Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (cloth)
What Is Populism?
University of Pennsylvania Press, $19.95 (cloth)
For some, late 2020 brought with it an air of optimism regarding the fate of right-wing populism. In the United Kingdom, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party faded into obscurity, and the populist right’s GB News experiment foundered. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s disastrous response to COVID-19 seemed to hemorrhage his support and threaten his reelection chances. Greece’s fascist Golden Dawn party was legally disbanded, Germany’s AfD started slowly losing popularity and parliamentary seats, and Donald Trump lost to Joe Biden.
The picture looks different today. Trump continues to claim election fraud, Bolsonaro may win reelection later this month, and far-right parties have advanced in Sweden and Italy. But with the apparent respite came a flurry of political analysis seeking to draw key lessons from it—about strategies used to defeat the populist right and structural reforms that could codify these victories.
One of the most prominent voices on these trends has been Princeton political theorist and historian of political thought Jan-Werner Müller. In 2016 Müller published a much-heralded study, What is Populism?. Though written before Trump’s electoral victory, the book reflected the anxieties of many Europeans who already lived amongst powerful populist parties and movements and became all the more relevant in the years later. Following the perceived populist pullback of 2020, Müller turned his attention in Democracy Rules to ask what was wrong before this “populist tide,” and how can we fix it.
Throughout both books Müller demonstrates a willingness to puncture mainstream talking points. What is Populism?, for example, opens with a powerful and convincing criticism of the view that supporters of populist leaders—whether left-wing or right-wing—are either behaviorally disposed to authoritarianism or somehow brainwashed into their support. As he notes, these claims often reinforce condescending views of populist supporters, absolving elites from the responsibility of engaging them. Müller also rejects the shallow conflation of populist politicians with mere political opportunists or manipulators. Many populists are disingenuous elites, he would agree, but not all are; this formula does nothing to illuminate the precise significance of populism. At its core, Müller argues, populism is characterized by the embrace and weaponization of an exclusionary view of “the people,” whom they claim to authentically represent.
These are valuable, if not uncontroversial, arguments. Yet Müller’s norm-focused approach leaves a few mainstream shibboleths untouched, perhaps most notably his overall negative vision of populism. As Adom Getachew has noted in these pages, “populism gets a bad rap.” Müller contributes to that reputation. His understanding of the current moment is predominantly top-down: since it is elites who weaponize claims about “the people,” the remedy must involve changing the behavior of political elites and the institutions they run. The upshot of this approach is to de-emphasize the people who, at the end of it, are only given the option to participate on better terms in the systems in which they live. Too little is said in Müller’s analysis about their political sentiments: what they are, where they come from, and how they might be seriously engaged or responded to in diverse democratic societies. In the end, that means too little is said in these books about the actual nature of politics and power.
What Is Populism? stands out from other analyses of populism in its dual methodology, combining political theory with political science. From the vantage of political philosophy, Müller argues that populism comes with a distinctive set of incentives and priorities, which do not necessarily overlap with those of traditional political actors. Yet his model also attempts to make causal arguments relating to the actions often taken by populists, which he illustrates through empirical examples.
Müller’s basic argument is that the primary feature that distinguishes populists from traditional political actors is how they claim to represent their supporters. According to this picture, traditional politicians offer policy proposals tailored to appeal to a specific set of supporters, fully aware that many within the electorate will disagree. By contrast, populists are fundamentally “anti-pluralist”: they claim to absolutely and exclusively represent the people—or at least, the only people who count. For this to be possible, the populist must reject the heterogeneity of democratic society and instead invoke a fictitious common will. (Thus the grand statements of populist leaders like that of France’s Marine Le Pen in 2014: “The sovereign people have proclaimed that they want to take back the reins of their destiny into their hands.”) Any citizens who disagree are maligned and excluded from being part of the people. They are instead seen as immoral, corrupt, or “brainwashed” actors, propping up “the elite,” the Other in the populist us-versus-them narrative.
According to Müller, it is this logic of representation that explains the behavior of populist leaders. Their frequent use of referenda, for example, is an attempt to “ratify what the populist leader has already discerned to be the genuine popular interest.” Likewise, populists frequently reject unfavorable election results as, for them, it would be impossible for the people to genuinely select other choices.
