“If the RMB depreciates, Southbound trading goes through the roof!”
A conversation overheard in Central
Ideas about the borderless world have been around since the advent of modern information communication technologies in the late-1980s. The internet, email, Skype and Google Street View have made the world a more tangible, seemingly smaller place. So, what’s the point of going on an expensive trip to a foreign country and doing fieldwork? Is this an outdated concept? While some might argue that it is, I would disagree. Location and social interaction matter. Depending on your research subject, these things can matter a lot; not only for ethnographers, also for other disciplines. While the benefits of more obvious aspects of fieldwork such as conducting interviews are well documented (and some would argue that you can also do them via Skype), I want to draw attention to another aspect of doing fieldwork – that is the benefits of actually “being in the field” by drawing on a recent research visit of mine to Hong Kong and what I gained from this.
I have never been an ethnographer, anthropologist or “interpretivist” scholar for whom this article might not offer any novel insights. For these scholars this article will describe some of their standard research practices in very basic terms. Rather, I’m a political economist working on finance, situated in the grey space between a politics department and a business school. My research project focuses on capital market development in China, their internationalisation and the role exchanges play in this process (that is stock, derivative or commodity exchanges, and even the ones with the trading floor), and I find a lot of the data for my work on Bloomberg or through reading the Financial Times. My research is quite empirical, on the one hand it is technical and data-driven, on the other side, it draws on interviews with market participants and their knowledge of and experiences in a changing market environment. One might describe my ontological position as that of a qualified neopositivist (Schatz 2006), So why would I need to conduct fieldwork?
Take a step back and think about your home town or country. Living in both Germany and the UK, I am always fascinated by the differences in the financial cultures between the two countries. For example, differences in how credit cards are used, how easy or difficult it is to get a mortgage, between ownership and renting. When I’m at a local market in England it’s very likely that I can pay contactless with my credit card or even smart phone while in Germany even larger shops might not accept cashless payments, mobile payments hardly exist and they might accept debit cards but not credit cards. Or how British friends of mine studied Spanish and History and became corporate lawyers or work in finance, something unthinkable in Germany with its rather strict education and training system. While these things might seem trivial, they can easily be related to larger academic debates on financialisation or varieties of capitalism which analyse the different ways capitalist systems are organised and which social ramifications this has – for which the UK and Germany are often the poster children. Similarly, in recent years, political economy research has developed the Everyday Political Economy approach, which draws upon how everyday actions such as the ones described above matter for and also drive and co-constitute the larger socio-economic structures we live in (see for instance I-PEEL). When moving from Germany to the UK for the first time, I got a much clearer and deeper understanding of these processes. When recently going on a research visit to Hong Kong, I realised that the same logic applies when conducting fieldwork.
Overall, I found being in Hong Kong for a prolonged time very rewarding for my research. Take the quote from above for instance. I was walking back to my office from an event I attended – a breakfast seminar on capital market development in Hong Kong organised by a Chamber of Commerce which was highly interesting by itself – and was waiting at the traffic lights. Suddenly, I realised the people waiting next to me (who seemed to work in finance) were talking about my research subject, highlighting the relationship between China’s monetary policy and investment flows from China to Hong Kong via the newly established Stock Connect scheme. A fascinating encounter, especially as it helped me further develop an idea I was working on the previous days on how excess liquidity in China that built up after the global financial crisis was linked to the push towards internationalising Chinese capital markets. My environment literally inspired me and facilitated my research process. Where else could I have encountered something like this?
Similarly, I went to a local bank in Hong Kong and noticed that there was a corner full of elderly citizens staring at a few screens. After seeing this a few times, I investigated the subject. It turns out that trading stocks is actually a kind of hobby for some people and that these trading corners can be found in many local communities – people meet in these corners, discuss the performance of stocks, buy and sell their shares. TVB Pearl and TVB Jade, two of the most watched TV channels in Hong Kong, host several shows for almost the entire duration of the stock market’s trading hours where experts talk about the performance and likely trend of various stocks or industries and where retail investors can call in real-time and get investment advice. And in contrast to Hong Kong, where retail investors represent only 30% of the market (as against to 5-10% in Europe), in China 90% of market activity is retail investment flows. Again, this ties back to the everyday and how this shapes larger structures.
During my stay in Hong Kong, also I attended several industry events such as the one mentioned above. While some of them might cost money, many of these are free and open to academics. At these conferences, workshops or seminars, I met dozens of interesting people working in the financial industry, and listened to talks on various aspects of my research subject. In a way, I learned what “the market” thought about current developments in China’s financial opening and liberalisation, the “Belt and Road Initiative”, Hong Kong Exchange’s new business plan and other contemporary issues relevant to my research. Attending these events, was very useful to test and further develop some ideas I had come up with during my previous research as my ideas where confronted with the views and insights of financial market participants. In addition, I received countless briefings, research papers or presentations which – while not containing sensitive or secret data – were full of important information and which are not usually publicly accessible. I would never have been able to get such insights when only working from my office in Warwick – or anywhere else outside of China for that matter.
It was also incredibly useful to talk to locals. Retail investors usually do not rely on fundamental analysis to evaluate stocks but more often on news or rumours. As CNBC reporter Eric Chemi noted, “The Chinese stock market […] operates so differently from U.S. and European markets. […] it is dominated by retail investors, who treat it very much like a casino.” (Chemi & Fahey 2016). Approaching the ‘Mom and Pop’ investors in a local bank branch or talking with people on the street about (rising) property prices and (them speculating in) stock markets was fascinating and helped illuminate how different these markets functioned. When contrasting this with conversations I had with Hong Kong-based fund managers, I really got a sense of how different investor base and market sentiment are from what we are used to in Europe or the US and why long-term international investors such as pension funds are hesitant to invest into China.
Similarly interesting was talking to academics based in Hong Kong whom I contacted and exchanged thoughts on some of these developments with. I had a very fruitful discussion for instance with a fellow PhD student based in Hong Kong who researches everyday financialisation, retail investors and the rise of investment advisors in Hong Kong: Did you know that there are hardly any pension schemes in Hong Kong? But because the government does not want to increase income tax (it is a tax haven after all), they promote financial solutions to these social issues – which of course has enormous social repercussions like rising income inequality, exploding property prices and hundreds of thousands of livelihoods solely dependent on volatile markets. Therefore, this talk really complemented my insights on the trading corners I found in banks and gave me a better understanding of overall processes of financialisation, how markets functioned, and which role regulation and the state have in these processes.
Even talking about my research over lunch or coffee with former colleagues or newly-made friends who worked in finance proved incredibly helpful as they contributed valuable feedback, corrections and additions or explained the specificities of the local capital markets. One evening I met someone working on a new commodity platform that is being set up in mainland China and I learned more about the differences between global and Chinese commodity markets, the importance of benchmarks and standards in commodity trading and how this platform aims to implement these in China. This does not mean that you necessarily need to know people in advance, you often meet at events such as the ones described above. Even going to a social event in your free time can prove surprisingly helpful in unexpected ways. I went for instance to a talk by the Asia Society where I spoke with another visitor. This person was previously the head of a global investment bank’s Asia business and was happy to share some of his insights with me. During another such social event I met someone, who works in finance and deals with retail investors, routing their orders into the market as a broker. Again highly interesting and adding to my understanding of above-mentioned financial advisors, Mom and Pop investors and trading corners.
After a few weeks, my understanding of how Chinese and Hong Kong financial markets worked, their specificities and similarities with “global” markets or important developments in these markets grew exponentially, and I leaned things that I could have hardly found out through desk research. Being in the field and being exposed to my research subject really increased my knowledge thereof. Because these things matter and can enable a much more holistic picture of a research topic by adding everyday life, culture, social norms and chance interactions into the mix. Of course, this is not proper “data” that I would directly incorporate into my work unchecked. Rather, it helps to place your research into a bigger picture and into context, to better understand it, and to identify potentially important stories and developments. And once you’ve identified these, it is relatively easy to conduct further research, verify and flesh out these stories as well as search for other data sources which can confirm and support these stories.
So, while I would usually not draw on such insights as the main sources of my research, being immersed into and exposed to my research subject actually really helped me to deepen my understanding and further develop my knowledge of a topic that seems rather technical at first. Nicholas Taleb highlights that many scientific discoveries that originated from exposure to opportunities than from design and planning (2009: xxv). In a similar vein, James Webb Young (1965) argued that in order to develop new ideas, our mind needs to be trained in the ability to see relationships between things we already know. A view that is also shared by Steven Johnson (2011) who argues that an idea is not a single moment of genius but rather a new configuration of neurons in your brain that have never fired in sync before. How do these new networks form? In his TED talk, Johnson tells the fascinating story of how GPS was developed by exposure to and connecting with other people. Companies such as Google or Apple have long used such insights to facilitate their business development.
Inspiration, innovation and creativity are highly important for the further development of scientific ideas and highly dependent on the environment the researcher is situated in. When researching Chinese capital market development in Hong Kong I certainly experienced this. I think it is important to get out there, become exposed, let your research undergo a reality check, refine existing ideas as well as develop new ones. That is why fieldwork matters.
Chemi, Eric & Mark Fahey (2016) “This China stock market is so different than we are used to”, CNBC, 8 January 2016.
Johnson, Steven (2010) Where good ideas come from: the natural history of innovation. Penguin, London.
Taleb, Nicholas (2009) The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable. Penguin, London.
Schatz, Edward (2006) “Ethnographic immersion and the study of politics”, in: Edward Schatz (ed.) Political ethnography: what immersion contributes to the study of power. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Young, James Webb (2003 ) A technique for producing ideas. McGraw Hill, New York.
This year, Social Science Works has been working on the project ‘Deliberation Against Populism’ in which we have contacted citizens in Brandenburg that expressed an interest in populist political parties and arguments online. We have already explored this project in some detail on the blog, including an in-depth overview of the whole project and an breakdown of recruitment and an analysis of these themes and issues that have attracted the most ire from citizens online. The two events held for this project in Cottbus and Frankfurt an der Oder gave us the opportunity to meet citizens where they were able to share their concerns about the future of Brandenburg, Germany and Europe. Further, we had a number of conversations with citizens online where they were likewise able to express their concerns.
As a result, we have been able to compile a list of arguments that we ran into regularly throughout the project from citizens arguing from a populist perspective. Very often, the people we spoke to over the course of this project expressed their concerns about the number of refugees and migrants that have come to Germany in recent years. In addition, as this project took place in Brandenburg, in the former East Germany, many participants reflected on how reunification had negatively impacted on their lives. As part of our series on the project, we have invited our Fellows to respond to some of the arguments we encountered, drawing on their social scientific expertise. In the following, Fellows have laid out their responses to some of the most common arguments heard over the course of the project.
As outlined in previous blogs, there are a number of key areas that our participants returned to again and again. One of the key things that particpants discussed was life in the former GDR, and compared it favourably with their current circumstances.
In the first response, Martin Neise takes on this idea that life was better in the former GDR:
“When people talk about life being ‘better’ in the GDR than now, they usually refer to the GDR’s vast social policies, as compared with the West’s and its strong GDP. They talk about low rents, cheap groceries, a dense network of medical services and a well-funded childcare sector. And the GDR indeed provided its citizens with generous social services, including a ‘right to work’, which presumably offered a life without worries. So far, so good. But how were the social policies paid for? With credits from capitalist countries. Hence, they were not sustainable.
When Erich Honecker came to power, he proclaimed the ‘unity of economic and social policy’. The aim of the policy change was to boost productivity by raising working morale through a broader supply of consumption goods. The rationale behind it was: if citizens are happier because they can consume a wider array of products, they will be motivated to work more effectively. The GDR’s leadership therefore set out to expand social policies, most prominently housing, and provide more consumption goods which, if it was not produced at home, had to be imported. However, both the oil crisis in the 70s as well as the inflexible and unproductive centrally planned economy, made the GDR less and less competitive. Therefore, an increasing number of imports could not be paid for with exports and the GDR had to take on debt.
That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as productivity and economic growth are spurred by taking on debt. However, that was not the case. Investment did not follow higher consumption – failing at the proverbial having and eating cake conundrum – and the country went into a debt spiral, paying more and more money to its foreign (capitalist) creditors, and paying back old credits with new credits (roll-over). The GDR was not ‘broke’ but this development lead to the ‘Schürer-Report’ in 1989 which stated that the “social policy did not rest on its laurels” and that in case the country wanted to stop taking on new debt, living standards would drop 25-30% in 1990.
While the GDR’s industrial capabilities were like a newly industrializing country, its social policies on par with industrialized countries. An impossible situation. A result of the manifold subsidies and higher consumption were that the state had to not only pay debt but also to decrease its investments. Therefore, machinery grew old and could not be replaced, infrastructure began to crumble and buildings could not be renovated. The government had to constantly decide between three goals:
- Increasing consumption and living standards,
- Servicing foreign debt,
- Accumulating and re-investing to become more productive.
It followed the first two while putting an axe to the third.
But what about the personal stories of low rents and groceries? That was still great, wasn’t it? Subsidies are wonderful. But only in case of infant (new, uncompetitive) industries, non-profitable but vital services like healthcare and public transport, or for people who need basic commodities like food, housing etc. However, the GDR paid broad subsidies for everyone, not only the poor and needy. But not only that, it paid for it with credits from capitalist countries. But let us take the debt out of the argument for now. Why were they bad policies nevertheless? Simply, because they give wrong incentives to individuals and companies, and with such broad subsidies wrong incentives for millions of people.
For example housing: rents were frozen at 1936’s level. Oftentimes, people only paid 6% of their income for housing. These rents did not cover the cost of building and maintaining the house. The state stepped in to pay the difference. In a state socialist economy, that does not matter as much because the state not only pays the wages but also the costs for the buildings. A zero-sum game. What citizens win in lower rents, they lose in lower wages because the state needs the money to build and maintain houses. But the difference lies in the individual behavior: A family with three children lives in a four-room apartment. All the children move out as they grew older. Normally, the parents would look for a different apartment which was cheaper and smaller. With the rents so low, the parents did not need to look for another apartment and stayed put. Meanwhile, many other families were looking for a four-room apartment. In economic terms: the subsidies led to an overuse of scarce resources because parents without children lived in huge apartments and the state had to build new apartment blocks for other families, while two-room apartments lay idle.
