Uni at City Hall: Is Our Democracy Being Threatened? – An Interview with Professor Thomas Niehr

  Copyright: © Peter Winandy

Does populism pose a threat to our democracy? This question will be discussed at the next "Uni at City Hall" event on March 14, 2023, starting at 7 pm in the Coronation Hall of Aachen City Hall. Admission is free. Panelists will include RWTH professors Thomas Niehr from the German Linguistics Unit and Jared Sonnicksen from the Institute of Political Science. In our interview, Thomas Niehr explains how well researched “Stammtisch” discourse actually is and why one should always be skeptical when simple solutions are proposed in our complex world (translator’s note: Stammtisch discourse roughly refers to discussions at the pub and, by extension, simplifying discussions on political and social topics by “armchair politicians”).

What is populism, what does the term actually mean?

Researchers are not yet in agreement about this. There are, however, typical characteristics of populism. For example, populists like to portray themselves as a man or woman of the people fighting against a corrupt elite in order to restore justice to the people. Typically, politicians or journalists are seen as this elite. A buzzword in Germany is “Lügenpresse” – “the lying press”.

Has our everyday language become more populist?

That is a question I cannot answer: Linguists work with and interpret data. And we do not have sufficient data on everyday speech, which includes political “Stammtisch” discussions. You might find that astonishing, but it is true.

Given the world’s complexity, is it still possible to communicate – and get across – complex issues at all?

Both science and politics have to deal with complex issues and their evaluation: How do we establish a fair pension system? How do we provide affordable and sufficient housing? How exactly do e-fuels work, and are they really climate-friendly? Dealing with complex issues requires a high level of expertise, and the answers to these questions are often characterized by uncertainty. Discussions of complex issues and problems often contain populist elements, for example, when you are offered a very simple answer to a complex question. At least you can assume that the answer contains populist elements and cannot be taken seriously as a solution.

Is the "how" of communication now often more important than the "what"? So it is not the better argument that counts, but the louder one?

You might actually get that impression, especially if you look at what is happening on social media.

What can you do to avoid being manipulated through language?

I don't think there is a short-term solution. Certainly, education is key. That is why I have long advocated to teach children rational reasoning early on. Those who possess the ability to reason are likely not to be easily persuaded by populist rhetoric.

Are even moderates forced to use radical language to get noticed?

I don't think so. A good, valid argument is still quite appealing for many people. In this context, Habermas once coined the phrase of the "forceless force of the better argument". We should not give up hope that this force will continue to work.

What role does social media play in this?

A major problem is the apparent anonymity which makes people believe they are allowed to make statements that violate human dignity or even incite people to commit crimes, up to and including murder, against people who express different opinions or belong to a different religious community.

Why is the AfD more successful on social media – at least in terms of follower numbers – than the SPD, Greens, or CDU?

The reason may be that the AfD, more often than other parties, offers fast fixes and simple solutions mentioned above, for example in the form of a slogan. This saves the reader a lot of thinking. Simple solutions, which are typically no solutions at all, also offer a semblance of security. They are also a way of getting around something that makes us uncomfortable: Namely, dealing with uncertainties and imponderables.

Is the language of the CDU, SPD, and Greens, especially via social media, still significantly more moderate than that of the AfD? Or is it getting more radical as well?

There is no blanket answer to that. However, a clear difference between the AfD and the other parties mentioned is that the AfD repeatedly breaks taboos. Representatives of the AfD euphemistically call this "expanding the boundaries of what can be said".

Are right-wingers and left-wingers comparable in their taboo breaking and their radical language, or are there any differences?

The question is whether we can really always distinguish so clearly between the right and the left. Is a prominent politician like Sahra Wagenknecht really a leftist? I have my doubts about that. But one clear difference seems to me to be that right-wingers tend to address issues that are probably not the focus of interest for the majority of society. Think of Björn Höcke's remarks about the Holocaust memorial ("monument of shame") or Gauland's remarks about soccer player Boateng ("People don't want to have someone like Boateng as a neighbor"). And also think about migration issues. The generally rather negative attitude towards people of other nationalities and especially towards refugees is obviously not shared by the majority of people in this country. There is an enormous willingness to help that would otherwise not exist.

The March 14 event is titled "Is Our Democracy Being Threatened?" Is it?

We should not take democrary for granted. We must work on preserving it constantly and should be vigilant against tendencies to undermine democratic structures. This is a responsibility we all share.

As language is constantly evolving, are you concerned about where we are headed?

No, I'm rather relaxed about that. As long as we can talk openly about linguistic trends and developments, or even argue about them, and as long as no one has the power to ban dissenting opinions or regulate our language, we are on the right track from a linguistic point of view.