Democracy Rules pans out from a specific concern with populism to ask how exactly it threatens democracy, embracing what Machiavelli called “a return to first principles.” It thus adopts a more strictly theoretical mode of analysis, even while it appeals to empirical studies for support. “Everybody thinks they know that democracy is in crisis,” he writes, “but how many of us are certain what democracy actually is?” The book gives, in effect, an ideal theory of democracy: a picture of what democratic politics should look like if it deserves to be called democratic. By defending a certain understanding of democracy, the book also sheds light on various proposals to cure ailing democracies today.
Some suggest that the current crisis of democracy can be tackled with changes in electoral rules; others propose adopting new electoral systems. Those looking more closely at the causes of populist support argue in favor of economic reforms to decrease inequality and protect citizens from economic shocks. Müller’s approach is more abstract: he suggests that there exists a “spirit” of democracy that transcends all these proposals. While he does endorse certain concrete reforms, especially regarding campaign and media funding, his argument is not reducible to them: regardless of the specific policy one wishes to pursue, there is a certain way-things-must-be-done, Müller contends, that makes political action properly democratic. “One of the important insights from students of politics,” he notes, “is that such uncodified norms can be at least as important as laws; they actually keep the democratic game going.” Any policy, project, or party can fall into disarray if it is not informed and guided by this commitment.
In what does this spirit consist? Müller starts by focusing on what he calls the “hard borders” of politics that must not be crossed for democracy to exist. First, one cannot expel or disenfranchise citizens; second, one cannot claim to be “above” political conflict (for example, by claiming to represent a singular common will); and third, all political utterances must be “constrained” by facts. From there, Müller sees democracy, at its core, as a pursuit for the political equality of all participants. For Müller, this does not necessarily entail radical forms of direct democracy. Instead, he suggests that this equality must translate into the equality of all to participate in a variety of democratic processes: above all, in elections of representatives and in intermediary institutions such as political parties, media organizations, and other civil society institutions. These form the “critical infrastructure” of democracy.
Through it all, Müller lays emphasis on the cultivation of a certain democratic attitude. In elections, it is necessary that all recognize that their beliefs could be wrong. Müller is most concerned with losing. Democracy’s health, he argues, is contingent on all participants being willing to lose with aplomb and take up the position of a “loyal opposition,” rather than making false accusations of fraud or, more likely, attempting to undermine the power of those who win. Likewise, politicians must publicly recognize that voters can change their mind and, therefore, that politics is flush with and defined by uncertainty: voters’ support cannot be taken for granted, even if it seems certain in the next election.
As for intermediary institutions, particularly parties and the media, Müller argues that to be effective at representation, they must enable pluralism—both externally, in a range of parties and new organizations, and internally, within organizations themselves. Likewise, they must “structure political time” with a consistent schedule for news, elections, and campaigns in order to “give a rhythm to democratic life” and “provide common reference points around which partisans can coordinate.” At the same time, to foster meaningful political equality, they must be accessible for all those who wish to be involved with them, have autonomy from donors and other vested interests, and their behavior must be clear and easy to assess. While it is easy to see how many of these principles are violated by the worst offenders of “fake democracy,” the book also encourages reflection on other contemporary political parties. The requirement of internal pluralism implicates mainstream parties that have been reluctant to promote ideologically different, younger party members.
While these are persuasive arguments, both What Is Populism? and Democracy Rules suffer from a notable omission: there is very little discussion of the people themselves. This makes it difficult for his account of populism to adequately understand the passion and drive that moves supporters. It also makes it difficult to understand how the “spirit” of democracy can be implemented and protected in practice. Müller paints a clear picture of an ideal democratic society but does not tell us precisely how to achieve or maintain it.
This approach is not a mere oversight but rather a theoretical choice. In an earlier essay, Müller goes as far as to say that, when they give their support to a populist, people become essentially “passive.” Yet this assumption is empirically questionable. On an observational level, there are plenty of cases of supporters punishing even the most charismatic populist leaders. One example is the booing of Trump during one of his own rallies in 2021, after he briefly encouraged his supporters to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Given Trump’s powerful influence, it is surprising that such a small comment should lead to any reaction at all, let alone such a passionate one.
