What is Populism? by Jan-Werner Müller [A Review]

For those of us in the democratic West, these are uncertain times. Where we thought our democracy was secure behind well-tested law and enduring experience, it turns out much of our democracy is held together with little more than norms, guidelines and traditions, leaving much else open to interpretation. Even when democracy is functioning well, politicians and their parties can become stagnant, out of touch, unresponsive and irresponsible, with little impetus to change.

All this creates opportunities for those who can tap into a widespread desire for change. But while it might be hoped that candidates emerge who win the support of the disaffected having put themselves and their ideas to the democratic test, there is always the possibility for candidates who exploit that same dissatisfaction to seek power for their own interests, claiming to represent ‘the people’, exploiting democratic ambiguities and impairing democracy as they do so.

The word ‘populism’ has been thrown around a lot in recent years on the back of some unexpected election results and the surprising power of some political movements. But it was unclear what was precisely meant by that term. What exactly are people suggesting when they use the term to describe support for people as seemingly different as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders? Is it correct to use the term to describe one, both or neither of them?

Are we not facing complete conceptual chaos, as almost anything – left, right, democratic, antidemocratic, liberal, illiberal – can be called populist?

Jan-Werner Müller’s What is Populism? was written when the 2016 US Presidential Election was not yet decided. In this short book, Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton, attempts to define what populism is, describe what populists do, analyse the causes of populism and offer strategies to respond to it.

Müller begins by sharing the difficulties of arriving at a definition of populism. Past attempts at defining it have led to dead ends. Trying to define populists by the policies they promote, by the socio-economic class of their supporters or by assumptions as to their motives, yields inconsistent findings. Nor is there any consistency among those who call themselves populists – they are not necessarily outside the elite or charismatic; some are career politicians. There are also differences in populist movements across cultures. For example, American populism (including Central and South American populism) tends to be grassroots, whereas European populism tends towards demagoguery.

Despite the great divergence of approaches to understanding populism, it is striking that many observers appear to agree on one point – namely, that whatever else it is, populism is inherently hostile to the mechanisms and, ultimately, the values commonly associated with constitutionalism: constraints on the will of the majority, checks and balances, protections for minorities, and even fundamental rights.

Instead, in defining what populism is, Müller settles on three key points. First, populists are always critical of ‘elites’. Second, populists are always anti-pluralists. And third, populism is always a form of identity politics.

This is the core claim of populism: only some of the people are really the people. Think of Nigel Farage celebrating the Brexit vote by claiming that it had been a “victory for real people” (thus making the 48 percent of the British electorate who had opposed taking the UK out of the European Union somehow less than real – or, put more directly, questioning their status as proper members of the political community). Or consider a remark by Donald Trump that went virtually unnoticed, given the frequency with which the New York billionaire has made outrageous and deeply offensive statements. At a campaign rally in May, Trump announced that “the only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything.”

As you can already tell there is a lot of nuance to appreciate in this definition and Müller carefully, but succinctly, provides it. And, because the distinctions are important, he returns to this definition in the book to deepen his clarification. So, while criticism of elites is a necessary qualification for populists, it is not a sufficient condition – being critical of elites alone does not make a populist. Similarly, while populists are anti-pluralist and claim that they, and only they, represent ‘the people’ – there are many ways in which ‘the people’ is used and not all of it is populist. And, while populism is a form of identity politics, the reverse is not true.

In describing what populists do, again Müller settles on three key features of populist governance: attempts to hijack the state apparatus; corruption and mass clientelism; and the suppression of civil society to destroy any competition they might have as the voice of the ‘people’s will’. Again, you can probably appreciate there is much nuance to these definitions – plenty of non-populist political leaders are corrupt and engage in clientelism for example. Müller stresses that the populist distinction lies in how they do it – openly – and how they justify it – with public morals.

What the “old establishment” or “corrupt, immoral elites” supposedly have always done, the populists will also end up doing – only, one would have thought, without guilt and with a supposedly democratic justification.

Müller’s theory of the appeal of populism is that its source is the gap between what democracy promises and what it delivers. Democracy cannot deliver a utopia which satisfies all people at all times, although there seems to be an ever-present expectation that it should. But democracies have various methods to cope with this flaw, such as revolving power with regular free and fair elections, competition between political parties which are themselves evolving and open candidacy. Populists aim to take advantage of the discontent at what democracy delivers. They promise to deliver the impossible expected utopia, for some, then damage the methods that otherwise allow democracies to deliver what it can for the rest.

Now, populists speak as if such promises could be fulfilled. They speak and act as if the people, could develop a singular judgement, a singular will, and hence a singular, unambiguous mandate. They speak and act as if the people were one – with any opposition, if its existence is acknowledged at all, soon to disappear.

[…] The major difference between democracy and populism should have become clear by now: […] most importantly – the one takes it that “the people” can never appear in a noninstitutionalised manner and, in particular, accepts that a majority (and even an “overwhelming majority,” a beloved term of Vladimir Putin) in parliament is not “the people” and cannot speak in the name of the people; the other presumes precisely the opposite.

This leads to what Müller sees as the problems with the way populism is being countered. The most problematic tactic probably being the tendency to exclude populists, to not negotiate with them or debate them. This, says Müller, only strengthens their claim to being the only alternative to the status quo. Calling out their tactics may also not be as damaging as you’d think.

