In 2016, the German historian and political philosopher Jan-Werner Müller published “What Is Populism?,” a well-timed examination of rising political movements, from the United States to India. He also offered a new definition of the term, proposing that populist leaders are defined less by anti-élitist rhetoric than they are by their insistence that they represent an unheard majority of the people.
Müller has now followed this work with a new book, “Democracy Rules,” which looks at the ways democracy has been weakened over the past several decades, and offers solutions for insuring its survival. “This can be done without simply reinstating traditional gatekeepers,” he writes. “The people themselves are able to determine the ways in which intermediary institutions—parties and media, above all—should be refashioned.”
I recently spoke by phone with Müller, who is a professor of politics at Princeton. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed whether it makes sense to lay blame for populism’s rise at the feet of voters, the best ways to preserve democracy going forward, and whether right-wing populism can exist without bigotry.
Given the ways the world has changed over the past five years, has your conception of populism changed as well?
My understanding of populism has always deviated somewhat from the inherited American understanding of that term, which goes back to the late nineteenth century, and the sense that it is about Main Street versus Wall Street. Partly against the background of a European understanding of politics, I essentially want to argue that populism is really not just about criticizing élites or being somehow against the establishment. In fact, any old civics textbook would have told us up until recently that being critical of the powerful is actually a civic virtue, and now there’s much more of a sense that, well, this could actually somehow be dangerous for democracy.
So it isn’t as simple as that. It’s true that, when in opposition, populist politicians and parties criticize sitting governments and other parties, but for me what’s crucial is that they tend to allege that they and only they represent what they often call the “real people” or, also very typically, the “silent majority.” That might not sound so bad, that might not sound immediately like racism or fanatical hatred of the European Union or anything of that sort.
It doesn’t sound great.
No, it doesn’t sound great, but it’s not immediately obvious where the danger is. But it indeed does have two detrimental consequences for democracy. The obvious one is that populists are going to claim that all other contenders for power are fundamentally illegitimate. This is never just a disagreement about policies or even about values, which after all in a democracy is completely normal, ideally maybe even somewhat productive. No, populists always immediately make it personal and they make it entirely moral. This tendency to simply dismiss everybody else from the get-go as corrupt, as not working for the people, that’s always the pattern.
Then, second, and less obviously, populists will also suggest that anybody who doesn’t agree with their conception of the real people, and therefore also tends not to support them politically—that with all these citizens you can basically call into question whether they truly belong to the people in the first place. We’ve seen this with plenty of other politicians who are going to suggest that already vulnerable minorities, for instance, don’t truly belong to the people.
Long story short, for me populism isn’t about anti-élitism. Any of us can criticize élites. It doesn’t mean we’re right, but this is not in and of itself anything dangerous for democracy. What’s dangerous for democracy, and what I take to be critical to this phenomenon, is basically the tendency to exclude others. Some citizens don’t truly belong, and we see the consequence of that on the ground in India and Turkey and Hungary and in many other countries.
What about left-wing populism, which, as it’s generally understood, does not try to marginalize people by saying they’re not true members of the real people?
Again, I think it’s not about the criticism of élites as such. This is something that’s completely normal and completely fine within a democracy for left-wing actors. The crucial thing is, How do they talk about people who disagree with them? Do they argue with them, argue against them, but accept them as legitimate players in the democratic game, or do they essentially argue, No, these people shouldn’t be in the game in the first place? Lots of movements and parties which are today labelled as left-wing populism, let’s say Podemos, in Spain, or Syriza, in Greece, one doesn’t necessarily have to like their policies, but for me to put them in the same category as Marine Le Pen or for that matter in the same category as Chávez and Maduro, for whom it was clear after a certain point, there cannot be anything like a legitimate opposition—I know that these distinctions can be hard to pin down, there might be hard cases, but I think in many, many instances, you can tell whether somebody is essentially simply trying to discredit their adversaries completely.
You write that one response people have had to elections over the past five years is to blame the people who voted in Trump or Modi or Bolsonaro. You say that that’s the wrong way to go about this. I understand that if you’re a politician you don’t want to say that the people whose votes you need are stupid, but why is it wrong for people to blame voters for the choices they make, and isn’t that in a way respecting their choices?
Any of us can criticize the decisions of voters and, with regard to some of the leaders you just mentioned, there’s obviously plenty to criticize. My concern is that—how to put this politely—for a certain type of liberal, this has sort of opened the floodgates for basically indulging a lot of clichés from late-nineteenth-century mass psychology in terms of, oh, of course we always knew the people are so irrational, they’re always waiting for the great demagogue to seduce them. We need more professionalism, we need more gatekeepers, and so on.
I think that’s politically problematic because it violates a basic intuition about democratic equality, but then obviously I think it misunderstands how a lot of these outcomes came about. People, in some cases, at least, tend to project what happens later on back to the origins. One example, people say, Oh, in Eastern Europe, we all know that these people are probably more illiberal and they never understood multiculturalism. But if you look back on what actually happened about a decade ago, it’s not that Orbán stood there and said, Hey, vote for me, I’m going to disable the rule of law, I’m going to abolish media pluralism, I’m going to erect a plutocracy. He didn’t mention anything remotely radical in his election campaign that brought him to power for the second time. He didn’t even say he was going to change the constitution. Once he was in power, of course, many, many things happened, but then, in the next election, it’s already much harder for voters to come to truly informed judgments about some of what happens, plus many people are basically prevented from taking part in the first place. So I’m not saying voters are never to blame, but I think we need to be more careful in how we construct these stories.