More generally, minimizing the agency of the people makes it difficult to understand what makes populists successful in the first place. Most populists obtain only small, fleeting support, and even those who are successful can find their fortunes fade abruptly. At the start of the pandemic, for example, Italian far-right party Lega Nord lost a significant amount of popular support to the very similar Brothers of Italy party over a surprisingly small period of time. Lega Nord leader Matteo Salvini had faced some backlash for his decision to blow up the 2019 coalition government but nonetheless remained true to the rhetoric that made him popular. Instead, it was the supporters who felt better represented by the newcomer: in comparison to Giorgia Meloni’s grave predictions of an EU economic intervention, Salvini’s continued focus on refugees felt stale and irrelevant to many. Of course, populist leaders—in both formal parties and in civil society organizations—do exert a powerful influence on the attitudes of supporters. The rise and spread of anti-vaccine sentiment, for example, indicates just how successfully populist leaders can orchestrate and influence popular opinion. But this does not mean that the people do not exert a significant amount of pressure on populists in their own right. The relationship between populist supporters and populist leaders is complex and multidirectional, rather than one-way.
Müller might reply that these issues were simply beyond the scope of his argument in What Is Populism?, which is more concerned with explaining how and why populists act as they do. But a theory of populist behavior that leaves out the relationship between populists and their supporters is at best incomplete and at worst politically stultifying. The relative costs of supporting a populist can be fairly high for individuals. Many experience interpersonal conflicts. Some move into echo chambers that promulgate fear and anger. Many face ridicule from prominent social voices while breaking political norms and advocating for new approaches to policy (though they may also build new forms of community to seek shelter from this scorn). Populists must expend a great deal of effort to reassure supporters that these costs are worth it and sustain their energy and passion. In other words, supporters must be compensated in some form or another. Focusing exclusively on the internal logic of populist behavior obscures the fact that populists must always act with this goal in mind, at least insofar as they care about retaining support.
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The same problem haunts the norms-based analysis in Democracy Rules. Near the beginning of the book, Müller observes that “one can say all kinds of unfriendly things to other citizens in political battle without disrespecting them, but one can’t say ‘You’re a second-class citizen’ or ‘You don’t really belong here’ (as Trump did, for instance, when he told progressive congresswomen of color to ‘go back’ to their countries).” This criterion may well help us identify a departure from democracy, but how are we supposed to enforce it, especially when people support it? The norms, rules, and principles Müller offers primarily make reference to how institutions and elites ought to orient themselves—down to what they should or shouldn’t say. He says comparatively little about how those institutions and actions should relate to the people and their desires and interests. Of course, Müller’s argument is that good results from politics are dependent upon the cultivation of the “spirit” of democracy, which is logically or theoretically prior—the condition that makes democracy possible. Good representation, on this view, is unlikely or at least unsustainable when political institutions are inaccessible or stubborn even to internal challenges. It is only when all participants abide by these rules that good representation can emerge.
But practically speaking, this leaves a lot to be desired. Müller’s preoccupation with “borders” and “infrastructure” overlooks the political importance of results. As Colin Hay argues in Why We Hate Politics (2007), what elites understand the scope and purpose of “politics” to be has a considerable effect on how they act and what types of representation they are likely to offer voters. Hay contends that the rise of pessimistic models of political behavior from the mid-twentieth century—making influential arguments against the meaningful possibility of representation and diminishing trust in the rationality of voters, politicians, and bureaucrats alike—led to the depoliticization of many issues, especially those regarding the economy and social policy. This, combined with globalization, meant that voters and politicians saw government as being increasingly powerless, causing voter apathy and falling turnout.
It is plausible that Müller’s hard borders and critical infrastructure could exist while the depoliticization of many areas of public life remains entrenched in the common sense of elites. Institutions may remain accessible, but the people may lose the desire to access them. Frustration may still build, and “fake democracy” may take hold once again. In fact, “good” representation is a necessary condition for the realization and reproduction of Müller’s hard borders and critical infrastructure. The accessibility and assessibility of institutions have little democratizing effect if the people do not have faith in them and opt out of contributing to them. The hard borders of politics will not hold water when their participants’ politics will do little for them.
This point is especially important when considering why the “spirit” of democracy is often contradicted. Institutional inertia, unquestioned ideas, and uncertainty on how to behave in new situations create situations where people inadvertently lose interest and access to institutions. For example, as Richard Katz and Peter Mair famously argue, gradual shifts in the dominant forms of political identification within many liberal democracies, as well as a change in the nature of electoral campaigning, created inflexible and ideologically rigid “cartel parties,” who found it electorally advantageous to diminish voters’ expectations, move more policy decisions to independent bodies and separate themselves from any particular constituencies.
