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Jan-Werner Müller on populism, democracy, and Trump

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.

We have had to jettison the complacent liberal view that by definition, populists (either because they are protest movements or because their policy plans are horrendously simplistic) cannot govern. They can govern. This doesn’t mean they’re invincible.

As far as Trump is concerned, certainly at the level of his pronouncements, there is plenty of evidence that he has tried to take a similar path. Calling somebody who doesn’t clap for your State of the Union speech un-American is a tell-tale sign of a tendency to exclude anybody who disagrees with you.

The actual attempt to reshape institutions — a commission that tries to bring about voter suppression, putting pressure on judges — clearly has not been comparable to what we’ve seen in some other countries (such as Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela). So, as many observers have said, the U.S. is really a different case when it comes to the resilience of certain institutions.

On a less sanguine note, I think people also underestimate the resilience of populist administrations. In the other countries that I mentioned, all the relevant governments have tried to clamp down on media pluralism. We haven’t seen that here — but we already have a highly fragmented media landscape. So it’s not obvious that everybody gets exactly the same more or less factually based message about what is going on, to put it very politely.

Remember, what seems highly damaging to populist actors — especially corruption — does not always look that way to their supporters. If such parties, one might imagine the reasoning going, get a little bit on the side, that’s okay — they really brought us, their supporters, into politics in the way Erdoğan mobilized or even created a particular new middle class in Turkey. Liberals in a broader sense have been naïve to think that all we need to do is empirically demonstrate that there have been scandals and corruption, and then boom: the whole show will be over.

OR: To what types of criticism might such administrations be especially vulnerable?

Müller: I wish I could give you a neat handbook with three bullet points on how to defeat them. Alas, this is something that we’re all still trying to figure out.

A distinction can be drawn between what can be done inside a country and what can be done if there’s leverage from the outside. I think inside a country, again, it does matter that these governments do not officially abolish elections and do not, for the most part, engage in outright repressive measures to get rid of an opposition.

So there is an opposition left. Yet opposition parties have not always been terribly good at showing citizens that there’s a difference between policy questions and what you might call polity questions: questions about the rules of the game, and not just the results of the game. And because of this inarticulacy, it’s easier for these governments to say, “Oh, whatever we do, they don’t like it. We don’t have to pay attention because they’re just criticizing us.”

In the U.S., I think, the Democrats have not done a good job of saying, “Yes, of course we’re opposed to gutting the Affordable Care Act. But we have to recognize that probably any Republican president would have done that.” In contradistinction to other issues where they should be saying, “No, this goes to the core of our basic democratic infrastructure, this is not run-of-the-mill politics, this needs a different framing and a different level of mobilization.”

The second issue has to do with a movement’s numbers. If a million people march on Washington you just can’t ignore it, the thinking runs. But the significance of numbers actually isn’t as self-evident as one would like to think.

In April 2017, in the face of the possible closure of the Central European University by Viktor Orbán, 80,000 people took to the streets of Budapest. At the time, people thought this was meaningful. These were not just students. These were people from all walks of life, all generations. This could have been a turning or a tipping point.

What did the government say? The government in essence said, “Well, we’re very glad that we’ve dragged the Soros network out into the open. There are more of them that we had imagined.”

It seemed to end up playing in their favor — their secretive, illegitimate opposition was even more powerful than initially assumed. Often the protest movements are not really ready with a strategy to combat that reframing. Obviously, that can be very difficult under conditions where media pluralism has already been reduced significantly.

On the external side, I think many observers have taken far too long to learn how to look behind the rhetoric of populist governance where they say, “No, we still believe in democracy and we give you an example of how what we do is perfectly fine: you find the same arrangement in Denmark or the Netherlands.” I think it’s taken far too long to call them out for what they’re actually doing, and it’s taken far too long to use the leverage that exists.

The E.U. could have done a lot more in the last couple of years but was far too willing to be misled, by Orbán in particular. The same goes for conservative parties — I am thinking of powerful German Christian Democrats in particular — who still do not see that Hungary effectively has a far-right government.

Lastly, I wanted to add one point contrary to the whole image of the wave — or as Steve Bannon put it on his tour in Europe earlier this year, the idea of the historical tide. I think it is important to remind ourselves that nowhere in western Europe or North America have right-wing populists come to power without the support of conservative elites. Many supposedly mainstream conservatives seem to assume that they can get away with the kind of collaboration they’ve engaged in. I think it’s very important to communicate to some of these people that they are being watched. People who basically believe that it’s about not just policy but about polity are going to do everything possible to punish them for the kinds of transgressions and collaboration they’ve engaged in.

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.