What is Populism?

Today I’m going to look at Jan-Werner Müller’s short book What is Populism?

This timely volume is invaluable for bringing conceptual clarity to the analysis of populism, an often murky and poorly-defined concept that is, as we all know, having a heyday in Europe and the Americas.

In Müller’s analysis, populists claim a special mandate for speaking on behalf of the people, where the people is clearly understood to mean the real people, or the people who matter, not all of the people.

Populist politicians contrast the “real people” to the tiny elites who have captured governance. For example, from Trump’s inaugural address:

Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another — but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.
For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered — but the jobs left, and the factories closed.
The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
That all changes — starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you.
It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America. This is your day. This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country.

In Trump’s view, his victory is no less than an epochal shift from the business-as-usual capture of government by special interests to the restoration of the authority of the “American People,” who were shut out entirely for the last eight years, if not longer.

In other words, the democratically-elected Obama administration did not represent the “real America,” although his electoral victories were much stronger than Trump’s. In fact, not only are Obama’s policies viewed as anti-American, but Trump bizarrely insisted for years that Obama is not even an American.

Müller describes the intersection of the anti-pluralist and anti-democratic elements of populism in the following way:

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. Or, as Paulina Ochoa Espejo has argued, democrats make claims about the people that are self-limiting and are conceived of as falsifiable. In some sense, they’d have to subscribe to Beckett’s famous words in Westword Ho: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
Populists, by contrast, will persist with their representative claim no matter what; because their claim is of a moral and symbolic — not an empirical — nature, it cannot be disproven. When in opposition, populists are bound to cast doubt on the institutions that produce ‘morally wrong’ outcomes. Hence they can accurately be described as ‘enemies of institutions’ — although not of institutions in general. They are merely the enemies of mechanisms of representation that fail to validate their claim to exclusive moral representation.

Timothy Gordon Ash extends this important analysis in his review of What is Populism? in the New York Review of Books:

The appeal, then, to common sense, is a parallel strategy for negating the role of authority as it has traditionally been understood in democratic cultures, as deriving from experience, expertise, training, evidence, and argument.

This, I submit, is precisely why Trump insists on claiming that he has an overwhelming mandate, in clear defiance of all abundant evidence to contrary. He is claiming that his legitimacy derives from the will of the people in order to justify acting outside of traditional norms and structures, which he regards as impediments to the efficient execution of plainly-warranted action.

Thus, the White House continues to insist that Trump won a “landslide victory,” baldly asserting this again and again in face of obvious and overwhelming counter-evidence, such as the fact that he lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes, and came in 46th out of 58 elections in electoral college votes.

To this we add the bizarre spectacle of White House spokesman Sean Spicer contradicting photographic evidence showing that the inauguration had a very poor turnout, leaving baffled editors to write “Not The Onion” headlines like White House press secretary attacks media for accurately reporting inauguration crowds.

Müller’s analysis, I would argue, goes a long way toward explaining why we’re seeing this odd behavior. This is a strategic gesture that serves at least two ends.

First, Trump insists on an overwhelming mandate from the people as a way of grounding his all-encompassing legitimacy and authority in the popular will. Trump systematically delegitimizes traditional norms and institutions and claims unfettered authority for himself as a spokesperson for the people.

Second, by seizing every opportunity to flatly contradict the consensus of the mainstream press, Trump provides more and more evidence to his base that all reporters are liars. As he stated yesterday, “I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”

Remember, because populists speak for the people, there can be no legitimate opposition. As Müller put it, anticipating Trump’s many diatribes, “Other political competitors are just part of the immoral, corrupt elite, or so populists say, while not having power themselves; when in government, they will not recognize anything like a legitimate opposition.”

This is why Trump characterizes his opponents relentlessly as disloyal, or enemies, or criminal, or not American.

Repeating accusations about the “lying media” over and over again makes it a leitmotif that his base can easily recognize. Through repetition, it takes on a matter-of-fact quality that allows one to dismiss any assertion by the media, no matter how carefully documented, as just another example of the well-known fact that the corporate media has it in for Trump, and for the “real America.”

In my previous posts analyzing the increasing failure of reason and evidence to serve their traditional roles as the basis for democratic deliberation, I spent considerable time unpacking the idea of common sense, or ideas that are taken to be obvious facts of the world.

Populism thrives on such “common sense.” Its representatives reduce complex social problems to simple models with simple policy solutions, often based on reasserting shared, rigid understanding of the boundaries of the real community. The problem is elites and foreigners, the solution is lock ’em up and build the wall. It’s common sense.

As Müller observes:

[T]he emphasis on a singular common good that is clearly comprehensible to common sense and capable of being articulated as a singularly correct policy that can be collectively willed at least partly explains why populism is so often associated with the idea of an oversimplification of policy changes.