The same holds true for energy: The state massively subsidized heating and electricity – to all citizens. That led to an overuse of energy by every consumer. Why turn off the heat when the windows are open if it only costs me a penny? The result was a massive burden on the state’s finances for energy consumption. Resources and finances which could have been used to invest in machinery, or renovating streets and houses were wasted on subsides that made little sense.”
Martin Neise is an MA candidate in political science, with a focus on political economy at Goethe University in Frankfurt. He grew up in East Germany.
Likewise, some participants felt that the way East Germany had been ‘swallowed’ by West Germany following reunification represented a political mistep. In fact, one of the most interesting suggestions we heard over the course of the project was that East Germany should have been allowed to pursue membership of the European Union as an independent state. However, as Sergiu Buscaneanu makes clear, this presents a serious administrative and political challenge, that could not have been overcome by East Germany:
“The EU is a community of European states based on the commitment to respect democratic values, human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as to observe the defining principles of rule of law regimes. Though the EU has started in the aftermath of the Second World War as an economic project, integration of new members into the European Community has been made gradually conditional on observing democratic norms and universal human rights.
GDR has never had meaningful democratic institutions during its existence as an independent state and without a genuine process of democratisation, it could not have the chance of being accepted as a member of the European Community.
The existence of GDR as an independent state was ensured internally by autocratic party structures and a highly vigilant state apparatus, and externally by a powerful Soviet leverage. When this strong internal and external control lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the vast majority of East Germans, the very existence of GDR as an independent state became obsolete. Reunification of GDR with FRG was the logical consequence of this severe crisis of legitimacy.”
Dr. Sergiu Buscaneanu is Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at King’s College London, where he works on a project concerned with strategic choices of political elites in Eastern Partnership countries and prospect theory.
Another key theme that emerged from our discussions surrounded the economic value of refugees and migrants. Many people we spoke to over the course of this project felt that the influx of refugees and migrants represented a long-term economic strain on the German economy. Indeed, when pressed, many responded that they doubted that refugees and migrants to Germany would ever be able to find work in Germany and hence would not contribute to Germany in the longer term, citing the example of the Turkish population in Germany as an example.
Oktay Tuncer responds:
“In many societies there is a discussion on whether immigrants help or hinder the domestic economy. In the UK, the House of Lords has published 2010 a paper on “The economic and cultural benefits of immigration” concluding that the effects are not clear-cut but certainly helped to reduce inflationary pressures and were rather an answer to the country’s economic situation and needs. In the US, undocumented immigrants were blamed for the rising unemployment rate for a long time, and still are. In Arizona a propagandist ad appeared in 2010 which spawned Arizona’s tough new law targeting illegal immigrants and the possibility of congressional action on immigration, for instance, have brought a renewed focus to the issue.
It seems ironic that particularly the example of Turkish migrants is mentioned in the quotation as a negative example, considering that these were actively invited by the German government in the aftermath of the Second World War to help rebuild the economy as “Gastarbeiters” (guest workers) many of which are homeowners in Germany by now (convergence at nearly same rate as natives during 90s) or bought houses in their homecountry and moved back or run their own companies today (a mezmerizing rise during the 80s). As such, the Turkish population does not conform to the image of unemployablity, nor are the Turkish immigrants an outsized strain on the welfare state. During the 50s and 60s, the years when the vast majority of the Turkish workers (along with many Italians and Greek) came to Germany, the country’s GDP increased immensely: it more than doubled in the 50s and increased by another 50% during the 60s which marks until today its biggest increase in the country. The time period is known as the “Wirtshcaftswunder” (the economic miracle) and is, at the same time, the period of the most intense immigration to Germany (10 million guest workers arrived between 1955 and 1973).
Specifically, the economic dimension of migration is perennial; it seems to be legitimate, no matter what, to ask that question because it draws on simple and clear economic rationality. When political leaders evaluate the state of the country in terms of the economy, shouldnt we also look at inflows of human beings in economic terms?
Although initially appealing, economic measures are often misleading and not that clear-cut. Apart from the aforementioned indicators we cannot neatly ascribe to which processes of economic development are due to a population change or a general change in world markets or other external factors or simply due to political shifts (e.g. in social policy or education). Additionally, there are other measures of societal well-being (such as Human Development Index) other than the classical economic ones which, for many sociologists and economists, more accurately depict a country’s situation.
However, to take the risky enterprise of measuring the economic effects nevertheless, we can outline for contemporary refugee immigration that the effects will be different. First, we have to state that economic impact of immigration depends very much on the peculiarities of the countries (Diane Coyle, ̳The Economic Case for Immigration‘, Economic Affairs (2005), vol 25, no 1, p 53.) and today’s Germany is not the same as after the Second World War, but also the arriving migrants are different from the guest workers and hence one has to examine the cases individually. 10 million guest workers arrived until 1973 which is another dimension than the roughly 1.9 million asylum seekers who arrived since 2010. [there are roughly 1.9 million asylum seekers who arrived since 2010.] To come to statistical calculations, according to a simulation model calculated by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research the state expenses as means for refugees are expected to rise from €20 billion in 2017 to €28.5 billion until 2020. On the other hand, Germany’s GDP is expectedto be €30 million and one percent higher than in a scenario without refugee migration by 2020. However, it is problematic and not easy to make a clear conclusion since, as seen above, with different measures we change our perspectives and also, the net effect will depend on the labour market integration of the immigrants.
Another valid argument is a change of perspective which goes like this : we, as Europeans have developed values, notably in the Enlightenment epoch and take humanism as the starting point. According to these values, we cannot let people drown in the Mediterranean and separate ourselves off. Who, if not one of the economically most successful and richest countries in the world, could – and hence, should – take on this duty? If we avow the humanist notions of solidarity and human rights and teach in schools the importance of the right to the existence of oneself, dignity of the human and responsibility it is as important, to execute these in real catastrophic situations. After all, asylum is a human right (http://www.humanrights.com/what-are-human-rights/videos/right-to-asylum.html). The ones who are requesting asylum are trying to survive and to secure their existence and have nothing to lose. To actively accept these values means to accept them as universal, on a daily political basis, and not to exclude others from them. The responsibility stems from circumstances such as climate change which is caused mainly by the rich industrial countries or wars in regions in which the USA and its European allies are directly involved in. These circumstances lead to dramatic consequences such as natural catastrophes, droughts, floods, civil death tolls and ethnic cleansings and strike mostly poor regions.
In the end, contrary to the discussed commentary, we see in a majority of historical examples that migration has been beneficial to the host country. On the macroeconomic significance, economists agree that migration cannot be underestimated since migrants are filling holes in the production and the service sectors.
Oktay Tuncer is an MA candidate in social sciences from Humboldt University in Berlin his academic focus is on nationalism in Turkey, neoliberal urbanization and ethnic inequality on the German labour market.
In addition to fears that migrants and refugees to Germany would continue to be a drain on the economy, this thought led many participants to conclude that the current refugee situation threatens to overwhelm the German state. From this, participants argued that the German state’s priority ought to be German citizens and that refugees and migrants were simply too bigger a strain to accomodate.
Uwe Ruß responds:
“The UNHCR estimates that 65.6 Million people are on the run in 2016 (UNHCR 2016) that is the complete population of West Germany or almost the population of France. Most of these refugees (around 40.3 Million) are not able to leave their own country of origin (known as Internally Displaced Persons). During the past decade, the number of refugees has continuously increased due to an increase in international and national conflicts and famines. It is no surprise then that more than half of all refugees worldwide come from Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan.
Germany does not make an exception to this trend. The number of applications for asylum in Germany increased as well, especially since 2012 with the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. According to the latest report of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, BAMF) the number of applications peaked in 2016 with 746,000 (BAMF 2017: 3). However, towards the end of 2017, the number of applications started to decrease to a level even below the 2014 rate (Jan-Sep 2017: 168 306). Also it has to be taken into account that these numbers refer to applications only. According to the BAMF, a considerable share of applications is rejected each year (2016 ca. 200,000, 2017: more than 200,000, BAMF 2017: 11; the number of rejctions cannot be subtracted from the number of applications for that specific year, because in each year applications from previous years are also decided upon).
Germany is not the only country taking refugees, but it is one of the economically most successful and largest countries in the EU with more than 80 million inhabitants and the lowest unemployment rate since reunification. Other, much poorer and smaller countries, host many more or a similar amount of refugees than Germany, for example, Turkey (2.9 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Lebanon (1 million), Iran (979,000), Uganda (941,000), Ethiopia (792,000), Jordan (685,000), Congo (452000), and Kenya (451000) (UNHCR 2016; these numbers cannot be compared to the ones given by the BAMF above. The BAMF measures applications for asylum, while these numbers refer to the number of refugees hosted by a country. The respective UNHCR number of refugees hosted by Germany is 669,000.)
To put this into perspective: Per 1,000 inhabitants there were 8.8 refugees applying for asylum in Germany, compared to 4.6 in Greece, 4.6 in Austria or 4 in Malta (Mediendienst Integration). If we imagine the German population in 2016 as a group of 100 people, there was only 1 person (actually only 0.88) coming and asking for asylum.”
This theme ran very deep. Even the participants that accepted that there was a genuine need for asylum for some of those claiming refuge in Germany, a common theme from our discussions was that this number was wildly over-stated and that the majority of those claiming refuge in Germany were economic migrants. This, participants suggested, was a widespread problem: the majority of refugees in Germany were simply there for economic reasons.
Uwe Ruß continues:
“According to the UNHCR a refugee is “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group” (UNHCR). It is no coincidence then that the number of applications for asylum in Germany increased following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2012. If we look at the applications for asylum in Germany, it becomes clear that the three main countries of origin are Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq – countries that are characterized by many years of (civil) war, destruction, and chaos. 43.9% of all applications for asylum in Germany in 2017 (Jan-Sep) are filed by refugees coming from one of those three countries, followed by Eritrea (5.4%), Iran (6.7%), Nigeria (5.7%), Turkey (5.4%), Somalia (5.3%), and smaller shares from other countries. But also in countries where there is no war, people can be forced to flee their country because they are persecuted and discriminated against. For example, the European Union has repeatedly acknowledged that the people of the Roma are severely discriminated against in many countries (EU-MIDIS II 2016). Large parts of Europe’s biggest ethnic minority are excluded from access to education, labor market positions, housing, and medical care.
Thus, simply to assume that all or most refugees are not fleeing war or persecution in their home country and do not need protection is just an allegation. In Germany the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees checks the reasons and consistency of all applicants using auxiliary information and personal interviews. It is then decided upon whether an applicant receives asylum or other forms of protection in Germany or whether the application is rejected. For example, in 2017 (Jan-Sep) the BAMF decided that in more than 200,000 cases applications did not match the criteria for asylum or other forms of protection (BAMF 2017: 11; the number of rejections cannot be subtracted from the number of applications for that specific year, because in each year applications from previous years are also decided upon).”
Uwe Ruß is research associate at the German Center for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW) and PhD candidate at Freie Universität Berlin.
Equally common was the argument that refugees enjoyed more comfortable benefits than their German counterparts. This echos in large part the concerns heard from many that felt that Germany was ‘unable to cope’ with the economic strain of accepting large numbers of refugees and migrants. Over the course of the project, we found a number of posts that had gone viral within these social media communities which claimed to ‘expose’ the discrepencies between welfare benefits available to refugees and migrants and the (lesser) benefits available to German citizens.
Ilyas Saliba counters the argument:
“These people come, use our benefits system and take out more of it than we get.”
“What they get: Less not more
First of all those people, if they receive political asylum, do not come to Germany to use our benefit system but because their lives are in danger in the countries they fled from. However, upon arrival asylum seekers usually get accommodation provided by the local authorities they are distributed to. Furthermore, their basic needs in the form of food and necessities are covered by the state as well. The provision of these services by the public authorities during a person’s status as an asylum seeker is well below the benefits received by someone on unemployment benefits or even Hartz 4.
Not a zero-sum game
If an asylum seeker is granted asylum they are eligible for benefits just as any other unemployed Germans for that matter. They do not receive more but actually the same. And most importantly no unemployed German receives a single Euro less due to the arrival of asylum seekers. The provision of basic needs for the people in need by the German authorities is not what in the social sciences we would call zero sum game: there is not a fixed amount of money from which all people receive a certain part but the benefits are handed out on the bases of objective criteria that are legally regulated and are based on a case-by-case decision. Meaning if more people depend on social benefits due to an economic crises and rising unemployment or due to an influx of refugees no other person on the receiving end will receive less due to the increased total amount of people depending on such a social redistribution and basic needs provision system.
Barriers on the way to independence
Once the legal asylum battle is through and a recognized political refugee receives his or her temporary work permit they are finally eligible and allowed to emancipate themselves from depending on state benefits and earn a living themselves. Of course this comes with many difficulties. First and foremost language problems often complicate the entry of refugees into the workforce. This is why sufficient German classes should be provided to refugees so that the language barrier can be overcome. Secondly, many refugees previous degrees and qualifications and work experience in their homeland are not formally accepted in Germany. In such a situation refugees often face the choice of starting over in a new career or going back to school or university in order to earn a degree or qualification that is accepted. Thirdly, many refugees suffer from trauma due to their experience and are not immediately able and capable to work full time.
What we get: tax payers, entepreneurs and a younger workforce
Economically speaking a number of long term studies on the effects of migration have shown that even if migrants tend to be more likely to depend on state benefits in the beginning, in the long run they pay more taxes than what they receive. The same picture emerges when looking only at refugees. Compared to the average citizen from their host country migrants are more likely to found businesses and thus contribute to creating jobs for other people. They also tend to fill gaps in workforce that are oftentimes not occupied by the domestic population. Hence, they diversify our workforce and while they do depend on state benefits in the beginning after a few years this trend seems to turn around and they become part of the tax-paying workforce that keeps our economy and our welfare state going. Furthermore, the recent newcomers to Germany are mostly young people seeking a better life in safety and fleeing war in their homeland. They have a lifetime of work ahead of them. Accordingly, the new arrivals are lowering the average age of the German population, which from an economic point of view is a necessity, as I will outline in the final paragraph.
