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What Populism Isn’t

3,641 words

Jan-Werner Müller
What is Populism?
Penguin, 2017

When a political establishment feels threatened by a growing force like National Populism, Plan A is to defend the establishment and attack its opponents by dispatching middle-brow journalists to sneer and jeer and middle-brow political hacks to construct partisan talking points. The establishment’s goal is to shore up the loyalty of its base, to poison the minds of the undecided, and to demoralize dissidents by treating them like dirt.

If Plan A fails to beat back the rising tide, Plan B is to dispatch academic Brain Bugs to study the opposition and formulate critiques and counter-strategies. Obviously, the assumption of Plan B is that the establishment needs objective knowledge to counter serious opponents. There’s a danger, though, that traces of Plan A’s partisan apologetics get in the way of Plan B’s serious intellectual analysis. A case in point is Jan-Werner Müller’s What Is Populism?

Populism and democracy mean exactly the same thing. Even their etymologies are the same. Demos is Greek and populus is Latin for “the people.” “The people” properly refers to the whole of a body politic, but it can also refer to “the many” — the common people as opposed to elites.

Populists use “the people” in both senses. Populists hold that political legitimacy is based on the common good of society — of the people as a whole. But populists often speak in the name of the people in the narrow sense of “the many,” because when political systems stray from the common good, it virtually always takes the form of “the few” — governmental and economic elites — pursuing their factional interests at the expense of the many. Therefore, populist movements champion and mobilize the people in the narrow sense in order to restore a regime to serving the interests of the people in the broad sense.

When populists win power, therefore, they are mandated to purge and renew the instruments of state, since their entire campaign is premised on the claim that these have been corrupted into tools of special interests. Furthermore, a populist regime cannot give unrestricted power to the many (the people in the narrow sense) at the expense of the few, for that itself is merely a form of factionalism, and legitimacy requires ruling for the common good (the good of the people in the broadest sense).

Populism is normatively egalitarian in the sense that the state must govern in the interests of every member of the people, including the most humble. But populists also recognize that people are in fact unequal. People are unequal in terms of intelligence, practical wisdom, tastes, time preferences, and virtues. Obviously, it is better — other things being equal — to be ruled by the wise rather than the foolish, the virtuous rather than the vicious, etc. Thus the optimum form of government is one where the best rule for the good of the whole.

To ensure that even a populist regime does not degenerate into another form of elitism, however, one has to give some power to the people. It seems obvious that deliberation on technical matters of state is best left to experts and representative elites. But in every white nation today, we would have better policies on immigration, globalization, and multiculturalism if the people voted on them in daily plebiscites with their smart phones. It’s not an ideal form of government, but it is a good indication of how corrupt our elites have become.

People power can take a number of forms: the election of representatives, referendums to vote on important changes to the law, and ballot initiatives whereby the people themselves can petition for laws to be put to public vote. We are all familiar with the dangers of “mobocracy.” Every serious populist regime needs to take precautions against it. But the people do not vote all the time, whereas elites have their hands on the levers of power every single day. So the danger of elite corruption is far more pressing than the danger of mobocracy.

Müller, however, argues that populism is not the same as democracy. It is a threat to democracy, “a degraded form of democracy that promises to make good on democracy’s highest ideals (‘Let the people rule!’)” (p. 6).

Müller claims that populists have three traits:

First, populists are critical of elites. This is a necessary condition of being a populist, but it is not a sufficient condition. Not everyone who criticizes elites is a populist.

Second, populists are anti-pluralist, meaning that they, and they alone, claim to represent the real interests of the people, hence their opposition is ipso facto illegitimate. Liberal democracy, by contrast, is pluralist, which apparently means that liberals do not claim to represent the real interests of the people and do not regard their opposition as ipso facto illegitimate. Anyone who has watched the American Left for the last two years  — as soon as they had a Republican President who actually said “no” to them from time to time — knows that Müller’s definition of pluralism is self-serving claptrap. Every serious political movement thinks that it represents the real interests of the body politic and that its opponents are illegitimate. Every serious political movement is, therefore, anti-pluralist.

Third, populism is a form of identity politics, since it presupposes that there is a people with a specific identity and a specific common good. Not all forms of identity politics are populist, however, as one can quickly ascertain by visiting Tumblr or a college campus.

