workshops is to build a consensus together by formulating and reformulating possible definitions[4], finding common ground between conflicting perspectives and ultimately defining the concepts as a group. What is among the most striking things about these meetings is the initial reluctance of participants to volunteer answers – there is a real lack of certainty about what these kinds of words mean in practice, even among participants who, for example, have studied social and political sciences or work in politics. With the benefit of hindsight, workshop participants have acknowledged these problems in dealing with essentially contested concepts, participants have commented:

“Social Science Works has encouraged me to question my own views and views more critically and to develop a more precise concept for large and often hard to grasp terms such as “democracy”, “freedom” or “equality”. This experience has shown me how complicated it is for me – as someone who I really felt proficient in these questions – to formulate such ideas concretely.” (German participant from the 2016 series of workshops)

“The central starting point for the training was, for me, the common notion of understanding of democracy and freedom. In the intensive discussion, I realized that these terms, which seem self-evident, are anything but.” (German participant from the 2016 series of workshops).

In attempting to talk about these big issues, it become clear just how little consensus there is on these kinds of topics. The participants quoted here work and volunteer in the German social sector and hence confront these kinds of ideas implicitly on a daily basis. The level of uncertainty pointed at here, and from Social Science Works’ wider experience working with volunteers, social workers and refugees suggests that the lack of fluency in essentially contested concepts is a wider problem. In the context of the BAMF research then, it is clear that readers ought to take the chapter detailing the ‘values’ of refugees and Germans with a generous pinch of salt.


Building Consensus & Moving Forward

This article does not seek to suggest that there is no role for survey data in helping to answer questions relating to refugees in Germany. For the most part, the BAMF research offers excellent data on key questions relating to demographics and current social conditions. Hence, the study ought to make an excellent tool of policy makers seeking to better target their support of refugees. However, it is equally clear that to discuss essentially contested concepts like democracy and equality, a survey is a very blunt tool, and here the BAMF study fails to convince. The study seeks to make clear that the social and political values between Germans and refugees are similar and the differences are minimal. The experience in the deliberative workshops hosted by Social Science Works suggests that this is probably true, insofar as both groups find these concepts difficult to define and have to wrestle to make sense of them. This is not something articulated in the BAMF research, however.

Our collective lack of fluency in these topics, even among social and political scholars, has long roots best described another time. However, if we are to improve our abilities to discuss these kinds of topics and build collective ideas for social change and cohesion, there are much better places to begin than a questionnaire. If we are to build a collective understanding of our political structures and our social values, we need to address this lack of fluency by engaging in discussions with diverse groups and together building a coherent idea about social and political ideas.



[1] Original German: “Befragung von Geflüchteten – Flucht, Ankunft in Deutschland und erste Schritte der Integration“

[2] Original German: „Man sollte ein demokratisches System haben.“

[3] Original German: „Frauen haben die gleichen Rechte wie Männer“

[4] For a more detailed overview of the deliberative method in these workshops, see Blokland, 2016.



Amadeu Antonio Foundation (2016), Hate Speech Against Refugees, Amadeu Antonio Foundation, Berlin.

Benček, D. and Strasheim, J. (2016), Refugees Welcome? Introducing a New Dataset on Anti-Refugee Violence in Germany, 2014–2015, Working Paper No. 2032, University of Kiel.

Davis, R. E.; et al. (Feb 2010). Interviewer effects in public health surveys, Health Education Research, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Hart, H.L.A., (1961), The Concept of Law, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Gallie, W.B., (1956), Essentially Contested ConceptsProceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 56 (1955 – 1956), pp. 167-198.


IAB-BAMF-SOEP (2016), Befragung von Geflüchteten – Flucht, Ankunft in Deutschland und erste Schritte der Integration, BAMF-Forschungsbericht 29, Nürnberg: Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge.

UNHCR (2016), Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2015, UNHCR, New York.

Visser, P. S., Krosnick, J. A., & Lavrakas, P. (2000), Survey research, in H. T. Reis & C. M. Judd (Eds.), Handbook of research methods in social psychology, New York: Cambridge University Press.


Against Elections Review: Taking A Chance With Democracy

When “Against Elections: The Case for Democracy” by David Van Reybrouck first appeared its cover was a plain white, a slim volume of less than 180 pages promising a sober read despite its provocative title. Since its second edition, the cover has changed. It is now an alarming red, with Donald Trump’s face at the bottom of the cover, his eyes squinting menacingly at the reader. This change is emblematic because the last year that has shaken up our political systems in a way not seen since the end of the Soviet empire.
Van Reybrouck offers both a diagnosis and more significantly an at least partial answer to the troubles Western-style democracies are currently beset with. His diagnosis is poignantly summed up as a “Democratic Fatigue Syndrome”. When it comes to democracy, “[e]veryone seems to want it, but no one believes in it any more” (1). Trust in institutions has been corroded, turnout and party memberships have been in constant decline for decades. Coalition negotiations take longer than they used to, governments are under permanent public scrutiny and attack, while they operate to slowly to keep up with social change. Colin Crouch has famously offered a damning verdict of the state of our political systems and claimed we effectively lived in a time of “post-democracy”. But while some authors such as Crouch blame the neoliberal hollowing out of state institutions and implicitly or explicitly call for their restoration, Van Reybrouck’s suggestion is decidedly more far-reaching historically as well as in scope.


