February 7, 2022

In the United States and Europe we live today in what seems to be a sea of populism: some on the left, some on the right, some outside of that spectrum, seemingly. The term is certainly ambiguous. What is populism? What is driving the popularity of populism today? And why is it doing better in some places than others?

This week, Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey interviews Jan-Werner Müller, Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences and professor of politics at Princeton University, about the increasing (mis)framing of populism as a political program and how leaders of both left-wing and right-wing parties may be labeled as populists. Müller also discusses the perils for democracy that our understanding of populism entails and the centrality of "culture wars" for all populisms.

Subscribe to International Horizons on SoundcloudSpotify and Apple Podcasts. A lightly edited selection of the transcript follows below. 

International Horizons - Ralph Bunche Institute · What Populism Really is: Framings and Misunderstandings with Jan-Werner Müeller

John Torpey  00:15

We in the United States and Europe live today in what seems to be a sea of populisms: some on the left, some on the right, some outside of that spectrum, seemingly. The term is certainly ambiguous. What is populism? What is driving the popularity of populism today? And why is it doing better in some places than others?

John Torpey  00:36

Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey, and I’m director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York.

John Torpey  00:55

We’re fortunate to have with us today Jan Werner Mueller, professor of politics at Princeton University. He’s the author of a book called What is Populism? from 2016. And he’s a frequent contributor to such publications as the London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books. Thanks so much for joining us today, Jan Werner Mueller.

Jan-Werner Müller  01:17

Thanks very much for having me.

John Torpey  01:19

Great to have you. So, you know, maybe we should start. I mean, I started by suggesting that there’s a lot of ambiguity and perhaps confusion about the idea of populism. And you have a very clear definition in your book. So why don’t you tell us what you understand by the term populism?

Jan-Werner Müller  01:37

I shall but I’ll preface it, if I may, with a somewhat pedantic remark, which is that by now I think it’s become in and of itself a problem. And you kind of hinted at this, that because pundits, and to some degree, also, our colleagues in academia, are constantly telling us that, supposedly, we live in the age of populism. Because of that, we now have a tendency to kind of stick that label on to all kinds of phenomena for which clearly we have much more precise concepts. I mean, be it xenophobia, be it racism, be it economic protectionism, or be it, for that matter, just good, old popular mobilizations, which certainly are not in and of itself in any way suspect in the way that nowadays many people who use the word populism tend to suggest.

Jan-Werner Müller  02:24

So having made that rather pedantic point, let me move on to the actual question you posed. So my answer to that certainly will sound peculiar to anyone very familiar with 19th- and 20th-century American history, but bear with me for a second. So my understanding of populism is that it’s essentially about politicians or bulk of parties making the claim that they, and only they, represent what such figures very often but not necessarily referred to as the “real people” (in quotation marks), or also very frequently as the silent majority.

Jan-Werner Müller  03:07

Now, that might not sound so pernicious, necessarily, it’s not obviously the same as let’s say racism. And nevertheless, it does have two deeply problematic consequences for democracy. One is simply -- and that’s rather obvious -- that such figures will then also claim that all other contenders for power are fundamentally illegitimate. It’s maybe worth adding that that’s never just a question of policy differences, or even disagreements about values, which, after all, is entirely normal in a democracy. It basically always moves immediately into the register, which, we got very clearly, for instance, in 2015-2016. What Trump said about his opponent in the presidential election was extreme in many ways, but it was not exceptional as far as populist rhetoric, as I understand, it is concerned. The others are simply corrupt, crooked characters and that’s all there is.

Jan-Werner Müller  04:01

And then secondly, the other consequence, and maybe less obvious is that populists are going to suggest that basically not all citizens are the real people. There are some who are at best second-rate citizens, or who might not properly belong at all. So long story short, as far as I understand it, populism is about a politics of exclusion, pretty obviously at the level of political elites and party politics, less obviously, at the level of the people themselves, where you essentially tell certain citizens that they don’t truly belong, that they are not part of the proper people.

Jan-Werner Müller  04:39

And as hinted at the beginning, this obviously diverges from the historical meaning of populism in the United States. So an understanding of main street versus Wall Street popular mobilizations against elites,  and so on. So, yes, it’s different. Nevertheless, I think it has certain value in capturing particular phenomena we see around the world. And even though in certain ways it resembles authoritarianism, it’s still different because what is necessary here is that particular claim about a representative relationship to the people. And there are plenty of authoritarians who don’t make that kind of claim.

