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. 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.
‘We simply do not have anything like a theory of populism’, he announces at the outset, going on to claim in the next paragraph that his book will help ‘us’—the referent is taken as read—‘recognize and deal with it’. Populism, Müller explains, cannot be defined by a set of policies, which may be very diverse, nor by mere opposition to established elites, however common that may be as a trait, since it is not confined to populists. The true differentia specifica of populism lie elsewhere, in a constitutive hostility to pluralism and all that follows from this. ‘Put simply, populists do not claim “We are the 99 per cent”. What they imply instead is “We are the 100 per cent”.’ In addition, populists always define the people as ‘righteous and morally pure’; anyone who disagrees can be dismissed as immoral and not really part of the people at all. Populism is, therefore, ‘an exclusionary form of identity politics’. What follows from this is that ‘populism tends to pose a danger to democracy ’.
Recognizing, nevertheless, that ‘we are the 100 per cent’ coincides rather closely with the founding claim of the social contract—‘we, the people’ may also have its exclusions—Müller qualifies further. The general will, properly understood, requires ‘actual participation by citizens’, whereas the populist divines it on the basis of his or her preconception of the people. Though populists may seem to be demanding greater participation, through referenda, etc., this is in fact undermined by their moralized antipluralism. For inherent in populism is ‘a particular moralistic imagination of politics’, in which the normal presuppositions of democratic discourse—contested meanings and loyalties, fallibility, the rights of minorities as well as majorities, and so on—are suspended in the name of a presumptive essential homogeneity. So once ensconced in government, populists become authoritarian. The hallmarks of their style in power are three: colonization of the state, mass clientelism and corruption, and the systematic repression of civil society. Others may practise the same, but ‘what is distinctive about populists is that they can do so quite openly. They claim they have a moral justification for their conduct.’
What political forces fall under this description? Müller opens—another standard move in writings on the P-word—by listing the diverse array of figures and movements commonly labelled today as populist: Sanders and Trump, Syriza and Erdoğan’s akp, Podemos and Le Pen, Farage and Occupy Wall Street, Di Blasio and Geert Wilders, followed by Elizabeth Warren, Jörg Haider and Viktor Orbán. After a few pages, however, the figures from the left largely disappear. In practice, the great bulk of the illustrations in What Is Populism? come from figures and movements of the right. Readers may at first be surprised to find that Müller’s book, in contravention of Anglophone political-science norms, does not include a name index. But once they have patiently crafted their own, home-made list of dramatis personae, the asymmetries become glaring. Jörg Haider, Silvio Berlusconi and the Tea Party all receive five mentions in the main text, Geert Wilders six, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seven. Marine Le Pen is mentioned thrice, while George Wallace makes eight appearances and Donald Trump twelve. The central protagonist of Müller’s story, Viktor Orbán, appears no fewer than fourteen times. On the left, there is only the ogre of Chávez.
Indeed, as Müller himself goes on to explain, many of the features he ascribes to populism do not apply to the movements of the left. Could the harmless Bernie Sanders be a ‘threat to democracy’, after all? Who really thinks the Occupy Wall Street movement promoted an ‘exclusionary identity politics’, or that Syriza ‘suppressed civil society’? Have any Podemos mayors in Spain been indicted for a corrupt ‘mass clientelism’—and can Di Blasio really be accused of accepting representative democracy only when he wins, and rejecting it when others are triumphant? As Müller avers, he will not be so indiscriminate. Sanders, it turns out, represents a more wholesome phenomenon, a ‘left-wing egalitarianism’—perhaps, who knows, a ‘reinvention of Social Democracy’. Syriza, while admittedly culpable for a moment, as Müller put it in the London Review of Books (August 2015), of ‘a high-risk’ political strategy that ‘could be described as populist’, can now be cleared of the charge, while Podemos has yet to succumb to any such temptation.
The circularity of (exclusionary) definition and (selective) exemplification is patent. In a footnote buried at the back, Müller himself notes in an unguarded moment that ‘the obvious danger here is circularity: one builds characteristics one finds politically, morally or even aesthetically distasteful into one’s definition of populism only to find that populism and democracy are different’—or ‘getting a very clear-cut normative picture only by painting contrasts in a highly partisan way’. He proceeds undeterred to do exactly this. After all, ‘populist’ is nearly always a term applied by others; virtually no one defines themselves by that name today, just as no one calls themselves a ‘terrorist’. Eventually, however, Müller is forced to explain that his strained characterization of populism must exclude the one movement in the history of the modern West that did actually define itself as populist, the late nineteenth-century People’s Party of the United States. Since the People’s Party could also speak of the ‘common’ or ‘plain’ people, the adjectives redeeming it, ‘one of the results of the analysis presented so far—counter-intuitive as it may seem—is that the party in us history that explicitly called itself “populist” was in fact not populist’. Counter-intuitive indeed: we might as well devise a concept of communism that excluded Marx.
Matters are no better when Müller moves to the region, evidently less familiar to him, that has produced both the most striking movements and the most original theorists of what would come to be called populism: Latin America. Lázaro Cardenas—did he systematically repress civil society? Getulio Vargas or Juan Perón—whatever their other vices, were they great moralizers? Müller carefully avoids addressing the problems that historic figures like these pose for his conceptual grid. Contemporary leaders like Lula also disappear from view, to prevent reality interfering with Müller’s ‘ideal-typical’ misconstruction. Chávez is demonized without pretence of empirical inquiry, the Bolivarian constitution dismissed as a mere partisan instrument, for example, when it has provided the main framework for the organized opposition. Liberals often pride themselves on being to politics what Popper was to epistemology, the entire elaboration of his Logic of Scientific Discovery revolving around the idea of falsifiability. Müller takes self-falsification in his stride. After repeatedly saying that populists are sworn enemies of pluralism, practice exclusionary identity politics and seek to limit constitutional rights, he tucks away in an endnote the awkward fact that Evo Morales, treated elsewhere as yet another Latin American populist, ‘has attempted an inclusionary approach, not least in drafting a new constitution for Bolivia. His “committed constitutionalism” offered many new basic rights (including the right to the good life and rights for nature itself); Morales also sought to recognize previously excluded minorities by declaring Bolivia a “plurinational” state.’