An Interview with Jan-Werner Müller

OR: You draw a curious equation toward the end of your book between populists and technocrats on the ground they are both to a certain degree apolitical. Could you talk a bit more about that?

Müller: What I'm suggesting is there's a dynamic between them which one doesn't see if one treats them as extremes opposed to each other. Technocrats — and I am simplifying here, of course — essentially say there's only one rational answer to a particular challenge. If you disagree with us, you reveal yourself to be irrational. It makes it much easier for populists to say: “How can you call your government democratic? Where are the people in this?”

It doesn't mean that populists are bona fide defenders of democracy, but it provides an opening for them. This leads to a vicious circle where technocrats, seeing the success of populists, say, "Oh, my God! If the people are given a chance, they vote for crazies. So let's take even more decision-making power away from them.” This, in turn, is going to provide a further opening for populists. And so it goes around and around.

The two groups look so different but they do have a common characteristic: anti-pluralism.

The technocrat says, "There's only one rational answer. If you disagree, you're irrational." The populist says, "There's only one authentic will of the people. If you disagree with us, you reveal yourself to be a traitor."

And everything that should happen in between — which, I think, is normal democracy when people disagree, but there's a sense of choices and trade-offs — is likely to disappear if politics becomes about these extremes. I think this is something we've clearly seen in the context of the euro crisis in Europe. I think it's a distinct temptation for some people in the U.S. Think about the tendency now among some anti-Trumpists to say, "Look, whatever these people are saying, it's obviously always a lie. We never have to listen. We have rational policy and we have the truth."

As you know, you can’t open certain websites these days without something popping out at you saying, "If you care about the truth, subscribe today. And by the way, the truth is 40 percent cheaper today.” I think this is a very dangerous path to go down.

Similarly, people point to Macron as a potential savior of Europe from populism. I think he's admirable in many ways. But the danger I see with him and his rhetoric is that it's the second coming of the third way. He is the reasonable center people from the Left and the Right can join; if you reject him you stand at the crazy extremes. This rhetoric works very well, given how French politics look today.

OR: Democracy has long been criticized as producing a civic life lacking in meaning. Do you think there's any truth in these criticisms?

Müller: Everybody is free to advance that kind of criticism of our version of consumer capitalism, about how it might re-shape our individual psyches and souls in undesirable ways. There's a lot to be said there, so I would not want to be seen as somebody who casually dismisses it.

But that is a little bit different from a position that says politics is there to provide us with collective meaning. I don't see any majorities anywhere agreeing on this point: that states should be put into a position to use their means of coercion to enforce highly partisan and controversial understandings of what human life is ultimately about.

In essence, I would just make a distinction between normal criticisms of the current age and the desire to go back to an allegedly golden age when politics itself was a primary source of meaning that could be collectively enforced on people.

That's a deeply illiberal — and I would even say deeply undemocratic — intuition.

OR: You state in your book that the use of reason is a basic duty in democracy. Why do you see that as an imperative?

Müller: My understanding of what that means is that we have to strengthen the idea that we're thrown together with people that we sometimes deeply disagree with, people that on some level we might not be inclined to respect in certain regards — and yet we have to find fair ways of living together.  This is what the political philosopher John Rawls referred to as being reasonable.

Now, it's very nice for professors to pronounce about these things from on high. At the same time, it is also too quick to simply say that the U.S. — or any other country — is too polarized for this kind of reasonable pluralism.

I think what is not necessarily factored in — and why this appeal to fairness is not merely a pious hope — is that we've discovered polarization can be big business.

Right-wing talk radio hosts can make millions by dividing people. But to then take division as an unchangeable reality on the ground — that in benighted Flyover Country, everybody thinks day and night about nothing other than the disrespect they get from coastal elites — as opposed to a reality that people are told day and night that this is the case, is deeply mistaken. Elites are more polarized — and polarizing — than citizens generally.

So we should think about our media ecology and the quality of our public sphere in such a way that the “division business” or “polarization business” isn't quite as strong as it has been over the last couple of decades.