Like basically all textbooks in democratic theory, Van Reybrouck takes the Athenian democracy as his starting point but unlike most standard accounts he praises the drawing of lots as a basic principle to allocate government positions. While Athens has often been described as a “direct democracy”, Van Reybrouck argues we should instead view it as an “aleatoric-representative democracy” (67): a system in which government officials are determined by sortition, i.e. the drawing of lots. This part of the book offers detailed accounts of the working of not only the Athenian democracy, but also of historical governments and procedures which equally placed great emphasis on the chance allocation of government positions through sortition, such as the Venetian “Ballotta”, the Florentine “Imborsazione” or the “Insaculación” of Aragon (68-69).


In its modern form, however, representative systems have marginalized the principle of sortition in favour of a mix of democratic and aristocratic elements through electoral representation. The very oscillation between aristocratic and democratic tendencies can be seen as the basic motif of modern democratic theory and the will to represent the people has always been accompanied by a certain “political agoraphobia” (89). Some of the responses to our current populist predicament might be viewed in this light as well and while populists rally against “technocrats”, experts, central bankers and constitutional courts, their liberal counterparts start to doubt the very principle of democratic representation again. Van Reybrouck’s reminder that such discussions have a history dating back to the American and French Revolution and were picked up with particular fervour around the time of the Weimar Republic helps us not fall in the trap of historical exceptionalism.


In the last part of the book, van Reybrouck calls for a revival of the “aleatory” tradition. He recounts innovation in “deliberative democratic theory” as well as concrete examples of democratic experiments and attempts to assess their potential. Most importantly, the theoretical and practical work of James Fishkin is highlighted. Already in 1988, Fishkin proposed bringing together 1,500 US American citizens and the presidential candidates to participate in a televised discussion over two weeks. Since then, various attempts at similar citizen juries, public consultations, deliberative opinion polls and town hall meetings have been organised throughout the Western world. Van Reybrouck describes these attempts in some detail, the Irish Convention on the Constitution possibly being the most impressive example, in which 100 members including 66 randomly chosen citizens participated and as a result of which Ireland mandated legal same-sex marriage in its 2015 referendum. Other experiments from Canada or the Netherlands, however, have left no real results (121).

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768

The book concludes with an appeal for a complex system of government in which elections and sortition complement one another. Different political bodies would be composed of random members and have different functions in the legislative process to ensure checks and balances. Such a system, Van Reybrouck suggests, would have to constantly adapt to the experiences we have with it and could eventually even do away with elections on the whole. These concrete suggestions are simultaneously the great strength and the weakness of Van Reybrouck’s manifesto. In the long run, his vision should inspire democratic reformers, but how are we to conceive the way forward towards a more deliberative democracy?


A classic study from the history of science called “The Leviathan and the Air-Pump” points us to the main difficulty on this path. It describes the controversy between Thomas Boyle, a forefather of the experimental method in 17th century Britain, who found his proudest moment in proving the existence of a vacuum with an expensive air pump depicted in the picture above and Thomas Hobbes, who is usually regarded as the founder of modern political theory. Hobbes attacked Boyle’s experimental methods as illegitimate. After all, who are those people assembling around an experiment? Why would an experiment in relative secrecy be of any relevance for the pursuit of knowledge which should be open to all? How are we to trust that the signs from experiments that allegedly point towards some deeper truth – especially when those science only become visible in such a tightly controlled setting such as a scientist’s laboratory?


In a way, deliberative experiments face the same challenges of scientific and political representation. Electoral representation has its strength in its self-evidence in the same way that Hobbes’ “state of nature” argument has an intuitive appeal despite its abstractness: Hobbes told us that if there was no state, even the weakest man can kill the strongest – be it with wit or weapons – so we are all naturally equal and can only exist in society if we become equal parts that are represented by the state. Still today, the principle “one man, one vote” is intuitive and the chance for everyone to participate shifts the burden to the citizenry. As women and the poor won enfranchisement, the concept of “one man, one vote” deepened. Hobbes essentially prevailed.


The deliberative challenge to representative democracy would need to pick up the same controversy and fight it out on the territory of political representation. The problem is that a random selection of citizens would require everyone to accept the legitimacy from a sample of people whose initial composition and its eventual decisions would have to be organised by a group of trusted experts and politicians. Especially when the potential results of such deliberations could be foreseen, we can assume political parties instrumentalise and antagonise over such experiments. Observers will be quick to point out that deliberation would only simulate the democratic process without being “the real thing” (Michelsen/Walter 2013).


Advocates of deliberative democracy will need to pick up this challenge and prove its value. As with experimental methods in science, such trials can only start locally and must then develop and travel through a vast web of repetitions. As long as parliaments, parties and mass media progressively lose their capacity to represent the people while the Trumps of this planet reap the fruits of their demise, we might have few other options than to try out new forms of democracy. Van Reybrouck wrote the manifesto for this project and some significant trials have been made. Many more will need to follow.


Against Elections: The Case For Democracy was written by David Van Reybrouck and is available from Random House, 2016.


Fishkin, James S. “The case for a national caucus: Taking democracy seriously.” Atlantic Monthly 262.2 (1988).
Michelsen, Danny, and Franz Walter. Unpolitische Demokratie. Zur Krise der Repräsentation. Berlin: Suhrkamp (2013).
Shapin, Steven, and Simon Schaffer. Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.
Van Reybrouck, David. Against elections: the case for democracy. London: The Bodley Head, 2016.