Immigration is not optional
On another more meta-economic-level, we also need to acknowledge that our current social welfare state is unsustainable due to our ageing society. Our social welfare system based on a generational solidarity between working population and people enjoying their well-deserved pensions needs more working people as the German workforce is shrinking. Even if Germany could somehow miraculously double its birth rate, that would not, economically speaking, be enough to insulate our pension system from the problems arising from the demographic trend. Thus migration is an economic necessity for our social welfare state. Of course there is a valid question to be asked about how many and where from we could recruit new workers. But if the refugees are here; as such it make good economic sense to enable them to become contributors to our society and our system through helping them on the path.
This does take a considerable investment in the beginning but it pays back in the long run.”
Ilyas Saliba is a research fellow at the research unit Democracy & Democratization at the WZB Berlin Social Science Centre and a PhD candidate at Humboldt University Berlin. He works on the diverging trajectories of the Arab Uprisings and focuses on different strategies of regime responses to contestation. He tweets at @ilyas_saliba.
Aside from the economic concerns, a key issue in these conversations was the supposed criminality of migrants and refugees. This was a major theme, and indeed, in surveying the relevant social media sites for this project, the most popular posts (as measured by total number of likes, comments and shares) invariably related to migrants and refugees commiting crime (most often violent crime) against a German citizen. Many commentors argued that these (rare) events were typical and demonstrated the dangers posed by allowing large numbers of foreign nationals into Germany.
Fabian Hühne responds:
“One of the difficulties in putting this statement into context is that ‘crime’ is not directly defined. There are underlying assumptions here both about crime statistics as well as ‘criminality’. This response will look at both of these aspects.
In Germany each federal state collects its own data about ‘crime’ and there is no coherent classification of ‘refugees’ in this data. Some states include asylum seekers as well as non-EU foreigners in the data, while others focus on the category of ‘non German suspects’. Of course ‘crime’ includes various different activities and in 2016 there was an overall decrease of all crime Germany. However there is an increase in the crimes committed by ‘immigrants’. Even though crime statistics are incoherent in their classifications of what they measure as ‘immigrants’ they show a trend, especially when looking at violent crime, which includes physical assault, robbery and sexual assault among others. Up until 2015 violent crime was on the decline in Germany. From 2015 onwards violent crime is on the rise again. According to studies carried out by Zeit and Spiegel not only the contribution to violent crime of immigrants is disproportionately high in comparison to Germans also the increase of crime is higher. Die Zeit gives the example of Bavaria, where 20% of violent crime suspects were immigrants. While violent crime overall rose by 9.8%, the violent crimes committed by immigrants rose by 93%.
Some of the implications of the argument can be backed up by crime statistics – but the data is vast and some more important conclusions about this can be drawn from a closer look at the data. It would be wrong to conclude that because of this data somehow ‘immigrants’ would be more criminal than Germans. This is not only taking their situation into account but also their demographic.
When it comes to asylum seekers, a large number are males aged 18-34. The proportion is very high and it is much higher than the average in Germany and higher than the average in other European countries. This specific demographic is across all countries associated with higher crime rates, and especially violent crimes. That is also true in Germany. To elaborate on this argument, if one took a random sample of male 18-34 year old Germans to any different country for a longer time, statistically they would increase the violent crime rate more than the average population in that country. This argument should go someway towards countering the suggestion that refugees are inherently more criminal. However, the living conditions endured by many refugees and in addition their reasons for seeking refuge in Germany should also be considered.
It is also interesting where the crimes of immigrants are committed. Most violent crimes committed by ‘immigrants’ are carried out in so called ‘refugee camps’. To draw again on the example of Bavaria given by Die Zeit, 58% of all crimes committed by ‘foreigners’ were committed inside a refugee camp. The specific situation and circumstances, that is being in a ‘camp’ together with traumatized other refugees, sometimes with little hope to be accepted seem to be contributing to the rise in ‘crime’.
This can not explain all of the increase in crimes committed by immigrants after 2015 but indicates that the specific situation that especially refugees are in and their demographic inflates crime statistics. Leaving aside the trauma of people and the conditions within refugee camps its worth distinguishing an increase in crime statistics and ‘criminality’.
Looking at the fact that refugees are not more criminal than Germans naturally it may be much more worth looking at how refugees can be housed better and how we can help young men cross nationalities to stay away from violent crime.”
Fabian Hühne holds an MA in political communication from Goldsmiths, University of London. He is a journalist whose work has appeared in Vice and has contributed to campaigns for Azaaz and ONE, he is currently working on the communications team at Fairphone.
This year, as part of the Social Science Works project ‘Deliberation gegen Populismus’ we have been monitoring right-wing populist Facebook pages associated with Brandenburg. The project was financed by Tolerantes Brandenburg and included work from a group of students at the Alice Salomon Hochschule in Berlin. This led to the collection of more than 1000 public Facebook profiles of individuals which had expressed far-right opinions or had otherwise expressed their dissatisfaction with mainstream political parties. In the following, I will offer an overview of methods behind this analysis, the themes, topics and problems that came up most regularly across the profiles and pages viewed in this time as well as a preliminary analysis of some of the roots than underpin these things, informed in part via conversations with some of these individuals in person and online. Finally, I will outline the beginnings of an extension of this as a research project on the role of echo chambers online in Germany.
In order to undertake this task, it was first necessary to find potential Facebook pages where the target group would likely access. Facebook was the preferred method for attempting this monitoring because of its relative openness as compared with other social channels and because of its reach (38.98 million Germans count as ‘regular’ users of Facebook – that is they login to Facebook at least once per month, and approximately 82.5% of internet users in Germany have a Facebook account) which compares favourably to other sites like Twitter (which counts only 21% of internet users in Germany as members). YouTube, the second most popular social media channel in Germany, with approximately 50% of internet users visiting its pages regularly was also considered as a monitoring platform. However, because the content there is arranged mostly as individual videos, or at best as a ‘channel’ without connecting with other sources, and because contacting individual users is more difficult on this platform, Facebook was the obvious choice for this project.
In this project, the first step was to locate Facebook pages which posted content most likely to attract the kinds of individuals we wanted to get into contact with. Having identified our target group as individuals living in Brandenburg which might vote for populist right-wing parties in the upcoming election, populist party Facebook pages were a good place to start. From there, we followed the network of connected pages of various sizes, including: Zukunft Heimat Brandenburg (3,098 Facebook fans), Identitäre Bewegung Berlin-Brandenburg (9,259 Facebook fans) and Ein Prozent für unser Land (62,468 Facebook fans). The next step was to find truly local pages where we could find individuals to invite to our workshops. We decided to host events in Cottbus and Frankfurt an der Oder on the basis of the polling showing a strong preference for populist parties; this decision was later vindicated in the election results which showed the populist parties polling 25.3% and 21.9%, the first and third best showing for the party respectively in Brandenburg, both ahead of the Brandenburg average of 19.4%. For this purpose we focused on local sites like Frankfurt/Oder wehrt sich (3,604 Facebook fans) and Bürgerforum Südbrandenburg (365 Facebook fans). On these pages, we looked for individuals commenting, liking and sharing posts that indicated that they felt resentment to the political establishment or expressed views which could be understood to be extreme. For example, a recent post commenting on the election that typifies the kinds of individuals we were targeting reads:
„Pffft nothing happens. 1. the election is manipulated, CDU, Greens, FDP, The Left, would all be thrown out of the Bundestag and AfD would have ruled alone. 2. AfD will not sit in the government, only in the opposition, so they do not get anything! Everything will be manipulated, as planned and Germany will be destroyed, step by step!”
(Comment from 26.9.17 on Frankfurt/Oder wehrt sich’s Facebook page)
The individual above demonstrates the lack of trust in the mainstream political establishment as well as a distrust of the political processes. Individuals expressing views like those above were contacted directly over Facebook messenger and were invited to the events in either Cottbus or Frankfurt Oder.
The majority of the people that interact with these pages are men. Indeed, for the first few months, as we collected profiles, nearly 70% of the profiles we collected were of men. In a bid to redress this, we focused on collecting more women’s profiles in an attempt to keep the gender balance of the workshops more or less equal, and succeeded to that end. This is not to suggest that men are inherently more likely to vote for populist parties than women (initial calculations suggest that around 9% of women and 16% of men voted for populist parties in the 2017 Bundeswahl), only to say that there is something about these online spaces that means women are less inclined to participate in them.
Furthermore, as a new field, the ethical implications of this kind of project do not have a long-established ethical code on which to rely on. There are considerations about privacy and the rights of academics and civil society to publish research relating to individual’s behaviour on social media channels. Although for some users, Facebook is a kind of public platform, for many users, it is used mostly to keep in touch with family and friends. However, our target group do not neatly fit into the latter category, insofar as they use Facebook to discuss politics and vent their frustrations with likeminded strangers. Hence, the Facebook users targeted for this project should be understood as using the site as a semi-public platform. As such, all participants’ names, identifying details and posts have been anonymised and the project relied only on information and content that is available to all Facebook users (‘semi-public’). In instances where we have posted content from personal conversations or interactions, the language has been either edited or paraphrased to preserve participants’ anonymity.
“Merkel muss weg!” (‘Merkel must go!’) is a familiar slogan. Indeed, it appears on posts and comments we have seen throughout this process. The Chancellor is singled out as a ‘traitor’ for her stance towards refugees in 2015 and her handling of the ‘crisis’ since then. Likewise, there is a strong sense that the media is biased towards the political mainstream, the so-called Lügenpresse theme is very much in evidence across these pages. Across on Twitter, the handle @einzelfallinfos (currently 3,208 followers, after its temporary ban in 2015) demonstrates this clearly. The handle is dedicating to sharing reports of crimes committed by refugees in Germany, the handle itself satirising what many on the right see as the tendency of the German media to describe such events as ‘isolated cases’.
“If something is “more precious than gold” right now, then its the experiences of the past election campaign. We have gained a new self-confidence! And an inkling of our own strength! Against mainstream politics and mainstream media, we have set mass immigration and its consequences as the No. 1 theme and reject the lie of Merkel’s popularity. We have achieved this with an anger and force that has not been seen since 1989, but always peacefully. We objected to Merkel and the elites loudly and openly. Repeatedly Merkel was judged at public events by citizens. We have begun to vent our outrage. And we understand how good we are!”
(Translated post from 26.9.17 Zukunft Heimat’s Facebook page)
This of course should come as no surprise to anyone that has paid attention to the reporting around the rise of populist parties in recent years; Chancellor Merkel’s stance on refugees and distrust of the media has been widely reported and the Chancellor is regularly referred to among this group as the ‘Volksverräter’ (traitor of the people) In fact, for a group of those commenting on these pages, they take a certain pride in being called out in the mainstream media and by mainstream political politicians. In part, it is the view that mentions in the media should be seen as a victory insofar as they own the political agenda, and in part the view is that it is absurd that the mainstream describes citizens like this as ‘extremists’ or ‘far right’. The view instead is that they are simply giving voice to what many others feel but are too afraid to say for fear of repercussions.
Perhaps more interesting is the resentment felt towards the political establishment in general and towards the SPD in particular. The SPD doesn’t often feature in these kinds of online spaces, but when it does its appearance is entirely negative. The SPD are held responsible for the reforms to Hartz IV and are seen as an ineffective opposition. Likewise, as the long-standing party of power in Brandenburg, frustrations with the SPD on a local level are also high.
(Post from 22.9.17 Frankfurt/Oder Wehrt sich)
Similarly, in the run up to the election, for many populist party supporters, the weakness of the SPD was seen simultaneously as a clear sign of the party’s failure to engage with its core vote and as an opportunity for the AFD to win voters.
“The AfD is on the way to a safe third place. The SPD could land under 20% and would thus only be 8% in front of the AfD. We are looking forward to the election evening!”
(Translated post 14.9.17 Junge Alternative Brandenburg)
An inescapable theme we have seen across the accounts and pages monitored for this project is the role of refugees, migration and the supposed link between the two and criminality as a driving motivation for many of the individuals to vote for extremist parties. This too is often coupled with fears relating to the supposed Islamification of Germany. For example, one useful source for this research, the Facebook page Frankfurt/Oder wehrt sich features as its description: “Schluss mit dem Asylmissbrauch!” (‘End Aslyum Abuse!’) and includes as its cover photo the words “Asylflut Stoppen” (Stop Asylum). This is a typical for many of the pages monitored.
Very often the most popular content featured on these pages (as measured by number of likes, comments and shares) was content that related to crime, and especially violent crime, committed by refugees. For example, on one page we monitored over a one week period, an article relating to a knife crime committed by a refugee received five times the number of likes, comments and shares as the other content shared by the same page over the week. Likewise, comments on an article about the role of Islam in Germany provoked many responses including:
“The Muslims came over 30 years ago, and you did not do anything about it. For the next 30 years on, thousands are coming and you have done nothing about it, and now you choose Merkel again in Sept.”
(Translated comment from 12.9.17 Frankfurt/Oder Wehrt sich)
This combination of fear relating to refugees and the belief that refugees‘ presence in Germany will lead to a rise in criminality and the ‘Islamification‘ of Germany, is something we heard in our conversations with participants. One individual wrote that:
“Only a very small percentage of the refugees are criminal, but, if for example, 2% of 1,000,000 are a whole lot. Here the German legal system is overstretched. In the countries where the refugees come from, there are tougher and, above all, faster penalties. If there is a trial here it is only after the 20th offense, it is perceived as a weakness and it is continued (see crime statistics). Things here need to be redressed… Wearing the headscarf, etc. should be prohibited in public. Mosques should be banned. Try to build a church in Saudi Arabia! Our country, our values our rules … whoever does not want to stick to this can gladly go away again. Parallel societies and large families are to be eliminated. Equal rights e.g. law enforcement and tax recovery for all. Understanding of Turkish influence in Germany.”
