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24.11.2020 | Jonas Lüscher & Michael Zichy
A new spark of hope

With this last contribution, Jonas Lüscher and Michael Zichy bring the discourse on populism at Goethe.de/Zeitgeister to an end. The global COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the voice of populism to the background, and Joe Biden's election victory in the U.S. sparks new hope for democracy. There, the democratic integrity of state and federal institutions prevailed. How will the rest of the world follow suit?

Portrait image of Michael Zichy in grayscale; he is wearing glasses and a checkered shirt © Michael Zichy Jonas Lüscher Foto: Ekko von Schwichow
Dear friends,

Writing this last letter is not easy for us, as it means accepting that our dialogue is coming to an end. Having this conversation with you has simply been a joy: The anticipation of waiting for your answers, with which you have not only given us revealing and exciting insights into your countries, societies and your very personal perceptions, but have also challenged us to question our own views, to see so many things differently, and continue to help us break through the mental isolation to which we - especially these days - so often begin to resign ourselves. The health-giving obligation to sit down time and again for a new letter, and to have to sort out the thoughts about the state of the world that so often weigh on our minds and to put them into well-considered words. And finally, the comfort of not being alone with our worries, despite the thousands of kilometres that separate us and the so-very different situations and perspectives that shape us, and of being united in our struggle for a better world. Thank you so much for this!
Perhaps it is just a strange coincidence that our dialogue has also spanned this past year, which in many respects has been the craziest in a long time, because on top of everything else it has been stalked by a pandemic, which, as our dialogue has also shown, overshadows everything else. As was to be expected, populism has also taken a heavy toll here: In those countries where it holds sway, the handling of the pandemic is particularly inadequate, the failure of the state particularly egregious, the numbers of infections and deaths particularly high and the suffering particularly great. Donald Trump's election defeat may be a glimmer of hope, but the fact that nearly half of all Americans are willing to put their trust in a virus-trivialising, climate change-denying, empathy-less and shameless man who is so obviously not only evil, but also (thankfully, one might say!) incompetent, is both baffling and deeply disturbing. Are our societies really so blinded and hardened of heart, so short-sightedly selfish or just plain malicious, that they would rather put their trust in a madman than give the (really harmless) other side a chance?
To be sure, we must ask ourselves till it hurts: how can it happen that progressive forces working for human dignity and justice fail to reach people’s hearts, and are unable to formulate an option that is more attractive than the hate and fear that populists have to offer? Isn't the success of populism also due to our inability to unite, speak a common language, tell a common story, and organise ourselves? Is, in other words, the absence of common action our sin?
Here, we believe, lies one of our tasks as intellectuals: to take a close look, especially at ourselves, and especially where it hurts, and to discover those secret words that cut into the marrow, break open, bring out the pus, but which then also succeed in healing and reconciling, give hope and confidence. This will be all the more important as we face troubled times. Donald Trump's defeat at the polls may be a glimmer of hope, but it does not make us optimistic about the future. It will be years before the full impact of the economic, social and psychological consequences of the Corona crisis is felt - and it will be severe - and we haven't even mentioned climate change yet. The ominous premonition that the annus horribilis 2020 is not a one-off phenomenon, but merely the harbinger of a far more terrible age, is one that we may not be able to shake off.
But regardless of whether conditions only get worse or better: No matter what the future may bring, our task will not change, to continue unwaveringly in what we are already doing and have shown in our dialogue: To look closely, always questioning, with a sharp eye, but not blind to what is humane, warm-hearted and joyful. To untiringly find words for this which find their way into people's souls and courageously call things by their proper names: Evil as evil and good as good – and all that, because it would be unbearable otherwise, with a generous pinch of humour.
Thank you, and stay healthy!
With heartfelt greetings,
Michael and Jonas