In many ways, 2016 has proved that I was right, three years ago, to start a blog dedicated to populism. In many ways, this has been The Year That Populism Would No Longer Be Ignored.
Even as populism has been mainstreamed, it’s also been misunderstood and misappropriated by some, particularly elitists who are rightly worried about it. One such elitist deserves particular attention, because when you google “what is populism?” his 2016 cash-in book comes right up.
His name is Jan-Werner Müller, and I need to give his argument a full airing before I rip it to pieces:
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 Erdogan 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, homogenuous, authentic people is a fantasy; as the philosopher Jurgen 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…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. (all italics in original)
Hogwash and balderdash.
1. Müller calls every populist voter antipluralist, which is ridiculous. Müller works at Princeton; every true academic knows that every published sentence must make sense as a stand-alone sentence, so when you start a new section with “In addition to being antielitist, populists are always antipluralist” you don’t get to backtrack later and say “oh, well, I just meant leaders.” Really, every voter who favors populist policies is against pluralism? That’s indefensible.
2. Müller says every populist says “We are the 100 percent.” If that’s true, who the hell are they excluding? That makes no sense. His populism as identity politics makes even less sense. Is he inveighing against identity politics, or in favor? I can’t tell.
3. Müller writes “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.” When running for office, every single candidate of every party portrays their competitors as immoral, corrupt, and elitist. As for ruling – based on his very small sample size, he may have a good point there. But that’s hardly endemic to populism in the culture more generally.
4. Müller claims that “populist governance exhibits three features” and then names three features of any authoritarian government. Are authoritarianism and populism merely interchangeable? Oh, of course not; Müller hastens to add “many authoritarians will do similar things. The difference is that populists justify their conduct by claiming that they alone represent the people.” Really? Show me one authoritarian leader, living or dead, who didn’t claim that he alone represented the people.
This is the heart of the matter: Müller doesn’t like dictators and autocrats. Me neither. The difference between us is that Müller decided to define populism as whatever these ayatollahs say on any given day.
Müller might – maybe, perhaps, possibly, certainly not definitely – be able to make the case that every elected populist leader has shown authoritarian tendencies. (Although Müller’s chances of pulling this off are hindered by the fact that when we’re discussing a country’s leader, “hijack the state apparatus” sounds a lot like “try to do anything.”) But that’s not his case. His case is about all the people who have voted for populist leaders. And thus, his case is absurd.
Let me tell you who knows what populism is: George Packer, writer for The New Yorker. In the final extended pre-election interview with Ms. Hillary Clinton, dated October 31, 2016 (anyone else notice that when you read any article posted to the internet before November 9th, it feels like it was written ten years ago? Yeah) “Hillary Clinton and the Populist Revolt,” Packer uses the term “populist” or “populism” 14 times. After the headline, here they are:
Thomas Frank: “The McGovern Commission reforms seemed to be populist, but their effect was to replace one group of party insiders with another—in this case, to replace leaders of workers’ organizations with affluent professionals.”
Old-fashioned Democratic class politics was foreign to [the Clintons], even though Bill sometimes sounded like an Ozark populist.
Bill Clinton campaigned for President in 1992 as a populist champion of the struggling middle class, but—confronted with deficits, a recalcitrant bond market, and Wall Street-friendly economic advisers—he governed as a moderate Republican.
Nelini Stamp: “We can have this populist argument all we want, but if we don’t repair the sins of the past—we could have a bunch of reforms, but if we’re still being killed it’s going to become white economic populism if we don’t have the race stuff together.”
The Republicans, long the boring party of Babbitt—Mailer’s druggists and retired doctors—were infused with a powerful populist energy. [Bill] Kristol welcomed it. “This new populism is no kind of blind rebellion against good constitutional government,” he wrote, in 1985. “It is rather an effort to bring our governing élites to their senses. That is why so many people—and I include myself—who would ordinarily worry about a populist upsurge find themselves so sympathetic to this new populism.” It was a fateful marriage. The new conservative populism did not possess an “orderly heart.” It was riven with destructive impulses. It fed on rage and the spectacle of pop culture.
Kristol thought he’d found just what the Party needed to win the next election: a telegenic product of the white working class, an authentic populist [Sarah Palin].
A generation ago, a Presidential contender like Trump wasn’t conceivable. Jimmy Carter brought smiling populism to the White House, and Ronald Reagan was derided as a Hollywood cowboy, but both of them had governing experience and substantive ideas that they’d worked out during lengthy public careers.
“If we don’t get this right, what we’re seeing with Trump now will just be the beginning,” [Hillary Clinton] said. “Because when people feel that their government has failed them and the economy isn’t working for them, they are ripe for the kind of populist nationalist appeals that we’re hearing from Trump.”
Packer identifies George McGovern, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton as populists, something you’d never know from reading (any of) Müller. So: if Packer is right and Müller is wrong, what is populism? The answer is simple. One, anti-elitism and suspicion of ruling elites. Two, a broad sympathy for and even valorization of the working class, to the point of disfavoring any policy that would hurt said working class. Three, a preference for policies – not rights, which are immutable, but policies, e.g. taxes, education and health care management, et cetera – that are favored by at least 51% of a populace. Hence the prefix “popul,” like “popular.”
It’s true that there can be some tension between my points two and three. Actually, most schools of thought and most -isms (capitalism, communism, feminism) have internal tensions. But Müller hardly objects to populism on those grounds. He objects – let’s cut to the chase – because he is a Princeton elitist and he thinks the barbarians at the gates want to tar and feather him. The way he talks, I can see why.
You would barely know about my points two or three from reading Müller – and not just in this excerpt, but in the entire book. Populism isn’t only a political force, of course; it’s also cultural. If a TV show is clearly about the working class, like, say, Rectify or Two Broke Girls, it can be considered populist. Müller doesn’t show any sign that he knows this.
What really animates populists is when the desires (NOT the rights) of the 51% are routinely ignored. Some examples include corporate welfare, offshore tax loopholes, warrantless surveillance, background checks for gun purchases, climate change denial, sustainable energy, and bad trade deals. Do the math, or at least do the googling: vast majorities of Americans are against all of these, and yet, because of partisan gridlock and special interests in Washington, nothing ever changes. And I’m not saying things will get better under President Trump; he has always been a populist by convenience, and so who knows how he’ll act when it’s inconvenient. But Müller acts as if the elites have always saved us and always will save us, and if he’s right I guess there’s nothing to worry about.
Elsewhere in his book, in perhaps his most quoted section, Müller writes: “But the notion that we move closer to democracy by pitting a ‘silent majority,’ which supposedly is being ignored by elites, against elected politician [sic] is not just an illusion; it is a politically pernicious thought.” Uh, no it isn’t, and besides, he’s punching down. His reviled silent majority has been FORCED into silence by people like him. In gridlocked Washington, we never get the democratic reforms we ask for. If that ever changes, maybe we’ll need Müller to show us where we over-stepped. Until then, Müller is the one creating the “illusion” that populism isn’t needed.
I wrote before the election that the Republican Party is the greatest brand in our country. But Democrats can challenge that brand if they reject Müller and figure out how to act like populists. Part of that means championing policies that 51% of Americans are in favor of. I suspect Trump will give them a great opportunity to be on the right side of that. Actually many Democrats already do this, but they need to join that tendency to less love for Goldman Sachs and more pro-working-class rhetoric. And they need to ignore people who think that populism is a synonym for imperial authoritarianism, like Müller.
Please, college professors, DO NOT put Müller on your syllabus. Or if you do, at least offer them this blog post, my rebuke, as a counter-point. It’s free. Because unlike Müller, I value your hard work. Thank you for listening.