The Rise of Populism in the Twenty-First Century: The Czech Republic, Germany, and the United States

Race and Human RightsMarch 2017Group 4Bruno Summerer, Brittany Oaks, Sara Repplinger, Pascal Roth, Miriam Ricanova, Aine Josephine Mary Tyrrell

The Rise of Populism in the Twenty-First Century: The Czech Republic, Germany, and the United States


‘Populism’ has become a buzzword in the twenty-first century. But what is populism exactly, and why is it important today? In this paper, we take a close look at how populism is defined. We then turn to three case studies of right-wing populism as it is currently playing out in the Czech Republic, Germany, and the United States, and we explore how national identity is conceptualized in each of these three countries.

Defining ‘Populism’

Populism has been variously referred to, across a wide span of texts and disciplines, as an ideology, a political movement, and a “syndrome”. This plurality of approaches led Ghita Ionescu and Ernest Gellner to conclude that, while there can be no doubt as to the relevance of populism, “no one is clear what it is”. The heterogeneity of the approaches to populism result from the fact that it cannot be confined to a particular historical era, culture, geographic region or ideology; instead, it must be recognised as an aspect of a variety of political cultures and structures. It is by this logic that Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser describes populism as an ambivalence that can constitute either a threat or a corrective to democracy (184). She notes that scholars who sympathize with liberal democracy frame populism as a pathology while those who are sympathetic to its increasingly popularity frame it as a positive movement that strengthens political representation (185). In order to overcome both of these biases, she proposes turning to minimal definitions of populism as she posits that they are less prone to develop “normative biases that predetermine findings” (Kaltwasser 185). This section shall briefly summarise how populism has been constructed by both right and left political parties as well as by scholars who adopt what Kaltwasser terms a non-partisan, minimalist stance.

Populism not only assumes that there is a divide between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’, but it also attempts to construct a socio-political system in which representative institutions are not necessary (Kaltwasser 188). In Western societies that are guided by the ideology of liberal democracy, populism is understood to be a multi-class movement and/or a political party that can also be read as a consequence of macro-level socioeconomic developments in society (Kaltwasser 185). By this view, however, this reaction is pathological for it no viable solutions or alternatives to the liberal democratic system. The radical approach to populism instead perceives it as an integral aspect of democracy or, indeed, the purest form of democratic politics. This approach frames populism as “discursive practice characterized by a

particular logic of articulation” (Kaltwasser 190). In other words, this logic determines that populism arises according to a particular path: the heterogeneous demands of a community/society are linked; this, in turn, allows a collective identity to be formed via the recognition of a common enemy (‘the elite’ or ‘the establishment’); and, finally, the collective makes an affective investment in a leader that they believe represents ‘the people’ (Kaltwasser 191). By this logic, therefore, populism is the incarnation of a “normative ideal” (original emphasis) of a radical democratic project that simultaneously compiles disparate demands but that also propagates social antagonism (Kaltwasser 191).

These two very different readings of populism invite us to more closely examine how the movement structures itself within and in relation to its larger socio-political environment. Left-wing populist movements typically present a vertical view of society by championing ‘the people’ (middle and lower classes) against an elite or an establishment (upper class). Meanwhile, right-wing populist movements usually present a triadic view of society by championing ‘the people’ against an elite that, they claim, favours a third group (the Other) that can include anyone ranging from immigrants, to Islamists, or to African American militants: their structure looks upwards AND down upon an ‘out’ group (Judis). For both politically right and left populism, ‘the people’ can range from blue-collar workers to the middle class; definitions of ‘the elite’ and ‘the establishment’ also seem wide-ranging and often contradictory across movements (Judis). We can thus conclude that it is not the referents of ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’ that define populism but, rather, the conflict between the factions.