The Wave: The Rise Of European Far-Right Populism

2016 was a banner year in atypical electoral outcomes. At the outset of the year, few would have predicted the results of the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, and the massive vote share that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) received in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in Germany – garnering a higher percentage of votes than the Christian Democratic Party (CDU). These results have been paired with increasingly widespread discussions of the lack of responsiveness of elected officials and a widely disillusioned populace.

Within these developments, two major points cannot be afforded to be ignored any longer: far-right populism is once again rearing its ugly head across Europe, and a democratic deficit at both a European Union and member state level is at least partially to blame for it. This paper will analyze the palpable and evolving trends in the rise of far-right populist success in Germany, France, and the Netherlands and analyze how institutional failures have contributed to it. While this paper originally sought to only answer the components above, the author realizes the dire state of the political situation at hand – and what its consequences could mean for ourselves and our posterity. As such, he includes a third section focusing on several methods and approaches to combat this rise.


The Rise of the Far-Right: Examples and Realities from Germany, France And the Netherlands 

A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of far-right populism. Across the continent of Europe, parties that only shortly ago were well beyond the realms of the mainstream political spectrum have gained momentum in public opinion and at the polls. Populist in the sense of displaying a disdain and opposition to the ‘established’ political parties while also claiming to be the ‘true voice’ of a people in a given country, far-right populist parties also often have strong tinges – or full-blown components – of nationalism, xenophobia, racism, or some form of restrictive inclusiveness. For this paper, the successes and components of three far-right parties will be analyzed: the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany, the National Front (FN) in France, and the Party of Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands. It should be noted that many of the attributes and successes of these parties transcend country or Western Europe. They can in many respects be viewed as part of a wider reaching development.


Germany and the Alternative for Germany (AfD)

1280px-Konrad_Adam,_Frauke_Petry_und_Bernd_Lucke_2013As mentioned in the introduction to this paper, the 2016 Mecklenburg-Vorpommern elections – a German Federal State – shocked many across Europe and beyond. The mighty Christian Democratic Party (CDU) placed third in the regional elections behind the AfD, a party founded only a few years prior. Two weeks later, they won over 14 percent in the Berlin state elections – a traditionally very liberal city. Unlike the traditional extreme right party in Germany, the NPD, the AfD has taken a more sophisticated approach in pushing its right-wing agenda – Bernd Lucke, an economist, was a founding member of the party, for instance. Campaigning on issues such as shutting the EU’s external borders to immigration, a strong anti-Islam platform, a skepticism of the Euro and the EU, and more traditionally conservative Christian social values,[1] the party has pulled voters from both the CDU – who feel the party has abandoned its traditionally more conservative base – and from the SPD (Social Democratic Party) – many of whom feel that the traditional worker’s party has abandoned their interests in the name of globalization. At the center of the AfD’s overall message is a tone against the “elites” and the belief that there is an overall lack of responsiveness by those in ruling positions. A recent poll found 88 percent of AfD supporters agreeing with the notion that political powers operate independently of public opinion, and that their voices did not matter from the perspective of the ruling classes.[2] Its swift ascension to state parliaments – and potentially into the Bundestag in next year’s elections – paired with its every so often NS-Zeit vocabulary (their use of the term Lügenpresse, for instance), has been viewed through nervous eyes by many.


France and the National Front (FN)

Across the border from Germany, France may be in store for a similar development in its upcoming presidential elections. While much older than the AfD, France’s National Front (founded in 1972) has a long history in French politics. In 2002, the party pulled a major political upset when then-leader Jean-Marie Le Pen defeated a Socialist Party candidate to advance to the second round of the French presidential election. While the party often displayed outright attitudes of anti-Semitism under Le Pen, his daughter and current party leader Marine Le Pen, has been widely successful in making the current party operate under a “veneer of respectability” that seeks to mask the more outright levels of xenophobia and racism found under her father’s leadership.[3] The party’s success has been coupled with these moves and a rising wave of Islamophobia in France to the tune of its 25 percent popular vote share in the 2014 European Parliament elections and its 28 percent vote in the first round of France’s 2015 regional elections.[4] Many speculate that Le Pen has a real chance at getting past the first round of this year’s presidential elections, given current President Francois Hollande’s current dismal approval ratings. Yet what Le Pen has tapped into and what her and the FN ultimately use to lure voters parallels much with most of the ideas of the AfD, a sense of a victimized French people by foreigners and globalization, and the FN as the ultimate representative of the common interest of these people.[5]


The Netherlands and the Party of Freedom (PVV)

With national elections in the Netherlands next year, the Party of Freedom (PVV) is currently topping the polls. Their leader, Geert Wilders, has toned down on much of the borderline anti-Semitism and homophobia from traditional far-right parties in Europe, and instead portrayed the situation in the Netherlands as one of traditional Dutch liberal values under attack from ‘Islamization.’[6] As such, Wilders and his party have pulled from a wide range of groups that traditionally do not engage with his brand of far-right politics. Yet, like the party’s counterparts in France and Germany, the PVV has gained support from a populace disillusioned with a politics-as-usual approach – one that many feel has ignored their basic needs and has become increasingly less responsive. While Wilders was recently found guilty of inciting discrimination at a recent rally – calling for “fewer Moroccans” – the support he has gained has continued to grow, such as those in rural fishing villages where the threat of many of the EU laws on fisheries brings much disdain.[7]

What’s different about these far-right populist parties compared to traditional ones? On the whole, these parties have tapped into much of the disillusionment among the populace that has fueled forerunner parties of similar backgrounds, while broadening their approach and veiling their overall messages in ways that make their ideas – at first glance – appear less extreme and more mainstream. We now turn to an important component of their rise – the democratic deficit at the EU and member state level.


