How Citizens Set The Agenda: Bruno Kaufmann Discusses Trump, The Populist Wave, & End Of American Paternalism

Trump’s rise to power is commonly explained as a political backlash to economic globalization made possible by a critical failure on the part of both Republican and Democrat party leadership to set an agenda that speaks for globalization’s discontents.

Looking to the situation in Europe, from last year’s Brexit to the recent surge in support for Germany’s AfD, not only does America’s crisis match the global trend, it also provides the most transparent example of the problem. As elected representatives play a greater and greater role setting the agenda, they become less responsive to the interests and concerns of ordinary citizens across the political spectrum (not just the white working class). And this reinforces the conditions that give rise to populism on both the left and the right.

Bruno Kaufmann has been working to reverse this trend in Europe for more than two decades, spearheading the European Citizens’ Initiative and serving as president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe, a think tank that facilitates participatory democracy at the national and transnational level. On October 19, he will be joining a panel in Washington, D.C., to discuss what these strategies mean in the American context.

I recently caught up with Mr. Kaufmann to talk about the rise of Trump, the collapse of the center-left, and a new way forward for America.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Peter Gaffney (PG): How does your work help explain the crisis of political legitimacy in America?

Bruno Kaufmann (BK): Democracy, as a promise, gives the individual not only rights of freedom but also a share of political power – which is to say, an opportunity as well as a responsibility to participate actively in the political system.

This is not given by the form of representative government that has developed in America over the last few decades. Instead, what we see is a system where ordinary citizens are expected merely to give away their vote every four years. Political power has come to be concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people, at the expense of the democratic mechanisms that were meant to drive political process and keep that power in check.

White supremacist Richard Spencer holds a press conference at his office in Alexandria, Virginia
The “ethnostate” envisioned by white supremacist Richard Spencer is connected to reactionary demands for a more paternalistic organization of power. [Image by Tasos Katopodis/Stringer]

PG: How is this connected to the rise of rightwing populism?

BK: By now it’s evident that the failure to build real representative democracy has given momentum to the “populist wave.” What we have to realize, however, is that the populists of today are not the ones who want more power for the people. They are politicians who want, through the people, to have more power for themselves. They do not offer more opportunities for ordinary citizens to decide on this or that issue. Instead, they say, “Give me your power and I will solve all problems for you.”

Of course, this is just an exaggeration of the paternalistic system offered by mainstream political parties. Except that now it is the populists, or those who support them, who are saying, “We want to get back our paternalistic world.” This resonates very well with racist and sexist ideas, and with a kind of idealized past dominated by a paternalistic monopoly on power – a closed system based on the old-fashioned family or private business, in which one person or a small group of people run the whole game.

But it is important to see that centrist parties – President Macron’s party En Marche! in France, for example – don’t actually provide a post-paternalistic alternative. Instead, they say, “Through me, through our openness, we will deliver a post-paternalistic order.” But they have no real intention of opening the conversation to their constituents. In the long term, this just fuels the populist wave.

French president Emmanuel Macron addresses voters at a rally
Emmanuel Macron addresses a rally during the final round of the French presidential elections. [Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images]

PG: Does this also explain how the Democratic Party derailed itself during the last election cycle?

BK: Yes, of course. I remember visiting the Clinton Library in Little Rock. It was like a mausoleum for Hillary Clinton’s future presidency, a place built in the form of an argument for her right to political power. Trump is just a mirror reflection of that argument from the perspective of another constituency.

It’s so clear that there is no way forward with this kind of old-fashioned, personality-based, mediatized political format. Even Bernie Sanders, who is so much older than his base, is a sign that a particular historical development in Western democracy is finally coming to an end.

That is why we need to invest in proper democratic developments that will help us move forward, developments which may not deliver immediate results, but which will safeguard the fundamental principles of democracy: individual rights, the protection of minorities, and the continuous possibility for ordinary citizens to participate in political process.

PG: How does your advocacy for “modern direct democracy” address this need?

BK: The founding fathers made a distinction between the idea of “democracy,” by which they meant direct assembly-style participation, and the idea of the “republic,” which they considered to be a more scalable version in which representatives would be elected to make decisions on behalf of their constituents. America was meant to be a combination of these two ideas, a dialogue.

