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What is this thing called ‘populism’? : Jan-Werner Müller hoes the weeds

Sina Odugbemi's picture

One of the most astounding features of public debate and discussion is how many times this occurs: a word acquires wide currency, even notoriety, yet its boundaries remain limitless and, very often, nobody really knows what it means. Because of current events around the world, right now the best example of such a word is “populism”. For instance, I read a special section in Foreign Affairs recently titled ‘The Power of Populism’ and after reading several of the essays I still could not make out the precise  meaning of the concept. Right now, what seems clear is that being called a ‘populist’ is not a good thing. It suggests that you are somehow a demagogue, and that you have something to do with getting large numbers of people worked up, and that you are generally up to no good.

In search of conceptual clarity, I recently acquired and read a new book by Jan-Werner Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton University. The book is titled simply: What is Populism? (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). It is a short, lucid, and exceedingly intelligent book.  Müller starts the book by demonstrating the ‘conceptual chaos’ around ‘populism’. The concept, he shows, is deployed fairly carelessly. It is a contested concept. He goes on to demolish what he calls definitional dead ends, that is, suggestions in public debate and discussion that populism means one or all of the following things:
  • A particular psychological cast (you can fill in the terms of abuse you have heard!);
  • A particular class of citizens (like those famous non-college educated voters!);
  • A particular set of daft or simplistic policies; or
  • A particular style of politics (boorishness, incivility or the famous paranoid style etc.).

So, what, really, is populism? The heart of this excellent book is the section on The Logic of Populism that begins on page 19. Key quote, basically selected sentences from a couple of pages of the text:
Populism, I suggest, is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the world that sets a morally pure and fully unified – but, I shall argue, ultimately fictional  -- people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some way morally inferior….The core claim of populism is thus a moralized form of antipluralism…There can be no populism, in other words, without someone speaking in the name of the people as a whole….This is the core claim of populism: only some of the people are really the people.

This, I believe, gets to the heart of the matter. Populists make a moral and exclusionary claim on behalf of those they regard as the real people in a particular country; they claim, secondly, that these are all the people and they dismiss everybody else as either illegitimate or fatally morally compromised.  That is populism. Müller discusses the leading historical and contemporary examples but I will not go into these here.

The book contains very helpful descriptions of the political practice of populists that help fill out the core definitional picture:

  • Populists say they are against elites but they are usually a counter-elite seeking power. Once they acquire power then elites are okay.
  • Populists like referenda and similar devices in order to achieve their objectives but they don’t really want popular participation in politics once they are in charge. They can then invoke a mystical sense of the people to justify their actions.
  • Populist leaders don’t like mediating institutions at all, that is, institutions standing between them and the people, be those the mass media or political parties. They deal with the real people directly. And they establish their own megaphones.
  • Populist parties are internally authoritarian. You have a supreme leader and everyone else has to fall in line.
  • Once ensconced in power, populist leaders keep using polarization as a technique. They still blame corrupt elites, saboteurs, the media, foreign meddlers and so on for whatever problems emerge as they try to govern. They keep preparing the people for some kind of showdown with the alleged enemies of the people.
  • Once in power, populist leaders and parties “colonize” the state brazenly and openly supposedly in the name of the people. They destroy democratic norms, carry out mass bribery activities to consolidate power, change the constitution if they can, and crush as many critics and countervailing centers of power and influence as they can. As Müller points out:
And that leads to the final great irony. Populism in power brings about, reinforces, or offers another variety of the very exclusion and usurpation of the state that it most opposes in the reigning establishment it seeks to replace. What the “old establishment” or “corrupt, immoral elites” supposedly have always done, the populists will also end up doing – only, one would have thought, without guilt and with a supposedly democratic justification. (p. 49). (Italics mine).


Submitted by Anonymous on

This is one of my favorite blogs in the Bank. This post is one example of why I like it. It is relevant, current, thoughtful and uses ordinary (read:non Bankese) language.

Submitted by Anonymous on


Submitted by Daniele Moro on

I consider this study in Populism the best available so far. Easy to ready, short, and really updated. The New York review of books and the London one expressed a lot of appreciation. Well deserved.

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