(Written correspondence with a participant)
These responses are representative of the kinds of comments and responses we have seen most often throughout this project. The refugee situation remains the most important contemporary political topic for almost all individuals interacting on these pages. Indeed, this trend was no less pronounced in areas with fewer overall numbers of refugees. In fact, the inverse is true, the fewer the total number of foreign nationals living in the area, the more prevalent the topic became.
Beyond the themes that stood out in the comments and shared content monitored for this project, there were subtler elements that require comment in order to develop a fuller understanding of the individuals that are likely to vote for far right populist parties. One of the key themes that came out, first online and later in discussion with participants is a nostalgia for life in the DDR, and a pride in the individual’s Prussian origins. A familiar refrain heard from many of the participants at the workshops themselves was “In der DDR Zeit” (‘In the GDR times’), a comment that was typically followed by a favourable comparison with their lives in the DDR and now. One participant at the workshop in Cottbus put it even more bluntly:
“In the DDR, I made 500 Marks a month, and paid 60 Marks in rent. Now I make 1000€ a month, but rent is 600€ – so where is the progress?”
(Participant in the workshop in Cottbus)
For the most part, this sense of inequality is only expressed online via comparisons to the supposedly favourable conditions of refugees living in Germany. A popular type of content would post the benefits available to refugees and contrast them with the benefits available to an unemployed German native, or a German pensioner. Naturally, the numbers featured are wildly exaggerated, often suggesting that individual refugees are in receipt of thousands of Euros in benefits monthly.
There are a number of other ways that this feeling of being ‘left behind’ is communicated online however. A number of individuals monitored for this project proudly displayed their fondness of their history by changing their Facebook surnames to ‘Prussian’, and a number featured Prussian iconography prominently on their pages. Similarly, a very large number of participants (nearly 100) listed their education on Facebook as either “The School of Life” or “The School of Hard Knocks”. Taken together, it is clear that this kind of signalling demonstrates a simultaneous distaste for the elite and a feeling of inferiority relating to their status.
The feeling of being ‘left behind’ should be understood in the broadest possible terms, and is coupled with the growing distrust towards the mainstream media. For many of the participants we spoke to there was a real disconnect between what they read in newspapers, visited online and heard from the news and their lived realities; that many return to an idealised past in the GDR should not come as a complete surprise in this context. Over the course of this project, while the participants were expressing difficulties with low-wage work and making rent payments, the German national press was as likely to run front pages proclaiming the success of the German economy and that the country is the power-house of Europe. For example, on the 9th July 2017 more or less in the middle of this project, the Süddeutsche Zeitung ran an article ‘The World & Its Germany Problem’ which proclaimed that the Germany economy is so strong that it was causing problems worldwide:
“Yes, unemployment has halved, employment is higher than ever, the state has as much money as ever, and the Confederation has no new debt. Many companies do well, the export industry is setting one record after another. Germany is so well represented in the world that the colleagues of the internationally renowned magazine The Economist illustrated the current issue with a Bundesadler black on gold and the headline: “The German problem”. “
For the participants we met in Cottbus and Frankfurt an der Oder, this kind of reporting seems very alien. It is not difficult, therefore, to see how the distrust seeps in. When citizens feel so far removed from a country’s own image of itself, it breeds distrust in the establishment that oversees it. How can it be the case that Germany is so successful when participants in Frankfurt an der Oder, for example, have to travel hours on the train every day to Potsdam find low paying work experience in retail, as one of our participants had to? This kind of fundamental disconnect between citizens and the establishment can only be fostered via stark inequalities of opportunity both for individuals and for regions, as we see clearly in the former East Germany.
For anyone that has been paying attention to the questions relating to how social media can shape a person’s political preferences, the idea that an individual’s social media feed is an ‘echo chamber’ of their own opinions is nothing new. These echo chambers, formed by the collective voices of friends and acquaintances that typically share social and political positions, the repetition of content that aligns with their beliefs through the pages they follow and reinforced by algorithms that seek to target content based on pre-established interest and opinions mean that digital spaces typically reflect back one’s own opinions very strongly. This is to say that contacting someone ‘cold’ online, and especially someone from the opposite side of the political divide, is very contentious and is treated with extreme suspicion.
Perhaps the most common response to outreach from Social Science Work (save from being ignored altogether, by far the most popular response of all) was to ask ‘how did you find me’? Some responded with hostility, including blocking and swearing at Social Science Works’ team, and others opted to make aggressively sexual comments, probably with an aim to make me block them. Even for those willing to engage in real conversation, distrust was extremely high. One example of this is the woman that left me a two-minute voice message where she demanded to know where I had found her profile, what I wanted with her and why were we interested in her at all. Similarly, one participant objected to the location of the workshop because the hotel we met in was next to the local state administration, and he mistook the location as part of the state’s apparatus.
Part of the reason for this, as outlined above, is undoubtedly that digital echo chambers are mostly impenetrable and the intrusion of outside voices is unwelcome. However, given the opinions examined above, especially those relating to distrust of the ‘establishment’ this should only be understood as a partial answer. It seems likely, therefore, that part of the problem with reaching people online in this way is that is allows distrust to breed. At the workshops, the first item on the agenda was to make clear that Social Science Works is not part of the government, and everything participants shared would be treated with total anonymity which went a long way towards creating a more accepting and trusting environment.
This project has made clear that the problems of digital echo chambers persists among those likely to vote for populist parties in Brandenburg. Although there is much discussion surrounding the prevalence and problems of online echo chambers, there have been only a few attempts made to measure the phenomenon close up, still fewer in the German context. The work of Flaxman, Goel and Rao (2016), which relies on Groseclose and Milyo’s (2006) categories of media bias, represents a replicable model in the German context, however. In these studies, the degree to which an individual user or a Facebook page is ‘informationally segregated’ is measured.
In their work, Flaxman et al. examined 50,000 Facebook pages. The posted content on each page was ranked according to the publisher’s political leanings (for example, crudely, posts from the BBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post were ranked as left-leaning, while posts from Fox News, NBC and the Daily Mail were ranked as right-leaning). Using data made available from the Bing Toolbar, they accessed more than a billion individual data points. They conclude:
“We find that individuals generally read publications that are ideologically quite similar, and moreover, users that regularly read partisan articles are almost exclusively exposed to only one side of the political spectrum. In this sense, many— indeed nearly all—users exist in so-called echo chambers.” (Flaxman, Goel and Rao, 2016:317).
This method could be carried over to our research in Germany. As a first step, it would be necessary to develop an ideological categorisation of the major news outlets in Germany (Die Zeit, Bild etc.) as Groseclose and Milyo have for the US press. From there, it would be useful to rank the content shared on some of the major Facebook pages that are used by those likely to vote for extremist parties. In order to measure the degree to which this differs from more mainstream pages, it would also be useful to measure the kinds of content shared on other citizens’ group pages.
Hence, an examination of 100 extremist pages and 100 mainstream pages would be a first step towards systematically understanding the degree to which information segregation, or digital echo chambers, exist in these formats in Germany. This project could also include an attempt to measure the effects of following certain types of Facebook pages by analysing the kinds of ‘suggested content’ Facebook sends to the Newsfeed for users following different pages. This would involve creating new ‘blank’ profiles specifically to follow certain Facebook pages to measure the political slant of the suggested content. It would offer an insight into the influence of these kinds of groups to the kinds of content that appears in an individual’s Newsfeed and provide a deeper understanding of the echo chamber effect. This project would offer valuable insights for policy makers hoping to get a better understanding of the current digital landscape of citizens in Brandenburg and the scale of the problem.
Key throughout this project has been the need to get a complete understanding of both the kinds of online spaces occupied by those likely to vote for right wing populist parties, and the need to understand the problems and concerns they have that have led them to potentially vote for populist parties. It comes as no surprise that much of the problems initially appear to stem from the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, but is perhaps more interesting to focus on the details on display here. Very often what typifies this kind of content is demonstrably false misinformation and half facts which are deliberately misleading. The example mentioned above about the value of benefits available to refugees as compared to an unemployed German native is just one example for this.
It seems that media literacy, and especially social media literacy is lacking among this demographic. While the world, and the internet, has taken the concept of ‘fake news’ to heart, many among this group are extremely distrusting of the mainstream media, and I would argue in part this is because the reporting of the quality press directly contradicts the information they receive via their social feeds. The longer this goes on, the more it reinforces their echo chamber and the more that their distrust of the quality press and the establishment grows. This problem needs to be urgently addressed.
 See: http://socialscienceworks.org/2017/10/deliberation-against-populism-reconnecting-radicalizing-citizens-in-east-germany-elsewhere/ for a comprehensive overview of the project.
 All of the content monitored for the purposes of this project was available to anyone with a Facebook account, no private content was included unless with was directly shared by the individual themselves with me and names have been omitted.
 Original German: “Pffft da passiert gar nichts. 1. die Wahl ist manipuliert, CDU, Grüne, FDP, Linke, wären alle aus dem Bundestag geflogen und AfD hätte allein regiert. 2. AfD wird nicht in der Regierung sitzen, nur in der Opposition, damit erreichen sie gar nichts! Alles wird durchgepeitscht werden, wie geplant und Deutschland zerstört, Schritt für Schritt!“
 These standards were also applied in the formal reporting we completed for Tolerantes Brandenburg.
 The handle @einzelfallinfos was banned from appearing in German newsfeeds in 2015 following a decision by Twitter which ruled that it propagated hate. Its followers responded to the ruling by sharing similar content with the English-language hashtag #withheldingermany – a comment on freedom of expression.
 Original German: “Wenn zu dieser Zeit etwas” kostbarer als Gold “ist, dann die Erfahrungen des vergangenen Wahlkampfes. Wir haben ein neues Selbstvertrauen gewonnen! Und eine Ahnung von unserer eigenen Stärke! Gegen die Mainstream-Politik und Mainstream-Medien haben wir die Masseneinwanderung und ihre Konsequenzen als Thema Nr. 1 gesetzt und die Lüge von Merkels Popularität abgelehnt. Wir haben dies mit einer Wut und Gewalt erreicht, die seit 1989 nicht mehr gesehen wurde, aber immer friedlich. Wir protestierten gegen Merkel und die Eliten laut und mit offenem Visier. Immer wieder wurde Merkel bei öffentlichen Veranstaltungen von Bürgern gemessen. Wir haben angefangen zu empören. Und wir machen die Erfahrung, wie gut wir sind!”
 Original German: “Die AfD ist auf dem Weg zu einem sicheren dritten Platz. Die SPD könnte unter 20% landen und wäre damit nur 8% vor der AfD. Wir freuen uns auf den Wahlabend! “
 In the week between 22.5.17-29.5.17 the article relating to knife crime received 93 likes, 104 shares and 124 comments a total of 321 interactions (correct at time of writing). The other content from the same week averaged 67 interactions on page – nearly five times less.
 Original German: “schon vor zweitausendfünfzehn kamen die Muslime und ihr habt nix dagegen getan, ab Zweitausendfünfzehn kommen tausende und ihr habt nix dagegen getan und nun im Sept. wählt ihr erneut Merkel, also was regt ihr Euch auf”
 Original German: “Nur ein sehr kleiner Prozentsatz der Flüchtlinge ist kriminell aber z.B. 2% von 1.000.000 sind eine ganze Menge. Hier ist das deutsche Rechtssystem überfordert. In den Ländern, wo die Flüchtlinge herkommen, gibt es härtere und vor allem schnellere Strafen. Wenn bei uns erst nach der 20. Straftat der Prozess kommt, wird das als Schwäche empfunden und es wird weiter gemacht(siehe Kriminalitätsstatistik). Hier muss sofort nachgesteuert werden… Das Kopftuchtragen usw. ist in der Öffentlichkeit zu verbieten. Moscheebauten sind einzustellen. Versuchen Sie in Saudi- Arabien eine Kirche zu bauen. Unser Land, unsere Werte unsere Regeln…wer sich nicht daran halten will, kann gern wieder gehen. Parallelgesellschaft, Großfamilien sind zu beseitigen. Gleiche Rechte z.B. bei Strafverfolgung und Steuererhebung für alle. Unterbindung des türkischen Einflusses in Deutschland.”
 The most up to date numbers available at the time of writing suggest that a single jobseeker in Germany receives 409€/monthly plus housing cost, and a single asylum seeker in Germany receives 392€/monthly plus housing costs.
 Original German: “Ja, die Arbeitslosigkeit hat sich halbiert, die Erwerbstätigkeit liegt so hoch wie nie, der Staat hat so viel Geld wie nie, der Bund kommt ohne neue Schulden aus. Viele Unternehmen verdienen gut, die Exportindustrie fährt einen Rekord nach dem anderen ein. Deutschland steht in der Welt so gut da, dass die Kollegen des international angesehenen Magazins The Economist das aktuelle Heft mit einem Bundesadler schwarz auf gold illustriert haben und der Schlagzeile: “The German problem”.
 See: A Measure of Media Bias, Tim Groseclose and Jeffrey Milyo, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 120, No. 4 (Nov., 2005), pp. 1191-1237
Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, And Online News Consumption, Seth Flaxman, Sharad Goel, Justin M. Rao, Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 80, Special Issue, 2016, pp. 298–320
 This approach was based on the work from Data for Democracy, who trialled something similar using Pinterest, with amusing results. See: https://medium.com/data-for-democracy/crafting-projects-islam-and-russian-propaganda-ccba9a409fb5
In the deliberative project “Deliberation against Populism” we organized two events with citizens from Brandenburg, Germany, to discuss the problems that trouble them. The prime goal of the project was to find new ways to get into contact with citizens that see themselves as political alienated or unrepresented, and to reengage them in the democratic discourse. We particularly explored the possibilities of social media, also trying to counter the much discussed “filter bubbles” or “echo chambers” where people predominantly receive messages that reaffirm and strengthen their pre-existing opinions.
