What’s in a Name?

Issue Date April 2017
Volume 28
Issue 2
Page Numbers 170-174
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What Is Populism? By Jan-Werner Müller. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, 123 pp.

Although the revolutions of 1989 seemed to promise a new “post-ideological” era of liberal-democratic ascendancy, we have long been caught in a powerful authoritarian undertow that often goes by the name of “populism.” In this timely and illuminating book, political scientist Jan-Werner Müller analyzes that phenomenon while warning that it “tends to pose a danger to democracy” (p. 3). Although he published this work before Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency, Müller has since made it clear (in the Guardian on 24 January 2017, among other places) that he sees Trump as an “arch-populist” and a “threat to democracy.” And Trump is just one example of a trend that has not only affected the established democracies of Europe and North America, but is indeed global, stretching to countries as diverse as Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela.

This book draws on Müller’s scholarly work and his many essays for a broader audience examining the rise of right-wing populism in Central Europe. Brief but rich in insights, What Is Populism? offers a powerful critique of populist antiliberalism. But Müller’s account is not without flaws. To begin with, it takes an overly narrow approach to the range of political projects covered by the term “populism.” It also falters by conflating the concepts of “democracy” and “liberal democracy.” And while Müller astutely warns of the “dangers” that populism can present to liberal democracy, he fails to give full credit [End Page 170] to the role that certain kinds of populism have played and can play in invigorating liberal democracy.

According to Müller, populism is an antidemocratic discourse with its own “logic.” Populists say that they wish to challenge nefarious elites and to restore the unvarnished sovereignty of a “single, homogenous, authentic people” (p. 3). They claim to speak and act on behalf of this “true” nation while asserting that their opponents fall outside of it, or perhaps even are “enemies of the people” (p. 42). Populists may at times participate in liberal-democratic processes, but the “logic” of their position forces them to seek the permanent defeat of their “enemies” and the creation of an authoritarian state. Populists in power seek to capture the state and use it to advance this agenda, thereby threatening judicial and media independence, civil service professionalism, and political pluralism—and with them liberal democracy itself.

About the Author

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University–Bloomington and editor-in-chief of Perspectives on Politics.

View all work by Jeffrey C. Isaac

Müller sees populists as dangerous, but does not cast them as a hostile outside force. He argues, rather, that they respond to and exploit the vulnerabilities of liberal democracies from within, promising impossible solutions to real problems inherent in liberal-democratic polities. It is thus important for liberal democrats not only to understand the “logic” of populism and the threat posed by populists’ tyrannical tendencies, but also to deprive populists of political momentum by effectively addressing the problems that they exploit.

Liberal democrats, in other words, need to understand populism in order to defeat it. Channeling such key liberal writers as Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, and especially the Austrian constitutional scholar Hans Kelsen, Müller furnishes a concise and devastating critique of populists’ antipluralist leanings. He believes that liberal democracy is the only form of state consistent with the plurality of the modern world (a view that I share). At the same time, Müller’s “theory” of populism is imprecise, and he overreaches in his critique. I am tempted to say that this is due to the very militancy of his defense of liberal democracy.

Müller’s examples of populist proclivities invoke such diverse political actors as Trump; comedian Beppe Grillo, leader of Italy’s Five Star Movement; former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi; French far-right leader Marine Le Pen; the Netherlands’ anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders; Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán; increasingly authoritarian Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; George Wallace, a U.S. segregationist politician and presidential candidate in the twentieth century; and former or current South American leftist presidents Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, and Evo Morales. But his use of broad generalizations (“populists believe that …”) and anecdotal evidence to illustrate the dangers of populism is problematic.

Another problem lies in Müller’s efforts to define the boundaries of populism. He begins sensibly by suggesting that “the popularity of diagnosing all kinds of different phenomena as ‘populism’ … [represents] [End Page 171] a failure of political judgment” (p. 2). Later, he argues awkwardly against characterizing the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign of self-identified “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders as “populist.” He reaches the same conclusion regarding the nominal Populists of the 1890s People’s Party, often viewed as the classic example of populism in the U.S. context, and also separates out the Indignados protest movement that originated in Spain in 2011. For Müller, antipluralism and antiliberalism are built into the very definition of “populism.” Because groups such as the Indignados or the Sanders campaign clearly do not share the antiliberalism of movements such as Chavismo or Le Pen’s National Front, they are by definition not populist.

Such a verdict runs counter to common understandings of these left-leaning groups, a discrepancy that Müller addresses through a strained discussion centered on the phrase “we the people.” He acknowledges the obvious fact that most modern emancipatory movements have employed this type of rhetoric, which surely sounds populist. He argues, however, that populists do not simply invoke “people power,” but insist that “We and only we are the people” (p. 70). Many populists of the left and right surely do speak in this way. But while this dictum might well capture a core antiliberal belief of many populist leaders and parties, it is not obvious why groups that subscribe to a less restrictive interpretation of “we the people”—such as Sanders, the far-left parties Podemos of Spain and Syriza of Greece, many of the Occupy protest movements that took off in 2011, or U.S. immigrant-rights groups chanting “El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido” (“The people united, will never be defeated”) to protest the Trump administration’s immigration restrictions—are not populists.