The Democratic Deficit and Its Contributions to the Rise of the Far-Right

Generally speaking, the idea of the ‘democratic deficit’ involves the sense felt by many that EU institutions – and as I will argue here, member states as well – suffer from a lack of democratic measures and complexity that makes it seem “inaccessible to the ordinary citizen.”[8] High levels of a democratic deficit can make populations increasingly disillusioned with political structures, and leave them vulnerable to the sway of far-right populists claiming to be the one ‘true’ or ‘responsive’ voice of the people.

At an EU level, this democratic deficit is extremely palpable. Its high levels of complexity – from the way officials are appointed and leadership positions are awarded – paired with low levels of participation leave it – particularly when the body itself is endowed with the power of supranational law – drawing the ire of many in Europe. Part of this EU-level democratic deficit certainly starts with the fact that the European Parliament is the only directly elected body in the EU. Its five-year electoral cycle means that individual citizens only have two opportunities per decade to contribute to it through the power of the ballot. Perhaps it is no surprise then, that EU electoral participation has dropped from about 62 percent in 1979 to less than 43 percent in 2014.[9] It suffers from a real or perceived lack of input-oriented democratic thought, which Scharf (1999), explains as “government by the people” – the idea that political decisions reflect the will of the electorate.[10] Even though the Parliament has gained more competencies following the Single European Act, a democratic deficit is still felt by many.[11] Far-right populist groups have pounced on these ideas, and to some degree, perhaps they are not incorrect. When liberal democracies, or supranational institutions, fail to provide a sense of transparency and input legitimacy, they undermine their entire existence, and make themselves a less responsive and accountable body.

At a member state level, the democratic deficit has been equally as dangerous and responsible for the rise of the far-right: through a real or perceived loss of popular sovereignty, the lack of an effective democratic debate, and what Mouffe (2002) calls the ‘impasse of moralism.’ Much of the antagonism towards the EU is also towards member state governments, where a similar type of democratic deficit exists. Far-right populists have seized on what many supporters view as a lack of responsiveness to the will of the people from the ruling parties at hand and with it, capturing the minds of individuals who feel that there is no ‘scope’ left for them to participate in important decisions through the existing political parties and system at hand.[12] As one PVV supporter put it, “[the traditional political parties] don’t listen to us…every time it is the same.”[13]

This loss of popular sovereignty – real or perceived – has been met with a lack of real democratic debate. In Germany, for instance, the ruling CDU/SPD Große Koalition – paired with the SPD’s embrace of more neoliberal policies – has led to a crowding out of potential political alternatives and with it the creation of an anti-political climate – one in which Mouffe (2002) says makes it impossible for political passions and displeasure to be “channeled through traditional democratic parties.”[14] This blurring of the political landscape amongst mainstream parties has resulted in a neo-liberal hegemony[15] in many Western European states, and with it a vacuum of where a forum for real economic and social issues to be discussed and voted on – in a fuller view of the public – used to exist.

Finally, the ‘impasse of moralism,’ as Mouffe (2002) states, is the result of the institutional and political failures of combating right-wing populism with simply a ‘moral high ground’ approach.[16] While it may seem convenient to avoid contact or acknowledgement with any of the ideas from some of these parties based off an aura of moral supremacy, it has done little to hinder the success of these movements – as the aforementioned electoral results show. Coupled with this component has been a dismissal of voters for these groups by ruling institutions, and their automatic labeling by the ruling powers as what Pulitzer Prize winning lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald describes as, “primitive, stupid, racist, xenophobic, and irrational,” valid or not.[17] It is a convenient excuse for ruling institutions and parties, and has allowed them to slip through the accountability cracks while at the same time absolving themselves from the responsibility to look within their own faults to examine the underlying political, social and economic causes that have buoyed the rise of these movements.


Some thoughts on Combatting the Wave – Three Approaches to Counter Far-Right Populism

Under the guise of being the ‘one true voice’ of the people, far-right populist parties threaten the very institutions, freedoms and relative stability that has – mostly – existed in Western Europe since the end of the Second World War. Although many of these movements operate under the false-premise of restoring the democratic will of the people, their modus operandi, and the values for which they truly stand for is inherently undemocratic in the sense of denying many rights to marginalized groups – rights not subject to the forces of democracy. With that said, this author offers three ways that parties and institutions can combat this dangerous wave permeating throughout Europe.

Restoring Input-Oriented Democracy

Member state governments the and EU must make more direct efforts to legitimize their decisions to their constituents and appear more transparent to a wider public. Increasing the role of the European Parliament – the only directly elected body of the EU – would be a meaningful first place to start. Moreover, member states and the EU would benefit greatly by pushing for more real or perceived reliance on citizen ‘participation’ in order to achieve more input-oriented legitimacy.[18] Democracy does not end at the ballot box – elections are merely just one component of the democratic process. Engaging in more meaningful ways of feedback, education, and more genuine attempts to approach citizens and gauge their interests and concerns is a major step to counter much of the disillusionment felt across member states and the continent as a whole.

