Populism has become, somewhat unexpectedly, a hot sociopolitical topic. Journalists find it everywhere. It is generally identified as an anti-elitist position born out of popular frustrations with the failures of liberal democracy — to which it is sometimes seen as a corrective. Not so, argues Princeton’s Jan-Werner Müller. Populism does not correct democracy; populism erodes it. Müller quite literally wrote the book on this subject; his seminal What Is Populism? is essential contemporary reading. We spoke with Müller about the real meaning — and the real menace — presented by this political phenomenon.
Octavian Report: What is populism and why is it so widely misunderstood?
Jan-Werner Müller: Contrary to conventional wisdom today, not everybody who criticizes elites or “the establishment” is necessarily a populist who somehow poses a danger to democracy.