Q&A: Batten Prof. Timo Lochocki on Populism in Europe and the U.S.


I had the honor of spending this past summer in Germany, working for International and European Affairs in Düsseldorf and volunteering at the NATO Summit Dialogues in Brussels I was inspired by the opportunities to engage in and observe international political conversations first-hand.


When I returned to the United States, I realized just how relevant these political interactions were and continue to be. I became increasingly interested in understanding power and its relation to politics, as well as the multifaceted relationship between identity and national party politics. I am grateful to have Dr.Timo Lochocki on campus this fall to explore these political phenomena.


Dr. Lochocki is an expert on European party politics and is serving as Davidson's James K. Batten Visiting Professor for Public Policy this fall. He has studied at the University of Washington, University of Bergen, and received his Ph.D. at the Humboldt University Berlin, where his doctoral theses explaining varying electoral advances of right-wing populist parties in Europe was awarded summa cum laude. 


It is clear that Dr. Lochocki's visit is particularly timely. Populism is not confined to Germany or Europe. It is pertinent to our daily lives and political systems as well. There are distinct parallels between anti-immigration sentiment in Germany and the rhetoric and attempted policy in the current Trump Administration.



I asked Dr. Lochocki a couple of questions in advance of the 2018 Batten Lecture. He will deliver his talk, "Europe's Bleeding Heart: How the Rise of Populism Changes Germany and What that Means for Europe and the US." at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, October 3 in Chambers Lilly Family Gallery.


German political systems operate within very different structures from the United States, but both have seen an increase in polarized rhetoric and political disenchantment. Can we compare the rise of populism in Germany to the 2016 election and/or current political climate in the United States?


When we compare political systems, we have to bear in mind the institutional factors shaping political trends. In this regard, every country is unique. But when it comes to the societal and social factors that drive popular sentiments, we can compare the U.S. extremely well to Western Europe, yes.


To be precise, what we observe now is not the rise of populism; populism is a political debating style--almost regardless of content and party affiliation.


What we see with Trump and the nationalist movements in Europe is the rise of right-wing populist parties. They are both united in their winning formula: "For the nation, against the elite" and their proposal to return to a glorified past where the country was allegedly spared of troublesome international interactions. Their core ideology is a nostalgic nationalism.


In class, we often speak about how identity politics fuel populism. Identity politics focus on cultural issues and perceived threat to personal identity. Can populists gain momentum and following without discussing identity politics?


No. Right-wing populist parties focus almost exclusively on identity politics. They divide the society into conservative and progressive halves. In this political climate, reaching a political compromise is hardly possible. At best, one side can ensure a short-term tactical win but hardly a long-lasting strategic victory. For that, we would need broad support of, say, two-thirds of the society.


Instead, identity politics prevent compromise because every bipartisan agreement is seen as a loss of a significant part of one's personal identity. This is a situation we observe in the US currently. This is why center parties that want to pacify societies should do all they can to reduce the salience of identity politics and focus on economic issues instead.


As in Germany, the United States is observing political backlash to migration. Stances on immigration and borders have been important elements in political discussions in the last few years. Do you anticipate populist rhetoric shifting away from migration policies and issues?


That might happen if new nationalist topics arise like going to war or canceling international cooperation. But these issues are more politically costly because they involve a very powerful "other:" another nation-state, or maybe even a group of nation-states that can retaliate. This is what is currently happening with the EU's very clear stance vis-à-vis the Brexit-wishes of the UK government.


Focusing on migration instead comes with two advantages. The first is your constructed enemy is rather weak, usually deprived of political agency - and thus a very good scapegoat. And second: immigrants, in particular, are the perfect symbol of the scary part of globalization for many voters. Namely that something you have not known before is all of a sudden a vital part of your daily life.


Jay Pfeifer





  • October 2, 2018