How should public policy schools respond to the rise of populism?

Illustration by Alessandra Felloni

The Morningside Post Note: Read what some students from a fellow policy school, The Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, have to say about the rise of populism. This article was originally published with The Governance Post

By Alexander Busold, Jan Jakub Chromiec, Felipe Corral Montoya, Julia Gundlach, Saddem Jebali and Ada-Sophie Hieronimus

The rise of populism is a challenge for open societies but an opportunity for public policy schools. We propose six ways in which public policy schools can respond to this challenge.

Gone are the times when we could lay back and watch the world slowly converge towards a family of open societies.

Populist movements are growing in strength on both sides of the Atlantic. According to Jan-Werner Müller, populism is a specific form of identity politics that is critical of elites, is anti-pluralist and has a moral claim of representation. The claim to represent “the people” against “the elite” is nothing new and nothing dangerous in itself. Dangerous, however, is the disdain of pluralism. In the view of populists, only their supporters have a right to be represented in politics. Everyone else is morally despicable and should not have this right.

According to Donald Trump, “the only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything”. In the UK, Nigel Farage claims to represent the “real people” in the Brexit debate, as if the 48% of Britons who voted Remain were not real, not to speak of non-voters.  In Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński calls those who don’t support his party “Poles of a lesser sort”. In Germany, PEGIDA demonstrators chant “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the people”), as if Germans not marching with them were not the people too.

Once in power, populists’ anti-pluralist sentiment translates into a form of governance where “acting in the name of the people” becomes a universal argument to justify a crackdown on institutions limiting the unconstrained use of power. Witness the US, Poland and Hungary. “In the name of the people”, populists have attempted, with smaller or greater success, to cripple the independence of the judiciary, curtail media freedom, replace civil servants with political loyalists and limit the autonomy of civil society organizations. Besides destroying institutions, populists also question fundamental values and intoxicate public debate. Universal human rights are rejected as mainstream ideology. Racism, sexism, xenophobia are framed as legitimate tools to fight political correctness.

This type of politics is on the rise in the United States, France, Germany, UK, Netherlands, Austria, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Scandinavia, parts of Latin America, Turkey and Philippines. And it will stay with us in the foreseeable future. Hopes that populist movements self-destruct once in power are a risky strategy. The Polish and Hungarian governments have similar or higher support than when they took office.

The critical moment

This is an opportunity for public policy schools to reflect on two fundamental issues.

First, populism didn’t come from nowhere. It’s very well possible that policies praised for a long time as “good governance” in fact enabled the rise of populist sentiments. Therefore the question is: what does “good governance” mean today? Why - and for whom - is it “good”?

Secondly, public policy schools should reflect on their role in society. Are they neutral observers of society - or actors of societal change? If the latter is true: how should they respond if society is in danger?

Based on these questions we outline six responses.

Six ways of countering populism

First, public policy schools should research populism. The strength of public policy schools lies in researching “real world” issues with wide-ranging implications for public policy. Consequently, the rise of populism is the topic to focus on. The research agenda could identify which varieties of populism we have and engage in a self-critical examination of their causes. For instance, could it be that policies cherished as “good governance” enabled the rise of populism by increasing economic inequality or deepening cleavages between cities and countryside? A stream of research could also focus on comparative elements, such as learnings from Latin America’s experience with populist movements. Outcomes of this research agenda should be debated with decision-makers, published in mass media and taught in courses.

Second, public policy schools must open up. You can’t champion political pluralism while being stuck in an echo chamber. Understanding why voters contest established solutions requires reaching out beyond the mainstream. To this end, speakers with critical views could be invited to events. Courses on arguing in post-factual debates could be offered. Events could take place outside the city center. Debating clubs could allow students to train their empathy by reflecting on positions they don’t share. Furthermore, students could learn about problems of discontented voters through project work, e.g. internships with local activists or politicians. Finally, the diversity of the student body could be increased by recruiting more students from disadvantaged backgrounds and from countries with strong populist movements.