More Introspection from Existing Institutions

The ruling parties and governing bodies of Europe cannot absolve themselves from the blame for the rise of the far-right any longer. Their moralistic responses have for some time been a convenient enough response to avoid their own versions of self-critique, but it has also led to a dangerous lack of self-acknowledgement of their own faults and lack of responsiveness. Writing about the victory of Donald Trump in the United States, Glenn Greenwald pointed to the failure of institutions continuously, “mocking, maligning, and pillaging large portions of the population,” while then being shocked when these individuals do not, “follow and obey the exact people they most blame for their suffering. They’re going to do exactly the opposite: purposely defy them and try to impose punishment in retaliation.”[19] The same is the case in European countries where far-right movements have gained momentum. An acknowledgement amongst the ruling parties and governments themselves that they have in many ways abandoned traditional bases – and even maligned a good portion of them – or placed the value of winning elections or staying in power over good governance for all – is a step that needs to be taken. To fail to do so displays a dangerous level of hubris that could continue to result in negative consequences.



Living Truths and Dead Dogmas – A Lesson from John Stuart Mill

In his famous work, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill discusses an important passage on ‘living truths’ and ‘dead dogmas.’ Mill argues that even if something is true – empirically or morally – if it is not debated in the public realm, or there is an outright failure to do so, it risks becoming a dead dogma. Thus, when individuals begin to question this truth, those who would like to defend it fail to do so through proper argumentative techniques to respond appropriately to dissent.[20] The inability to respond adequately, argumentatively, and meaningfully to many of the xenophobic and racist components of the far right – by ignoring rather than by out-reasoning – has been the fault of ruling institutions failing to properly articulate these flawed ideals and allowed many virtues of liberal democracy to become dead dogmas rather than living truths. It has contributed to many believing that this type of rhetoric – that these types of ideas – are acceptable, and the ruling institutions have largely failed to appropriately explain the dangers that they entail in real and meaningful ways. Because of it, ruling institutions must find new ways to object to much of the rhetoric from the far right – they simply cannot ignore their words in public debate anymore. These parties have won places in governments by legal means. Without a better formulated response from traditional democratic parties, people will continue to view these parties as the only type of way to voice their disillusionment with the current way of doing things; the current system at hand.


Moving Forward, Not Back

This is a critical juncture in European history. American writer Mark Twain allegedly said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” A failure of EU institutions, member states and the ruling traditional political parties to respond in meaningful and tangible ways has threatened the existing democratic structures of the continent. They must quickly take note of the warnings and advice presented in this paper, or risk a resurgence of darker days in Europe.


Links and References

[1] Knight, Ben (2016), What does the AfD stand for?, Deutsche Welle, 7 March 2016

[2] Amann, Melanie, Bartsch, Matthias, Becker, Sven, Feldenkirchen, Markus, Fleischhauer, Jen, Neukirch, Ralf, Pfister, René, Saller, Josef and Thimm, Katja, (2016), Inside the Revolt against Angela Merkel, Der Spiegel, 21 March. 2016,

[3] Wolin, Richard (2016), France’s National Front Draws Strength from Brexit, The Nation, 5 August, 2016,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Graham-Harrison, Emma, (2016) Far-right party still leading in Dutch polls, despite leader’s criminal guilt, The Guardian, 10 December 2016,

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Democratic deficit”, Eur-Lex, 18 December 2016,

[9] “Results of the 2014 European elections – Turnout,” 18 December 2016, European Parliament,

[10] Scharpf, Fritz W, (1999), Governing in Europe: Effective and democratic?, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford University Press, p. 6.

[11] Scharpf (1999), p. 9.

[12] Mouffe, Chantal (2002), Democracy in Europe: The Challenge of Right-wing Populism, Lecture, 21 November 2002,

[13] Graham-Harrison, Emma, (2016).

[14] Mouffe (2002).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Greenwald, Glenn (2016), Democrats, Trump, and the Ongoing, Dangerous Refusal to Learn the Lesson of Brexit, The Intercept, 9 November 2016,

[18] Scharpf (1999), p. 7.

[19] Greenwald, Glenn, (2016)

[20] Mill, John Stuart, (1869), On Liberty. London: Longman, Roberts & Green.

Yolocaust, Austerlitz & Uploading Holocaust: Dark Tourism Goes Public



To many travellers, the act of visiting a tourist site, where death, tragedy or atrocity are presented in some way is a familiar experience. Relatively new, however, is the increased popularity of experiencing dark tourism on screen. Just months apart from one another, we were introduced to Shahak Shapira’s Yolocaust – a website showing people taking inappropriate pictures at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, to Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz – a documentary film showing tourists on a visit to the former concentration camps (now memorial sites) Dachau and Sachsenhausen, and to Udi Nir and Sagi Bornstein’s Uploading Holocaust – a documentary film made entirely of YouTube clips uploaded by Israeli youth from their so-called “journey to Poland”. These three prominent projects have taken a big step in mainstreaming the discipline of dark tourism: taking out of its academic discourse to a wider public audience. This has proved to be a tricky introduction, and it is the treatment of several ethical problems related to dark tourism and how its reverberate online that this article will address.

‘Dark tourism’ is a term first coined by John Lennon and Malcolm Foley in 1996, and that in the same year Tony Seaton coined a similar term: ‘thanatourism’ (from the Greek word Thanatos – the personification of death). Slowly, both terms have been popularised in academic circles, albeit mostly on the English-speaking world. The founding of the Institute for Dark Tourism Research by Richard Sharpley and Philip Stone in 2012 was a significant push to bring public awareness to the topic, and encourage more profound academic exploration of this ever-growing global tourism segment.

