What is Populism?

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Book review: What is Populism? By Jan-Werner Müller. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. 136 pages. U$ 12.81 (Kindle, amazon.com)

With Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Rodrigo Duterte and Victor Órban on the rise, a global consensus has emerged that we are witnessing a wave of populism. Yet the term populism remains vague and difficult to define. What counts as populism, and how can we tell if a candidate is a populist? What is the difference between left-wing and right-wing populism? More importantly, is populism a threat to democracy, as many are nowadays pointing out? In an effort to answer these urgent questions and provide us with a road map, Jan-Werner Müller has written a remarkable and highly accessible book about the subject.

The questions above are complicated by the emergence of several groupings that are often opposed to each other, but which are all called 'populist' by their opponents -- such as the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street in the United States. In the same way, it often confuses people to hear that some US voters supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries then opted to vote for Donald Trump in the general election -- two politicians diametrically opposed on many policy issues.

Just like the term "liberalism", which means entirely different things in the United States (where it denotes center-left social democratic beliefs) and Europe (where it is used in the classic sense of limited government intervention on economic and social issues), populism evokes different images in different parts of the world. In the United States, populism is often associated to grass-roots movements, whereas in Europe, it is used in the sense of the demagoguery of candidates who support unsustainable economic policies and accumulate public debt. According to the author, these definitions are unhelpful. After all, grass-roots movements are an important part of democracy, and when it comes to devising policy, there is simply no uncontested line between responsibility and irresponsibility.

Müller says populism can be identified in several alternative ways. First of all, being critical of elites is a necessary but not sufficient element of a populist agenda. Secondly, populists always, at heart, reject pluralism, and claim to be the exclusive and moral representatives of "the people" and their interests. It is therefore, above all, a moralistic imagination of politics. Just like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Hugo Chávez called his opponents unpatriotic and implied they were guided by "foreign interests", articulating a moral form of antipluralism. Once in office, they tend to describe the opposition as illegitimate, immoral and "enemies of the people" -- this polarization is a key element of what populism thrives on. Just like Chávez and Maduro said those who voted against him were infiltrators and traitors, Donald Trump referred to "millions of illegal voters" who explain why he lost the popular vote.

Us vs them

After the Brexit vote, Nigel Farage spoke of a victory of "the real people", thus implicitly questioning whether those who had voted for Remain should count as full citizens. According to Müller, there is an important distinction: While railing against irresponsible elites is not necessarily populism, saying that elites do not belong or are not 'full citizens' does count as populism. Populists often refer to, like Nixon, a "silent majority" that, they claim to know, supports them. That is why, in their most extreme form, such as in Venezuela, populists no longer organize free elections: they are no longer needed since the populist leader knows what "the people" really want. After a lost election in 2002, Victor Órban famously declared that "the nation cannot be in the opposition", and México's Obrador called a victory of the right "morally impossible". As a consequence, populist governance is marked by a confusion of government and the party, "mass clientelism" (material benefits or bureaucratic favors to their supporters), corruption, and attempts to stifle the independence of the judiciary (as seen in Poland and Hungary), NGOs and the free media.

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Müller astutely explains how these characteristics explain many of populists' behavioral patterns. Since they represent the popular will and have a superior understanding of "the people", they usually seek to establish direct channels of communications that include the traditional media -- examples are Donald Trump's twitter account, Bepe Grillo's blog and Hugo Chavez's television show Alô Presidente. In addition, populists usually do not like the concept of political parties, an embodiment of pluralism. Therefore, populists rarely use the term "party", but rather refer to themselves as leaders of "movements" (like Trump in his victory speech) or a "front", which has a more authentic feel to it. Finally, most populists are in search of enemies to justify a constant crisis mode. While Chávez (and now Maduro) point to the United States, Órban blames the European Union, and Trump can be expected to point to China for everything that goes wrong in the coming four years.

Of course, most politicians make moral claims now and then, yet that does not automatically mean that they are populists. As the author points out, populists make claims that are of symbolic (and not empirical nature), so they cannot be disproven. That explains why Donald Trump or many other populists have no trouble citing wrong data or making groundless accusations. Non-populist candidates, by comparison, recognize that no party can permanently represent "the people".

Are we witnessing a global surge in populism? Applying Müller's definition, it becomes obvious how many governments are engaging in populist practices. According to Carothers and Brechenmacher, a growing number of governments are erecting legal and logistical barriers to NGOs, “publicly vilifying international aid groups and their local partners, and harassing such groups or expelling them altogether.” The success of populist campaigns in Britain and the United States -- the two oldest and arguably most mature democracies, does not augur well for elections in 2017. The author suggests that populist candidates have the greatest chance of succeeding where political parties are discredited. That points to a particularly grave danger across Latin America, where voters often have very little confidence in them. As scholars and practitioners across the world are discussing how to resist the populist wave, What is Populism? offers a great starting point and much-needed insight.

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Photo credit: Jamelle Bouie/via flickr