Alliance@PND

Through an agreement with UK-based Alliance magazine, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles about global philanthropy.

Keeping the 'Open Society' Open

Keeping the 'Open Society' Open

The increasing polarization of our societies is playing into the hands of right-wing populists. It is the basis upon which they develop an "us versus them" logic, undermining cohesion within and between our societies. This increasing polarization is fueled by four key insecurities.

First, socio-economic insecurities, as citizens (including the middle class) grow increasingly fearful they will be negatively affected by new economic realities. These insecurities are fueled by an uneven distribution of wealth, job insecurity, social exclusion, and the widespread perception that certain strata of society have borne the brunt of the negative economic consequences of more integrated regional and global markets.

Second, societal and cultural insecurities, as people become increasingly alarmed by what they see as the erosion of accustomed social norms, traditional family or religious values, and/or by the supposedly "overwhelming" volume of migrants/foreigners entering their countries, even if the actual numbers do not justify such fears.

Third, generational insecurities fueled by the fact that younger people are suffering disproportionately high levels of persistent unemployment and a lack of prospects.

Fourth, technological insecurities, as many people increasingly feel left behind or threatened by a wave of technological developments affecting all spheres of life. For many people, the rapid pace of technological innovation is seen as threat rather than opportunity.

This growing anxiety and fear of the future plays into the hands of radical populists who portray themselves as the champions of "ordinary citizens" fighting against the malign influence of corrupt elites ("the establishment") unable (or unwilling) to protect their societies from the negative consequences of change. In such a climate, traditional mainstream political forces increasingly are squeezed as they struggle to respond to the challenges posed by populists. Which is why the work of civil society organizations, including think tanks and philanthropic institutions committed to the values and principles of open society, is more important than ever.

What can and should these organizations do? 

First, philanthropic foundations need to support independent research activities that objectively analyze our current state of affairs and expose the nostalgic, simplistic, and counter-factual arguments on which the populists base their case. They should also put forward concrete proposals as to how to reduce the increasing polarization of our societies.

Second, given that radical populists are advocating neo-nationalistic positions and trying to exploit international fragmentation, there's a need to promote transnational discourse aimed at increasing mutual understanding and trust beyond national borders. This discourse should involve both elites as well as "ordinary citizens" willing to engage.

Third, foundations and think tanks should support efforts aimed at offering a positive counter-narrative underpinned by proposals that are implementable, forward-looking, and address citizens' fears and genuine concerns.

Fourth, we need to elucidate the virtues and benefits of open and liberal societies and explain why such societies are best positioned and able to address the challenges of globalization. We need to further explore the links between migration and the rise of populism. And we need to explain and communicate the manifold benefits of immigration while at the same time making clear that migration flows need to be managed.

Finally, we need to openly address the pressures that increased migration can generate, especially as it relates to labor markets, housing, and local public services. 

Radical populism cannot be wished away. To keep our societies open, we will need to use every tool at our disposal to fashion and articulate an alternative to it that is forward looking, optimistic, and focused on the things that unite us rather than those that divide us.

Janis Emmanouilidis is director of studies at the European Policy Centre in Brussels. Email: j.emmanouilidis@epc.eu.