Populism and identity: the changing face of European democracy

Wednesday 5 November, 18.00 until 21.00, Kulturhuset Stadsteatern, AB Box 16412, SE-103 27 Stockholm International Satellite Events 2014

This special event featured two closely related debates that provide an opportunity to discuss European politics today.

18.00 - 19.15
The trouble with democracy: populism, technocrats and fear of The People

Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice-chancellor and head of the Social Democrats, set the tone for the debate about democracy in Europe this year by dismissing Eurosceptic parties on both left and right of the political divide as ‘stupid’. But in the European Parliament elections, such parties were too successful to be ignored. In Sweden, the Sweden Democrats tripled their support compared to the last EU election. In the UK, the UK Independence Party came top of the Euro poll, as did the Front National in France and SYRIZA in Greece. After these parties won so many votes, the general reaction from mainstream politicians – unwilling to continue to suggest that large sections of the electorate were idiots – was to suggest that this success was merely a protest by voters. 

While Europe’s leaders all uphold democracy as an ideal, this sentiment coexists with a fear of ‘populism’ – that is, voters choosing the ‘wrong’ parties – and a belief that in some situations – like the recent financial crisis – technocrats and experts may well be a better option than democratically elected politicians, who can be easily swayed by short-termism and popular prejudice rather than enlightened opinion. More generally, the judges in Strasbourg seem to offer more hope of legal change than elected politicians. With such cynicism about the political process, some fear that the only people who still bother to vote are the angry and marginal and that democracy needs to be reformed to work better.

Outside Europe, by contrast, there can be great enthusiasm for democracy – as in the Arab Spring – that is not matched by Western leaders and commentators, who stood aside as the elected government of Egypt was overthrown by coup d’état. Sometimes we even hear envious talk of the ability of the Chinese government to get things done without the messy compromises and delays that democracy seems to entail.

Why do we have this ‘problem’ with democracy when it was once considered the bedrock of Western civilisation? Why has populism become a political swearword and particularly associated with the right when historically it was more the preserve of the left? How can we expect democracy to work when the implication is that we need less-popular leaders in charge? Are voters really the problem, or is it the uninspiring politicians? Is there a crisis of ideas in politics itself? If so, why do we seem to be afraid of exposing decisions that affect us all – law-making for example – to the scrutiny of the widest possible democratic debate and opinion? Just what lies behind our fears of democracy today and just what is at stake for tomorrow?


Sabine Beppler-Spahl, editorial journalist, NovoArgumente; head of education, Sprachkunst36

Kajsa Ekis Ekman op-ed writer, ETC; author, Skulden - eurokrisen sedd från Aten; member of Centre for Marxist Studies Stockholm

Anna-Lena Lodenius, journalist and lecturer; author, Slaget om svenskheten - ta debatten med Sverigedemokraterna


Rob Lyons, columnist, spiked; writer on science and risk; author, Panic on a Plate: how society developed an eating disorder; co-convenor, IoI Economy Forum

Watch the debate:

19.30 - 21.00
The new politics of Identity and Nationalism

Identity has always been important in politics. One understanding of an imperialist view of nationalism is the view that a particular country was in fact unique and owed its power to its culture.  This involved creating a national identity as an important means of holding together societies that were, in many other respects, deeply divided. Colonial resistance movements mirrored this, and often emphasised aspects of national culture as a means of cohering support and creating a sense of independence that went beyond politics or economics. In recent decades, identity has taken new forms.  For example, the assertion of the need to respect different cultures, as embodied in multiculturalism, was an important response to racism, a seeming antidote to the idea that an oppressed group was inferior. 

However, many of the big political movements, and the ideologies behind them, have now subsided or disappeared altogether. Yet the politics of identity and respect for cultural difference remain. Many now worry that identity has now been transformed into something conservative, where individuals become stuck, unable to relate to society in any other way than as representatives of a particular culture. Moreover, the ability for society to renew itself through the clash of cultures and ideas is limited when different cultures are automatically regarded as being worthy of respect and criticism is forbidden. Is such respect for identity actually bad for democracy?

Moreover, there is a degree to which political elites pick and choose which identities are worthy of respect and which are not. To be ‘European’ is generally regarded as positive; cultural identities are often treated as sacrosanct, necessarily deserving of respect.  Yet to assert national identity, - especially among working-class people – can be regarded with suspicion. Is it fair that holding a particularist view of nationalism, or declaring one is to be British or Swedish or whatever, often leads to being labelled xenophopbic? Is the politics of diversity a means by which unacceptable political claims are suppressed? Is Europe’s new populism a response to this suppression? Is there something worth celebrating in the diversity of ways that different groups conduct themselves in society, or is identity politics a dead end?

Watch the debate:

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, What's Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history

Qaisar Mahmood
heritage manager, Swedish National Heritage Board

Lars Trägårdh
professor of history, Ersta Sköndal Högskola

Nathalie Rothschild
freelance journalist; producer and reporter for Sweden's public service radio

Produced by
Rob Lyons science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Economy Forum

follow the Academy of Ideas


Keep up to date with Academy of Ideas news and events by joining our mailing list.

Session partners