If we examine the structure of populism, however, through the lens of Kaltwasser’s non-partisan, minimalist approach, we realise that there is a particular political logic - as opposed to a specific, common political ideology – among populist movements. It is important to recognise that, despite most conceptions of the term, populism is not directly linked to particular economic policies or socio-economic structures. Instead, populism, (regardless of geographical location), tends to exhibit three basic principles. Kurt Weyland identifies these as follows: (1) an appeal to a heterogeneous mass, many of whom are subjectively or objectively excluded; little or no institutionalization of the movement; and a direct relationship between the leader and the followers (Kaltwasser 193). In an article written for the French newspaper Libération, the philosopher Jacques Rainier summarises these characteristics in a similar manner: (1) an interlocutory style that directly addresses the ‘people’; (2) propagation of the belief that the government and the elites are corrupt and put their own needs/interests above those of the ‘people’; (3) the espousing of a rhetoric of essentialist identity that is rooted in fear and rejection of foreigners/the Other. The historian Michael Kazin echoes Rainier in that he claims that Populism is a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as: a “noble assemblage” that is not defined or otherwise bound by notions of class, and as in opposition to an elite that is both self-serving and undemocratic. Like Weyland and Rainer, he declares that the speakers of populism exert considerable efforts to mobilise the former against the latter.

Why is it important to discuss populism right now?

Whether or not people argue that populism belongs to or spells the end of democracy one cannot but acknowledge that, without it, people would likely pay less attention to politics. Populism provides people with an emotional context for political and social action that fact-based decision making cannot compete with. Much of the attention it draws towards politics, especially from the younger generations, derives from the movement’s ability to polarize a population and (as we should never forget) to exclude communities.

In answer to the question, “why it is important to start discussing this subject again today?”, it would be easy to simply list a few names of increasingly prominent Populist leaders: Trump, Erdogan, Le Pen, Abe, Duterte, Petry. Indeed, we have seen a renaissance of nationalist-populist movements in the recent years and, with it, has arisen also the fear that history that will repeat itself. Some will argue that most of these populists will never and can never act according on their promises. However, the counterargument is that the first time these people neglect basic human rights is not when they order the prosecution of innocent people, but when they start to poison people’s minds. Their rhetoric is steering the national discourse away from more relevant subjects. They offer easy solutions to complex problems in form of scapegoats: Islam is not the reason why terror exists and neither are immigrants to blame for economic problems. Our societies are developing ever faster and the future will bring us more problems that are increasingly not willing to stop at our borders. These problems won’t just challenge the unity of a nation but the very stability of our planet; air pollution, global warming, antibiotic resistance, famine, limited supplies of natural resources, water and food for a growing number of people, are but a few of these. Isolation is not the answer to those issues but cooperation might be.

At this juncture, it shall prove most fruitful to our attention to examining the characteristics of Populist movements in the Czech Republic, Germany, and the United States of America. This analysis should provide us with a better understanding of the similarities and differences between contemporary manifestations of populism on the Western political stage. Indeed, by tracing the historical origins of these three nations’ populist movements and by identifying their respective key tropes, we hope to explore how each aligns with (or deviates from) the aforementioned features of populism as identified by Kaltwasser and contemporaries.

The Rise of the Czech Populist Movements

In the Czech Republic, populism is a political issue that has not been paid enough attention to in the past years. Unfortunately, the Czech public has not been showing enough interest of political engagement; this is considered to be a common phenomenon accompanying political scenes in the countries which belonged to the former Soviet Union. Is it due to the nature of Czech history - one marked by oppression and denying human rights (since the Russian occupation in 1968 which lasted until the Velvet Revolution in 1989) - that the Czech population has lost their sense of belonging and affiliation. Unsurprisingly, over the course of the survey conducted1, 8 out of the 10 Czech respondents were not able to

1 Each member of Group 4 asked 5 - 10 native to their country of origin or residence (Germany, U.S.A. or the Czech Republic) a number of questions concerning their relation to populism and their national

define populism at first or to answer the question “What is your/your family’s experience with the rise of populism”? However, since the parliamentary election of the political party ANNO (means “yes” in English) and the political rise of its leader - the current finance Minister and the second richest man in the Czech Republic Andrej Babiš - populism became integral to public debates.

