What Is Populism?
Penguin Books

Jan-Werner Müller



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First published in the United States of America by University of Pennsylvania Press 2016

Published with a new Afterword in Penguin Books 2017

Text copyright © University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016

Afterword copyright © Jan-Werner Müller, 2017

The afterword is partly based on “How Populists Win When They Lose”, Project Syndicate, June 2017, “Populists cannot win on their own”, Financial Times, 8 February 2017, and “The Wrong Way to Think about Populism”, published in the Items series of the Social Science Research Council at http://items.ssrc.org/the-wrong-way-to-think-about-populism/

The moral right of the author has been asserted

Cover photograph: Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Cover design: Matthew Young

ISBN: 978-0-141-98738-5


Introduction: Is Everyone a Populist?

1. What Populists Say

2. What Populists Do, or Populism in Power

3. How to Deal with Populists

Conclusion: Seven Theses on Populism

Afterword: How Not to Think about Populism



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Jan-Werner Müller is Professor of Politics at Princeton University and the author of several books, most recently Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth Century Europe. He contributes regularly to the London Review of Books, the Guardian, and the New York Review of Books.

The only meaning I can see in the word “people” is “mixture”; if you substitute for the word “people” the words “number” and “mixture,” you will get some very odd terms … “the sovereign mixture,” “the will of the mixture,” etc.

—Paul Valéry

All power comes from the people. But where does it go?

—Bertolt Brecht


Is Everyone a Populist?

No US election campaign in living memory has seen as many invocations of “populism” as the one unfolding in 2015–16. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have been labelled “populists.” The term is regularly used as a synonym for “antiestablishment,” irrespective, it seems, of any particular political ideas; content, as opposed to attitude, simply doesn’t seem to matter. The term is thus also primarily associated with particular moods and emotions: populists are “angry”; their voters are “frustrated” or suffer from “resentment.” Similar claims are made about political leaders in Europe and their followers: Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, for instance, are commonly referred to as populists. Both these politicians are clearly on the right. But, as with the Sanders phenomenon, left-wing insurgents are also labeled populists: there is Syriza in Greece, a left-wing alliance that came to power in January 2015, and Podemos in Spain, which shares with Syriza a fundamental opposition to Angela Merkel’s austerity policies in response to the Eurocrisis. Both—especially Podemos—make a point of feeling inspired by what is commonly referred to as the “pink tide” in Latin America: the success of populist leaders such as Rafael Correa, Evo Morales, and, above all, Hugo Chávez. Yet what do all these political actors actually have in common? If we hold with Hannah Arendt that political judgment is the capacity to draw proper distinctions, the widespread conflation of right and left when talking about populism should give us pause. Might the popularity of diagnosing all kinds of different phenomena as “populism” be a failure of political judgment?

This book starts with the observation that, for all the talk about populism—the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, one of the sharpest analysts of democratic life today, has even called our time an “Age of Populism”—it is far from obvious that we know what we are talking about.1 We simply do not have anything like a theory of populism, and we seem to lack coherent criteria for deciding when political actors turn populist in some meaningful sense. After all, every politician—especially in poll-driven democracies—wants to appeal to “the people,” all want to tell a story that can be understood by as many citizens as possible, all want to be sensitive to how “ordinary folks” think and, in particular, feel. Might a populist simply be a successful politician one doesn’t like? Can the charge “populism” perhaps itself be populist? Or might, in the end, populism actually be “the authentic voice of democracy,” as Christopher Lasch maintained?

This book seeks to help us recognize and deal with populism. It aims to do so in three ways. First, I want to give an account of what kind of political actor qualifies as populist. I argue that it is a necessary but not sufficient condition to be critical of elites in order to count as a populist. Otherwise, anyone criticizing the status quo in, for instance, Greece, Italy, or the United States would by definition be a populist—and, whatever else one thinks about Syriza, Beppe Grillo’s insurgent Five Star Movement, or Sanders, for that matter, it’s hard to deny that their attacks on elites can often be justified. Also, virtually every presidential candidate in the United States would be a populist, if criticism of existing elites is all there is to populism: everyone, after all, runs “against Washington.”

In addition to being antielitist, populists are always antipluralist. Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the people. Think, for instance, of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declaring at a party congress in defiance of his numerous domestic critics, “We are the people. Who are you?” Of course, he knew that his opponents were Turks, too. The claim to exclusive representation is not an empirical one; it is always distinctly moral. When running for office, populists portray their political competitors as part of the immoral, corrupt elite; when ruling, they refuse to recognize any opposition as legitimate. The populist logic also implies that whoever does not support populist parties might not be a proper part of the people—always defined as righteous and morally pure. Put simply, populists do not claim “We are the 99 percent.” What they imply instead is “We are the 100 percent.”