Third, schools should promote public engagement. Public policy students and graduates should be empowered to speak up when they see that their societies are in danger: through engagement in political parties, NGOs, demonstrations or by helping vulnerable members of the society. A public policy school cannot force engagement, but it influences it through the courses, events and incentives it offers. For instance, a course on running for political office can motivate students to consider electoral politics as a career option or form of engagement. Inviting activists and politicians to career events broadens the range of job options students consider. Offering an award to the most engaged students sends a signal that engagement is valued. Finally, engagement fairs could show the manifold forms in which students and graduates can become involved members of society.

 Fourth, leadership education should be taken seriously. Public policy programmes can focus on honing analytical skills, but if schools stop at educating obedient analysts, they punch below their weight. Public policy programmes should prepare leaders who shape and improve responsible governance instead of administering it in the hope that it lasts. In this context, leadership courses are essential for two reasons: because they equip students with leadership tools and because they send a signal that leadership is expected. They should be strengthened and included in core curricula of programmes.

Fifth, public policy schools should promote ways of harnessing digital technology for public good. Populists profit from “information bubbles” on social networks, social bots, human trolls and efficient ways of spreading “fake news”. However, the same digital technology could be harnessed for public benefit - and public policy schools should be the ones suggesting how to do it. To this end, they could kick off an agenda of courses, events and research. Moreover, they should give students the chance to innovate. Why not set up incubators where students could team up with programmers, tech firms and public policy experts to design apps, laws or organizations furthering the public good through digital technology? In fact, that’s what Sciences Po just did.

Sixth, public policy schools can leverage their alumni networks. Alumni often work in influential positions of all sectors, are well-connected and live around the world. They could be involved in responses to populism in many ways: by sharing their leadership and engagement experience in courses and career events, by providing access to partners who could fund, publicize or contribute expertise to projects, by mentoring engaged students and, last but not least, by generating more and better project ideas. There is also value in alumni of different schools working together. Setting up a working group of alumni councils focused on disseminating ideas and coordinating activities on populism (and other important issues) could be a start.

The open society strikes back

The rising tide of populism is a challenge for open societies, but an opportunity for public policy schools. Where should effective responses to this challenge come from, if not from institutions designed to research “real world” issues, provide practice oriented education and engage in public policy debates? What kind of message would it send if precisely those institutions remained speechless instead of mounting a fight against major dangers for our societies?

Public policy schools must protect the open society from its enemies. They should engage in self-critical analysis of the roots of populism, learn more about problems of the broad society, prepare responsible and open-minded leaders, tackle digital challenges to democracy and collaborate with alumni networks as multipliers of their efforts. This is the chance to show that they are relevant and responsible. Starting with self-criticism is not a sign of weakness but a strong sign of determination and inspiration for others to follow. 

Alexander Busold is a PhD student at the Hertie School of Governance and alumnus of the Master of Public Policy (MPP) programme. He comes from Germany and studied economics, management and public policy in Friedrichshafen, Buenos Aires, Mumbai and Berlin. He worked at the Hertie School, NGOs, and in strategy consulting, and is a 2017 fellow of Humanity in Action.

Jan Jakub Chromiec is a PhD student at the Hertie School and member of the MPP Alumni Council. He comes from Poland and studied flute, linguistics, management and public policy in Łódź, Mainz, Rotterdam and Berlin. He is affiliated with the Jacques Delors Institute and worked at the Bertelsmann Foundation, Fraunhofer Institute and universities of Rotterdam and Mainz.

Felipe Corral Montoya is a student of the MPP programme and President of the Hertie Student Association. He hails from Germany and Colombia. Studies of economics took him to Heidelberg and Singapore. He gained professional experience at the University of Heidelberg.

Julia Gundlach is a student of the MPP programme. She comes from Germany and studied economics in Berlin and Mainz. She gained experience at Die Zeit, European Parliament and a public affairs agency.

Saddem Jebali is a student of the MPP programme. A Tunisian, he studied management in Carthage and worked several years as head of Civil Society and Youth programmes at the British Council covering Middle East and North Africa.

Ada-Sophie Hieronimus is a student of the Master of International Affairs programme and Student Representative of her class. She comes from Germany and studied management and economics in Maastricht and Montreal. She gained professional experience at Bain&Company, Henkel, at an NGO helping children and at a public affairs agency.