With the upcoming parliamentary election in 2017, the non-governmental institution Freedom House, which assesses the state and standards of democracy and human rights on the global level, warns about the threat that the populist and nationalistic movement ANNO represents. To their minds, ANNO could, not only undermine the Czech democracy, but also international peace and stability. Babiš’s most important political aim is to fight corruption. However, his strong political position as a wealthy “incorruptible” businessman (similar to Trump in the States) who owns, not only the fourth biggest conglomerate in the Czech Republic, but also numerous media, is likely to have an impact on the development of democracy in the Czech Republic, which is threatened by individualistic power struggles.

Additionally, dangerous populistic tendencies aimed at the Czech population are to be found in the political program of Tomio Okamura. This program, characterized by xenophobia, islamophobia and rejection of multiculturalism, inveighs of receiving refugees, unless they are Christian, and emphasizes preservation of nationalistic values and pride.

Because of new tendencies on the Czech political scene caused by corruption and migration crisis, the Czech Republic’s democracy is jeopardized, which contributes to the rise in populism and nationalism.

The Rise of German Populist Movements

In modern Germany, both left-wing and right-wing populist movements have not succeeded to the extent that they have in other countries. According to a survey by the British institution YouGov, people in Germany are least susceptible to populist policy compared to the other big European Union member states. Only 18% of Germans hold populist beliefs, in contrast to the French (63%) or the Dutch (55%) (Figure 1). Germany’s history of Nazism deters right-wing policies from gaining traction, as well as a mandatory 5% threshold in Germany’s voting system2 which makes it difficult for small parties to be represented in the government, because in order to participate in .


[figure 1]

identity. The questions and answers to this questionnaire have been compiled and summarised in our conclusion below.2 In order to gain seats in the German Parliament (Bundestag) at all, a political party has to win at least 5% of all cast ballots, otherwise their votes will not be counted.

Figure 1. Potential for Populism in Europe (translated).

AfD – The Most Popular Populist Party in Germany

While there are left-wing populist parties in Germany, the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (Afd; Alternative for Germany) is growing the most rapidly. With the AfD possessing all characteristics of a populist party, populism is on the rise in Germany as well. First, they are blaming well-defined enemies for what they perceive to be a grave situation in Germany. The European Union is blamed for suppressing Germany’s power and should therefore be left or dissolved. According to AfD politicians, refugees which they equate with Muslims should not be part of Germany and Chancellor Merkel should immediately change the asylum policy. Secondly, AfD also employs oversimplification, giving complex topics simple solutions. To increase the low childbirth rate in Germany, the AFD wants to ban abortion. Furthermore, they want to encourage the formation of “we” in Germany again by promoting the German language. What they do not want is refugees to bring children into the country.

Martin Schulz – Social Populism?

However, populist language is not restricted to right-wing parties. Also politicians of actual non-populist parties as chancellor candidate of left-wing SPD are criticized to be populist. Populist parties need minorities which they can blame for various things. Martin Schulz puts high-net-worth persons and tax refugees under general suspicion. Frequently, he uses words such as tax justice, the fight against tax evasion when talking about rich people bringing their money to tax havens such as Switzerland. What he forgets to do is give evidence for his claims. He knows that when he talks about rich people disturbing social equity, even without defining what he means with the term, he will slowly but surely attract voters. The idea is to give simple answers to complex problems, to remain inaccurate when

precise answers are needed. The hard-working middle-class constitutes the majority of his possible voters. He knows that and, consequently, shifts the focus frequently to him as being “one of them”. An “ordinary citizen” who supports people who abide by the rules.Generally, one cannot say, that populism only has negative effects. It attracts the broad public including citizens who otherwise would have stayed at home during election day. Consequently, long-established parties make use of it.

Reasons for the Rise of Populism in Germany

A great part in contributing to the rise of populism in Germany is clearly the refugee crisis. Populist politicians use the fear of the population of possible negative effects of the high costs of the refugee crisis on the ordinary citizen or it’s connection to terrorism. Consequently, supporters of right-wing populist parties tend to be more xenophobic. According to a survey by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, only 3% of the German population not agreeing with the AfD are xenophobic, while 23% of AfD’s supporters are. Also, a growing distrust in politicians plays a part in the distribution of populist sentiments. In the same survey, 43% of the respondents were convinced that the government withholds the truth from the population.