Dealing with Populism

So how do we deal with populism? To answer this key question, Müller focuses primarily on how to accurately describe, analyze, and engage with populists. One noteworthy suggestion is that mainstream parties and media outlets have often tried isolating them, refusing to engage with populist parties and politicians. This approach, Müller warns, frequently backfires, because it feeds into the central populist narrative that their concerns are ignored and marginalized by the political elite.

Müller also warns against obvious tactics that are likewise self-defeating, such as “proving” that populists are themselves part of the very elite they claim to criticize:

It scores no points to prove that Trump is part of the elite — everyone knows that. What matters is that he’s perceived as part of the “right elite,” and that they will faithfully execute the people’s unambiguously articulated political agenda.

Let’s all take careful note of this important point — we should take it to heart. This approach is a waste of time.

As an alternative strategy, Müller argues for direct engagement on the strength of the issues. In this, he reminds me of Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago, who compared Trump’s populism to that of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Zingales warned that the politics of outrage and protest are counter-productive, pointing out that Berlusconi was only defeated by politicians who disregarded the sideshow, treated him as an ordinary opponent, and focused on issues.

Müller argues forcefully that we must compete with populism by opposing it with better ideas and better action. He wants us to take populism seriously on its own terms and engage it on the policy level. He warns against the “dead end” of trying to understand populism as an expression of anger or frustration by the electorate, or as a political ideology symptomatic of an underlying personality type, such as authoritarian.

These explanations are simply reductive, in his view — that is to say, they do not offer any explanation, they simply explain it away.

He further warns against taking populism as indicative of bad reasoning or poor education, pointing out that these charges actually exemplify the very elitism that populists criticize. We should not try to find pathology in it, but take it seriously as an expression of ideas and beliefs.

I have several problems with this approach. Much as I would like to believe that fundamental issues of political relevance can be decided on the strength of ideas and evidence, the clear fact of the matter is that this has failed to happen in crucial domains.

There is simply no rational basis for anyone to maintain at this point that Obama was not a legitimate president because he is a Muslim — that is false, and, further, is patently absurd and quite racist. When reason and evidence fail to sway people with respect to the basic facts of the world, such as climate change, we have a very serious problem.

I do think we have to take seriously the possibility that populism appeals primarily to people who are not adept at abstract conceptual thinking — this is a large part of the appeal of its conceptual simplicity.

We do have empirical support for this conclusion — for example, see Nate Silver’s lengthy analysis in which he concludes that “it appears as though educational levels are the critical factor in predicting shifts in the vote between 2012 and 2016,” with lower education correlating strongly with support for Trump.

I do not agree that explaining populism as symptomatic of frustration or anger, or of particular personality types or processing styles, is necessarily reductive. There is a tradition of ideological analysis called strain theory, for example, that is based on the theory that ideologies are primarily symptomatic of social stresses and frustrations. Such a view can be the beginning of a deeper analysis rather than the end of critical engagement.

We also have to be serious about the degree to which Trump will refuse to engage in dialog with anyone outside of his entourage of cheerleaders and yes-men. In his last press conference, he was centrally occupied by berating the press and refusing to answer pressing questions. I honestly don’t know what engagement with these people would like.

Furthermore, the question that occupies me more and more as I work to formulate my own strategy of opposition is this: If Trump has not plainly shown himself to be a corrupt, incompetent buffoon in the eyes of his base through his own words and actions, what more could anyone else possibly add through any criticism? Trump said at a campaign rally that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” and the available evidence suggests that he’s right.

Nevertheless, fight we must, and I’d like to conclude with a pointed quote from the book which explains why populism is a problem per se, and why we must oppose it, if we believe in democracy:

We might want to say that the real problem with populism is its denial of diversity effectively amounts to denying the status of certain citizens as free and equal. These citizens might not be excluded officially, but the public legitimacy of their individual values, ideas of what makes for the good life, and even material interests are effectively called into question and even declared not to count. As John Rawls argued, accepting pluralism is not a recognition of the empirical fact that we live in diverse societies; rather, it amounts to a commitment to try to find fair terms of sharing the same political space with others whom we respect as free and equal but also as irreducibly different in their identities and interests. Denying pluralism in this sense amounts to saying “I can only live in a political world where my conception of the polity, or my personal view of who is a real American, gets to trump all others.” This is simply not a democratic perspective on politics.

As I hope is clear, I found this book extraordinarily useful, and would very highly recommend it to any interested reader. It’s scarcely over 100 pages long and provides a stellar guide to the strange and ugly terrain that we find ourselves in. This is clearly the political crisis of our current times.

Next time I’d like to look at some rather different takes on populism through the eyes of two of the great European thinkers working today: the French economist Thomas Piketty and the German political philosopher Jürgen Habermas.