What Is Populism?
Jan-Werner Müller, a native of Germany, is Professor of Politics at Princeton University and the author of several previous books. The present study of populism was published in 2016 by the University of Pennsylvania Press and quickly reprinted in a popular paperback format by Penguin Books in the UK (it is also easily obtainable in the US through Amazon). This unusual distinction for an academic title owes much to the recent vogue of the term “populist,” of course, but also to the unusual clarity of the author’s thesis and exposition.
There is little general agreement about populism beyond its being a form of politics which champions the “people” against elites. Müller observes that such a stance is indeed a necessary condition for identifying a politician or movement as “populist,” but not sufficient. He rejects psychologizing explanations that focus on the “anger” of populists while ignoring its causes. These sorts of theories suggest that what populists really need is not political representation or the redress of objective grievances, but a sort of psychotherapy. That is both condescending and eerily reminiscent of the old Soviet abuse of consigning dissidents to psychiatric hospitals.
The truly essential quality of populism, in Müller’s view, is the claim to exclusive representation of the people. The first example he offers is the current President of Turkey, Recep Erdogan. At a recent party congress, Mr. Erdogan responded to his critics with the remark: “We are the people; who are you?” The author comments:
Of course, he knew his opponents were Turks, too. The claim to exclusive representation is not an empirical one; it is always distinctly moral. Populists portray their political competitors as part of the immoral, corrupt elite.
In short, the populist, in Müller’s account, is the political figure or movement which implicitly or explicitly claims: le peuple, c’est moi.
This is a bold thesis, not least because it would, on the author’s own admission, disqualify the People’s Party of the American 1890s—often considered the original populists—from being considered “true” populists. It also implies that ancient Athens, despite bequeathing us the word demagogue, produced no “true” populist leaders, for no one could stake a claim exclusive representation in a direct democracy which made no use of representation. Late in the book, he also states that Bernie Sanders would not qualify as a populist under his definition.
But Müller is certainly pointing to a real and prominent tendency of many politicians described as populist. Hugo Chavez’s campaigns features slogans such as “Chavez is the people!” and “Chavez, we are millions; you too are Chavez!” George Wallace began his famous “segregation forever” speech with the following grandiloquent declaration: “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod the earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny….” The author pointedly asks by what authority the Governor of Alabama presumed to speak in the name of the American people as a whole.
Obviously, populist politicians never actually receive one hundred percent support from voters. To get around this inconvenient fact, they are prone to appeal to a vague notion of the “real” people, who must be extracted and distinguished from the sum total of actual citizens. When Nigel Farage achieved the result he wanted in the “Brexit” referendum, e.g., he called it 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 questioning their status as proper members of the political community.
In a similar vein, a Finnish populist party has, until recently. called itself the “True Finns.”
George Wallace, too, constantly invoked the notion of “real Americans.” Early in his career, he identified the real America with “the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland.” This created an awkward situation for him when he went on to seek support for his presidential ambitions outside the region. He papered over the contradiction by boldly declaring the entire country Southern:
And you native sons and daughters of old New England’s rock-ribbed patriotism… and you sturdy natives of the great mid-West… and you descendants of the far West flaming spirit of pioneer freedom… we invite you to come and be with us… for you are of the Southern mind and the Southern spirit; you are Southerners too and brothers with us in our fight.
Clearly, populist notions of “the people” can prove quite flexible. But Wallace undoubtedly had something in mind when he distinguished “real Americans from the nation’s corrupt elites. Maine fishermen, Midwestern farmers, and Chicago steelworkers named Kowalski would all clearly have counted as “real Americans” for Wallace, whereas Ivy League sociology professors, Las Vegas casino operators, and New York drag queens would not have. In short, he was distinguishing “hard-working Americans” from both those he called “pointy-headed intellectuals”—people who did not have to work with their hands—and from welfare parasites and other marginal groups.
But work is only one possible criterion: other populists have distinguished the “real” people on the basis of ethnicity, contrasting them with ethnically distinct elites (Jews, Overseas Chinese) and underclasses (Gypsies, Blacks). Here as well, however, the “real” people are held to be morally superior to outside groups.
The closest to a political successor George Wallace has in today’s America is, of course, Ivy League graduate and casino operator Donald Trump. Müller cites a throw-away quote from one of Trump’s campaign rallies which, although extremely vague, may betray a similar mentality: “The only important thing is the unification of the people—because the other people don’t mean anything.”
Claims to represent “the people” tend to make populists sore losers, prone to blame their electoral failures on a rigged process:
The problem is never the populist’s imperfect capacity to represent the people’s will; rather, its 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 very logic of populism itself.
This is a perfectly valid point, though the author may underestimate the frequency of actual electoral fraud. In the recent American past, whenever a recount has been determined upon, previously “lost” caches of votes for democratic candidates have had a strange way of turning up.