Together with the participants, we wanted to examine their take on contemporary society – which problems, challenges, opportunities and perspectives they see, and how these hang together. We also tried to show that it is possible, useful, enlightening and even entertaining to discuss fundamental values, ideas and perspectives with other citizens. The events were meant to be a general experience in civic participation, deliberation, reflection, and civility, that will prepare the ground for more deliberative exchanges in the future. We tried to give all of the participants a fair opportunity to articulate their troubles and grievances, without fear of stigmatization.
We searched for our participants primarily on social media and invited them personally to deliberate for one day with a group of other worried citizens. We especially looked for citizens that expressed strong discontent with the current political status quo and showed a propensity towards non-voting or voting for radical, populist parties. Those we connected with were invited to citizens’ forums in Cottbus and Frankfurt an der Oder where they were encouraged to share their fears and frustrations.
The participants in our workshops are treated as citizens that are able to examine together with us the fundamental values and problems of our society. A pivotal problem underlying populism is that the citizens concerned do not feel represented and respected by the social, political and media establishment. Therefore, they reject relationships 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 participate in 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 and not able to have a straightforward, rational discussion about their ideas and views. This disdain is readily recognized by the people concerned and strengthens their belief that they are not being taken seriously as citizens.
In various ways we tried to get into contact with radicalizing citizens. The most important strategy was to contact them via social media. Additionally, in co-operation with four students of the Alice Salomon Hochschule Berlin we tried two “offline” strategies.
First, we attended a political “Stammtisch” that the populist political party “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD) had organized for citizens in Frankfurt an der Oder. We tried to get into a conversation with the people in attendance and to invite them for our deliberative event. Unfortunately, the AfD was not very successful in the recruitment of participants for political conversations (only 3 people showed up) and so this strategy was not very promising. Nevertheless, one of the students wrote an informative report on the talks, which contributed to our insights.
Next, we carried out a short survey on a regional train between Berlin and Cottbus, a journey that takes about 1,5 hours and thus offers plenty of time to talk politics. The survey contained questions that are strong indicators of populist attitudes. The aim was to find people who are interested in talking about political topics and fitted in the profile of our event. Although many were willing to complete the survey (19 commuters), there was only one person who expressed interest for a future deliberative event and wanted to provide us with personal contact information. This person was invited several times for our event in Cottbus, although did not attend.
As remarked, social media formed the core of our efforts. More than 1300 citizens from Brandenburg, about 400 people in Cottbus and 600 in Frankfurt /Oder as well as 300 in the surrounding area, have been personally invited to our events via Facebook Messenger. We selected Cottbus and Frankfurt/Oder because of their propensity for political alienation.
We found the citizens on websites and Facebook pages that contain strongly dismissive messages against refugees and migrants, as well as, the political status quo and the news media. Clicking through brought us to their personal Facebook pages as well as to other websites and Facebook pages that they visit, often containing comparable messages.
About 10% of the 1300 people we sent a message to, opened this message. About a third of these people replied. In the end, we had in-depth conversations via email and Facebook messenger with 40 people.
We also contacted the administrators of the Facebook pages where we found many of our potential participants and asked them, whether they would be willing to advertise our deliberative event on their pages and whether they themselves would like to participate. None of these administrators replied.
Then we tried to get in direct contact with people by commenting on the comments, which they had left on websites. In our comment, we invited the person concerned to participate in our deliberative meeting (“This is an interesting perspective, we would like to talk about it with you, please open your messenger for an invitation”). This strategy brought no significant results either. Regularly, we were simply blocked. It seemed evident that we did not belong to the community.
From the 1300 citizens, not more than nine people left an email address on their Facebook page. These people we contacted directly via email. Three responded, which is a high turnout in comparison to that of social media messaging. The relatively small number of people that make their email address available for the public, is probably due to the strong feelings of Germans about internet privacy in general and those of our target group in particular.
In Cottbus (September 2, 2017) and Frankfurt an der Oder (September 23, 2017), we held a deliberative event with a total of 7 people. Both times, we talked for approximately five hours about the social and political problems these citizens wanted to discuss. We wrote detailed protocols of the meetings. The participants also filled in a survey with fundamental social, political questions. The same survey we use in our deliberative workshops with refugees and Germans volunteering in the integration-sector.
In addition, several people who, for different reasons, were not able to participate in the events have informed us in writing about their ideas. Two also filled in the questionnaire.
Further information on the concerns, values, fears and hopes of the citizens of this social group obviously could be gained from the reports published on their personal Facebook pages. We publish a separate article on the more than 1300 pages we visited.
Explanations for low response rate
There are various explanations for the relatively small number of responses. Firstly, because of the function structure of Facebook almost all citizens who we wrote on Facebook were not “friends” with the team, so our “message requests” simply went unnoticed in 90% of the cases. About a third of the people who read our invitation answered us.
Secondly, there is a problem of trust: they are citizens who have almost completely lost confidence in established politics, the press and civil society. Social Science Works is also often perceived as part of a society which does not respect, take seriously, or accept the members of our target group. In addition, they doubt whether it makes sense to participate. The feeling that no one would really take an interest in their opinions predominates.
Thirdly, the people we managed to reach, appeared not to have had much experience with civic participation and had no knowledge of what was to be expected of such an event. They were afraid to talk about social and political issues in public. In addition, almost all people we communicated with expressed the fear of being perceived as uneducated, stupid, extremist, racist or as Nazis.
Nevertheless, all citizens who have actually participated expressed an interest in participating in such an event again.
Addressing suspicious and sceptical citizens
One potential participant got the wrong impression that the deliberative event in Frankfurt/Oder would take place in the city hall and warned us that for most people this would be enough reason to stay away. Distrust, suspicion, scepticism with regard to almost everything connected to the established social and political system was widespread. As remarked, the citizens concerned do not feel represented and respected by the political, social and media establishment. Especially for this reason giving citizens the impression that they are considered ‘problems’ that cannot think and argue rationally should be avoided at all costs.
In our invitations we stressed at length that we were an independent, non-governmental organisation and that we took a sincere interest in the views of the people we contacted. Our first contact was formulated as follows:
“Dear Mrs. X,
My name is Y (5 different people from Social Science Works sent the messages) and I write you in name of Social Science Works, an independent organization from Potsdam. We would like to hear more from you, since we have the feeling that the issues about which you post on the internet, do not always get political attention. Against the background of the upcoming elections, we would like to talk to citizens about those issues that occupy them and which perhaps get none or too little attention in politics. Therefore, we would like to invite you to participate in a round table discussion with about 10 citizens. The aim is to have an open exchange and jointly identify topics that are neglected by the established political parties. One result of the discussion could be e.g. a jointly written position paper…. The round table takes place on September 23 in Frankfurt/Oder. Good food is provided. We start at 10 o’clock. We believe it is important that as many people as possible can express their opinions. We would be delighted if you could take the time for our discussion. You can also invite some of your friends or acquaintances to our forum. If you have any questions, write to me. Thank you for your attention! With best wishes, Y. (Our website you can find here: www.socialscienceworks.org).”
Most people that had read the invitation, did not reply (about 100). Some dismissed us in strong language or swore at us (about 10). One said he would only come when we would serve beer. Some people accepted the invitation without any further questions (4). Others wanted to know more exactly who we were, why we were organizing this, who was paying for this, how independent we were (despite the fact that the project was financed by the State of Brandenburg), why we thought this would make any difference, and whether there was a dress-code. We tried to answer all these questions and encourage participants to join the round table discussion. In some cases, we communicated for three weeks. It remained unclear who would actually participate until the very last moment. Several potential participants cancelled on the morning of the event itself (migraine, family-event, work).
Some people that had expressed strong opinions online but remained hesitant to participate, to these we wrote, in a last attempt to motivate them to participate:
“Dear Mrs. X,
We have now invited 600 people in Frankfurt to talk about social and political problems. Only 4 people have said that they will come. Do we now have to conclude that there are no important problems in Frankfurt? This is hardly plausible. Therefore, I now have asked the people who had no time on Saturday but still had interest to participate, at least to write down what they consider as important problems. One page is enough. We would be very happy if you could make some time for this. Many thanks in advance!
Four people indeed took the trouble to write down their concerns. One participants went as far as to write a detailed two-page overview of his concerns.
The deliberative event was not organized very differently from the deliberations we organize with, for instance, refugees. We tried to create a safe, inviting, friendly environment and gave much room to the participants to articulate together their concerns. Since at this stage we were primarily interested in finding ways to fruitfully invite people for a deliberative event and in getting an overview of the main grievances, we did not probe extreme standpoints of participants. It struck us though, that when we did this and backed up our positions with more scholarly insights (social and political scholars sometimes really have some relatively plausible insights), people were very open to reconsider their positions.
After having explained who we were and why we were doing this, we, as usual in our deliberations, mainly asked questions: Which themes would you like to discuss? Do you have an idea why all the other people we invited stayed home? What do you consider the most important social problems of today? Which social developments irritate or frighten you? What are your social and political expectations? How should society develop, in your opinion? What kind of society would you like to live in? Each answer drove the conversation forwards and after 5 hours of talking we usually got the picture. Both times, we had difficulties to end the meeting: the participants wanted to go on and also expressed the wish to join another event.
In a separate article we will go more in depth into the concrete deliberations, as well as the communications on the internet. Below are the general findings.
Echo chambers versus real exchanges
The persistence of the echo chamber we could only confirm. One can see this on the websites that our target group visits, on the personal Facebook pages, and one notices this when one meets the citizens personally: the information which reaches these citizens is not very pluralistic, and predominantly confirm and reinforce existing opinions and feelings, which are in line with the consensus on the Facebook Pages in which they are active. As remarked, in a separate article we will report on this more in depth.
Interventions on the internet, that is to say, our efforts to argue online on the websites visited by our target group or to directly address citizens and to respond to their comments and posts, made little sense: usually we were quickly blocked.
At the same time, as in our other workshops we found that the confrontation with alternative insights and perceptions in a deliberative environment can lead citizens to other thoughts relatively quickly.
A sincere exchange of ideas, values and facts, and a common learning process where citizens learn to better understand their values, fears, frustrations and hopes, and sometimes also discover their own preferences, consequently, is hard to realize on the internet. A direct exchange between “real” people in a social context, that explicitly invites people to jointly develop ideas about a good society, is not replicable online.
The citizens we talked to, all grew up in the GDR and were, understandingly, all wary of political education, either from the East or from the “Wessies” that were sent in to re-educate them after the wall had come down. Political education in general is of course rightfully conceived as demeaning when the powers-that-be abuse this education to explain away injustice.
Nevertheless, political education appears welcome if most citizens that completed our survey “completely disagree” with a statement like: “People we elect as MP’s try to keep the promises they have made during the election”, and at the same time “completely agree” to the statement: “Conflicts between people over values are mostly due to misunderstandings and lack of knowledge”.
In addition to political education, an understanding of the functioning of (social) media appears to be badly needed. Many citizens hardly understand how “news” comes about and how Filter Bubbles develop. The reality we encountered on the Facebook Pages of the people in our target group is a ‘reality’ that is closed off from external voices.
In our direct communications and on the 1352 personal Facebook pages we visited, two issues were dominant: social justice as well as migrants and refugees. Dissatisfaction with their own (in actual fact, precarious) social predicament, was often contrasted with stereotypes on migrants and refugees. Rarely was there a well-thought-out connection between the two issues. Hardly ever were the causes of refugees’ status considered, or those of their own social situation.
Regarding social justice, these citizens often have the feeling that they made no material progress since the reunification or that they even have been impoverished since 1989. They feel betrayed, abandoned, threatened, lonely, ignored, stigmatized. There is no hope for improvement. Social and political trust is almost absent.
Loneliness, and the inability to connect to others, as well as the feeling that society has been falling apart and had gotten much harder and colder since the GDR-times was a much debated topic. In the past there was more solidarity and companionship, it was felt. People were not left alone and were not on their own, as they are today. There was less freedom in the GDR to take personal decisions on education and professions, but also less responsibility, and therefore, less angst.
Many participants expressed the feeling that their concerns go unheard and that their opinions are stigmatized by the mainstream press. This is in line with thousands of posts we have seen on Facebook. Most of our respondents, for example, “completely disagree” with the statement “I trust that the media in Germany report in a fair and balanced way on current social issues”. Obviously, this distrust reinforced the tendency to lock oneself up in a personal echo chamber.
With regard to refugees and migrants, people had various fears and frustrations. These fears and frustrations often were more informative about their own predicament than about refugees and migrants.
First, there is a widespread fear that as a result of the claims of the refugees on the welfare state, one’s own material situation will deteriorate still further. Also pensions (a big theme in a rapidly aging society like Germany) are supposedly under pressure. The idea that young migrant breadwinners could help to pay for their pensions, was quickly dismissed: these migrants do not want to work and anyway, they cannot because of a lack of education and skills.
Second, natives have the impression that migrants receive much more aid from the state than they themselves. They consider this as deeply unjust. How much help migrants exactly receive, is mostly unclear to participants. It is, however clear that the people in our target group often experience the state and its institutions as unsupportive, overly bureaucratic, indifferent and unreasonable.
Third, the fear is widespread that migrants have completely different values than Germans and for this reason will not integrate. How these values exactly differ, however, participants struggle to articulate. Their knowledge of, and experience with, the cultures of the migrants is small. Participants have hardly ever met migrants or refugees. The ability to differentiate between migrant groups did not extend beyond “Arabs” versus “Africans”. Nevertheless, several of our respondents expressed a strong wish to get into contact with refugees and to find out who these people actually were. They complained that no encounters had been organized between refugees and natives, and that it was extremely difficult to get into contact with “the other side”.
