No need to panic — just yet

Street fights. Christmas market attacks. Protests against mass immigration. The rise of populism and the puppetry of power.

If we are to believe the media, the world is careening toward disaster. Over and over again.

But there is one media member who is optimistic: Josef Joffe, publisher of my favorite German newspaper, DIE ZEIT. Born in what was briefly Germany, now Poland, and educated in the United States, his biography is the inverse of mine. Having studied his writing since my own college days, I totally fan-girled my way to the packed University of Freiburg auditorium last night to hear him speak about the rise of populism and its effects on liberal democracies.

Photo credit: Klaus Polkowski

When the crowd shouted they couldn’t hear him well enough, Joffe quietly moved down from the podium to a table with a better-functioning microphone. He exuded a presence of simplicity, a living icon of Slow.

Once settled into his seat, he reassured the audience that there is no need to panic. In fact, he says the world has 100 democracies (but if you read closer, The Freedom House reports a consecutive 12-year decline in democratic freedoms and norms. The US, in particular, has declined in these areas significantly in the last two years alone).

Populism, Joffe states, is actually defined as “support for the concerns of ordinary people.” It swings left or right, but the term itself does not mean we’re all destined to experience a rebirth of the Third Reich.

His demeanor was calm. No sensationalism in sight. For a Harvard-educated man who later worked at Stanford University, Joffe’s ease with the subject of democracy impressed me. In fact, it always has. But of late, I have been worried about the state of democracy in general and was surprised he sees no reason for concern.

“Sure, we have the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland – an extreme right-wing party in Germany). They are very well-organized and articulate. The other 87% in Parliament would do well to be even better prepared than they are.”

But even the rise of such parties means democracy is working. Every voice matters in the pool of

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things. Most people are not extreme, but some are. And if they need to express themselves, well fine. Democracy can handle it, says Joffe. We have tools to deal with all sides.

Over seventy years of democracy with well-established institutions in Germany and a strong European Union are more reasons to remain centered in what seems to be continuous political chaos worldwide.

When recently interviewing the chief economist of the World Bank, Penny Goldberg, I was told the world is very stable indeed. We have more peace than ever before and global poverty levels are at a record low. If we were to consider the environment, however, I’m not sure how peaceful we will remain.

But let’s stay optimistic, like my hero Josef Joffe. The world is going to be fine. And, in his final statement before leaving, he said: “2020 is only two years away. The U.S. is going to be fine too.”

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