Democracy v. The People: Jan-Werner Muller on PopulismHistorians in the News
tags: political history, populism, Political theory
Alberto Polimeni is a writer in London. He studied philosophy and politics at King’s College London and the London School of Economics.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (cloth)
What Is Populism?
University of Pennsylvania Press, $19.95 (cloth)
For some, late 2020 brought with it an air of optimism regarding the fate of right-wing populism. In the United Kingdom, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party faded into obscurity, and the populist right’s GB News experiment foundered. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s disastrous response to COVID-19 seemed to hemorrhage his support and threaten his reelection chances. Greece’s fascist Golden Dawn party was legally disbanded, Germany’s AfD started slowly losing popularity and parliamentary seats, and Donald Trump lost to Joe Biden.
The picture looks different today. Trump continues to claim election fraud, Bolsonaro may win reelection later this month, and far-right parties have advanced in Sweden and Italy. But with the apparent respite came a flurry of political analysis seeking to draw key lessons from it—about strategies used to defeat the populist right and structural reforms that could codify these victories.
One of the most prominent voices on these trends has been Princeton political theorist and historian of political thought Jan-Werner Müller. In 2016 Müller published a much-heralded study, What is Populism?. Though written before Trump’s electoral victory, the book reflected the anxieties of many Europeans who already lived amongst powerful populist parties and movements and became all the more relevant in the years later. Following the perceived populist pullback of 2020, Müller turned his attention in Democracy Rules to ask what was wrong before this “populist tide,” and how can we fix it.
Throughout both books Müller demonstrates a willingness to puncture mainstream talking points. What is Populism?, for example, opens with a powerful and convincing criticism of the view that supporters of populist leaders—whether left-wing or right-wing—are either behaviorally disposed to authoritarianism or somehow brainwashed into their support. As he notes, these claims often reinforce condescending views of populist supporters, absolving elites from the responsibility of engaging them. Müller also rejects the shallow conflation of populist politicians with mere political opportunists or manipulators. Many populists are disingenuous elites, he would agree, but not all are; this formula does nothing to illuminate the precise significance of populism. At its core, Müller argues, populism is characterized by the embrace and weaponization of an exclusionary view of “the people,” whom they claim to authentically represent.
These are valuable, if not uncontroversial, arguments. Yet Müller’s norm-focused approach leaves a few mainstream shibboleths untouched, perhaps most notably his overall negative vision of populism. As Adom Getachew has noted in these pages, “populism gets a bad rap.” Müller contributes to that reputation. His understanding of the current moment is predominantly top-down: since it is elites who weaponize claims about “the people,” the remedy must involve changing the behavior of political elites and the institutions they run. The upshot of this approach is to de-emphasize the people who, at the end of it, are only given the option to participate on better terms in the systems in which they live. Too little is said in Müller’s analysis about their political sentiments: what they are, where they come from, and how they might be seriously engaged or responded to in diverse democratic societies. In the end, that means too little is said in these books about the actual nature of politics and power.
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