Thus Müller argues:

What follows from this view of populism as an exclusionary form of identity politics is that populism tends to pose a danger to democracy. For democracy requires pluralism and the recognition that we need to find fair terms of living together as free, equal, but also irreducibly diverse citizens. The idea of the single, homogeneous, authentic people is a fantasy; as the philosopher Jürgen Habermas once put it, “the people” can only appear in the plural. And it’s a dangerous fantasy, because populists do not just thrive on conflict and encourage polarization; they also treat their political opponents as “enemies of the people” and seek to exclude them altogether. (pp. 3-4)

There’s a lot to unpack here.

First of all, the idea of the “single, homogeneous, authentic people” is not a fantasy. It is a norm. It is the idea of the common good. Müller also sneers that populists define the people as “righteous and morally pure” (p. 3), which makes perfect sense if they are gesturing toward the norm of the common good, the good of the people.

Second, no populist denies that there is a plurality of different opinions about the common good. But there is a difference between truth and opinion. And only the truth about the common good is a criterion of political legitimacy. There is, moreover, only one truth. The plurality of different opinions about the common good is not a norm, it is a problem.

Liberals, of course, pretend to disbelieve that there is one truth about the political good, or any other good. This is Müller’s “irreducible” diversity. Thus the plurality of different opinions is not just the starting point of politics, it is the end as well. It is not a political problem, it is the political norm, which means politics as infinite debate which never eventuates in either  truth or decisions. Of course liberals always belie this when they have power. Which means that liberal ideology is always, in practice, just a mask for some other form of politics, namely special interest politics.

Third, Müller’s concept of pluralism is much bigger than just diverse opinions about politics. It also has an ethnic dimension. But why would Müller think ethnic diversity is “irreducible”? He never raises the question of whether there can be too much ethnic diversity for there to be a workable society. But when there are multiple peoples in the same political system, people cease to have anything meaningful in common. Thus politics can no longer be about pursuing the common good but simply about managing conflicts, which fits into the relativistic liberal concept of politics as endless non-threatening prattle. But the best way to avoid ethnic conflicts within a society is to reduce diversity, i.e., move borders or peoples to create ethnically homogeneous societies. Ethnically homogeneous societies not only minimize ethnic conflict but also make possible the pursuit of the common good.

Fourth, the idea that populists are bad because they thrive on conflict and polarization and regard their opponents as “enemies of the people” who should be excluded from politics is breath-taking pretense. Are we to believe that liberal democrats do not thrive on conflict and polarization, do not regard their opponents as “enemies of the people,” and do not seek to silence and disempower them? Obviously this is untrue. Populists and liberals differ in their goals, but they don’t differ in the matter of fighting their enemies. As Müller makes clear, however, they also differ in their levels of self-awareness and honesty. There’s a vast gulf between liberal ideology and liberal behavior. Populists are far more honest and self-aware than liberal democrats.

The core of Müller’s objection to populism is the assumption that the true interests of the people are not necessarily the same as what people happen to think about the common good, if they think about it at all. Populists, in short, assume that there is a distinction between truth and opinion, and that this distinction makes politics a serious business, whereas Müller treats these views as scandalous. Let’s look at a few quotes:

Populism, I suggest, is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified — but, I shall argue, ultimately fictional — people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior. . . . In addition to being antielitist, populists are always antipluralist: populists claim that they, and only they, represent the people. Other political competitors are just part of the immoral, corrupt elite . . . ; when in government, they will not recognize anything like a legitimate opposition. The populist core claim also implies that whoever does not really support populist parties might not be part of the proper people to begin with. In the words of the French philosopher Claude Lefort, the supposedly real people first has to be “extracted” from the sum total of actual citizens. This ideal people is then presumed to be morally pure and unerring in its will. . . . The core claim of populism is thus a moralized form of antipluralism. (pp. 19-20)

For Müller, populists are dangerous because they think that they are right and their opponents are wrong. Unlike liberal democrats, of course. Müller, in short, is feigning moral skepticism or nihilism as a standpoint from which to criticize populists. But when liberal democrats are in power, such views are conveniently dismissed.

The populist logic also implies that whoever does not support populist parties might not be a proper part of the people — always defined as righteous and morally pure. (p. 3)

Here Müller is overlooking a crucial distinction. Populists think that there are two main causes of anti-populism.