Populist politicians dislike all institutions which intervene between the popular will and political decision making, seeking an immediate relation with “the people.” Beppe Grillo of Italy’s Five Star Movement tells his followers: “Folks, it works like this: You let me know, and I play the amplifier.” When representatives of Grillo’s movement first entered parliament, a close associate of his declared that “Italian public opinion” was entering parliament along with them.
But in fact—and precisely as a by-product of this claim to immediate representation of “the people”—populist parties have an especially strong tendency to be monolithic and authoritarian, with the rank-and-file clearly subordinated to a single leader. Beppe Grillo, says the author, “is not just the ‘amplifier,’ as he claims; he exercises central control of ‘his’ deputies and expels from the movement those who dare to disagree with him.” Geert Wilders personally coaches all legislative representatives of his Freedom Party every week.
More generally, populists prefer representation through imperative mandates rather than the free mandate under which representatives are expected to use their own judgment. As Müller points out, this weakens democratic accountability: “a free mandate puts the burden on representatives to justify how they used their political judgment, when election time—that is, the time for accountability—rolls around.” The bearer of an imperative mandate can always blame those who delegated him for any adverse consequences.
Many populists call for more popular referenda, but Müller is unimpressed by this tactic. Referenda, as populists conceive them, are not
meant to start an open-ended process of deliberation among actual citizens to generate a range of well-considered popular judgments; rather, the referendum serves to ratify what the populist leader has already discerned to be the genuine popular interest as a matter of identity, not as a matter of aggregating empirically verifiable interests.
This is unquestionably true. A European populist would not call for a referendum on mass third world immigration in order to provoke debate, but because he knows damned well what the result of such a referendum would be. But so do his enemies, the globalist elites: that is precisely why they have never allowed direct democratic oversight of immigration policy. Admittedly, most citizens of “democratic Europe” have persisted in supporting mainstream parties long after their intentions became obvious. But a referendum would still be an effective means of reining such elites in, and an entirely legitimate and even democratic tactic.
Müller anticipates the objection that all the negative traits he ascribes to populists might just as easily be found among non-populist parties and candidates:
What distinguishes democratic politicians from populists is that the former make representative claims in the form of something like hypotheses that can be empirically disproven on the basis of the actual results of regular procedures and institutions like elections. Most concede that representation is temporary and fallible, that contrary opinions are legitimate, that society cannot be represented without remainder, and that it is impossible for one party or politician permanently to represent an authentic people apart from democratic procedures and forms.
In Müller’s view, it is populists themselves, not the “corrupt elites” they challenge, who represent the corruption of this democratic ideal. They are not even inherently anti-elitist, he points out, in the sense of thinking that “power should always be as widely dispersed as possible. They are fine with elites as long as they are the elites.”
Populist parties are often viewed as protest parties, and it has even been suggested that populism cannot actually govern, since victory ipso facto turns anti-elitists into a new elite. But this is reasoning too abstractly: one must observe what actually happens where populists have come to power.
Most often, on Müller’s account, the authoritarianism commonly found within populist parties carries over into their style of governing, as they deny the legitimacy of opposition (recall Erdogan’s dismissive response to his opponents: “We are the people; who are you?”). Any failures can be blamed on old elites still acting behind the scenes (think: the “deep state”).
As an example of populist authoritarianism in power, the author points to recent changes to the civil service law in Hungary that have enabled the ruling party to “place loyalists in what should have been nonpartisan bureaucratic positions.” He criticizes the new Hungarian constitution (in effect since 2012) as a partisan document designed to perpetuate populist rule, though in support of this view he cites only some lengthened terms of office. Poland’s ruling populists “immediately moved against the independence of courts. Procedures of existing courts were amended and new judges appointed.” Such governments thus “create a state to their own political liking and in their own political image.”
I fail to see how this differs from the behavior of anti-populists, who for all their talk of pluralism and openness, obviously appoint judges and bureaucrats in their own image. But Müller appears to cherish a rosily idealistic view of the “nonpartisan civil servants” appointed by globalist elites, as if they scrupulously kept their political preferences out of their professional work, while only their counterparts appointed by populists could possibly be problematic.
Speaking generally, the most striking feature of Müller’s study is its failure to engage seriously with the issues which have given rise to contemporary European and American populism. The author wants to establish a timeless understanding of populism equally applicable to all circumstances, but at the same time it is clear he intends to use it specifically to discredit Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Viktor Orbán, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski (and their followers). But I doubt any abstract discussion of political tactics and rhetoric, apart from the specific concerns to which these politicians are responding, can explain their prominent and still rising position in contemporary politics.