The Rise of American Populist Movements

“We the People of the United States”, the opening phrase of the revered Constitution of the American democracy, has been frequently redefined and questioned since the inception of the USA. During the relatively short, tumultuous history of the United States, “We the People” has gradually been expanded to include women, African Americans, LGBTQ+ folks, and other marginalized peoples, although the fight for equal rights continues. The strength of the American democracy exists in its diversity as a nation and the growing recognition of the equal humanity of all peoples.

In a time when the executive branch is issuing “Muslim bans” and crowds of thousands cheer at the call to build a wall to keep immigrants out, the question of what it means to be an American is particularly salient. Donald Trump’s campaign and inaugural address were saturated in populist rhetoric (Graham, 2017). While populist movements have gained strength at various points throughout US history, one of the key dangers populist movements pose to democracy is the homogenization of national identity and the “suppression of diversity” (Abts & Rummens, 2007; Horger, 2011; Ware, 2002). The vitriolic far-right upsurge against those who are not considered “true Americans” and against the established political system is uniquely rocking the core of America as we know it (Eirmann, 2016). The question now is, how far will this populist movement carry, and will it succeeding in erasing the essential element of what makes America great - the incredibly diverse “We the People”?

National Identity in the Czech Republic, Germany, and the United States

As already depicted in the first paragraph, populism is defined by a group identifying themselves as “the people”. Therefore, the authors of this text tried to get the answers to some questions closely related to populist agendas. Moreover, we wanted to explore and grasp the difference between our nations – Czechs, Germans and Americans – concerning the understanding of national identity and experience with populism. We compiled a questionnaire containing 6 questions which were posted to 5-10 respondents representing the Czech Republic, Germany and the USA. It was not our intention to draw any quantitative results from respondents’ answers, however, it created an overview of differences in opinions of people of various nationalities, from different historical and social backgrounds. The results served as a mere orientation and are not representative.

In order to better understand what “the people” in different countries are, we asked the question “When would you say is someone American/ German/ Czech?”. Interestingly, the answers differ between the countries.

The German answers were rather consistent. They mainly answered that for being German you have to accept the German constitution as well as the values and culture. Mostly, they agreed that a person has to speak the language and has to live there for a certain period of time in order to “feel German” which is not to determine by any authorities but by the person itself. Furthermore, few said that one factor is whether you or your parents were born in Germany. The German answers suggest that it is rather your choice if you want to be German and act like this (accept the German constitution and integrate in society and culture) you are a German.

The Czech answers were slightly different and had a more patriotic tone. They said that for being Czech you have to be a funny person in order to deal with oppressions. Generally, they said that you should be born in the Czech Republic or have Czech ancestors. For Czechs, your heritage and your character are what makes you a Czech. One person even answered “Maybe it ́s not fair from me, but a color of skin is important for me too. I don ́t think that I ́m a racist, but when I see someone black, no matter, if he was born in the Czech rep. or not, he will never be Czech for me.”

The American answers are again diverse. Being American depends on your way of thinking. Being American means believing that nothing is perfect, or having “an optimistic and perhaps slightly naive understanding of the world that is rooted in attaining a goal or in

economic transaction.” or saying things like, "It'll get better" or "this will be worth it in the end." It was also mentioned that you are American if you are born there or accepted by the government, that you have to understand the huge diversity that comprises America, or simply if you say of yourself that you are American.

Populism is not only strongly connected to” the people” of a country, but also to the country itself especially the attitude towards their country and the attitude towards foreign countries. Consequently, we tried to work the concept “the people” have of their home country and their attitude towards it.