Before reaching his final conclusions, Müller revisits the nature and differences between American and European populism. In the former he identifies McCarthy and Wallace, the Tea Party and Trumpism and looks at the reasons for their support. In the latter, he sees populism as a response to the technocracy of powerful state institutions that grew out of the collapse of totalitarian regimes of the previous century and the Euro Crisis.

What is Populism? is a short book that can be read in a day if you are keen. And why not devote a day to it? It is both excellent and essential; a book that is difficult to put down and will charge your conscience. It is full of great quotes and passages. For too many for me to share here though I struggled to restrain myself. Reading it felt like a pleasure and a good deed.

‘Nuance’ felt like the key aspect when I was reading What is Populism?. Its ideas require distinctions to be made and appreciations to be had. That Müller succeeded in providing this nuance in a very short book was one of its best achievements. Another aspect that I appreciated was the book’s careful but considered use of examples, from the French Revolution, Tahrir Square, Viktor Orbán, Recep Erdoğan, Hugo Chávez and George Wallace.

A point Müller makes that will stay with me is that the ‘popular will’, which populists claim to know intimately and represent exclusively, is not merely indiscernible or unknowable but an illusion, a myth. Others have made this point in the past but since I have not read the others yet, it had a great impact on me here. Again, his use of examples illuminates his point.

And then, finally there is Donald Trump reacting to every loss in the primaries with the charge that his opponents were committing fraud, as well as the entire system – including the Republican National Convention itself – is “rigged”. In short, the problem is never the populist’s imperfect capacity to represent the people’s will; rather, it’s always the institutions that somehow produce the wrong outcomes. So even if they look properly democratic, there must be something going on behind the scenes that allows corrupt elites to continue to betray the people. Conspiracy theories are thus not a curious addition to populist rhetoric; they are rooted in and emerge from the logic of populism itself.

I also enjoyed learning from Müller’s discussion of ‘illiberal democracies’. Like ‘populism’, ‘illiberal democracy’ is a term Müller feels is being tossed around too carelessly. He asks us to make a distinction between a country which has a functioning democracy with illiberal values and a country whose democracy is flawed.

[…] just as an overly inclusive notion of democracy is unhelpful in understanding the political reality we face, defining the concept of authoritarianism too broadly can be problematic and produce unintended political consequences. In the first case, the Hungarian and Polish governments can rejoice that they are still democracies; in the second, highly repressive regimes will be pleased if they find themselves in the same category as Hungary and Poland. […] Perhaps, then, a designation like “defective democracy” would be more appropriate.

I read What is Populism? right after reading Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny. Aside from their obvious similarities – both being short, brilliantly-written, polemics full of material that is concerning and some that is reassuring – and their obvious differences – On Tyranny being about authoritarianism in general and What is Populism? being about a particular type of authoritarian – they have other things in common too.

Both books want to emphasise that the greatest threats to democracy come from within and that this threat is unavoidable as it comes from democracy’s necessary flaws. The potential for populists and others to take over and destroy democracies is an ever-present threat that cannot be eliminated without impairing democracy itself. Vigilance in protecting democratic rules and norms is the main preventative measure these books endorse.

Populism arises with the introduction of representative democracy; it is its shadow.

Another thing both books agree on is the misguided assumption that populists and authoritarians will destroy democratic institutions once in power. Both authors stress that this assumption is false – rather than destroying institutions, authoritarians will turn them into instruments to serve themselves; to reinforce their power and destroy opposition. The danger of the assumption is that we might feel chastened when accused of over exaggeration and demonization once it becomes clear that these institutions are not being torn down. We might then neglect the task of overseeing these institutions activities and we may not notice what these institutions have been turned into until it is too late.

What is special about populists is that they can undertake such colonisation openly and with the support of their core claim to moral representation of the people. Why, populists ask indignantly, should the people not take possession of their state through their only rightful representatives? Why should those who obstruct the genuine popular will in the name of the civil service neutrality not be purged?

One difference between the books is that I did not feel as reassured by Müller’s prescription for how to respond to these threats as I did by Snyder’s. To be fair, Müller’s book has a narrower scope and such advice was not a large area of attention. On Tyranny goes further, being both more general and with a clear focus on learning the lessons from the past, but also provides advice that can be translated into action more readily, that feels more tangible and that elicits confidence that they may prove effective.

Though much of What is Populism? was written before the 2016 US Presidential Election outcome was known, my edition was published with a new 2017 afterword that considers the success of populism in the US Election and the UK Brexit Referendum against populism’s apparent failures in the 2017 French and Dutch Elections. From these, Müller’s recommendation for how to counter populism is to remind us that there is no alternative to engaging with populists. Amongst his advice, he advocates talking with populists without talking like them and challenging them with facts and evidence, especially on their main claim of the existence of a popular will. It may not change the minds of the populist’s supporters but seeing their leaders for what they are may be enough to make them recoil with a sick feeling that they cannot shake. His advice to independents and others who might support an opposition to populism is that you don’t have to agree with everything the opposition stands for, only that the populist alternative is an incredibly dangerous one.


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