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"What is Populism", by Jan-Werner Müller

The Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada recently called the book “Was ist Populismus?” (“What is Populism”) by Jan-Peter Müller the “most enlightening” book of 2016.

In the book, Müller argues that populists set themselves apart by claiming to be the sole representative of the real people. And while all populists are against the elites and the establishments, that is only a necessary, not a sufficient condition for popularism. In addition, anti-pluralism is key. So populists aren’t democratic, as democracy is necessarily pluralistic. Müller says that in a sensible debate about populism, one must talk about what to expect from democracy.

I also like this review by Müller of “Ruling the Void” by Peter Mair:

Parties used to be based on distinct social identities. […] Partisanship didn’t detract from, but increased, the legitimacy of the political system. Parties were not one mechanism among others that made ‘mass democracy’ acceptable: they were the principal means of transmitting popular will and opinion from civil society to the state. […] [P]oliticians could not simply go in search of support from the people as whole or adopt what Mair terms ‘the politics of “what works”’. The question was not ‘what works?’ but ‘what works for us?’ And that self-interest on the part of multiple constituencies was precisely what made democracy work as a whole.

Citing Mair, Müller writes in his book that parties are increasingly responsible, but have become less responsive.

It’s an argument against outsourcing our decision-making to a meritocratic technocracy. We would hope that non-elected institutions such as constitutional courts, central banks or nudge units can decide what’s best for us, but more delegation comes at a cost.

Some see popularism as a “necessary corrective” in democracies. But Müller instead considers populists a danger to democracy. And the response to populism cannot be to shut populists out of the debate, but the answer itself must be democratic.

He also offers an interesting discussion of the normative status of pluralism which he thinks is not a first-order normative value such as freedom or equality. Instead it follows from the freedom and equality of a diverse people that their different views must be respected.

My favorite quote from the book is this (in my crude translation):1

In times of globalization – that is, porous or blurring borders – populists suggest with their “We” unambiguous affiliations and clear boundaries (“our western civilization”) – and all “true” Germans will know what is meant by that. Democracy, however, does not do well with unambiguousness and that is independent of globalization. More to the point: There is no democratic foundation of borders. Because for defining borders through the demos, one would have to know who the sovereign people is – and that is exactly the question.

  1. Here the original in German:

    In einer Zeit der Globalisierung – sprich: durchlässiger oder gar verwischender Grenzen – suggerieren die Populisten mit ihrem “Wir” eindeutige Zugehörigkeit und klare Grenzen (“unser Abendland”) – und alle “wahren” Deutschen wissen dann schon, was gemeint ist.) Die Demokratie tut sich hingegen mit Eindeutigkeiten schwer, und zwar ganz unabhängig von der Globalisierung. Genauer gesagt: Sie kann Grenzen gar nicht demokratisch begründen. Denn um die Grenzen durch den Demos zu bestimmen, müsste man ja schon wissen, wer das entscheidungsberechtigte Volk ist – und genau das war die Frage. (p21-22)