In order to learn about the initial gut feeling from each person about the respective country we asked “What is the first thing you think of when you think Czech Republic/Germany/USA?” To break it down into one word, we asked “If you had to sum up Czech Republic/Germany/USA in one word or thing what would it be?” . The answers, especially for the German part were conspicuously consistent and mainly referred to politics and economy. It was accordingly stated that Germany has lots of political and industrial power which arises from “highly educated engineers”, “precision and efficiency” as well as quality, organization and stability. They feel safe and appreciate their “freedom and wealth”. Therefore, they blame others of having prejudices against Germany and overlooking the standard of living the Germans are enjoying.

The Czechs’ answers ran in another direction. They happily referred to their country as being a renowned brewer nation. Overall, the Czechs seemed to be more relaxed with their situation as they are “just a small European nation” which loves its music and sport. Often, they pointed out their cunning, cleverness and ingenuity instead of mentioning industry or politics. Nevertheless, some interpreted being “just a small European nation” in a way that the Czechs do not have as many opportunities as other European countries and that they have to deal with issues such as stealing.

The answers of Americans corresponded with both, Czechs and Germans. As well as the Czech Republic, the Americans overlook their issues such as poverty which they hide behind their “masculinity and power”. Capitalism, which is their “religion and ideology” is only one factor which prevents lots of citizens from helping each other out. On the other hand, they appreciate freedom and referred to their strong economy (as the Germans did) by naming “Amazon”.

The next question is concerned with the aspects of Czech/German/American national identities (“ What aspects of the Czech/German/American identity do you agree with and support? What do you disagree with? ”). Whereas Czechs deal mostly with concrete faculties, abilities and qualities Czech people have, Germans highlight politics, democratic principles and deficiency in the German law system. Americans are very proud of the typical American qualities such as individualism, heterogeneity and all the limitless opportunities that “being American” brings.

To gain knowledge about their attitude towards the country the following question was asked: “What does it mean to you to be Czech/German/American?” The Czech answers were full of contradictions. At any rate, Czechs associate their nationality either with pride or with a total lack of pride and patriotism, suffer from a feeling of inferiority and refer to themselves as “cheap workers”, whereas, for Germans, their nationality is rather secondary. They emphasize their satisfaction with the living conditions in Germany, a rich democratic country. Compared to Czechs and Germans, Americans lay stress on the opportunities that “being American” brings and some of them feel conflicted about what “being American” means in the first place because they come from families with migration background.

After having dealt with various aspects of populism as “the people”, the concept of the country, it’s national identity and their attitude towards it we were interested in the propagation of populism and asked “ What is your/your family's experience of the rise of populism? ” also hoping to indirectly obtain their personal attitude towards populist movements.

Unfortunately, almost all Czechs were unable to define populism at first which shows that it is not a common discussed subject. Obviously, the Czech populism is closely connected to immigration, religious and sexual orientation topics. While Czechs do not know, what populism is or have no experience with it, Germans criticize the power of populistic politics and express their dissent with populistic tendencies. Nevertheless, Americans are afraid of populism especially regarding Donald Trump having been elected the American president.


As mentioned earlier the term “populism” is characterized by its plurality, it is defined by “the ordinary people” or whoever perceives themselves to be a substantial part of that group. Populism seems to be inseparable from democracy, at least to a certain degree, for it literally means “rule of the commoners”. Although populism poses a threat to diversity and multiculturalism, as not only historic examples are able to show. Throughout different populist groups in Germany, the U.S and the Czech Republic all of them are united in their rejection of foreign elements, most of all refugees. Especially in Germany, a country with a very intense historic relationship to populism, the rising immigration of the last years has helped to fuel sentiment for support of new populist movements.As the various populist movements of the three countries have similar goals, the reaction of their supposed base, the people, is very different according to where they life. Furthermore it becomes obvious that no majority group can claim to represent the will of all the people at the same time. For example, many U.S-Americans responded to the question, what they thought about America, with words referring to its diversity. The very diversity that is threatened by the ideology of populist movements within the country. The same is true in various degrees for other countries around the world. In the last decades most of them have grown to be more diverse and any effort to shift away from this multiculturalism means rejecting whole parts of a new identity that is just in the process of forming itself.


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