First and foremost, members of the people may simply be mistaken about the political good. But their minds can be changed through public discussion and deliberation and the other democratic processes that liberals fetishize as ends in themselves.

Second, it is true that many opponents of populism are not actually members of the people. Jews, for instance, tend to oppose populism in their host nations because they see themselves — and are seen in turn — as a distinct people. As immigration increases ethnic diversity in white societies, it increases the number of voters who are not actually part of the people in anything but a legal sense.

This is the core claim of populism: only some of the people are really the people. (p. 21)

Yes and no.

Yes, because some voters really aren’t members of the people in any meaningful way — because they see themselves as members of different peoples, because they have hostile and contemptuous attitudes toward the people, because they exist in an exploitative relationship to the people, etc.

No, because the most important contrast is between truth and opinions about the common good. So it would be more accurate to say that the core claim of populism is that only some of the people understand what is in fact in the interests of all the people. Müller would pretend this is shocking. But show me one liberal democrat who does not think exactly the same way.

At one point of his analysis Müller mentions that there is something “Rousseauean” about populism but then qualifies it by saying that Rousseau was a democrat. He could not be more mistaken:

What [populists] usually suggest is that there is a singular common good, that the people can discern and will it, and that a politician or a party . . . can unambiguously implement it as policy. . . . populists always sound at least somewhat ‘Rousseauean’ even if there are also important differences between populism and Rousseau’s democratic thought . . . (p. 25)

. . . the major difference between populist representation of the people and Rousseau’s general will [is:] The formation of the latter requires actual participation by citizens; the populist, on the other hand, can divine the proper will of the people on the basis of what it means, for instance, to be a “real American.” More Volksgeist, if you will, than volonté générale . . . (p. 29)

This is an elementary but common misreading of Rousseau. For Rousseau, the general will of a people is its objective common good. But the general will is not necessarily the same thing as the will of all, or the will of the majority, because people can be radically mistaken about what they really want. The general will cannot, therefore, be “formed.” It can only be discovered. But the wills of the people can be harmonized with the general will through laws, political education, and political participation.

For Müller, the danger of the populist idea of an objective common good is that it licenses leaders to ignore public opinion when it does not correspond with objective truth:

For [populists], ‘the people themselves’ is a fictional entity outside existing democratic procedures, a homogeneous and morally unified body whose alleged will can be played off against actual election results in democracies. (p. 27)

[Populists] do not want people to participate continuously in politics. A referendum is 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. Populism without participation is an entirely coherent proposition. (p. 29)

Again, where Müller writes “fiction” read “norm.” If the common good is an objective political norm, then of course it exists outside of democratic procedures. Democracy tabulates opinions, and opinions are not necessarily true. Also note Müller’s description of democracy as “a matter of aggregating empirically verifiable interests.” By this sort of verbal alchemy, opinions — which have no necessary connection with truth — are “empirically verifiable” (they may be worthless, but they can be counted) while the objective common good is merely a “fiction.”

Populists often call for referendums because they believe that multiparty democracies are corrupt and less likely to secure the common good than voting. Indeed, we would probably be better off determining every legislative issue by flipping a coin rather than delivering it to the deliberations of our corrupt elites. Parliaments today do not determine policies by means of philosophical dialectic. They are auction houses, where political policies are determined by the highest bidders among special interest groups, many of them foreign and otherwise unaccountable. But it is only referendums that Müller derides as charades.

Referendums, of course, do deliver surprise results. The British political establishment only put Brexit up for vote because they were assured that it would lose.

Müller is talking nonsense when he baldly asserts that “Populism is not a path to more participation in politics” (p. 102). When most people’s political participation is confined to elections every four or five years, of course having more referendums means more political participation. But that upsets the plans of the existing elites. Müller’s view on this matter is transparent shilling for the political establishment.

Speaking of charades, what exactly is the point of “an open-ended process of deliberation”? Elsewhere he speaks of “open-ended processes of democratic will formation” (p. 102). Why would anyone, even a politician, want to “participate continuously” in politics? The only circumstances in which political deliberation is open-ended is if it cannot result in truth or decisions. What’s the point of it then? Discussion as an end in itself? This is Carl Schmitt’s view of modern liberalism at its worst. It would be unfair to liken it to masturbation, for at least masturbation is pleasurable. Liberal democratic deliberation is just endless moral preening. Like the driveling of an auctioneer, this signaling only concludes when the Israelis or Saudis or the Corporate Alliance place the winning bid. Then the hammer slams down. “Sold!”