John Torpey  05:18

Right? And there are populace who are on the left even today, I would say. Is Bernie Sanders not a populist in the kind of sense that you mean it? Because he certainly has a construction of the 99%, if you like, versus the greedy corporations, etc.

Jan-Werner Müller  05:38

So I realized this can, you know, easily sound like nitpicking, but for me (i.e., from my perspective, from within my conceptual framework) figures like Bernie Sanders or AOC are not populists. They are good old social democrats who appeal to what, in some countries, is still indeed known as the popular classes. But to be a populist, in my sense of the term, you don’t say, the 99%, you actually say, the 100%; the others don’t really belong at all.

Jan-Werner Müller  06:12

And, while obviously, I recognize that within an American idiom, it makes perfect sense to connect Sanders and AOC to basically the late 19th-century phenomenon of the People’s Party, popular mobilizations against Wall Street and so on. I’m not saying that’s meaningless. At the same time, I do permit myself to point out that the consequence that we’ve often seen in the last couple of years, namely, this kind of false equivalence, where then people say, “Oh, Trump is a populist on the right, and Bernie as a populist on the left.” And you know, plenty of institutions kind of did that - I mean, The New York Times, for instance, infamously, I think, in 2000-2020. I think that has become a problem.

Jan-Werner Müller  06:54

I mean, the unavoidable Hannah Arendt quote, “Vulgar judgment is a matter of being able to distinguish,” and to sort of suggest that these people are ultimately in the same category, I think does not help our ability to comprehend our era. And the same is true by saying, “Oh, you know, Viktor Orban is kind of the same somehow, as let’s say, popular mobilizations around Podemos in Spain, this is all just, you know, one is left one is right, and so on.” I think [that claim] overlooks the fact that actually a lot of these left-wing figures we tend to think of do not make the kind of claim I’m looking at.

Jan-Werner Müller  07:29

Which is not to say I hasten to add that, “Oh, it can only exist on the right, you know, by definition, the left can do no wrong, you know, is morally pure.” No, that’s not true, either. I mean, they’re always examples. And at the risk of saying the overly obvious, if you think of today’s Venezuela, if you think about how Chavez talked, it’s pretty clear that there was no room for disagreement, and that there was only one representative and if you were to disagree with Chavez, you were outside, and not just the realm of legitimate disagreement, you are basically a traitor to the people as such. So I’m not saying that this is ideologically specific on the right. What I am saying is that there’s been a strong tendency in the last years sometimes because of not really thinking about the issues, maybe sometimes, though, with an intention to discredit particular left-wing actors to basically short circuit phenomena or equate phenomena that remain very distinct and very different.

John Torpey  08:26

I mean, I should have said that you describe populism in the book as a kind of shadow feature in effect of democracies. That it’s somehow kind of always looming in the background to a certain extent, and it’s basically fundamentally a threat to democracy. I mean, could you sort of elaborate on why that’s the case?

Jan-Werner Müller  08:54

So it’s always a shadow, because as long as we live in representative democracies, and maybe one day, we won’t -I mean, this is not, you know, the only way of understanding democracy. But as long as we live in representative democracies, there is no way of excluding a situation where somebody appears and makes that kind of claim to a monopoly of representing the real people.

Jan-Werner Müller  09:16

Now, obviously, there are different factors, you know, why this happens at a particular time. I’m not saying this is a kind of transhistorical constant phenomenon across all ages. I’m just saying that this is not something that one can sort of exclude, be it through normative theory or some other sort of magic solution. Having said that, I also want to emphasize that not all people talk is pernicious. So the point is not to say, “Oh, as soon as somebody mentions the people, or even makes the claim that certain citizens have been systematically marginalized and now it’s time to speak for them, etc.”  that this is somehow dangerous, or in any way, a peril for democracy. It would be crazy to argue that. The problem is simply when a claim that one could translate into “we are also the people” becomes “we are the only people” and everybody who doesn’t agree with us is by definition a traitor, is excluded, has no standing in our polity anymore.

