Populism, as Jan-Werner Müller sees it

Some notes from What is populism (2016) by Jan-Werner Müller

In his book entitled ’What Is Populism?’ Jan-Werner Müller says that populism is regularly used as a synonym for ‘anti-establishment’, thus in this sense populism is a struggle against the ‘corrupt’ ruling class. He adds that the term also has an emotional connotation meaning that populists tend to be ‘angry’ and their voters are ‘frustrated’ or suffer from ‘resentment’. Besides being critical of the elite (anti-elitist), populists are anti-pluralists as well. They claim that they alone represent the people. Therefore, it can be said that populism is an ideology and a technique that is used by individuals and/or groups of people to gain political influence and power.

How does populism work?

Populists make political capital out of tensions and resentments within a society. They exploit and thrive on them by mobilising people against real or assumed threats and groups of people. This is done by dividing the society and/or the world into at least two groups: the real, morally right and true people and the rest. Populists claim to be representing the ‘real’ people and only those who support them actually qualify to be the real people. This technique works well with nationalism. For example, in Hungary, when Viktor Orban lost the elections in 2002, he famously said that “the nation cannot be in opposition”. Over the years Orban and the Fidesz party occupied, dispossessed and monopolised national identity, meaning that only they and their supporters morally qualify to be part of the nation, and whoever attacks the government, attacks the Hungarian people.

1 million de chômeurs c'est 1 million d'immigrés de trop ! / Front national (FN)

An example of how populism works: Poster by the French Front National saying “One Million Unemployed Is One Million Immigrants Too Many!”). Credit: ODYSSEO

Once populists can form a government, they will do everything to stay in power without openly renouncing democracy. According to Jan-Werner, they do this by hijacking and occupying the state apparatus (including courts, media, secret service, etc.) through corruption and “mass clientelism” (the exchange of material and immaterial favours for support), and by systematically suppressing the civil society. The peculiar thing with corruption is that although their voters and supporters are aware of it, they can get away with it as their supporters think corruption, in this context, is for the greater good.

Populists also try to pose as the real protectors of democracy as they are for the people and not serving the interests of the corrupt elite. They like to hold referendums but those are not really open-ended discussions, their sole purpose is to ‘ratify’ their intents. Orban especially likes to launch national consultations, which play on existing fears fuelled by propaganda.

Why is it bad? 

You might wonder why you should be bothered if, after all, populists are working for the people. Well, first of all, probably someone who is willing to exploit tensions within the society to gain political power is pursuing selfish aims. Secondly, it is bad for democracy, and if you believe in democracy, you should be deeply concerned. For example, as mentioned, populists once gaining power, occupy state media and strive to get a grip of private media outlets as well. A vote can be undemocratic if the opposition is not granted access to the media or if the government’s failures are not reported.

One of the building blocks of democracy is the diversity of opinions and ideas, which populists see as a threat. They might not go as far to fully exclude different opinions, but they sure put a lot of effort in discrediting those who criticise them. 

How to see through a populist?  

If we examine the way populists talk, we can easily observe many inconsistencies and fallacies. For example, Jan-Werner argues that they often talk about people as a homogenous entity with common will and purpose, but in reality, such thing does not exists (according to Jürgen Habermas, “the people ” can only appear in the plural). They also suggest that there is a singular common good, which only they can implement and achieve. But surely that cannot be true, even a nation is built upon diverse opinions, ideologies and even conflicting world views. There isn’t just one right way of governing a country, working for the people and cultivating national identity. 

It is also notable that they claim never to be wrong, not even after governing a country for several terms. If something bad happens, for example the economy is not performing well, they blame it on somebody else. As mentioned in the article about conspiracy theories, populists gladly disseminate them to cover their tracks and to push away responsibility.  

How to deal with a populist? 

Among others, Jan-Werner sees the success of populism in masses being disappointed in democracy. For many, democracy should have brought great positive changes in how our society works, the advent of a more just area in every kind of sense. In addition, democracy promised that politicians could be held to account, there would be greater transparency in public affairs and the voices of the people would be heard and acted upon. Well, although there is some overall progress, it is not spectacular and as always, there are clear winners and then the others who feel left behind.

As we have seen, populists try to pose as the only political force that can bring meaningful change and hear the voice of the people, and thus in the eyes of their supporters, change requires sacrifices and turning a blind eye to certain things. That is the reason why it is a pious hope to think that exposing corruption in enough to discredit populists. Jan-Werner says it needs to be shown that “for the vast majority, populist corruption yields no benefits, and that a lack of democratic accountability, a dysfunctional bureaucracy, and a decline in the rule of law will in the long run hurt the people—all of them.” 

Another mistake is to erect a cordon sanitaire around populists, meaning that political parties, media, etc. try not to cooperate, initiate and engage discussion with them, or even react meaningfully to what they stand for. This behaviour just plays into their hands as it strengthens the sense that the existing elites truly don’t care about them. Another aspect to consider is that populists are anti-pluralists while democracy is based on pluralism. Excluding populists reduces overall pluralism. Jan-Werner thinks that as long as populists stay within the law, other political actors and the media should engage with them. But this doesn’t mean that populists cannot be criticised, they should be, for what they are – a real danger to democracy. It needs to be shown that although sometimes they point out legitimate problems, their way of handling them and their tactics to gain power (e.g. spreading conspiracy theories) is overall damaging for all. 

It is also important to note that populism feeds on resentment within the society because constituents feel excluded either culturally and/or economically. To address populism thus the ‘excluded’ needs to be brought in while keeping the wealthy and powerful from opting out of the system. Maybe it’s time to come up with a new social contract.

Picture found on Pixabay
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