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The populist insurgency in Europe draws much of its energy and support from attacks on expert authority. The great bugbear of rightwing populists across Europe since 2010 has been the EU, with its anonymous technocrats, insulated from democratic pressures and democratic accountability, allegedly dictating policy on trade, immigration and crime, public health, the environment, and gender equality. Within each European nation too, populists see a class of experts, allied with the Eurocrats, who have dominated policy-making for decades, in spite of their lack of democratic legitimacy and alienation from “the people.” A conspiracy of elite interests, it is argued, keeps the expert class in power, including the media, the courts, and what Dutch populists call “the cartel of dominant political parties.” An essential promise of populist movements across Europe is to restore the general will by dismantling these systems.
This presentation situates Europe’s “crisis of expertise” (Gil Eyal) in an historical context. I will discuss the rise of an expert class in twentieth century Germany, and its role in bolstering political authority over three regimes. I will then turn to the mobilizations against expert decision-making in various areas of social policy in Germany, France, and the Benelux countries, during the past decade. In what sense do protests against immigration and family policy, vaccination and covid-19 restrictions, organized in the name of democratic self-assertion, represent threats to democratic forms of governance?
Warren Rosenblum is professor of history and chair of the department at Webster University in St. Louis. He is the author of Beyond the Prison Gates: Punishment and Welfare in Germany 1850-1933 and various essays in European history. He is currently writing a book on the history of “the feeble-minded” in Modern Europe and will be a Fulbright Fellow in Belgium in Spring 2021.