Standort: / Meldung: "Why Populism Is Dangerous And How To Fight It "

Chris Cummins

Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds.

2. 12. 2016 - 18:23

Why Populism Is Dangerous And How To Fight It

A wave of populist politics has been sweeping the world. Jan-Werner Müller says its perilously anti-pluralistic and denies the legitimacy of minorities. But what to do?

The populist surge has been perhaps the most significant political story of 2016. A wave of populist politics has been credited with putting Donald Trump in the White House and pushing the UK towards the exit from the EU.

Other politicians and movements described as populist have their tails up. In France, Marine Le Pen is riding high in the polls, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, having called a constitutional refendum, is under pressure from the the right-wing Lega Nord and Beppe Grillo's anti-EU 5 Star party. Here in Austria the Freedom Party might win the presidential election.


Tor Birk Trads / Princeton University

But few of these politicians describe themselves as populist, they say they are just popular.

Jan-Werner Müller, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, has written a book called "What Is Populism?" He is a visiting professor at the Institute for Human Sciences and I met him there to discuss the trend of the year.

Chris Cummins: We’ve been talking a lot about the wave of victories of populism in 2016. I guess first of all we need to define what we mean by populism?

Jan-Werner Müller: Not everybody who criticises elites is necessarily a populist. Of course populists, when in opposition, criticise elites, but above all they do something else: they say that they, and only they, represent what they tend to call the “real people” or often also the “silent majority”.

That might sound relatively innocuous, but it actually has two dangerous consequences for democracy. First of all populists will say that all other contenders for power are illegitimate and this is always a moral claim. They always make it personal, it’s a character question, and it’s not just a policy disagreement: just think about how Trump described his opponent over the last 16 months.

"Real People vs Less Real People"

Secondly and less obviously, populists will also say that all those among the people themselves who don’t share their vision of the “real people” and hence don’t support them, might have their status as properly belonging to the people put into question.

So think about Nigel Farage, during the night of Brexit, saying this had been a victory for “real people”. That implied that the 48 per cent, who wanted to stay in the EU, somehow weren’t quite real. So populists defend a kind of principled anti-pluralism and they always do two kinds of exclusion: one at the level of party politics, and less obviously one at the level of the people themselves.

Don’t we all do that a bit? I’ve heard Green politicians saying we Austrians are against nuclear power, but there might be people in Austria who are for nuclear power, but they say “we, the people, are against it”…

Of course we all try to in a sense to represent as many people as possible, but “normal” politicians are going to accept that some of these claims fail, and next time they try again, or try better or, in Samuel Beckett’s famous words, they try to fail better. Populists, very typically, are going to say “no, no, it wasn’t our fault – it was the elites’ fault, something was done behind the scenes to prevent us from winning”.


Chris Cummins

By definition if the silent majority weren’t kept silent, populists would always already be in power. Hence it’s not an accident that Donald Trump before the election said “if my opponent wins, something must have been rigged behind the scenes”. Or think about what happened in Austria. It’s always the claim that it’s never the populists’ fault to not represent the people as promised; it’s always the system’s fault.

There’s been a lot of brow-beating among liberals and about their ability to accept pluralism, to accept that they don’t have the answer to all the problems of the world. I read one pithy comment in a newspaper reader’s letter saying “if it’s an idea that’s well liked that I agree with, it’s popular, and if it’s an idea that’s well liked and I disagree with, it’s populism”. Is there some fairness in that?

Maybe it’s helpful to think more about what pluralism actually means in a democracy. It’s not a first order value like freedom or equality. It basically means that you’ve got to put up with things that you don’t particularly like, that you don’t particularly agree with, and at the same time you acknowledge that all of us somehow have to find fair terms of living together with people who are fundamentally different in certain respects, and who might have very different ideas about what the good life is, very different ideas about policy.

If we’re serious about this idea of course it does mean that liberals are also going to have to accept parties which might defend positions the liberals don’t like - as little immigration as possible, very conservative positions on family policy - but that’s not populism as such. Populism is to deny the legitimacy of all others.

Just in case Trump or Farage or Le Pen are reading this: you mean there’s nothing wrong with standing up for the overused cliché of the “little person”, it’s only when you start attacking the “other” as this demon…?

I don’t think anybody has a monopoly on sticking up for whoever the little person is supposed to be. Of course it used to be social democratic parties, for instance, who said “we represent a certain class”. I think we should be careful in adopting this image of politics as “oh, it’s about elites or establishment versus the masses or the people” as if that were a natural given. That already is making a concession to the populists, it already accepts their view that politics is always about elites and everybody else.

But that, in many cases, isn’t plausible. And not everybody who supposedly is a “little person” votes for populists. Normally when we think about other parties – Social Democrats, Tories in Britain, whoever it might be – we accept that these are very heterogeneous, diverse coalitions of people, and it’s strange how we tend to say we don’t believe a word of what populists say, they have all these simplistic policy ideas, but then we’re so ready to buy the story which they’re selling to us about their own success. So if they say it’s about globalisation, or if they effectively say the working class hates foreigners, we say “oh yeah, that must be the lesson”. But things are never that simple.

US President-elect Donald Trump speaks during the USA Thank You Tour 1.dez.2016


Donald Trump during his "USA Thank You"-Tour on 1st December 2016 in Ohio

Are populists doomed to fail once they get into power? We saw the Freedom Party lose a huge amount of support in Austria because they failed to get many of their ideas across, we saw Farage apparently leg it after the Brexit referendum. People say they’re great at raising people’s hackles and getting people angry but they’re no good at governing…

It depends on the particular context, but in general the liberal view that in principle these people can’t govern because they’re all protest parties, and by definition protesters cannot govern because you cannot then protest against yourself once you are in power, or similarly the idea that all these people have such simplistic policy ideas they’re bound to fail on day 2 of their government – these arguments are, I think, very naive.