Fourth, people are afraid of crime and assume that crime has risen rapidly, especially sexual violence against German women. The citizens with whom we have communicated, however, personally did not have experience with criminal migrants, and could only report examples they had seen online. The number of posts on criminal acts of refugees in the filter bubbles we observed, is indeed exceptionally high. A general complaint we encountered related to the presence of groups of young, male migrants in public spaces, especially in the evening. These groups are seen to be very menacing and cause some of our respondents to stay home or only to go out when accompanied by a fellow native.
In general, we found a deep sense of political malaise, a feeling that one is afflicted by social processes and structures that one barely understands and also can barely influence. Rationalization, bureaucratization, economization, individualization, globalization, migration, promote a general feeling of distress, frustration, helplessness and resentment. Lacking is an interpretation scheme which helps to understand these transformations and helps to contain and steer them in preferred directions. People have “troubles”, but no concrete political “issues”, which may reduce the discomfort (Wright Mills, 1958). The specific points of contention that it takes (“refugees out”), have often little to do with the fundamental problems of these citizens. What fails is a underlying goal or view that keeps society together and lends it a direction. The imagined future scenarios were poor and went as far as a civil war between natives and migrants about scarce resources.
This feeling of malaise, this mood of political ineptitude and alienation, also partly explains the frustration about migrants: the citizens in our target group have the feeling that other actors, especially the Chancellor Angela Merkel (target of a huge number of hate-posts online), but also most other German politicians, have taken fundamental decisions regarding their lives, without ever having an opportunity to discuss these decisions or to influence them. The citizens have not been integrated into the decision-making process and just have been told, that from now on they had to live in a multicultural society and that, for example, Islam was part of Germany.
A democracy of which 25 per cent of the citizens do not use their right to vote, and (as in several regions of Brandenburg) 25 per cent of the citizens vote against the entire political system, has a problem of legitimacy. The goal must be to invite the citizens who have lost faith in democracy, to participate again in the broad social conversation.
The workings of deliberative events are limited insofar as political distrust is caused by social injustice and social inequality, or by the inability of politics to interpret and govern fundamental social structures and processes, or by its inability to develop ideas, perspectives, and ideals that give meaning and direction to social life. Injustice is injustice and cannot be resolved or justified with the help of deliberative dialogues.
Nevertheless, deliberations can contribute to the understanding of (in)justice and its causes (for example, it is unlikely that the refugees have caused current social inequality). For a political culture it is also important that citizens explore together their views on society, that they investigate together the problems, opportunities and chances and how these hang together. For the empowerment of citizens, it is important to experience that it is possible and engaging to discuss fundamental values, ideas and perspectives with others. Therefore, deliberative workshops could be a general experience in tolerance, reflection, and civic participation, which can pave the way for further deliberative exchanges and civic activities.
What would be alternative strategies to successfully invite citizens for deliberative events? We found that recruitment via the internet is hard (although not impossible). It is extremely important to establish trust before a participant will accept an invitation. In addition we found that trust is especially lacking among the people in this group.
Therefore, another strategy we want to try out in our next project is to invite citizens that (still) have faith in the current social and political arrangements to invite citizens that have lost this faith. We will ask members of political parties, civic organisations and volunteers to invite a family member, a friend, neighbour, colleague or acquaintance of whom they feel that they belong to our target group, to attend together a deliberative event. Together with up to seven or eight tandems, we will at this event investigate political and social problems and opportunities. We assume that these pairs still enjoy mutual trust, based on non-political motivations. By starting with this trust, we want to strengthen civic participation and social cohesion, as well as to fortify civic competencies.
In other words, we do not give up. In democracies one never throws in the towel anyway.
 The project has been made possible by Tolerantes Brandenburg, a semi-governmental organisation in Brandenburg devoted to the furthering of an open, pluralist democracy. Sarah Coughlan and the author implemented the project.
 We thank Aimo Schultz, Rita Maciera de Sousa, Jessica Pawlak and Daniela Montagut Cuello for their great support in the first phases of the project. Also thanks to Charlotte Reinl, also of the Alice Salomon Hochschule, for her protocol of the deliberations in Frankfurt/Oder. We were impressed by the skills and commitment of all these students.
 Examples of these questions are: „Ich habe Vertrauen darin, dass die Medien in Deutschland fair und ausgewogen über aktuelle Probleme berichten“; and „Kulturelle Vielfalt gefährdet den gesellschaftlichen Zusammenhalt in Deutschland“.
 The voter turnout in the electoral district Frankfurt (Oder) – Oder-Spree and in Cottbus – Spree-Neiße for the federal elections on September 24, 2017 was 71,9 respectively, 73,9 per cent. The AfD received 21,9 respectively, 25,3 per cent of the votes. For Germany as a whole this was 11,5 per cent with a voter turnout of 76,2 per cent. https://www.wahlergebnisse.brandenburg.de/wahlen/BU2017/ergebnis/ergeb63.asp?sel1=2156&sel2=0676 ; https://www.bundeswahlleiter.de/bundestagswahlen/2017/ergebnisse/bund-99.html
 Examples of websites where we started our searches, are: http://www.journalistenwatch.com/; https://www.facebook.com/afd.brandenburg/; www.zuerst.de; www.preussenspiegel-online.de; www.pi-news.net.
 Coughlan, Sarah. 2017. Finding Alienation: An Analysis of Right-Wing Facebook Pages in Brandenburg.
 In German: Sehr geehrte Frau Merkel, Meine Name ist Hans Blokland und ich schreibe Ihnen im Namen von Social Science Works, einer unabhängigen Organisation aus Potsdam, von der ich Geschäftsführer bin. Wir sind daran interessiert, mehr von Ihnen zu hören, da wir den Eindruck haben, dass die Themen zu denen Sie im Internet aktiv sind, in der Politik oft nicht ernst genommen werden. Vor dem Hintergrund der anstehenden Wahlen, möchten wir als Organisation uns mit Bürgern über die Themen und Sorgen austauschen, die diese beschäftigen und die auf Seiten der Politik vielleicht zu wenig oder keine Beachtung finden. Deshalb möchten wir Sie herzlich einladen an einer Gesprächsrunde mit ca. 10 Bürgern teilzunehmen. Ziel ist es, einen offenen Austausch zu haben und gemeinsam Themen zu benennen, die von der etablierten Politik vernachlässigt werden. Ein Ergebnis der Gesprächsrunde könnte z.B. ein gemeinsam verfasstes Positionspapier sein. Es besteht die Möglichkeit, wenn Sie das zusammen möchten, das Positionspapier zu veröffentlichen und Politiker einzuladen das Papier zu kommentieren. Die Gesprächsrunde wird den 23. September in Frankfurt (Oder) stattfinden (City Park Hotel, Lindenstraße 12). Für gutes Essen ist gesorgt. Wir fangen an um 10 Uhr. Wir glauben, es ist wichtig, dass möglichst viele Menschen ihre Meinung äußern können. Wir würden uns freuen, wann Sie für unsere Gesprächsrunde Zeit nehmen können. Gerne können sie auch einige Ihrer Freunde oder Bekannten zu unserem Forum einladen. Falls Sie Fragen haben, schreiben Sie mir. Vielen Dank für Ihre Aufmerksamkeit! Mit besten Grüßen, Hans Blokland (Unsere Webseite finden Sie hier: www.socialscienceworks.org/de).
 In German: Wir haben jetzt 600 Menschen in Cottbus eingeladen um mit uns über soziale und politische Problemen zu reden. Nur 4 Menschen haben zugesagt vorbei zu kommen. Müssen wir jetzt schlussfolgern dass es keine wichtige Probleme in Cottbus gibt? Das ist kaum vorstellbar. Ich habe deshalb jetzt die Menschen die Sag keine Zeit hatten aber trotzdem Interesse hatten, gefragt wenigstens auf zu schreiben was nach ihre Meinung die wichtige Probleme sind. Eine Seite reicht. Es würde uns sehr freuen wenn Sie dafür die Zeit frei machen könnten. Vielen Dank im Voraus! Mit freundlichen Grüßen.
 For an overview of our assumptions and methods regarding deliberation, see: http://socialscienceworks.org/2017/05/how-to-deliberate-fundamental-values-notes-from-brandenburg-on-our-approach-and-experiences/.
 See 8.
 Looking at the websites of, for instance civil organizations in Frankfurt and Cottbus, we indeed get the impression that in these kind of towns or cities offer considerably fewer events to meet newcomers have been organized as in liberal islands like Potsdam and Berlin. The crumbling of civil society in these regions might explain this.
 One of our participants, a young unemployed woman, told us that she had been walking her dog in the dark and that she had been scared to death when she suddenly had seen the bright eyes and teeth of an African man, clothed in dark colors. The man had just passed by, nothing had happened. But still. Another citizen wrote us: „Der Flüchtlingsstrom nimmt eh kein Ende… Wenn sie mal die Nachrichten verfolgen und sehen was die Merkel und die Politiker dem deutschen Volke mit der Massen Einwanderung antun… Bleibt es nicht aus das wir als deutsches Volk etwas dagegen tun müssen.. Selbst meine Frau ist fast Opfer eines sexuellen Übergriff geworden… und das lass ich nicht als stolzer Deutscher Bürger nicht zu…“
 That sexual violence has risen, seems undeniable. The question is what explains this and what could be done to counter it. The (liberal) Süddeutsche Zeitung observes: “Hinzu kämen oft scheinbar perspektivlose Situationen, Frust und der geringe Zugang zum alltäglichen Leben. “Frühzeitige und mehr Aufklärung würde helfen”, sagt [der Sozial- und Sexualpädagoge Christian Zech]. Es gebe unterschiedliche Rollenbilder sowie teils ein anderes Verständnis im Umgang mit und der Annäherung an Frauen – das führe zu Missverständnissen und dazu, eigene Schlüsse aus Situationen zu ziehen, oft die falschen.” http://www.sueddeutsche.de/bayern/kriminalitaet-zahlen-die-verstoeren-1.3664705.
 cf. Blokland, Hans. 2006. Modernization and its Political Consequences. New Haven: Yale University Press.
What is the purpose of these memorials? And who are they for? What is Berlin’s evolving relationship between commemoration and tourism?
Riddled with important historical events and countless memorial sites to commemorate them, Berlin now faces a challenging double role of being a place of remembrance and a successful urban destination. These challenges change over time, because as Beech (2009: 223) explains: “atrocity sites are evolutionary rather than static”. That is to say, the goals of their designers, and the visitors who view and experience them, change over time. Thus, the answers to these questions change, too. This article will analyse the newly created problems, and with them, newly created potentials for this commemoration-tourism co-existence.
Memorials, as Jeager (2017) suggests, are used by the Germans to clearly define their political and moral failures, as opposed to monuments widely seen in the world – and previously in Germany – that celebrate war heroes and heritage the nation is proud of (Ladd, 1997). But memorials and large memorial sites in our day and age are argued to have a wide array of potential beyond the ones the authorities that commissioned them or their designers considered; and those, may not always go hand in hand.
Certainly, these sites commemorating tragedy and atrocity hold great potential for positive social and political change. Considering specific aims, remembering is the first to come to mind, whether it is for descendants of victims (of wars, the Holocaust and the Berlin Wall), or for all other visitors without personal connection, both domestic and international; referred to by Beech (2009) as ‘third party’, with interests and often competing needs.
Beech continues to state mourning, reconciliation, and forgiveness as the benefits arising from visitation to such sites for people with personal connection. For example, families of victims of the Berlin Wall visiting memorial sites along the Berlin Wall Trail. However, it can be argued that these memorials can offer further aid in dealing with personal and/or national trauma and were in fact built by a generation that needed to deal with their own trauma, possibly done by and/or to them (Jeager, 2017; Winter, 2009). This begs the question, however, whether on individual level memorials hold the capacity to function as a form of psychological self-help exercise?
Arguably, the erection of the some of the larger memorial sites, (of which, Peter Eisenman’s Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe is a clear example) is a unique attempt of the German post-unification governments to acknowledge the national crimes committed by 20th century German totalitarian regimes. But is such public acknowledgement meant for the Germans to deal with collective guilt, to learn lessons from history, or as the cynics would argue to ‘give face’ for those foreign visitors? In other words, can mourning, reconciliation and forgiveness exist in the same physical space of a memorial site and even more ambitiously perform informative tasks for millions of visitors?
In that context, Morsch suggests that “modern memorials now see themselves as historical museums with special humanitarian and educational tasks” (Morsch and Ley, 2007: 9). Indeed, not everyone shares the ambitions that Morsch refers to. Wight (2009) points out to the lack of clear communication of the social responsibility of such heritage sites, particularly the ones with contested heritage. Whereas Thunbridge and Ashworth (1996) argue that heritage, by its nature, is someone’s and not others’. A conflict of interest may occur when the narrative is contested. Not only that history is written by the victors, it has evolved to be perceived very differently in every one of Germany’s five different regimes of the 20th century..
Sharing the urban space of memorial sites may also be the cause of Germans feeling the loss of ownership of memory. Berlin is not just host to millions of international visitors, it is also home to Germans from all of its 16 federal states, the aptly named ‘new Berliners’. In the post-Reunification era, many Germans from both former Germanys moved into the city and to its surrounding Brandenburg neighbours, such as Potsdam, Falkensee, Oranienburg, Bernau and others. Although many are young and may not feel spatial or temporal ownership, others, perhaps of an older generation with more personal connection to the commemorated historical events do feel deprived of what is essentially their heritage, for better or for worse. And, it is important to note, in the context of the Cold War the story of the DDR is not necessarily presented in its fullest. Understandably, with an abundance of memorial sites for the Wall and its victims, remembrance attention to other aspects of the lives of people in both the DDR and the BRD during the Cold War is almost non-existing. Berliners who were born in either East or West Berlin may feel that their history is no longer theirs and is now used for the more profitable endeavour of tourism; a form of ‘gentrification’ of collective memory.