The slow public exposure to dark tourism picked up its pace with several mentions in popular pages. One such example is professor Stefan Küblböck interviewed by Christine Watty (2014) for the quite popular Deutschlandradio Kultur. The somewhat sudden mainstreaming of dark tourism at the end of 2016 broke out with the three projects examining people while visiting dark tourism sites. Not surprising is the ‘stone in the lake effect’, spilling over to the world of art and documentary film making. That in itself is not a great wonder. Rather, it is the chaos of questions created by the speedy attention of social media that is taking us viewers out of focus.


Documenting dark tourism

In Austerlitz Loznitsa placed cameras on tripods in the memorial sites for concentration camps Dachau and Sachsenhausen, filming visitors’ reactions and tour guides leading walking tours through the exhibitions of the two memorial sites. Uploading Holocaust brings a totally different approach, where the film makers selected from 10,000 YouTube clips uploaded mostly by students on Israeli “journey to Poland” groups (as they are commonly known), editing them into a feature length film showing moments from the trips. The third, and perhaps the most controversial of all, is Shahak Shapira’s Yolocaust. Shapira took photos (mostly selfies) of people in the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe (commonly known as the Holocaust Memorial). The stated difference in approaches is an essential part of this project, as Shapira determines that this kind of behaviour is inappropriate, allowing the people in the pictures to write to him with the email address: This was done in stark contrast to Loznitsa’s and to Nir and Bornstein’s intentions. As Loznitsa explains, he doesn’t have the answers to why people take such pictures in concentrations camps, or to whether a visit to Sachsenhausen can help them understand the mystery of death, all he wants to do is to discuss. In other words, to raise questions for public debate about tourism to former concentration camps, with the ethical controversy which accompanies the behavior of tourists. Like Loznitsa, Nir and Bornstein explained in interviews that they want to raise questions about this type of tourism, and with a focus on the delegations, rather than judge the subjects shown in the clips.

In Austerlitz, the viewers receive no interpretation and little editing from Loznitsa, leaving us to ask the questions ourselves. His cameras show mass tourism in former concentration camps, and the popularity of the two sites (together receiving more than 1.5 million visitors per year). The viewer of his documentary may ask questions which range from the topic of appropriate behavior in such places, to the importance of education, the purpose of the memorial site, its conduct as a tourist attraction, site interpretation, and heritage management. Certainly, some of these questions are answered in academic discourse. For example, Sharpley (2009) argues that there is no doubt that morbid curiosity, voyeurism and even schadenfreude provide us with principal account to the existence of such tourism.  But this is of course just one answer to one of the questions arising by watching Austerlitz. It can be argued that if a viewer is presented with this topic for the first time, the viewer may be overwhelmed with self-reflecting questions. Loznitsa did comment in an interview that through his cameras he was trying to wonder why do people take pictures with the Arbeit Macht Frei sign? To ask whether we behave differently in such places if we are in a group or visiting on our own? And to ask if such visitation really provides the answers the tourists are looking for.

Austerlitz’s relative success and the questions it brought out was immediately followed by Shahak Shapira’s Yolocaust project. At the time of the writing of this blog, Shapira’s website received 2.5 million hits. At a first glance, there is a major difference between Austerlitz and Yolocaust: the first is a documentary film, while the latter is a collection of photos of people frozen in seemingly embarrassing, awkward and as it overwhelmingly turns out socially inappropriate.

The second evident difference is that Yolocaust shows a place of commemoration, an abstract monument, which – as its designer Peter Eisenman stated on numerous occasions – is meant for people to spend time in and even play around, rather than take a photo and continue to the next tourist attraction. Moreover, as Eisenman and others have pointed out the memorial is neither a site of a former death camp, nor a graveyard. As Tony Walter (in Sharpley and Stone, 2009) argues, at least officially, memorials are not designed to intermediate between the living and the dead, rather to function as places of memories; memories which can be either individual or shared by the group. And perhaps this also confirms some of Loznitsa’s suggestions: as the fourth generation forgets with time, it takes us away from the event presented by the site, they (new generations) create new memories.

Yolocaust is hardly the first critique of the Memorial for the Murder Jews of Europe being – for some – too much fun. Shapira was clever enough to hit the spot using the one thing that would draw most attention by his generation peers: social media pressure.

There is perhaps no clearer way to present Shapira’s project but a project of internet shaming. Shapira, to my knowledge, did not receive permission from the people, the photos of whom he took from the likes of Instagram, Facebook, Tinder and Grindr. Instead, he allowed them to write to him with an email address starting with implying the ‘douchebag’ behaviour of the subjects of his project.  Unsurprisingly, all of the people shown in the project wrote to him to remove their photos and ‘undouche’ them. We do not know if the people who asked to remove their pictures really felt that they did something wrong, or were simply under social pressure to do so. And then two main issues which spring to mind are the morality of going to people’s social media personal pages to judge their posts. And, the equally difficult question, can and should such memorials really provide us with moral instruction? (Stone in Sharpley and Stone, 2009).

However, in spite of the borderline legality of Yolocaust, using people’s private pictures without their permission, and the controversial morality of invading people’s personal social media pages, the real problem of such projects is much bigger. By simply putting camera and shaming people who visit sites which present death and tragedy important questions that should be asked are being scattered and mixed without any direction or focus.

Moreover, Shapira’s self-proclaimed judge and jury position is using the artistic card to effectively cancel visitors’ rights for privacy. As of mid-January 2017 Shapira has granted himself the third and last governing authority by policing the internet, threatening in an Al Jazeera video to find and shame anyone who will continue to put Holocaust Memorial selfies on their pages.


