Jan Werner-Müller on Populism
By Max Rozenburg
Words are fickle. Sometimes they are used so much they lose their primary purpose: they lose their meaning. Populism is such a word. It is a notoriously slippery concept, often thrown around without any real understanding of what exactly it entails. I met Jan-Werner Müller in the dusty cafeteria of Frascati Theater in Amsterdam. The German forty-eight year-old is a professor of politics at Princeton University, and the author of the book ‘What is Populism?’ Not-so-coincidentally, I wanted talk to him about that exact question.
“Contrary to what has become conventional wisdom,” he says with a faint German accent, “not everyone who tends to criticise the elites or acts up against the establishment is a populist, or poses some kind of threat to democracy. It seems to me that keeping a close eye on the powerful is a sign of being a good democratic citizen. It is true, of course, that populist opposition politicians criticise sitting governments, but I think what really matters about populists – and what is worrying about them – is that they will claim that they, and only they, represent the ‘real people’.”
“I believe populism has two pernicious consequences for democracy,” he continues.
“One is that, at the level of party politics, populist politicians will say that all other contenders for power are fundamentally illegitimate. This goes beyond disagreements about policy or values, which are quite normal – productive even – in a democracy. Populists will say that their opponents are morally corrupt or, to coin a phrase, ‘crooked’ characters. Secondly: populists will say that the citizenship of those people who do not share their ultimately symbolic construction of the ‘real people’, can be put into doubt. Populists reduce all political conflicts to questions of identity and will say that those who oppose them do not truly belong. For example: if you don’t applaud Donald Trump’s State of the Union, you’ll be told you’re un-American. It is this tendency towards exclusion – this anti-pluralism – that makes populism dangerous.”
“So populism comes down to a moral claim to a monopoly on representing the ‘real people’. This is not the same as nationalism – you can be a nationalist without making that claim. At the same time, populists need to explain who the ‘real people’ are, and for many, nationalism is an easy choice. Like ‘the international of nationalists’, it is said that a pan-European movement of populism is a contradiction in terms – but this doesn’t strike me as plausible.
A lot of contemporary populists engage in the same rhetoric as, for example, Giuseppe Mazzini during the unification of Italy in the 19th century. They say: ‘We want to liberate ourselves from,-‘ well, however the cliché comes out. Let’s say: ‘We want to liberate ourselves from the unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. We need to work together to achieve that.’ Less obviously: someone like Viktor Orbán does not deny a European commonality, but he claims to be speaking for the ‘real Europe’. The Europe that is truly Christian; the Europe that believes in nationhood and conservative family values.”
A Threat to Liberal Democracy
When I asked Muller how to counter the populist threat to liberal democracy he fell silent. “I wish I could hand you five bullet points on how to counter populism, but I’m not sure we can even create such a list,” he said hesitantly. “A couple of thoughts though, that may or may not resonate.”
“First: I think it is important to distinguish between party politics, and civil society. Populist politicians made it their business model to divide – they know that works for them. That is not necessarily true for citizens. I think observers are too quick to assume that everyone who votes for a populist party is a populist. The assumption that society consists of ‘millions of anti-pluralists who pose a threat to democracy’ is not helpful, because people vote for many different reasons. There is a better potential to draw these voters into a conversation on a societal level, rather than at the level of party politics. If you look at the 2016 presidential election in Austria, you can see that engaging civil society actors can avoid a populist from getting into power. I mean, God forbid – an old professor from Vienna with dubious ethnic heritage beat the self-declared ‘man of the people’ in 2016. I don’t want to idealise these things, but it’s important that we don’t give up on this level of engagement – a lot of citizens are not committed to anti-pluralism in the way the people they elect are.”
“At the level of professional politicians, I think it is important that we communicate that, yes, we can talk about all issues in a democracy. If you want to discuss closing the border to immigrants, then fine – it may not be your preferred policy position, but we can talk about that. Through these disagreements we are engaging in the democratic process. However: when a populist says that ‘Angela Merkel has a secret plan to replace the German folk with Syrians,’ – a real life example, by the way – it is very important we don’t treat this as yet another contribution in the debate about refugee policy. In a moment like that is important to draw the line. It may be a pious hope, but I think there is strong reason to believe that a large number of people that vote for populist parties might say: ‘I agree with some of these policies, but I don’t want to be in the same boat as people who tell me our democracy is a façade, and that everything is a conspiracy.’”
“It seems difficult nowadays to find a way to say ‘yes, we may be on the losing side of a political disagreement, but we can live with this outcome for another day.’ We are quick to idealise the past: people say that our contemporary political conflicts are about identity, and that political conflicts in the past were about interests. The implication being that, unlike interests, identity cannot be negotiated. This seems a bit simplistic – the socialist movement was not just about a wage-rise here and there, but also about identity building – but there is a grain of truth to that.
Yet for a part of European history we found a way to engage in these political conflicts without excluding the opposition. I am no consultant, but as a citizen I think we need to put more effort into saying ‘of course, we want to win in political conflicts, but we also want to take responsibility for the shape of our public culture’ – and we should find a way to do that without engaging in the populist’s game.
Because the populist plays that game better than us.”