We’ve seen plenty of examples of populists governing as populists, which, if you find my theory at all plausible, means they govern as anti-pluralists: they systematically are going to weaken the opposition, they are going to weaken checks and balances, they are going to govern in line with this idea that they are the only authentic representatives of the people. So if you look at Viktor Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, to some degree what is happening now in Poland – that’s populism in power. It’s not guaranteed to last forever by any means, but it’s not going to fail on day 2.

And if they have one weapon, it seems that if they are accused of not accepting the views of minorities, of being antagonistic towards ideas that diverge from their idea of “we are the people”, they say “oh, you’re just being politically correct” …

Yes, that becomes a major weapon over the last 20 or 30 years, to deploy what Donald Trump simply calls “common sense” against political correctness, which in our day has basically become a way of saying minorities should shut up and we’re just going to rule in line with, in Trump’s case, a traditional white hegemony of sorts. Again it comes down to populists always defining who they think the real people are.

So along those lines we should also not be naive about some of Trump’s recent announcements, or rather in his case recent tweets, when he said “we’re gonna unify, we’re gonna win, win, win”. Liberals have, I think, naively thought that’s a conciliatory gesture, that’s a way of gesturing towards more tolerance but it’s always unification on the terms of the populist: the populist defines who belongs and doesn’t belong, and if you don’t want to unify on his terms, you’re in trouble. So unification can mean something very different for a populist than for a more tolerant liberal.

If you believe that populism is a threat to European democracy, if you think it’s dangerous – how should mainstream politicians go about combatting it?

There are various levels. One is the level of actual policies – so this is not just about better PR or better spin doctors, you actually have to respond to people’s real problems. We don’t have time to go into great detail, but I think that’s always the first order of how to respond. But secondly I think it’s very important not to exclude populists on principle, because if you do that, if you say you’re not going to respond to them in parliament, you’re not going to be on the same podium in a talk show, you’re not even going to exchange arguments with them – you simply confirm the narrative which they sell to their own supporters: the elites never listen, there are all these taboos that nobody’s allowed to talk about and so on.

Having said that, talking WITH populists is not the same as talking LIKE populists, so having a debate does not mean that you then have to accept their entire framing of certain problems. For instance, recently Nicolas Sarkozy in France was running after Marine Le Pen and saying “I’ll be even stricter, I’ll be tougher than she is”. That doesn’t work so well because first of all you legitimate all these policy positions, secondly populists are going to say: look, you know we’re the original; they’re the copy, why don’t you vote for the original?

And lastly, we can debate many things – immigration, how to respond to the Euro crisis – but if there’s a point within a debate where a populist for instance starts to hint that there’s a secret plan by Angela Merkel to replace the “Volk” with Syrians, I think other politicians have to be very tough and confrontational and basically tell voters, citizens “look, now we’re leaving the territory of normal democratic debate, now we’re doing conspiracy theory”. Of course the populist is not going to respond by saying “oh sorry, I didn’t realise I was doing a conspiracy theory”. It’s about the audience, and the audience is going to say “yeah, I might agree with some of their positions on immigration, but I don’t really want to be in the same boat with people who do conspiracy theories, who basically tell us that we already live in a dictatorship”.

Simon Brugner / IWM

Jan-Werner Müller

I’ve noticed in all these election debates, across the world right now there is a very difficult position for a mainstream politician because you don’t want to get into a shouty, slanging match, so if the populist is coming up with shouty simplifications you don’t want to get involved in that battle, on the other hand if you’re too pluralistic and tolerant and say “that’s the way you see it” then you come across as very unconvincing…

Well, no. You should, of course, offer arguments and evidence, and not simply say, “Oh, that’s an impossible position”. One thing though, I think is also very important in a GOOD politician, which is to say someone who has a sense of timing, of context, good judgment in that regard, is able to do, is also sometimes to say, “Now it’s time to ignore populists for a while” because there are plenty of topics where, quite frankly, they don’t have a lot to say. As long as we talk about immigration, for instance, and globalization, they are going to rush in and say, “Yeah, that’s our business, we define who belongs and who doesn’t belong, we do borders, we do identity politics.” But, there are plenty of other challenges where they are not going to be able to say much beyond “Oh, don’t trust the experts, because the experts are part of the elite.” If you think about global warming, if you think about bioethical questions, stem cell research, these are pretty important issues, and I don’t think we should let populists always set the agenda.

But I’ve done enough travelling in rural areas, where populists are very successful, in America, and in Britain, and it seems to me that populist politicians thrive off being patronized, ignored by the mainstream politicians who like to say, “You’ve got nothing to say about this.”

If we think of the two most prominent examples of populists succeeding this year, Brexit and Trump, I think the important thing to notice is actually that it was supposedly mainstream politicians who did a lot of work in legitimizing them. Nigel Farage didn’t cause Brexit all by himself, he needed his Boris Johnson, he needed his Michael Gove, he needed to have these credible establishment figures to basically tell British voters that Farage is a bit eccentric, maybe, but his basic framing of the issues is right, his narrative is correct.

And the same with Trump. If Trump had run as a third party candidate, I don’t think he’d be president elect. He needed his Chris Christie, his Gingrich, his Giuliani, to basically tell republicans that this is actually a credible representative of the Republican Party. So it’s a mistake to conclude, “Oh, all I have to do is present myself as a total outsider, and the more outsiderish I am, the more successful [I will be].” We tend to forget that it takes, to really be successful, some people to break away from the supposed establishment and tell people that these are actually acceptable options.