Shapira’s supporters claim that he showed the ethical failure of his subjects.  Whatever the memorial is meant to do, it is inappropriate for people to behave in certain ways. This indeed is arguably Yolocaust’s best achievement: it points out to the problematic nature of regular, and at best slightly foolish, tourist behaviour at sites presenting death and human tragedy.  Rightfully so, it’s easy to criticise these tourists, the subjects of an art project, to think to ourselves ‘I behave better at such sites’ or ‘I am more respectful’. But in spite of the fluid social construct of what is considered to be appropriate behaviour, for some visitors a disrespectful behaviour can be a way to deal with the emotional difficulties of visiting sites of death and tragedy (Sather-Wagstaff, 2011).

Certainly, the evolution of Erinnerungskultur (culture of remembrance) in Germany is a topic for another debate. In the meantime, however, Austerlitz and Yolocaust, chaotic in their presentation of the topic as they are, created a heated debate; a social debate that was long waiting its turn to break the academic circles in order to take the much larger social media space.

In both quality and format Uploading Holocaust stands out with this new trend of giving artistic new perspective to the phenomenon of dark tourism. Taken from more than 10,000 YouTube clips uploaded by teachers, family members and students who participated in Israeli youth delegations to Poland, the directors created a film made entirely by the voice of those who visit dark tourism sites.

Interviewed after the film premiere in Leipzig in October 2016 Udi Nir told about the laborious task of asking permission from every person whose face appears in a significant way in the film, from 1987 to 2015. Many students, parents and teachers gave the film makers their permission. Possibly, in our culture of reality shows, being famous for a moment was a good enough motivation to allow this kind of exposure. Or perhaps, to paraphrase Voltaire’s quote, the common sense of what behaviour is appropriate is not so common.

Here, too, the film poses questions rather providing the answers, albeit in a much more chronological and analytical manner. Nevertheless, the editing of the film, like the journey itself, includes all stages of the experience, from boarding the plane in Israel, through the expectations the students have from themselves, and the expectations their teachers and their society have from them (and what they are supposed to gain from the visit), and of course their reactions and behaviour. Anthropologist Jackie Feldman observed a number of groups on their ‘journey’ to Poland. The central question of the ‘real’ purpose of the youth trip to Poland as shown in Uploading Holocaust is perhaps best answered by Feldman (2002, p.106):

Through students’ display of Jewish strength, they transform the murdered dead into sacrifices for a Jewish future. Through their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the State and the Land (especially in the army), they prove themselves worthy heirs to the legacy entrusted them”.

Since Feldman made his observations, social media added another perspective to the debate. It can be argued that part of the difference in visitor behaviours has to do with whether or not tourists knew of the cameras pointed at them. In Austerlitz, most people behave as they would. Whereas in Uploading Holocaust many are aware of the cameras, feeling the pressure to perform. The may be what causes, as Erving Goffman (1959) argues, to hide our true self, the self we would like to be.

At this point the nature of a generation expressing itself via YouTube it is perhaps vital to remind ourselves that not all students and all delegations are exactly the same, and that for every moment of dark tourism with all its scenes captured on camera there are hundreds that are not. Still, in editing the film in a narrative that flows like the trip itself from pre-trip preparation to post-trip reflectivity, Nir and Bornstein provide us with a well organised set of mirrors to the challenges of dark tourism, both to site management and to the tourists themselves.


Some concluding remarks

To summarise, here are some of the questions that came to mind watching Yolocaust, Austerlitz and Uploading Holocaust: Is shaming appropriate? Is it their moral fault for behaving like this? Are we blaming millennials for the reality they grew up in? Or perhaps it is the authorities of Berlin who should be at fault for not placing better signage instructing visitors how to behave? What if the unimaginable will happen and the people in the pictures will actually take a look back at their visit to Berlin and read about the Holocaust? Isn’t that what Peter Eisenman intended? Can such memorial sites invoke curiosity and educate a new generation who grew up without first-hand testimony of the Holocaust? Why should a young teen not coming from an environment that educates about the Holocaust know how to behave around a perfectly geometrically positioned set of concrete slabs? How should visitors behave in sites of dark tourism? Can city authorities and/or site management instruct tourists on how to behave? What about the purpose of such sites? Can they be made to serve the heterogeneity of visitors and visitors’ knowledge? Can they be made to serve the heterogeneity of visitor purposes for their visit?

Several scholars (see for example, John Beech, John Thunbridge and Gregory Ashworth) point out to the controversial nature of tourism in former Nazi concentration and extermination camps, the usability of heritage, and the difficulty in practicing interpretation where such atrocities took place. And while the questions will linger, the answers will have to be updated with the arrival of a fourth and fifth generation.


Placing cameras and in some instances shaming the people visiting memorial sites and monuments is not just easy, it is practically the contemporary thing to do. It is even, ironically, a voyeuristic way to look at voyeurism. One common positive about this, running through Uploading Holocuast, Austerlitz and Yolocaust is the successful shaking of the German (and international) Erinnerungskultur. In fact, considering the social media’s globalised character, the very thing that for a new young adult generation crosses physical borders and national cultures, managed to provoke a debate in social media domain that continues to provide challenges for teachers and museum docents in Germany and elsewhere in the world.