Democracy and its principles are surprisingly fickle, and they can be usurped even if all elites have the best intentions and wish to defend them. These principles therefore presuppose an agent of accountability who has reason to remain engaged enough to take swift action and make big changes when the political system begins breeding dysfunction. As such, Müller omits from the spirit of democracy what should be at its core: an enthusiastic people and a broader populist culture.
To these criticisms, Müller may have two responses. He might say there is no reason to believe that the key to securing democracy lies exclusively with the people. As he argued in Project Syndicate in 2018, theoretical accounts that look to social movements as the primary engines of democratic renewal often overlook the ways that charismatic leaders or harmful ideologies can dominate and disrupt them. Second, Müller may point out that nothing in his account precludes politics from becoming more ambitious or conflictual. Indeed, throughout Democracy Rules, he hints that he might support such a suggestion.
But these responses fail to envision how the impetus for populist politics can be channeled toward a richer and more passionate form of democracy. While Müller does not seek to make an empirical claim as to why people are drawn to populists, Democracy Rules gestures at populism’s economic roots—its exacerbation by the growing separation between rich and poor. As the rich gain more political power and become less tethered to specific countries and the poor lose faith in political responsiveness, more people become susceptible to populist disaffection, whether in a right-wing or left-wing direction. Desire for populist leadership stems not just from simple frustrations at policymakers, however, but from the steady building up of these frustrations over time. The sense of “dislocation” that results is the far more pessimistic feeling that the system is rigged, the world is going to hell, and that democratic institutions, as they currently exist, cannot or will not remedy it.
What populists offer in this context is not a political platform or even a vision of the people, as Müller suggests. Above all, they offer a crisis: a spectacularized narrative that explains the sources of their feelings in terms of some powerful “them” who are responsible for the various failures the people are suffering from. (On the right, this enemy is familiar: immigrants, racial and sexual minorities, liberal cultural elites. But the phenomenon exists on the left, too: its targets have notably included bosses, capitalists, and the bourgeoisie.) It is this sentiment of crisis that can better explain the sources of populist support.
This leads to two different conclusions from those offered by What is Populism?.
First, populists—like traditional parties—make a kind of contract with their supporters that creates expectations for which voters can hold them accountable. Their actions cannot be solely governed by an internal populist type of representation: they must deliver results, of some form or another. Such accountability need not run very deep, but it does exist. Far-right populists often do this by fixating on abstract or symbolic panics, engaging in brazen displays of political incorrectness, or exploiting racism, sexism, and ethno-nationalism to scapegoat minority or marginalized populations—all ways of scoring easy points by upsetting “the elites.” But that is by no means the only way to do it: many populist movements have clear political demands and, even when symbolism is important, they look for more concrete ways to rebuff elites, ranging from the subversion of elite dress codes by leaders like Evo Morales to the outright forms of sabotage taken up by militant unions during the Great Depression.
Second, we should be skeptical of Müller’s overall negative image of populists. After all, sometimes there do exist real political crises, and surely the way that those are represented and fought against ought to differ, in some way, from the representative claims made in “normal” political disputes. Certainly, populism can be a dangerous strategy, but populists who craft responsible and deep platforms, like the American Populist Party that Müller concedes defies his model, tend to build crises around clearer and more pragmatic imagery, issues, and goals, unleashing a passionate response to persistent and dangerous problems. It is from this perspective that Erin Pineda has suggested we view the U.S. civil rights movement as “the nation’s longest, sustained populist struggle.”
This line of thought also presents a conclusion contrary to the argument of Democracy Rules. Beyond its claims about the fundamental “spirit” of democracy, the core contention of the book is that a fairer and more equal political system would strip away the conditions in which populism thrives and create a prosperous democracy in its wake. But dislocation can and will persist even under the best political conditions. Legislative errors, changes in social attitudes, or lingering contradictions in path-dependent institutions all breed frustration and, over time, can foster populism. Indeed, as Michael Kazin argues in The Populist Persuasion (1995), while the form it takes may change, influential populism has been present in politics more often than not. There is no good reason to think that the vanishing point Müller imagines is anything more than an ideal—a vision that has never been and is unlikely ever to be realized in practice. In this sense, imagining the end of populism is not far from imagining the “end of history”—or the end of politics itself.
If history is any guide, then, it is a fool’s errand to seek to exclude populism entirely. Instead, the spirit of democracy should entrench those features that can make it a powerful form of representation while making it harder for its more regressive forms to arrogate its power.