Jan-Werner Müller  10:21

So to put it very crudely, if you have, let’s say, Mubarak’s Egypt, and people went to Tahrir Square and said, “We are the people,” that made perfect sense. And that was not a populist phenomenon. If you have, you know, as happened for a number of years, as you know, if you have people in cities like Leipzig and Dresden come out on the streets, and have big posters that said, “We are the people” with the implication, “we are the only: we are the people,” and anybody who disagrees with our far-right movement that basically tries to get rid of Muslims and any sort of left-winger who doesn’t agree with us, that is clearly a danger to democracy. And the language can seem similar. But again, it’s important to distinguish these phenomena.

John Torpey  11:05

Sure. So it’s not a transhistorical phenomenon, necessarily, but we do seem to be in a period of lots of populisms in Europe, in the United States, and perhaps you would even say in India. So why is that happening? I mean, in the book, you’re skeptical about some of the typical explanations that sort of left behinds from globalization and that kind of argument. I mean, what’s going on? Why is this happening in Germany, in France, in the U.K., and certainly, of course, in the United States.

Jan-Werner Müller  11:36

So I hope that you would agree with me that the kind of tendency to ask for a ideally 140-, or at most 280-character explanation of a global phenomenon, you know, for social scientists, it’s kind of grating in terms of, “Okay, just give us one line about why is all this happening.” Again, as pedantic as it can sound, it still matters to look very closely at individual national constellations. It also really matters to look at how in this case, this has become partly a transnational phenomenon, because these actors can learn from each other. So it’s true that the outcomes can often look very similar. If you look at the patterns of governance of, let’s say, Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary. I mean, it’s not crazy to see certain similarities.

Jan-Werner Müller  12:21

But it doesn’t follow from that, that sort of the root causes, or as you know, the cliched jeu d’hasard, the driver of all this is necessarily identical. So I think that’s certainly one thing that has to be taken into account more. That there is a fair bit of basically looking around for models. And to some degree, you can basically adopt strategies even in somewhat different contexts. Having said that, I’m not suggesting that, oh, this is completely mysterious, or it’s irreducibly particular. And not only if you are the absolute specialist on one particular country, can you say anything meaningful about about these about these matters.

Jan-Werner Müller  12:57

What I would highlight -- and again, the list could be much longer if one sort of really tries to be serious about factors that might facilitate the rise of these populist actors -- I will just mention two for the moment: One is that it certainly helps, it doesn’t determine, but it helps right-wing populists if there is already something happening, that we might very broadly described as a kind of culture war. So clearly, it helped, for instance, Viktor Orban to kind of tap into a story where people could say, “Yeah, there’s something going on with, you know, deep rural, (quote, unquote) “real Hungary.” And then there is liberal, cosmopolitan, and we all know what that can be called for Budapest. And here is sort of the big divide in the country.” And a somewhat similar story might be told about about about Poland.

Jan-Werner Müller  13:44

So this can help; this doesn’t determine the outcome. And again, I think some commentators today, I think, are in a certain sense, very naive, if they sort of naturalized these divisions. And you know, for instance, the United States keeps saying, “Oh, the country is so divided, and this is quasi-natural that here is the Midwest, and here are the coastal cities. And these are fundamentally different cultures.” I mean, this is not a given. And we didn’t always talk about politics like this. But if there is something like this there, I think it can certainly help.

Jan-Werner Müller  14:17

The second factor I would mention, also not to look like I’m simply kind of, you know, simply always just talking normatively about some of these figures. Of course, it can also be the case that at least initially, leaders who then later on clearly become populist in my understanding of that term, say something, which is actually a valid point to be made in politics.

Jan-Werner Müller  14:38

So when Erdogan first said, “Look, here are parts of the Turkish population, which are kind of neglected by a certain Kemalist elites.” Or when Chavez initially said, “Look, I mean, Venezuela is hardly a truly egalitarian democracy.” I mean, these were obviously not crazy things to say. Whether these were just cynical uses of existing problems and these people were always on the road to being authoritarians, who knows? I mean, there is that infamous quote from Erdogan where he says, “Democracy is like a tram you get on and when it’s no longer useful, you get off.” So that’s a pretty strong indication that yeah, maybe that was just a strategy to basically tap into something that was real.