There are also political and social agendas, which may or may not coincide with the presence of international tourists. It is claimed that with the birth of a new nation state a new historical narrative is written (Lowenthal, 1985; Thunbridge & Ashworth, 1996). That is not to say that every new country deletes its history books completely, whilst removing all of its previous monuments. However, significant changes are made to the way history is taught and, as in the case of Berlin, monuments have been removed largely to be replaced by memorial statues and sites (Jaeger, 2017; Ladd, 1997). These are now often used as a reminder and a catalyst for the political and social values of the current government and society in power. As Merbach suggests:
“A capital like Berlin has to identify itself with its monuments. The public space must represent a valid political attitude, in particular towards foreign visitors.” (In Merrill & Schmidt, 2006: 123).
The presence of five memorial sites at the eastern side of Berlin’s largest public park, the Tiergarten, is a testimony to the vastly shared views by most Germans that walls and concentration camps are no longer wanted here. At times, these values are clearly conveyed on memorial plaques such the Deportation Memorial at the Grunewald station or the one at the former Jewish old people’s home on Große Hamburger Straße.
Unsurprisingly, memorials also share a defining and potentially volatile characteristic with real-estate and that is their location. On the one hand, the location of the five major memorials between Potsdamer Platz and the Reichstag makes them visible and easily visited, whilst sending a strong message of remembering the victims of the Nazi killings, the homosexual victims, the Jewish victims, the Sinti and Roma, and the Reichstag representatives. On the other hand, their location provides a political and promotional stage to all, from young authors to provocative politicians. A recent incident was the provocation by far-right AfD party candidate Björn Höckes who on the 14th of September 2017, ten days before the federal elections, used the Holocaust Memorial to attract media exposure by referring to it as “ein Denkmal der Schande” – a memorial of disgrace; a disgrace that in his opinion the Germans should no longer feel. Rather than places of mourning or places of acknowledgement of national guilt, memorials may need to readdress their aims or at least add and emphasise their function as societal warning signs. The danger of national forgetfulness is certainly already there; Deutschaldfunk Kultur quotes the Körber Foundation claiming that only half of the Germans in the age group of 14 to 16 know what Auschwitz-Birkenau was (Deutschlandfunk Kultur, 2017).
The potentially abused location of the Holocaust memorial and other central memorials, such as the official Memorial Site for the Berlin Wall, is also their educational advantage. It is important, therefore, to break down the groups to whom the memorial sites are supposed to provide the function of education. Most sites, as early the earlier quote of Professor Morsch shows, will prioritise education as their primary goal. Effectively, this means that youth groups receive preference when entering an exhibition. This manifests itself in small museums, the likes of the Otto Weidt Workshop for the Blind, rather than the larger open ones like the Memorial Memorial Site of the Former Concentration Camp Sachsenhausen. It may not make a great difference in memorials such as the Block of the Women at Rosen Straße. Groups of high school students from abroad are categorised as tourists, and their priority to be educated on these topics is not disputed.
Being educated about historical events in Berlin is also one of the motivations for adults to visit memorial sites. These are generally divided into locals, either visiting on their own or with friends/family from out of town, second/third generation of descendants of victims, and the ‘third party’ – their learning of the topic could lead to a multiplicator effect of social change in their place of origin. For both Berliners and foreign visitors, the positive of this ‘holiday education’ is explained by David Lowenthal who claims that “we need other people’s memories both to confirm our own and to give them endurance.” (Lowenthal, 1985: 196). Endurance that by sharing urban spaced of remembrance functions as an instrument in our social attempt to live up to promises of “never again”.
Thus, although education for the next generation is invaluable, the importance of education by commemoration of domestic and international adult visitors must not be neglected. However, the inevitable result of limited space is that adult tourists, individuals or groups, may not always be able to enter different exhibitions (for example, exhibitions in the Villa Wannsee have limited capacity); a significantly less of a challenge when it comes to outdoor memorials.
Crucially, it can be argued that memorials act as educators even when the person or groups were motivated to view them just because ‘it’s the thing to do when visiting Berlin’. However, the level of pre-existing knowledge of adults, individual or in groups, German or international are extremely varied. Moreover, time works its magic and as new generations are born, becoming more and more emotionally distant from the events commemorated.
The obvious risk is that the fourth and fifth generation out from an event (namely, the Second World War) will no longer see this event as something which has something to do with them, whether they are a school in Stuttgart or from a college in Florida. Therefore, not only that the aim of the memorials changes, the visitors (‘the audience’) to whom the memorial was initially targeted change as well.
Memorials in Berlin can no longer be seen with the eyes of those who know exactly to which event it commemorates. We have to assume a rise in ignorance of historical chapters, and not to view this lack of knowledge as a negative trait. Rather, the inevitable ignorance can be seen by tourism authorities, urban planners and other locals as a unique opportunity to show the consequences of the past. A sarcastic 2016 Facebook meme referring to recent political developments: “Goerge Orwell wrote a warning, not an instruction manual…”. But whereas dystopian novels with future social warnings is not everyone’s idea of a leisure activity, memorials in popular destination are more equipped to achieve the goal of being a social and political warning sign. Lowenthal explains that “We interpret the ongoing present while living through it, whereas we stand outside the past and view its finished operation, including its now known consequences for whatever was then the future”. (Lowenthal, 1985: 191). And this, if we want is potentially the best use of Berlin’s memorials: it not only shows us the consequences of what was the future of these events, its presence is a testimony to the tragic nature of the events.
The sheer numbers of visitors and the physical capacity of memorials to contain them is one more important point for consideration in the context of urban space of memorials. Memorials to difficult heritage can be used as a mirror for the Germans to examine their attitudes towards their collective past (Macdonald, 2016; Merbach in Merrill and Schmidt, 2006). Merbach (in Merrill & Schmidt, 2006) rightfully argues that with development of new interpretive concepts, old monuments and memorials can add a useful new layer to aid in dealing with controversial heritage. when memorial sites receive a large number of international tourists, the above said process might be hindered due to lack of physical space, or even commodification of the event it commemorates.
The purpose of memorials has also a lot to do with their size. Clearly, large memorial sites with multiple exhibitions and more or less abstract memorial sites and statues serve other aims. The latter, it is argued, are not meant as places of learning. Not only that all information can be read online, as several scholars have argued (see for example Cohen, 2011 and Feldman, 2002) for the specific goal of learning (rather than remembering) one might better do by going to a museum on the topic. In Berlin alone there are more than 30 museums dealing with history, and on the topic of the Holocaust and the Second World War one can also go to a museum in Jerusalem, Budapest, Washington DC, London, and many others. Moreover, visitors who may not have direct personal connection to the event commemorated, and thus little knowledge on the topic, are likely to get their curiosity aroused by visiting a site of remembrance. A short exposure to a certain chapter in Berlin’s history may result in later learning.
Finally, a monument can be a roadblock thrown at face of society to prevent it from swiftly treating the problem by simply moving on. Even, or especially, if the problem is national guilt slowly dissipating into the oblivion of the fourth and fifth generation. Thus, the presence of millions of domestic and international visitors may actually maintain a conversational catalyst, rather than impede an internal social debate. If done right, with interpretation and clarity, residents of Berlin, the city’s visitors and its authorities can all benefit from the duo-function of Berlin’s memorials as sites of commemoration and tourist attractions.
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The UK’s decision to exit the EU left our generation feeling bleak and worried about the direct impact Brexit will have on our future. Around 75 percent of the 18- to 24-year-old voted remain. On the other side of the channel, young think tanks like Polis180 and Social Science Works work fervidly to make our voice heard. An Interview with Sarah Coughlan and Sophie Pornschlegel
This interview first appeared on the Polis180 blog and was edited by Anne-Kathrin Glück. It is reproduced here with permission.
Sophie Pornschlegel: Sarah, you are a Brit living in Berlin and you co-founded Social Science Works in 2016. What was the idea behind all this?
Sarah Coughlan: The main aim is to broaden the democratic conversation. In practise that means Prof. Dr. Hans Blokland, Nils Wadt and I have been devising formats through which we have been talking to groups of people that tend not to be part of the larger social conversation, specifically refugees, people who stopped voting or people who are voting for right-wing populist groups and from there contribute to the social and academic discussion about the contemporary state of democracy and democratic practices. The idea is to talk to people that no longer believe in liberal pluralistic and democratic ideas, establish how they have become alienated, and get them back in the (political, public) conversation.
Sophie: Migration has been a key issue during the Brexit campaign. Especially UKIP kept talking about wanting to close the borders, even to EU migrants. How do you explain this quickly growing anti-immigrant sentiment and Brexit to yourself?
Sarah: I have spent a lot of time thinking about this and a lot of it has been very sad. There are long-term and there are short-term factors. The short-term factors are definitely easier to understand. Immigration was as you said one of the key factors playing into the Brexit vote. Leave supporter managed to make this referendum about immigration which has been an unpopular topic in Britain for a long time. If you take that and you couple it with the absolutely dreadful performance of the Remain campaign, which was led by austerity politicians like David Cameron and George Osborne and some Labour-MPs, then… The long-term factors playing into the vote were the centralisation of power in London, deregulation of financial services, the deep divide in society, social and economic inequalities, lacking public infrastructures. All of that has left people feeling disengaged with no real representation, exacerbated by the first-past-the-post electoral system in Britain.
Sophie: The 2017 general election actually saw the highest turnout in 25 years thanks to young people registering massively and Jeremy Corbyn providing a real alternative and opposition to May’s government. The results however have left many people calling for a change in the UK voting system. What should change and how?
Sarah: Unfortunately, it is increasingly clear that something is broken at the root of British society. The last months have been extremely difficult with terror attacks in London and Manchester and the fire at Grenfell Tower. Without wishing to politicise these events unduly, although I would insist that these events are consequences of political choices made by the British government over the last ten years, we are seeing the results of a deeply divided society. Likewise, in the case of the Grenfell tragedy the results of years of deregulation and cuts to social spending are abundantly clear. There are a number of things that urgently need to change in Britain, most pressingly, the austerity agenda needs to dropped. Austerity was never anything more than a political ideology which has made room for deeply damaging cuts, not least to police numbers, public housing and safety, without mentioning other areas that have suffered: the NHS, schools, social care. These issues disproportionately affect the young, the poor and the old. There are signs that austerity will be dropped by the May government, and that’s to be welcomed. But there remain deep divides in the UK that the government needs to address if we are to return to some semblance of stability. In practice this means that we need to address the inequalities that blight Britain, not simply income inequality, but also regional inequality that sees school children in the north with worse outcomes than their southern counterparts. Age inequalities that see older people’s benefits protected while discriminatory welfare policy prevents generations of low earning young people from living independently. As well as equal access to basic tenets of our society like access to justice – jepordised by the Conservative government’s cuts to legal aid which effectively prices the poor out of the justice system. This is merely the surface, this is the low hanging fruit. There is much more to be done about a society that is at its heart deeply classist, racist and increasingly isolationist. But first we need a government that is able to prevent the UK falling off a economic cliff after we leave the European Union by keeping us in the single market and retaining free movement of people. I remain skeptical.
Sophie: Can you imagine doing the same work in the UK you do here? As far as I’m concerned there are not many think tanks that deal with Brexit, young people and democratic participation. I can only think of one group of young people in the UK who decided to organise for Brexit and say that young people should have a voice in the Brexit process. And foraus Global are about to start a grassroots think tank like Polis180 in London.
Sarah: To do the same thing in Britain would be very unpopular. There is a closing of the walls. Britain badly needs some original thinking about engaging with people who feel alienated by the current political climate.
Sophie: Too be honest, I can understand that the Brits want the best deal for the UK. But what really breaks my heart is that there is an obvious shift in British society stemming from Brexit. The UK was always really open-minded and welcoming to foreigners. But when I went back to London recently, I didn’t feel like I felt in 2010. And it’s hard to say but I wish there was a way for younger generations to maintain good connections with other European countries. What we are trying to do with our Post-Brexit Europe project at Polis180 is to give young people from all over Europe a voice. We are at the same time trying to find British partners to collaborate with us, but due to the negotiations starting and the general mindset, it feels hard to find civil society organisations willing to work together. Personally, I believe the Brexit mindset has also touched society and is not only a matter for the “political elite”. In general, it seems Britain excludes themselves rather than look for cooperation. I believe it would be important to have a long-term dialogue on Brexit between UK and European partners, trying to develop common objectives and making sure that citizens both in the UK and Europe do not suffer from this political decision.
Sarah: Definitely. Although we do some academic papers on Brexit, the work that I think that SSW is doing right now that’s really important and really useful is that we are seeking out people that are voting for populist parties in Germany and trying to get them to engage in serious political discussions about their fears, resentments and hopes. I completely see the point of working with young people to strengthen the European idea. But the people that are voting for Marine Le Pen in France, for Brexit or the AfD are older people who live in rural places and they feel ignored. So I think what we do in Brandenburg (SSW headquarters) really matters.
Sophie: How do you reach out to people?
Sarah: The reaching out is really the art of the thing. What we are doing at the moment is we get in touch with people via their comments on Social Media, blogs, news websites, who express anti-liberal views. You name it racist, sexist, pro-AfD comments. We are trying to show them that we are not this kind of look-downing elite type of people. It’s very slow work but the aim is to have them sitting on round tables before the German elections this fall.
Sophie: That’s really interesting and complementary at the same time. We are trying to build a constructive vision for young people who strive towards something and you are trying to get people involved and vote. It’s absolutely crucial to have both.
Sarah: I agree. There‘s a real lack of interest at the highest levels in finding new ways to engage with people, and especially to engage with people that don’t share mainstream political views. At Social Science Works we’re trying to find new, effective means of breaking people out of their echo chambers and re-engage them in the democratic conversation. The world looks pretty fragile right now, and so getting people to talk openly about their fears and ideas is a vital step towards shoring up our liberal, democratic values.
If you want to find out more about our Post-Brexit Europe programme area, please contact: sophie.pornschlegel(at)polis180.org. Also, Polis180 just launched its new campaign Demokratie braucht Dich!! The goal is to encourage the younger generations to go out, get involved and vote in the upcoming federal election in Germany.