For populists, this equation always works out: any remainder can be dismissed as immoral and not properly a part of the people at all. That’s another way of saying that populism is always a form of identity politics (though not all versions of identity politics are populist). What follows from this understanding of populism as an exclusionary form of identity politics is that populism tends to pose a danger to democracy. For democracy requires pluralism and the recognition that we need to find fair terms of living together as free, equal, but also irreducibly diverse citizens. The idea of the single, homogeneous, authentic people is a fantasy; as the philosopher Jürgen Habermas once put it, “the people” can only appear in the plural. And it’s a dangerous fantasy, because populists do not just thrive on conflict and encourage polarization; they also treat their political opponents as “enemies of the people” and seek to exclude them altogether.

This is not to say that all populists will send their enemies to a gulag or build walls along the country’s borders, but neither is populism limited to harmless campaign rhetoric or a mere protest that burns out as soon as a populist wins power. Populists can govern as populists. This goes against the conventional wisdom, which holds that populist protest parties cancel themselves out once they win an election, since by definition one cannot protest against oneself in government. Populist governance exhibits three features: attempts to hijack the state apparatus, corruption and “mass clientelism” (trading material benefits or bureaucratic favors for political support by citizens who become the populists’ “clients”), and efforts systematically to suppress civil society. Of course, many authoritarians will do similar things. The difference is that populists justify their conduct by claiming that they alone represent the people; this allows populists to avow their practices quite openly. It also explains why revelations of corruption rarely seem to hurt populist leaders (think of Erdoğan in Turkey or the far-right populist Jörg Haider in Austria). In the eyes of their followers, “they’re doing it for us,” the one authentic people. The second chapter of this volume shows how populists will even write constitutions (with Venezuela and Hungary serving as the most clear-cut examples). Contrary to the image of populist leaders preferring to be entirely unconstrained by relying on disorganized masses that they directly address from the balcony of a presidential palace, populists in fact often want to create constraints, so long as they function in an entirely partisan fashion. Rather than serving as instruments to preserve pluralism, here constitutions serve to eliminate it.

The third chapter addresses some of the deeper causes of populism, in particular recent socioeconomic developments across the West. It also raises the question of how one can successfully respond to both populist politicians and their voters. I reject the paternalistic liberal attitude that effectively prescribes therapy for citizens “whose fears and anger have to be taken seriously” as well as the notion that mainstream actors should simply copy populist proposals. Neither is the other extreme of excluding populists from debate altogether a viable option, since it simply responds to the populist will to exclusion by excluding the populist. As an alternative, I suggest some specific political terms of how to confront populists.

More than a quarter of a century ago, a virtually unknown State Department official published a notorious and widely misunderstood article. The author was Francis Fukuyama and the title was, of course, “The End of History.” It has long been a lazy way to establish one’s intellectual sophistication to say with a sneer that obviously history did not end with the conclusion of the Cold War. But of course, Fukuyama had not predicted the end of all conflict. He had simply wagered that there were no more rivals to liberal democracy at the level of ideas. He conceded that here and there, other ideologies might enjoy support, but he nonetheless maintained that none of them would be capable of competing with liberal democracy’s (and market capitalism’s) global attractiveness.

Was he so obviously wrong? Radical Islamism is no serious ideological threat to liberalism. (Those who conjure up the specter of “Islamofascism” tell us more about their longing for clear-cut battle lines comparable to those that prevailed during the Cold War than they do about the political realities of the present.) What is now sometimes called “the China model” of state-controlled capitalism obviously inspires some as a new model of meritocracy, and perhaps none more so than those who consider themselves as having the greatest merit.2 (Think Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.) It also inspires through its track record of lifting millions out of poverty—especially, but not only, in developing countries. Yet “democracy” remains the chief political prize, with authoritarian governments paying lobbyists and public relations experts enormous sums of money to ensure that they, too, are recognized by international organizations and Western elites as genuine democracies.

Yet all is not well for democracy. The danger to democracies today is not some comprehensive ideology that systematically denies democratic ideals. The danger is populism—a degraded form of democracy that promises to make good on democracy’s highest ideals (“Let the people rule!”). The danger comes, in other words, from within the democratic world—the political actors posing the danger speak the language of democratic values. That the end result is a form of politics that is blatantly antidemocratic should trouble us all—and demonstrate the need for nuanced political judgment to help us determine precisely where democracy ends and populist peril begins.