The following passage is as close as Müller comes to addressing the fundamental issue of mass third world immigration:
What or who decides membership in the people, other than the historical accident of who is born in a particular place or who happens to be the son or daughter of particular parents? Put simply, the charge against populists that they are exclusionary is a normative one, but liberal democrats—unless they advocate for a world state with one single, equal citizenship status—also effectively condone exclusions of all those not part of a particular state. This challenge is known in political theory as the “boundary problem.” It famously has no democratic solution: to say the people should decide presumes that we already know who the people are—but that is the very question that demands an answer.
The boundary problem is not the kind of problem that any political theory can solve once and for all. Addressing it is a process in which both existing members and aspiring members can have a say; it should be a matter of democratic debate, not a once-and-for-all decision based on unchangeable criteria.
Let us consider the revealing phrase: “the historical accident of who . . . happens to be the son or daughter of particular parents.” Müller writes here as if pre-formed human souls were assigned randomly to infants from across the human race. This unbiological way of thinking is characteristic of egalitarian liberalism: think of John Rawls’ “original position.”
In fact, no actual human being could possibly have been born from anyone except the precise man and woman who were his biological parents, for he is constituted starting from their unique genetic material and perpetuates their individual traits, including what we think of as the most “human” traits such as personality and behavioral tendencies.
A nation is an organic community of more or less biologically related persons who, in the normal case, perpetuate their unique collective identity through natural reproduction—and not through democratic deliberation, as Müller states. There is indeed such a thing as naturalization, which stands in an analogous relation to citizenship by birth as adoption does to natural reproduction: the entire nation, in effect, can adopt new citizens. This happens most easily when they are of similar racial and cultural background to natural born citizens.
But naturalization can only supplement, never replace, the normal and natural reproduction of the nation. It is a serious matter not to be undertaken in order to boost support for one national political party at the expense of another, or in the name of vague happy talk about diversity: it involves questions of compatibility and loyalty which in times of national crisis may become matters of life and death.
But to the liberal, innocent of biology, it is only an “accident” whether a particular person is born white in a successful and affluent Western nation or Bantu in a failed post-colonial state in Africa. This is morally unbearable to him, and he inevitably arrives at the view that Western nations are morally illegitimate—“racist,” in contemporary parlance—because they exclude some persons. The only real solution to the problem is not found in any democratic deliberation, but precisely in what Müller calls “a world state with one single, equal citizenship status” (= Kojève’s “universal homogeneous state”). Liberalism is thus a deadly threat to Western nations.
In an afterword for the Penguin reprint, Müller writes:
If a populist asserts that Angela Merkel is pursuing a secret plan to replace the German Volk with Syrians, it is imperative that other parties to the debate signal that the territory of normal, legitimate democratic conflict has now been left behind decisively.
This observation does not speak well for the author’s ability to take long-range views. In fact, Merkel has not been secretive regarding her view that the German Volk consists of all persons presently living on German territory—and nothing more. In other words, she is an egalitarian liberal who believes in the fundamental interchangeability of peoples. On this view, the very notion of replacing a Volk, any Volk, becomes unintelligible; Syrians turn German as soon as they settle in Germany. Even if the descendants of Bismarck’s Germans become extinct, whoever is living on German territory will be their continuation by the same right as their own physical descendants would have been.
But plenty of Merkel’s subjects maintain the traditional, common-sense view of the nation as an organic community perpetuating its unique identity through natural reproduction. To them it is obvious that if present policies are maintained over a sufficiently long period, the share of ethnic Germans in the population will trend toward zero, for there will always be impoverished or war-torn countries whose citizens could improve their situation by moving. The endgame of such a process will resemble what whites are currently facing in Southern Africa.
If Prof. Müller counters that such considerations are undemocratic, then perhaps it is time for us to say a word about democracy. Like most contemporary authors, he treats it as an absolute good. I wish to state clearly that if a definite majority of European people were firmly decided upon abandoning sovereign control of our territories to foreigners, I would support the seizure and monopolization of political power by a minority willing to prevent this and to take all necessary measures for preserving our people and civilization. This is because I agree with Burke that society is a “partnership . . . not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” The present generation hold it in trust for future generations, and has no right to give it away to strangers indifferent to the fate of our children and our children’s children.
Western philosophers have always recognized that a good constitution will contain a democratic element, a way for the common people (in the words of the US Constitution) to “petition government for a redress of grievances.” But a fully democratic regime is only workable in a small, culturally and racially homogeneous community of virtuous (uncorrupt) citizens.
Today’s liberal elites have lost the instinct of collective survival: they no longer think it important, or even just, to perpetuate their people’s distinct identity. In my view, this qualifies as a state of corruption far more serious than any mere willingness to accept bribes. The best hope for the future of our people and civilization is a replacement of the corrupt liberal elite with a new one willing precisely to “create a state to their own political liking and in their own political image.” Even modern representative democracy would function better once this were done, although it may not be possible to achieve under the “democratic” rules laid down by liberalism itself.