In fact, Müller’s framework has trouble fitting in prodemocratic movements that use seemingly populist language. One possible remedy for this might be to sharpen the distinction between being a populist and merely invoking populist themes. Müller himself notes that “whether a particular claim is democratic or populist will not always be a clear-cut, obvious matter” (p. 74). If this is true, then it will always be a matter of political judgment to determine when a leader, a party, or a text is populist or instead voices populist themes in a democratic way, which seems [End Page 172] to be Müller’s understanding of the U.S. People’s Party, the Indignados, and the Sanders campaign. Müller also admits that discourse resembling that of populists is often an essential rhetorical tool in the contentious process of democratization: “In nondemocracies, ‘We are the People’ is a justified revolutionary claim; it is precisely not a populist one” (p. 73). Müller clearly wants to retain a distinction between “dangerous” and “justifiable” forms of populist rhetoric. Yet the powerful opposition between populism and democracy that he sets up often obscures these nuances.

For Müller, democracy means liberal democracy, or what Robert Dahl long ago called “polyarchy”: a form of representative government based on broadly universal adult suffrage, civil freedom, and regular and competitive elections. Populism is dangerous, says Müller, because it threatens the pluralism at the heart of liberal democracy. Yet Müller’s conceptualization obscures not only potentially liberating forms of populism, but also more problematic forms of democracy—those that are nonliberal and even antiliberal, but that lay claim to the mantle of “democracy” in politically powerful ways.

This becomes clear in his treatment of the theme of “illiberal democracy.” This term has come into broader usage since its embrace by Hungary’s Prime Minister Orbán in a 2014 speech, and is now used by European right-wing populists to justify their claim to be democrats. Müller acknowledges that the phrase “illiberal democracy” is “not necessarily a contradiction in terms” (p. 54). But he insists that such talk of what is often called “democracy with adjectives” cedes too much credibility to populists such as Orbán who threaten pluralism. Even to criticize “illiberal democracy” is a mistake, Müller maintains:

If critics keep invoking “illiberal democracy,” leaders like Orbán will simply say, “Thank you very much.” … [and] get to keep “democracy,” which, for all the disappointments over the last quarter-century, remains the most important ticket to recognition on the global stage. … All of this means we should stop the thoughtless invocation of “illiberal democracy.” Populists damage democracy as such (pp. 55–56).

This seems too easy. I join with Müller in criticizing and opposing antiliberals who employ the language of democracy. I share his fear that once in power they will endanger liberal democracy. But the history of democracy in the modern world is a history of contests over “adjectives.” The assertion that “illiberal democracy” simply means hostility to democracy itself is much too simplistic. Popular contention over the meaning of “democracy,” from both the right and the left, is an essential feature of modern democratic life that cannot be resolved by semantic fiat. Democracy is a labile and contested idea not reducible to liberal democracy. And liberal democracy is an inherently unstable system of government that is permanently open to contestation. While there are [End Page 173] populists who are antiliberal and dangerous, whose versions of “democracy” warrant criticism of precisely the sort Müller applies, there also are populists who are not antiliberal, and who seek to press, reform, or deepen liberal democracy rather than to undermine it. Their versions of democracy ought to be engaged and sometimes welcomed, not denounced as “populist” or treated as anomalies outside the binary of populism and democracy. Many forms of populism might represent the dark “shadow” of democracy, but others represent democracy’s potential illumination and enrichment.

Müller quotes Claude Lefort: “Democracy inaugurates the experience of an ungraspable, uncontrollable society in which the people will be said to be sovereign, of course, but … whose identity will remain forever latent.” Müller notes, “That also means that ‘the people’ is a volatile, risky, maybe outright dangerous expression” (p. 71). Yet he fails to draw the obvious conclusion: Modern democracy centers on rhetorical invocations and political mobilizations of “the people,” an inherently volatile, risky, and dangerous project that has been channeled into the development of fragile and ever-changing liberal democracies. The challenge for liberal democrats today is to incorporate the political energies of populists on the democratic left who believe that the defense of liberal democracy requires deepening and expanding its project of inclusion.

I believe that Müller would not really disagree with any of these points. Yet in his eagerness to defend liberal democracy in this moment of crisis, he relies on a binary that obscures as much as it illuminates. Despite this shortcoming, his book is an engaging and indispensable contribution to thinking about the challenges currently facing liberal democracy.


Copyright © 2017 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press