It is not hard to see why. On one side, the kind of leadership promised by the republic, the accountability promised by its leaders, these are very difficult to achieve in the real world. On the other side, the promise that ordinary citizens can responsibly guide the nation without some form of mediating representation is also just an idea, one that is not practical in reality.

So the combination of representative forms of power together with the opportunity for ordinary citizens to participate in the work of the republic, these are the necessary conditions for ensuring the ongoing legitimacy of a democracy, and for keeping it functional, stable, and adaptable to the changing historical situation.

PG: Can you explain how the European Citizens’ Initiative, which was recently introduced into the EU constitution as a result of your efforts, effectively provides for this kind of opportunity?

BK: Citizens’ initiatives give ordinary people a tool for setting the agenda in advance of elections. They are a chance to formulate the problem, and confront elected leaders in collective fashion with this problem, in order to shape electoral process. Where the representative model only allows you to react – to vote your representatives out of power –, a citizens’ initiative allows you to act, to promote, to initiate. That’s one side.

On the other side, the popular referendum is a control mechanism. It’s your grip on elected power. If elected representatives are not responsive enough to their constituents, their issues will be taken away from them and put to a referendum. This is a situation they want to avoid. So they are compelled to open the conversation, to turn to their voters for guidance rather than turning to their colleagues in the legislature.

Opponents of the Keystone pipeline protest at a DNC fundraiser
Protestors against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline protest at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser. [Image by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images]

PG: In America, these tools are only provided at the state level.

BK: Yes, and there are problems in the way they have been implemented – in a very brutal partisan way that does not effectively facilitate the exchange of ideas between citizens and their representatives. This has led to a situation in which direct legislative mechanisms have become too powerful, to the point where they run parallel to and disconnected from the conventional representative ones.

But there are many states – Washington, Connecticut, Florida, Colorado – where you find healthy examples of modern direct democracy, examples that are much more human and much less about the concentration of private money in politics.

PG: What are some of your other observations about the way politics works in America, and why the crisis we are talking about tends to be so much more acute here?

BK: In America, money is free speech. And having a lot of money is equivalent to a having a lot of free speech. This is in contrast to the European experience, where the tendency is to create an even playing field for all voices, including measures that bring political financing for opposing parties into balance.

There is also a strong focus on the presidency in the US, which creates a rather dysfunctional balance of power and doesn’t really allow for broadly inclusive conversations. Presidential elections tend to be more of a show run by special interests. So they do not adequately represent real issues faced by ordinary citizens.

Democracy advocate Bruno Kaufmann is president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe
Bruno Kaufmann, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe, will be joining a panel discussion in Washington D.C. on direct democracy in the American context. [Image by Bruno Kaufmann]

Finally, it’s clear that the U.S. has built so much of its identity around conflict and confrontation, and this is very different from the experience today in European countries, where politicians are more likely to search for a solution through the compromise and coalition of many different parties – a solution that must also be stable, robust and legitimate in the eyes of ordinary citizens.

What is common between Europe and America is the tendency to define the agenda in negative fashion, so that what brings individuals and groups together is that they agree on what they don’t want. That’s why you always need enemies, you always need scapegoats, you need people you can blame. This does not resonate at all with younger voters, or really anyone who wants to bring the conversation forward.

PG: It also seems that political messaging in America is increasingly moralistic, in a way that excludes real dialogue or critical thinking on substantive issues. “The Resistance,” for example, looks at first glance like a consensus moral argument condemning Trump’s alt-right base. The closer you look, the more it seems like a top-down strategy by center-left Democrats to reap political profit from the ongoing crisis.

BK: In a way, they borrowed this idea of resistance from the Republican Party, which resisted everything during the Obama administration. This kind of resistance may help political organizations shore up power, but it is a very helpless way for ordinary citizens to participate in democracy.

Trump is not the main problem. The problem is a culture that has not come into a full understanding about how modern liberal democracy can and should work. Ordinary people are sticking to a merely negative, reactive way of fulfilling their duties as citizens. And that isn’t working.

So we have a big chance now to learn from this caricature of a president. A simplistic way of representative government – one in which elections and elected representatives set the agenda – does not offer any way forward. We have to be smarter.

[Featured Image by AlexWong/Getty Images]