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New Left Review 103, January-February 2017


Marco D’Eramo

THEY, THE PEOPLE

In the political-science literature on populism, it has long been a commonplace procedure to begin by declaring that no one knows what it is. [1] Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia 2016, £16.99, hardback 123 pp, 978 0 8122 4898 2. Fifty years ago, at a famous conference held at the London School of Economics, Richard Hofstadter announced as much in the title of his talk, ‘Everyone Is Talking about Populism, but No One Can Define It’, while Isaiah Berlin cautioned against falling prey to ‘a Cinderella complex’, the notion that ‘there exists a shoe—the word “populism”—for which somewhere there must exist a foot.’ But once it has been said in every possible way that no one knows what populism is, suddenly—with scant explanation as to why or how—each thinker knows very well what it is, or rather takes it as given. He or she offers no robust definition of its characteristics (for the various populisms are very much in contradiction with one another), or its doctrine (there is no one populist doctrine) or its political programme (the different populisms clash with one another on fundamental issues), but focuses instead on the threats it poses. Jan-Werner Müller’s slender work is no exception.

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