This is just a very short introduction the subject, and very clearly written. It has three goals: to help define what qualifies as populism, looks at some of the deeper causes, and what a successful response might look like.
For Müller, there are three conditions to a movement to qualify as populism:
- it must be critical of elites.
- it must be antipluralist. ‘Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the people. Populism is always a form of identity politics (though not all versions of identity politics are populist)’ (3). It is exclusionary, leaving some outside the boundaries, and therein lies its danger (4)
- it represents a particular form of governance: attempts to hijack the state apparatus; corruption and ‘mass clientelism’; efforts systematically to suppress civil society
Chapter 1: What Populists Say
Notes through 60s and 70s, the ‘spectre’ of populism as identified by Ghita Ionescu and Ernest Gellner was that of the 3rd world anticolonial struggles. Ah, the glory days. This was a time where populism, he argues, was often understood as ‘progressive’ or ‘grassroots’ across the Americas, if not in Europe with its ties to fascism. Like Laclau and Revelli he critiques the efforts to define populism by the content of the struggle, and looks rather to its form, as is made clear in the definition above and this:
Populism…is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political 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 other way morally inferior. (19-20)
The critique of elites is not in itself enough for populism to exist, it is rather that in opposition there is a ‘claim that a part of the people is the people–and that only the populist authentically identifies and represents this real or true people‘ (22). It is not the content of the moral critique, but the existence of this moral authentic people in opposition to those who are immoral and outside.
Content is of course required, and usually consists of a ‘singular common good, that the people can discern and will it, and that a politician or a party (or, less plausibly, a movement) can unambiguously implement it as policy‘ (25).
Just how this content comes to stand in for a multitude of demands among a multitude of groups to construct a unified opposition is, of course, a massive part of Laclau’s work. For Müller, this combination of belief in ‘the people’ and belief in the chosen representative are seen as above democratic politics, leading to passive participation and power invested in the leader. He doesn’t engage in the same kind of critique in the current form of our democratic system itself as a cause of passivity and goad towards this kind of populism as Revelli does.
He notes the rise of the internet as giving a new sense of direct democracy and communication, where everyday Americans can have direct contact with those in power that no longer require intermediary institutions and democratic forms. That’s quite an interesting thing to think about, particularly in relation to the US’s alt right.
Chapter 2: What Populists Do
I won’t get into his arguments around Chavez, surely it is the violent and well-funded attempts to depose a leader that do more to define their response than ‘populism’ per se? But anyway, he explores ‘three populist techniques for governing and their moral justification’. Again, they attempt to ‘colonize’ or ‘occupy’ the state, transforming civil services. They openly trade mass material and immaterial favours for support. The act harshly to critics in the 3rd sector and elsewhere
Müller usefully ends with 7 theses on populism summarising his argument:
- Populism is neither the authentic part of modern democratic politics nor a kind of pathology caused by irrational citizens. It is the permanent shadow of representative politics. There is always the possibility for an actor to speak in the name of the “real people” as a way of contesting currently powerful elites. There was no populism in ancient Athens; demagoguery perhaps, but no populism, since the latter exists only in representative systems. Populists are not against the principle of political representation; they just insist that only they themselves are legitimate representatives.
- Not everyone who criticizes elites is a populist. In addition to being antielitist, populists are antipluralist. They claim that they and they alone represent the people. All other political competitors are essentially illegitimate, and anyone who does not support them is not properly part of the people. When in opposition, populists will necessarily insist that elites are immoral, whereas the people are a moral, homogeneous entity whose will cannot err.
- it can often seem. that populists claim to represent the common good as willed by the people. On closer inspection, it turns out that what matters for populists is less the product of a genuine process of will-formation or a common good that anyone with common sense can glean than a symbolic representation of the “real people” from which the correct policy is then deduced. This renders the political position of a populist immune to empirical refutation. Populists can always play off the “real people” or “silent majority” against elected representatives and the official outcome of a vote.
- While populists often call for referenda, such exercises are not about initiating open-ended processes of democratic will-formation among citizens. Populists simply wish to be confirmed in what they have already determined the will of the real people to be. Populism is not a path to more participation in politics.
- Populists can govern, and they are likely to do so in line with their basic commitment to the idea that only they represent the people. Concretely, they will engage in occupying the state, mass clientelism and corruption, and the suppression of anything like a critical civil society. These practices find an explicit moral justification in the populist political imagination and hence can be avowed openly Populists can also write constitutions; these will be partisan or “exclusive” constitutions designed to keep populists in power in the name of perpetuating some supposed original and authentic popular will. They are likely to lead to serious constitutional conflict at some point or other.
- populists should be criticized for what they are—a real danger to democracy (and not lot to “liberalism”). But that does not mean that one should not engage them in political debate. Talking with populists is not the same as talking like populists. One can take the problems they raise seriously without accepting the ways in which they frame these problems.
- Populism is not a corrective to liberal democracy in the sense of bringing politics “closer to the people” or even reasserting popular sovereignty, as is sometimes claimed. But it can be useful in making it clear that parts of the population really are unrepresented (the lack of representation might concern interests or identity, or both). This does not justify the populist claim that only their supporters are the real people and that they are the sole legitimate representatives. Populism, then, should force defenders of liberal democracy to think harder about what current failures of representation might be. It should also push them to address more general moral questions. What are the criteria for belonging to the polity? Why exactly is pluralism worth preserving? And how can one address the concerns of populist voters understood as free and equal citizens, not as pathological cases of men and women driven by frustration, anger, and resentment? The hope is that this book has suggested at least some preliminary answers to these questions. (101-103)