But this isn’t really corruption. It is just liberalism in practice. Müller, like most liberals, seems to think that the essential trait of liberalism is tolerance. Anyone who rejects the fundamentals of liberalism knows what a delusion that is. The essential difference between populism and liberalism is that populists believe in the idea of the common good and liberals don’t. Liberals deny that common good exists, or they allow that it might exist but insist cannot be known, or if it does exist and can be known, they still say that collective action cannot secure it and that we have to hope that it will come about as a side effect of individuals pursuing private interests.

When you come right down to it, for liberals only special interests matter. Thus when special interests strike deals with legislators — who also cannot help but act in their own private interests — that is just liberalism at work. It only looks like corruption if you believe in something like the common good. For liberals, humanity is global, and so is the marketplace. If you think it is corrupt for foreign money to buy American policy — say, through a donation to the Clinton Foundation — that’s only because you believe that nations matter.

Müller attributes to Schmitt the populists’ “fateful conceptual split between the ‘substance’ of the people on the one hand and the empirical outcome of elections or opinion surveys on the other” (p. 52). Ironically, this view is pure Rousseau as well. Rousseau follows Socrates in holding that the will truly wants is the objective good. Freedom of the will is getting what we really want, namely the good. But we can mistakenly think that we want something else, something bad. Thus it is possible to make people freer by preventing them from pursuing false values. This is why Rousseau claims that we can be “forced to be free.” The same logic, of course, applies to the collective will of voters. Sometimes giving the people want they think they want makes them less free. In such cases, saying no to the people makes them more free, not less.

But again, name one liberal democratic politician who does not hesitate to ignore the expressed preferences of voters on such matters as immigration, globalization, diversity, abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty, etc. Populists and liberals have very different goals, but both groups feel entirely justified in ignoring the voters when they make the wrong decision. Populists are merely honest about this, while liberals hypocritically denounce them.

Müller is at his absolute worst when describing populists in power.

First, once populists are in power, they have the nerve to actually change the direction of the government from liberal to populist ends. Hilariously, Müller calls this “hijacking” the state, as if they are breaking the law rather than carrying out their constitutional and popular mandate.

Second, populists engage in “corruption” and “clientelism” by delivering concrete benefits to their voters — something liberals would never dream of doing.

Third, populists seek to “suppress civil society” (p. 4), meaning they seek to end the political influence of unaccountable foreign actors — which truly is something liberals would never dream of doing.

Müller also repeats the canard that Poland and Hungary are violating the “rule of law” by replacing ideologically hostile judges and bureaucrats and seeking to rein in the unaccountable liars in the Left-wing press. It never occurs to him that such measures would not be necessary if the Left had not systematically corrupted the leading institutions of society. Müller merely echoes the petulant outrage of sore losers who feel entitled to always get their way, no matter what the public wants.

Müller’s book is not a complete disaster. He correctly observes that the widespread liberal canards that populists are just motivated by “fear,” “anger,” and “resentment”– not to mention “racism” and “fascism” — simply confirm the populist sentiment that the elites are condescending, dismissive, and unwilling to listen (p. 16).

What is Populism? is a truly terrible, even contemptible performance. Müller is Professor of Politics at Princeton University, so he’s not totally stupid. What’s stupid is the Left-liberal democratic ideology and system that he defends. One gets the impression that he has lived so long in the echo chamber of academia and the middle-brow press that he has never really articulated and challenged his own political convictions. You’d think that would come with the territory as Professor of Politics at Princeton. But they don’t make Princeton professors like they used to. I think Müller stumbles so badly because, for perhaps the first time in his life, he has blundered out of the cave into the sunlight.

But take heart: an establishment this out of touch is truly doomed.


  1. Afterthought
    Posted December 28, 2018 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Their doom was never in question; whether they would take us down with them is at issue.

    “National Populism” has a certain ring to it, far better than the “Alt Right”, which from the first words dooms us to failure as the winning movement can’t even be right wing, but rather a movement of racial unity en route to government(s) of racial unity.

