Bridging Gaps Conference Report

The Brandt School’s Rakshit Mohan reports on the recent Bridging Gaps conference, organized jointly by the Hertie School of Governance and the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy and held in Erfurt:

The Bridging Gaps conference was organized on November 10th and 11th 2017. It came to fruition due to the joint effort of the students of Willy Brandt School of Public Policy and students of the Hertie School of Governance. The conference was financed by the High Representative Student Council of the University of Erfurt, the Leibniz research network External Democracy Promotion, the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, Hertie School of Governance, and the Fellows & Friends Program.

The conference shed light on the topic “Threats to Liberal Democracies”. Professor Heike Grimm, Director of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, opened the conference. Mr. Simon Vaut, the keynote speaker of the German Foreign Ministry, identified the rise of populists and the involvement of external non-democratic powers as causes for deepening the existing fissures in the European polity and society. The theme of the conference assumed relevance as it was deeply rooted in the current political environment of Europe and America.

The second day of the conference commenced with a panel discussion on the topic “Challengers of Liberal Democracy: Anti-Democratic Movements and Populism”. The panel discussion was moderated by Dr. Hasnain Bukhari of the University of Erfurt, and the panelists were Professor Alina Mungio-Pippidi from the Hertie School of Governance and Mr. Tyson Barker from the Aspen Institute Germany. First, with respect to the rise of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, the panelists argued that the rise of AfD will fuel the formation of a political discourse which deviates from the traditional liberal discourse. As the party’s ideological roots begin to cut across German society, the ideology of AfD will infiltrate mainstream politics and thereby make it difficult to compromise on controversial issues. Second, the panelists argued that countries like Russia have played an instrumental role in deepening the already existing social fissures within European society. However, they added the caveat that Russia was deepening already persisting rifts rather than actively creating them. Thus, the social fissures, according to the panelists, are a product of every country’s domestic politics.

The panel discussion raised several key questions. How can liberal democracies deal with threats from populists? Is it a democratic strategy to pay no heed to the concerns of populists? Won’t the populists gain further political relevance if their concerns are discussed in mainstream political discourse? Answers to these questions often cause a philosophical dilemma and motivate policymakers to navigate through layers of logic to resolve such dilemmas. The proceeding statements lead us to ask the important question, “What is the job of a social scientist?” In context of the American election, Professor Pippidi summarized the role very aptly. To quote her, “The job of the social scientist is not to prevent Trump from winning but to predict that Trump is winning”.

Answering the question about the reasons for the rise of the populists in Europe and America, the panelists pointed out that they stem out of distrust for elites and because political parties are now among the least trusted institutions. In addition to this, the tabloidization of media has also fueled the fast spread of false news and thus helps to disseminate the populist agenda much more than ever before.

However, on the positive side of the debate, it was argued that politics are often checked by the steel frame of bureaucracy and that “politics play a lesser role than politicians like to admit”. Mr. Barker argued that the predictions of doom that were made after Trump got elected don’t really hold empirical ground. The structure of the constitution and the bureaucracy play their own role in defending the principles for which liberal democracies stand.

Following the panel discussions, four workshops were conducted by specialists in the given fields.

First, Dr. Matthias Bauer of ECIPE conducted a workshop on TTIP [1], titled “Economic Populism and Threats to Liberal World Economic Order”. This workshop focused on how interest groups within civil society and political parties in opposition used populist economic arguments to build a case against TTIP. Such economic populism emerged as a threat to the liberal trading regime, and as a result, a threat to liberal ideas on the whole.

Second, Professor Pippidi‘s workshop “State Capture and Democratic Backsliding” discussed how democratically elected strong leaders use their charisma to stoke emotions of xenophobia and jingoism among citizens. The state, under the leadership of such leaders, remains democratic in a very narrow sense because the minorities end up losing basic rights like the right to expression and right to organize or to collectively bargain. State capture by larger than life leaders is another threat to the liberal democratic fabric of a state.

Third, the workshop conducted by Mr. Zafar Saydaliev of Culture Goes Europe, titled “No Hate-speech Movement” was very closely related to the problem expressed in the second workshop. This workshop focused on the role of nonprofit organizations in countering the rise of hate rhetoric at the grassroots level. During the workshop, the participants were asked to identify a social problem emerging out of xenophobia and hate rhetoric, and devise a strategy to counter the same. Grassroots movements like the “No Hate-speech Movement” could prove to be an effective strategy in countering jingoistic and xenophobic eloquence by populist leaders.

Fourth, the workshop conducted by Ms. Licia Bobzien and Mr. Lucas Jerg of the Hertie School focused on the issue of income inequality and various theories about the same. The workshop was instrumental in presenting the idea that economic inequality can have many dimensions other than mere income. Such dimensions may include, for instance, the unequal ability of the labor forces from different industries to negotiate in the market. Inequality is also a threat to liberal democratic values as it provides an opportunity to the populists to blame “the other” in order to stoke feelings of economic nationalism and xenophobia.

The 2017 Bridging Gaps Conference attempted to explore the issue of emerging “Threats to Liberal Democracies” from a multidisciplinary lens. The conference was effective in brainstorming the various dimensions of the issues and the participants expressed their satisfaction.

Here are some of the reviews:

The conference was interesting and topical. The seminar on State Capture and Democratic Backsliding was very interesting and practical.

– Oluwatosin Fatoyinbo, Nigeria

Bridging Gaps conference was a good opportunity to explore the concept of liberal democracy and different threats to it. The sessions were highly relevant as they analyzed cases and explored the current trends in economic populism. The session titled “Bridging the Inequality” was an eye opener for many. Overall it was informative and also a good opportunity to network with students from Hertie and participants from other organizations.

– Georgy Verghese, India

It was a great experience for me to take part in the Bridging Gap conference. I also believe that the workshops were interesting, and the invited guests were really good in their fields. I would like to see more of these kinds of incentives to bring young people from different schools together and literally bridge the gaps.

– Tural Shamilov, Azerbaijan

Follow Rakshit Mohan:

Rakshit Mohan is a second-year student at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. His specializations are International Affairs and International Political Economy. He has previously interned at Carnegie India, New Delhi and has a keen interest in Indian foreign policy and Indian politics. He has published articles with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the Maritime Executive.

  1. Nimene Myers

    Good piece, Rakshit. Keep it going. Thanks to the organizers of the Bridging Gap Conference for a Job well done.