There is, however, another way for the transition from an academic debate and dark tourism research to be used by artists and filmmakers to expose the wider public to these important topics. Perhaps after this initial outburst of pioneering projects a more focused artistic lens can be placed on issues site marketing, on the visitor experience from the visitor perspective, on the reasons for people to visiting such sites and on what do they expect as a result of such visit, on site interpretation of such tragic events, and perhaps most importantly on the future evolution of these sites and the purposes they will be used for by the next generation.



Links and references

Austerlitz by Sergei Loznitsa, 2016:

Ben-Peretz M. and Shahar M. (2012). The role of experiental learning in Holocaust education. Social and Education History, 1 (1), 5-27.

Feldman J. (2002). Marketing the boundaries of the enclave: Defining the Israeli collective through the Poland ‘experience’. Israel Studies, 7(2), 84-114.

Gross A.S. (2006) Holocaust tourism in Berlin: Global memory, trauma, and the ‘negative sublime’. Journeys, 7(2), 73-100.

Goffman E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday.

Lennon, J. and Foley, M. (2000) Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster. London: Continuum.

Sather-Wagstaff, J. (2011) Heritage that Hurts: Tourists in the Memoryscapes of September 11, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA.

Seaton, A.V. (1996) Guided by the dark: From thanatopsis to thanatourism, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2(4), 234-244.

Sharpley, R. and Stone, P. (2009) The Darker Side of Travel: The Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism Bristol: Channel View Publications.

Soan D. and Davidovitch N.  (2011). Israeli Youth Pilgrimages to Poland:  Rationale and Polemics. Images, 9 (17-18).

Uploading Holocaust by Udi Nir and Sagi Bornstein,  2016:

Watty Christine, 2014. Turismusexperte Stefan Küblböck in Gespräch mit Christine Watty.

Yolocaust by Shahak Shapira, 2016:

New Neighbors – Here, But Not Yet At Home

The article here was published in German in Die Linke’s Lotta magazine: issue 12, January 10, 2017 and is available here. The original article was written by Sophie Freikamp and was translated by Sarah Coughlan.

What is it like to live in a foreign country? What are the values, what is the culture there? What do I have to know? Apparently simple questions to which the social enterprise Social Science Works seeks in the dialogue with refugees for answers. Lotta introduces the new project.

On a cold Saturday morning, Oktay Tuncer and Wassim Al Ali sit down. They have come to a workshop in Potsdam to talk about identity, about our conceptions of men and masculinity, about democracy. Oktay Tuncer is ‘the German’ in this conversation. He was born and raised in Southern Germany, graduated from high school and studied social sciences at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. His language is academic and honed, he leads the workshop. His name reveals, however, that he has roots in another country.

Wassim and Oktay in conversation. Image courtesy of Lotta magazine.

Wassim and Oktay in conversation. Image courtesy of Lotta magazine.

Wassim Al Ali has only been in Potsdam for one year. Until September 2015 he lived in Homs, Syria. He is talking as ‘the refugee’. Wassim, however, does not want to be referred to like that. He finds that this concept reduces his identity. He is not only the refugee, but above all ‘a man, a Potsdamer’, an agricultural engineer, a food inspector with a proper job. He says he has ‘arrived’. Wassim works for a Spanish-German company, he travels throughout the whole of Europe. After a few months, his German is so good that he is not only a participant in this workshop but also works as an interpreter. “I do not want to be defined by my refugee status,” he says. The two young men have been brought together by the social enterprise Social Science Works. The Dutch professor Hans Blokland and a team of social scientists from Humboldt University have had enough of pure theory. They wanted to combine theory and practice, and to do something to improve integration. From that, Social Science Works has emerged.

The social scientists founded their company and started two projects for refugee men; one that brings refugees and Germans together. Together, they exchange ideas about values ​​and rules of European culture and tradition in workshops; values ​​that may be different in their countries of origin. “In the workshops, we discuss topics such as pluralism, humanism, democracy, freedom of religion, gender, equality, sexuality, migrant fears, but also fears of migrants in the German population,” says Hans Blokland. What sounds weighty takes place in loose conversations. Wassim says that he – new in Germany – did not know how to speak to a German woman. What can be discussed between the sexes? Today, he smiles at this uncertainty. But he also knows that the social codes in his homeland are different from those of the Germans, and in order to learn and understand exactly where these differences are, such workshops are very helpful. There is talk about everyday life, but also about difficult and existential problems. No instruction, no finger wagging, no know-it-alls, but instead listening and exchanging.

Hans talks thinks through. Image courtesy of Lotta magazine.

Hans talks things through. Image courtesy of Lotta magazine.

The second project from Social Science Works is a “buddy” program. For this, the social scientists are looking for German or German-speaking men, who regularly meet for six months with ‘Buddies’ to “gain insights and understanding, contacts and knowledge about the local society,” Blokland said. A German man is assigned to a refugee man. The projects are supported by the red-red government (SPD and Die Linke) in Brandenburg. In a buddy team, there are two people. Oktay Tuncer is a so-called German buddy. “I know how it is to come from a strange culture. My parents came as migrants from Turkey to Germany. They knew this feeling of being confronted with prejudice – in school, in institutions, on the street. That is why this Buddy program, to get to know people in one-to-one contact, to listen carefully, to learn subtleties from the biography, is a good way to sensitize people to one another. But that cannot be done within a month, and we have to take the time.” Trust, friendship, and honest conversations take patience.


Original by Sophie Freikamp, in translation by Sarah Coughlan.