    • Owl Thrasher
      Posted December 29, 2018 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      The problem I’ve always had with the Alt Right term is how the word “Alt” is used. I get the point, but if you win public office, then you are no longer the alternative right, but the right. I’d prefer it if we came up with our terms along the possibility of an idealized future where we have secured our victory. We are grassroots now, but the goal should be the overrun the existing status quo and become the new status quo.

  2. A. Yell
    Posted December 28, 2018 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    Maybe I’m stating the merely obvious here but it seems to me when you get right down to it the criticism of populism/populists by the Liberal/Left coalition AND the capitalist conservatives is we are EFFECTIVE. Effective in our opposition to them as well as getting something done politically/governmentally. After all if we succeed not only are they out of power but they may be out of a job because we’ve actually solved problems!

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted December 28, 2018 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

      The establishment will succeed in containing populism right up to the point that they fail to contain it.

      Populism is still awakening.

      It will become much more powerful and focused when populists have a clearer understanding of what they want and what it will cost. That’s the role of intellectual exercises like this. You are only free when you have a sense of the choices available to you and the costs of pursuing them.

  3. nineofclubs
    Posted December 28, 2018 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    It strikes me that there’s a fundamental difference of opinion about the role of the State underpinning Muller’s views.

    IMO the only legitimate role of the state is to serve and protect the organic nation(s) it governs. This implies some consideration of what is in the nations best interest – followed by a delivery of that public good.

    Muller’s view seems to imagine government as a forum for the ceaseless debate of opinions – some of which are tangential to the public good. He may be excused for seeing the State in this way – after all, it’s how most Western governments actually operate.

    Meanwhile, however, established groups with power dictate public policy – almost without regard to the nightly televised soap opera of politics as usual. ‘Politics’ is reduced to a circus. The views debated there don’t change the course of history. The lives of the people continue on – economic treadmill overlaid with spiritual malaise and techno-escapism.

    This is why populism rises across the world. Muller seems to be clinging to a theoretical model of how the state operates, which may have been true in the past but bears no semblance to reality today.


    • Greg Johnson
      Posted December 28, 2018 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

      His model of the state is liberal. Populists believe in a common good. Liberals don’t. The think the state — and society more broadly — is merely a way to ensure that individuals can pursue their own private ends while not impeding the equal rights of others to do the same.

      • Hugh
        Posted December 29, 2018 at 12:24 am | Permalink

        Dr. Johnson,

        Thank you for your amazing work. Great essay. I may be wrong, but, isn’t the statement in your comment that liberals don’t believe in the common good, perhaps too broad and oversimplified? Would it not be the case that utilitarians believe in something which could reasonably be called the common good? And are not many utilitarians also liberals?

        • Greg Johnson
          Posted December 29, 2018 at 12:41 am | Permalink

          Interesting question. I am not sure how to handle it. Utilitarianism has an aspect of collectivism. But liberals run a spectrum from radical libertarians to Leftist interventionists. The Left of course makes use of collectivist ideas in economics, but this exists uneasily with the moral skepticism and relativism that is their default rhetorical position when dealing with anyone who would critique them on moral grounds. If you were to offer a Left liberal the argument that gay marriage is a bad idea because it is bad for society as a whole, they would immediately reach for (1) moral relativism/skepticism about the very idea of society as a whole and its good, or they would (2) say “If that is so, then society deserves to suffer.” Either option is a denial of the common good whenever it interferes with expressive individualism.

      • LineInTheSand
        Posted December 30, 2018 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

        “Populists believe in a common good. Liberals don’t.”
        “When you come right down to it, for liberals only special interests matter.”

        Good Lord, the clarity of Greg’s insight.

  4. Owl Thrasher
    Posted December 29, 2018 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    I find it quite funny that Liberals like Jan-Werner are so neurotically obsessed with the possibility of a Populist uprising in “our democracy” as a hijacking, as if “our democracy” is being taken over by some hostile foreign entity. This is the same kind of attitude by these types when they whine constantly about how the Russians hijacked the election, and attacked “our democracy.” (I’m using quotations to parrot their propagandist language) What they are protecting here whenever they use such othering language is the Globalist Capitalist status quo, as the primacy of the dollar over the people. Why is it that this same Left (the neoliberal Left, not the far Left) doesn’t show the same concern over how Israel influences our government? (I’m thinking of AIPAC)

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