Social Science Works is currently working on the project Deliberation against Populism, trying to find people in Brandenburg that are disengaged from the mainstream political conversation and speak to them about their fears and hopes ahead of the German federal election. If you’re interested in learning more about the project, please contact: info(at)socialscienceworks.org.
Sarah Coughlan is the co-founder of Social Science Works, a think tank and NGO based in Potsdam. She lives in Berlin with her cat, Georgie.
Sophie Pornschlegel is the Co-Head of the Post-Brexit Europe Programme Area at Polis180. She works full-time as a Project Manager for the independent think tank “Das Progressive Zentrum” in the “Democracy Lab”.
The calm after the storm has settled in London. The UK has had its third national election in as many years after Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election to shore up her party’s position ahead of the upcoming Brexit negotiations. Following a series of polls showing May enjoying a 20-point lead over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, May was convinced to call an election to improve her party’s position in the House of Commons so as to give the Prime Minister a strong hand when negotiating the exit deal between Britain and the EU. The gamble, it is clear, has failed spectacularly. The official BBC exit poll, based on the methodology of the University of Strathclyde’s most famous polling expert John Curtice, predicted that the Conservatives would lose their overall majority in the Commons and that Labour were set to gain seats. The predication, a hung parliament, proved accurate.
For the majority of viewers, journalists and politicians, the only response was bewilderment. It simply wasn’t possible that the Conservatives could have lost seats, all but one of the polling agencies were predicting a huge win for May. So how was it that YouGov, the one agency that predicted Labour gains and a hung parliament, got it right while the rest missed the mark? And how did social media play a role in this short campaign? This blog will argue that a combination of people unwilling to admit to their intention to vote for the Conservative party, online culture and the social desirability of left-wing views online are part of the reason that Labour’s campaign succeeded in clawing back the party’s 20-point deficit and securing their largest share of the popular vote since 2001.
To get a flavour of the polling numbers around this election, let’s take the aggregate scores from when the election was called, midway through and the last polling data available before the election. The data collected below is from members of the UK Polling Council and as such does not include data from unaffiliated polling organisations and companies like SurveyMonkey and others. It presents polling results in chronological order for each part of the campaign.
Theresa May called a general election on the 18th April 2017, the aggregate polling data on that day points to an 18.75 point gap.
|Pollster||Date||CON (%)||LAB (%)||LD (%)||UKIP (%)||Grn (%)||Con Lead|
Average Conservative Poll Lead: 18.75 points.
Now for the polling results from approximately midway through the election campaign.
|Pollster||Date||CON (%)||LAB (%)||LD (%)||UKIP (%)||Grn (%)||Con Lead|
|ComRes/Ind on Sun/S. Mirror||42867||48||30||10||5||3||18|
Average Conservative Poll Lead: 16.875 points.
Finally, the final eight polls held in the run up to election day (the final poll from Survation has been omitted here because it produced highly anomalous results: a gap of one point total, although this is interesting it gives a skewed picture of the main polling results and as such has been replaced by an Opinium poll from the previous week).
|Pollster||Date||CON (%)||LAB (%)||LD (%)||UKIP (%)||Grn (%)||Con Lead|
Average Conservative poll lead: 8.75 points
What is clear from the data presented above is that the Conservative poll lead was narrowing considerably in the run up to the election. That said, the results still underestimated the Labour results and overestimated the Conservative performance. The final results gave the Conservatives 42.4% of the popular vote and Labour 40% of the popular vote.
So what went wrong? And how did the exit poll get the figure right?
Following a difficult few years for polling companies, including missing the Brexit vote and Cameron’s overall majority in the 2015 general election, the polling agencies have revisited their methods. One of the key issues they have sought to address is the oversampling of graduates and young people; groups much more likely to vote Labour and against Brexit. The chief reason for this is that, especially young people, turn out to vote in lower numbers than older demographics. As such, the polls for this election have sought to address this. The notable exception to this is YouGov, who continued to include younger people who simply said that they intended to vote in their data, while other polling companies used turnout numbers by demographic to aggregate their data. YouGov, meanwhile, sought to find ways to poll those less interested in politics than their typical previous participants. After their most controversial poll which predicted a hung parliament with 310 seats for the Conservatives (actual number: 316) and 255 seats for the Labour Party (actual number 262), Anthony Wells, director of the social and political research team at YouGov wrote:
“After we had weighted our sample, taken account of how likely people say they are to vote, and weighted down the answers of those people who didn’t vote last time, we were left with a sample that implies turnout of 51% among people under 25 and 75% among people aged 65+; a turnout gap of 24 points between young and old.”
In the same article, however, he also wrote:
“My own expectation has been that the Conservatives will probably get a majority of around 70.”
Although hindsight is indeed 20:20 and these predictions look silly in retrospect, there are good reasons that the pollsters managed to underestimate the young vote so dramatically. The first is historical precedent. As Edward Phelps noted in a 2006 paper, turnout among the young has been in decline since 1992 in the UK. However, there are signs that youth turnout, that is voters aged between 18 and 34 has been steadily climbing since 2001, albeit the case that youth turnout lags behind the over 65 vote by a huge margin. As Abhinay Muthoo notes in a 2015 paper:
“…over the thirteen-year period from 1992 till 2005, youth turnout at UK general elections sharply and steadily declined by twenty-eight percentage points, from 66% in 1992 (and before) reaching down to 38% in 2005. It increased back to a 49% rate in the 2010 election but this is still down by seventeen percentage points on turnout rates over the 1964-1992 period”
In the event, turnout among the young outstripped expectations, reaching 57%. That said, in the over 65 age group, turnout was also up and around 80%. As such, it would be wrong to argue that Labour’s unexpectedly strong election results can be pointed simply at young people turning out in much better numbers than expected, although that undoubtedly helped. The British electorate, in its first-past-the-post system generally vote for one of the two main parties, Labour or the Conservatives. Although in recent years, younger voters particularly have voted for smaller third parties including the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the Scottish National Party, their total share of the vote is much below that of the big two parties. This splintering of the vote has come at great electoral cost to the Labour party which is the traditional home of young voters in Britain. Meanwhile, older Labour voters and the far-right of the Conservative party base have been tempted to vote for UKIP – the driving force behind the Brexit vote. However, post-referendum UKIP are increasingly seen as a spent electoral force and its voters appear to have returned to their traditional parties for the most part.
As such, motivating and turning out the youth vote has vital to Labour’s success in this election. It is of course difficult to pinpoint the reason that more young people turned out to vote, although there are a number of reasons that spring to mind: Brexit, tuition fees, discriminatory housing and welfare policies which target the young, among others. However, save Brexit, this had not previously been enough to motivate young people to vote in the previous general election, and as such can only be understood to complete part of the picture.
That said, there was clearly something that the pollsters missed, with an honourable mention of the imagination and frankly, the bravery of YouGov who almost got the numbers right. How did they miss this turnaround in the fortune of the Labour party? A part of the answer can be found in looking at online culture and the differing ways that the Conservatives and Labour made use of social media as a campaigning tool.
There is a long-established trend in British politics of voters under-reporting the likelihood that they will vote for the Conservative party. These so-called Shy Tories are one of the reasons that polls typically overestimate Labour’s share of the vote (until this election the Labour share of the vote had been overestimated in every election since 1992, including Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997).
The data below shows the polled predicted performance based on the final four polling surveys each general election between 1992 and 2015, with the actual results and the difference between the two main parties.
The polls show that typically pollsters underestimate the number of voters that will go on to vote for the Conservatives and typically overestimate that number for Labour. A notable exception is in 2010 where the Labour number was slightly underestimated, although it could be the case that, following 13 years of Labour government, voters were similarly unwilling to admit to their intention to vote for the party. This was, after all the election of ‘I agree with Nick’ from the Liberal Democrats.
At this point, it is important for the writer to acknowledge that she is a fully-paid up member of the British Labour Party. Hence, for an explanation of this phenomenon, let’s find an independent third party’s thoughts. Analysing the failure of the polls to predict David Cameron’s majority in 2015, Professor Peter Kellner wrote about the Shy Tory factor:
“This year, as in 1992, the Tories have a weak image. They are widely thought to be out of touch and for the rich. But, at the margin, there may be some people who both have a poor view of the party but nevertheless think it will run the economy better than Labour. They are “shy Tories” not because they are unwilling to admit their choice of party to a stranger but because they really would like to support someone else but, faced with a ballot paper in the privacy of the polling booth, simply can’t.”
Hence, it can be concluded that there is an element of shame among some segments of the electorate about voting for the Conservative party and under-report their intention to vote for the Conservatives. This point is hardly new. However, the phenomenon of a Shy Tory voter needs to be re-examined through the lens of social media in order to understand part of what happened in 2017.
The first thing to make clear is that the Labour party and the Conservatives used social media differently. The Conservatives’ leader Theresa May, with her much older and less digitally engaged voter base, posted only 159 times on Facebook and Twitter during the general election campaign. Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, in his attempt to motivate younger voters, posted 925 times in the same time period. While this is enough to point to a very different approach to campaigning online, perhaps more interesting is the way the content posted by these accounts was received. May’s posts were shared 130,000 times over the course of the campaign, an average of nearly 818 times per post. Corbyn’s posts, by contrast, were shared 2.8 million times, or an average of 3,027 times per post. The same trend holds when comparing the Labour and Conservative official Facebook and Twitter accounts too. Labour’s posts received 1.7 million positive reactions, while the Conservatives’ posts received just short of 700,000 positive reactions. Taking as read, for the moment, that younger voters are simply more likely to support Labour and simultaneously be active users of social media there is something to say about the way users respond to content from the parties differently.
Taking the idea of Shy Tories into the digital realm means that even those social media users that intend to vote for the Conservative party are less likely than their Labour peers to interact with political posts that are explicitly pro-Conservative. Likewise, those same Shy Tory voters, who tell pollsters that they will vote for the Labour party, may also be tempted to interact with pro-Labour content online. In doing so, these voters amplify the pro-Labour message online.
The reason that Conservative voters, and particularly younger Conservative voters, may be tempted to interact with pro-Labour content online is to do with a social phenomenon called ‘virtue signalling’. Virtue signalling is a term coined by James Bartholomew, a British journalist. It refers to the act of performing one’s socially-acceptable values, even if one does not in fact hold those views. In 2016, Bartholomew wrote:
“By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous.”
Now, if any part of modern life is set up for virtue signalling it is social media. Firstly because of how straight-forwardly easy it is for users to demonstrate that they are ‘admirably non-racist’ with a few clicks. Secondly, the social pressure brought on by thought-silos of like-minded connections (echo chambers) being alienating to those privately considering voting for the Conservatives mean that the temptation is there for Shy Tories to engage with content from pro-Labour channels. That said, it is difficult to unpick the extent to which social media is able to convince undecided voters to turn out for one side or the other. It is easier however, to track how effective social media is in convincing your own core base to turn out and vote – a key issue for Labour’s younger voters. Although the data is currently missing on this (in part held back by Facebook’s black-box approach to advertising online) there is a strong case to be made by coupling strong social media performance and turnout. For example, previously Conservative-held Canterbury (Conservative majority 9,789) is home to a large student population. This constituency went Labour in 2017 (Labour majority 187) on the back of the student turnout. As such, there is an argument to be made that social media can effectively motivate your core vote to turnout if used appropriately.
On a slightly different note, the various social media channels have distinct tones and cultures. Twitter’s post limitations demand that users are pithy and as a result it is home to quick off-the-cuff remarks and ironic wit is considered the appropriate tone, for example. There are no social channels, however, where the tone is primarily about sober, considered messages or negativity. As such, the Conservative messaging ‘coalition of chaos’, ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ and, of course ‘strong and stable leadership’, fall flat online. Meanwhile, Labour’s messaging more closely aligned with the tone of social media, including sharable videos with inspirational messages, popular hashtags like ‘#catsforcorbyn’ and the campaign slogan ‘for the many, not the few’, which has the double effect of enabling virtue signalling and hitting the correct tone for Facebook.
So how did the pollsters miss Labour’s surge? At least part of the answer seems to be a failure to understand the role social media has played in changing the campaign landscape. With more young people preferring their social feeds to traditional media for their news, the role that social media can play in shaping election outcomes looks set to continue. YouGov, to their credit were able to tap into some of the things that led to the election result – most notably the increased number of young people coming out to vote. However, the reasons for young people turning out to vote are trickier to unpick. The shock Brexit result probably mattered, the tripling of tuition fees for university students under the Conservatives probably mattered too. The slow-motion car crash of the American presidency and May’s overly-friendly relationship with Trump might have mattered. However, this alone was not enough at previous elections to motivate young voters. Hence, the quality of the Labour party’s campaign online ought to be seen as one of the reasons they were able to outperform expectations. Other observers have written about the success of Labour’s ground-campaign – that is activists knocking on doors and talking to voters and helping to turn out the vote. This was absolutely essential to Labour’s relative success too. Likewise, the Conservatives’ inarguably terrible campaign performance did Labour more than a couple of favours in convincing Corbyn’s core vote to turn away from May’s party.
However, the role of social media should stand out as one of Labour’s big successes in this election campaign and a point of interest to social scientists looking to examine the 2017 UK election from all angles. As digital social communities evolve, social practices and norms evolve around them too. As such, studying social spaces online and especially the thought-silos of online communities is going to become more important to social scientists hoping to understand the ideas, values and communication among young people.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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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[i] A description of the project can be found here: http://socialscienceworks.org/summary-understanding-europe-strengthening-young-refugee-mens-integration-in-germany/
[ii] We will publish a separate article on the, often challenging, recruitment of participants.
[iii] A description of this project can be found here: http://socialscienceworks.org/summary-stakeholder-training-in-communicating-deliberative-values/
[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. http://ow.ly/iuLF306AlYP
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.
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.
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.
We 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.
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”.
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: http://socialscienceworks.org/projects/. 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. http://www.hans-blokland.nl/artikelen/berlin_european_legacy_1999.pdf
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
Overall, the demand side consisting of voters with affinities for the New Right might be explained as a loss which unfolds on three lines:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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).
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.
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