What would such a populist-democratic culture look like? At least two general principles can be identified.
First, as Müller himself suggests in Democracy Rules, there must be a proliferation in the locations where people can find the representation they crave. This entails not only the existence of parties that represent a wider set of platforms across the political spectrum but also an increase in the places where citizens can constructively mobilize their anger. Unions and other forms of workplace democracy are an obvious place where political passions can be channeled in transformative ways, but local governments and mass movements also can give people real political agency. Moreover, these institutions must not simply exist: they must be able to make change. They ought to be seen as necessary counterbalances to electoral forms of democracy and should be empowered accordingly.
Second, politics must be ambitious in all places, and the trend toward centrist, technocratic depoliticization must be vigorously opposed. Crisis has its uses: it can “establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue,” as Martin Luther King famously put it in his critique of the white moderate in his letter from Birmingham jail. A populist culture should embrace this vision. Parties must seek to politicize new issues, offer new ways of thinking about relevant debates, and represent new ways of doing politics. Many mainstream parties decide their platforms by identifying those already most likely to vote for them and catering to their existing, heterogeneous preferences. By creating crises, populists can make new political demands and change the terms of political discussion. Erik Baker argues in a critical review of Thomas Frank’s latest book The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism (2021) that these terms will not always be purely economic. But populism’s power does not lie in articulating any particular set of demands. It lies in the ability to link potentially popular ones, give them serious urgency, and incentivize voters to take risks they might usually avoid.
Farage and Boris Johnson did exactly this in their advocacy of Brexit, turning a relatively marginal idea into the focal issue of UK politics more than three years, which also popularized demands for more aggressive border controls and an interventionist form of conservatism. Unfortunately, it is far-right voices who have dominated this passionate, ambitious political space, with mainstream parties, like the Democrats, content to continue seeking consensus and compromise. Populist opposition to this state of affairs need not devolve into conflict for conflict’s sake. In healthy politics, norms must be broken, radical ideas must always have a seat at the table, and the discussions being had must constantly evolve.
None of this is to suggest that figures like Trump, Johnson, and Le Pen have some special insight into the feelings of the people, nor is it to claim that new principles of democracy should be built around the desires of supporters of contemporary far-right movements. But it is to cast doubt on Müller’s vision of a democratic politics ideally structured around second-order consensus about pluralism. Political cynicism crosses partisan lines, and it is that feeling that must be addressed. This won’t happen so long as democratic politics is conceived of as ideally a matter of rule-following instead of a field of constant conflict and experimentation. In the United States, the mass mobilizations of Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, and Black Lives Matter—which facilitated the largest protest movement in U.S. history over the last two years—gesture toward a very different vision of politics.
Müller is aware of these tensions. He anticipates the charge that he places too much emphasis on the stability of rules and norms, writing in the preface of Democracy Rules, for example, that “neither rules nor norms are in and of themselves good things” and that they “can be broken while one remains faithful to their underlying principles.” Likewise, he explicitly supports forms of disobedience, including publicly yelling at especially egregious public figures such as Tucker Carlson and Dominic Cummings. But these gestures to a more conflictual vision of politics are in the end carefully qualified: norm-breaking is justified, Müller cautions, only “to preserve the very meaning of the game” and “when all else fails.” In the end, his animating concern is keeping things from getting out of hand. We may think society is deeply unjust, but our anger must be disciplined: it must only seek to exclude the most egregious rule-breakers. The effect is to portray passionate politics as a kind of last resort, an extreme departure from an otherwise comfortably maintained consensus. On this picture, serious struggle is something best undertaken warily and in moderation, with an eye to ensuring that civility can be restored in the future.
The truth is that a diverse democratic society requires openness to rule-breaking as an integral and ordinary component of politics, whether in good times or bad. Politics is risky, but anger is often apt. Rather than waiting for epochal breakdowns to occur, societies ought to preempt them by constantly being amenable to change. Stable democracies thus rely on claims that exclude or blame others, at least to some extent. Without the possibility of overthrowing not just the leaders who fail but their fundamental vision of politics, even the most principled institutions will breed frustration and ultimately undermine democracy. It is precisely the promise of actually making change in the future that can keep citizens “loyal” to the system even when they lose elections. You agree to keep playing the game not out of neutral, dispassionate respect for the rules, but because you think you actually have a chance of winning.