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.
Of course, when populists are in opposition, they tend to criticize sitting governments. So, in that sense, they do criticize elites. But above all, they tend to say that they — and only they — represent what they often call the real people or also, typically, the silent majority. Populists will deny the legitimacy of all other contenders for power. This is never merely about policy disagreements or even disagreements about values which, of course, are normal and ideally productive in a democracy. Populists always immediately make it personal and moral. They also suggest that citizens who do not share their understanding of the supposedly real people do not really belong to the people at all. So populists always morally exclude others at two levels: party politics, but also among the people themselves, where those who do not take their side politically are automatically deemed un-American, un-Polish, un-Turkish, etc.
So anti-elitism is not crucial. What’s crucial — and dangerous — is anti-pluralism: the tendency to exclude others at the level of the most basic political identity.
Why is populism so widely misunderstood? I think there's a couple of reasons. In some cases, I think it's politically motivated. Some people try to tar various actors with that brush to discredit them. If you think back to some of the pronouncements from representatives of the E.U. at the height of the euro crisis, they saw populists everywhere, all working against Europe. They put into one basket people like Marine Le Pen, who really is against European integration, and others like SYRIZA in Greece or Podemos in Spain. Their programs you don't have to like, but to say they're anti-European because they're populists is mistaken.
Another reason for this broad misunderstanding is that journalists tend to repeat clichés about this phenomenon. I'm personally astonished that whenever we now read, even in very high-quality outlets, any account of recent elections anywhere in the world, we almost inevitably find the writer saying that the government lost because people were angry at the elites.
Well, yes, on one obvious level! If the government loses, people probably weren't very satisfied. But to posit such a dualist image of politics — here are the elites and there are the people — accepts the loaded worldview that populists present to us as if it were the obvious default understanding of politics. There are many different ways of presenting political conflicts and understanding what is at stake in our democracies. It’s not always corrupt elite versus virtuous people.
OR: To what extent does populism, as you define it, depend on the continuation of what is clearly a crisis in liberal democracy? To what extent does it prolong this crisis?
Müller: I think it is important that populist actors continue to profess faith in democracy. And as we all know, there's been a very anxious debate about a global recession in democracy. We can debate the empirical plausibility of this diagnosis. But prima facie it is important that very few actors today officially proclaim, “We're done with democracy. We've discovered a better system.” Even in extreme examples, like Thailand and Egypt, the official story is that they are actually doing democracy or restoring democracy. That's not trivial. We're not back in the Cold War, where we saw clearly discernible systemic alternatives.
It’s important for us to understand exactly what populists are doing and to what extent we can use the rhetoric they put forward to criticize them. I'm very critical of the now-widespread use of the term “illiberal democracy.” When we look at the Erdoğans, the Orbáns, the Kaczynskis, the Chávezes of the world, they're not doing something to liberalism. They are in the process of damaging or destroying democracy itself.
Instead of employing “illiberal democracy,” one might confront these actors with the following claim: "You want to be seen as a democrat. Here are the reasons why we could say you're actually damaging the very thing you are officially professing to advance.” But if we simply default into the notion of illiberal democracy, we leave them still with democracy — which, despite the possible recession globally, remains the most prized word that anybody wants to attach to their regime.
We tend to think that because each populist success looks so similar, they must have a common cause. But it doesn't follow that the causes are really the same everywhere. The reasons for the rise of, let's say, a Jörg Haider in Austria in the 1980’s are not the same as the reasons for the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen, which are not the same as the reasons for Trump's triumph in the U.S.
I think people are far too quick to identify a number of policy challenges and use them to explain populism. Think of immigration and rising inequality. Especially the latter is real — but it does not produce populism everywhere. It takes something else to convince citizens that their problems are best understood as the doing of a homogeneous, corrupt elite.
OR: To what extent has Donald Trump governed like a populist, in the conception of the term that you advance? Is there a paradigmatic current example of a populist in government that you would highlight?
Müller: As perverse as it might sound: there is a distinct populist art of governance. Not all these regimes are the same, but there are very significant family resemblances. This art of governance has, I think, four core elements. One is the denial of legitimacy of any real opposition, including any independent institutions, be they courts or be they professional media. Another is the distinct tendency of the governing party to appropriate the state itself, to replace what in theory should be non-partisan bureaucrats with partisan actors. Thirdly, all these regimes tend to engage in mass clientelism — not only do they hand out material benefits and bureaucratic favors to their supporters, they deny them to their opponents. And far from being something populists are ashamed of, this, for them, is the only morally defensible approach: after all, only some citizens are the “real people,” and the fact that the rest go empty-handed is how things should be. Lastly, we see that these regimes tend to do the utmost they can in trying to de-legitimate any protest both morally and symbolically, even in situations where the protest doesn't really pose a significant threat to their power. By definition, in the populist imagination it cannot be true that parts of the people protest against their only authentic representatives; hence the tendency to suggest that protest is instigated and paid for by outside powers.