Jan-Werner Müller  15:18

All I’m saying is -again, at the risk of sounding very pedantic -- that not everything that populist leaders say can be automatically discounted as falsehood and as lies. I mean, as you know, there’s a sort of long-standing conception of populism as well, which says, “Oh, this is basically the same as demagoguery, these people are always lying, they’re always making false promises” and so on. And that’s also become a very sort of popular journalistic framing. And again, I think that’s a mistake. I mean, it doesn’t mean that what these people say is the truth about our societies; the opposite, the other extreme would be wrong as well. But the tendency to basically stop listening entirely and say, “Oh, we can always immediately discount everything” is just as mistaken.

John Torpey  16:02

Sure, there are certainly people out there who, you know, gravitate towards these movements, because they feel somehow they’re being left out; they’re being left out of the discussion, not paid attention to, etc.

John Torpey  16:12

But I want to get back to something you said early on in your last response. And that had to do with the centrality of culture wars. And I mean, one of the things that has struck me, I mean, for a long time since I was in graduate school, I suppose. People began -- and that’s a long time ago, that’s close to 40 years ago now -- but people began to talk about something called identity in a way that, as far as I could tell, when I was an undergraduate just a few years earlier, no one talked that way. And so and, I mean, Kwame Anthony Appiah has made this kind of point, that this is a fundamentally new conception of the way people think about themselves.

John Torpey  16:55

And I wonder how much that feeds into this. I mean, some of the movements more strictly or obviously authoritarian in Europe go under, or have had the term applied to them, of being identitarian. It’s sometimes used in regard to understanding the so-called identity politics here in the US. You know, Wolfgang Thierse, the former president of the German Bundestag, is barnstorming around Germany saying, “You know, how much identity can kind of society stand?”

John Torpey  17:29

And, you know, I wonder what you would say about that, because it does seem to me the more I think about it as a kind of earthquake in the way in which at least educated people have come to think about themselves, and it can go right, it can go left, but it probably is primarily located on the right, although we read more about it in the left as a kind of illness of the left, so to speak today. So I wonder what you would say about that. It’s kind of a long-winded question; sorry about that.

Jan-Werner Müller  17:59

No, it’s, it’s totally fine. It’s a good, which is, of course, to say, difficult question. So let me try to make two points. The first one is that, yes, the kind of phenomenon we’re talking about, populism, clearly has something to do with identity. I mean, a populist who doesn’t say anything about the identity of the people can’t really be populist. At the same time, I would again, warn against the kind of false equivalence between right and left in terms of “Oh, you know, there’s the sort of right-wing nationalist identity politics and there’s the left-wing version on campus that’s also really, really bad.” Now, having been a student in Berlin at a certain period in history, I don’t need people to lecture me about the fact that the left can be highly intolerant: I know that, I get that. But again, to sort of equate these two things and suggest that they’re sort of at the same level of danger, I think, is wrong.

Jan-Werner Müller  18:48

Plus, and this gets into to the second point, I think what is sort of described as a certain type of identity politics, on one level, isn’t really about identity at all in a certain way. Let me try to explain with three quick points, if I may. So first of all, the suggestion that this is entirely new, and there was some golden age when, for instance, social democratic parties, or socialist parties, in Europe, basically, were only interested in sort of rational compromises about material interests, working conditions and so on, is obviously wrong. I mean, there was always a fight for the dignity of certain groups. To say that this all started somehow in the '60s or '70s and before that nobody ever thought about anything to do with the characteristics of collectives or individuals is clearly wrong.

Jan-Werner Müller  19:35

Secondly, when we look at sort of what has become paradigmatic examples, certainly in the United States, so Black Lives Matter or #MeToo. On one level, you might say, “Look, this is really about particular groups demanding rights being effective in the way they already are for everybody else.” The demand is not that you must understand a lived experience in all its particularity and complexity. And you know, that’s what we’ll reduce politics to. It’s to put it crudely, but I think not inaccurately, simply saying, “Look, other people don’t have to live with a threat of being harassed or even be shot by the police. Why do women still have to put up with the danger of being harassed or possibly be raped by powerful men?” So this is the sort of notion that this is all incredibly mysterious, and is irreducibly about particular identities, I think this is a problematic framing to begin with.

Jan-Werner Müller  20:31

And once we sort of see it in terms of effective use of rights, we can also say look in a certain way, this is also about questions of distribution, who actually gets distributed the effective use of certain rights. I realize it’s, of course, more complicated as soon as we get into questions where people might demand special kinds of recognition. So I don’t want to make it sound like it’s all super easy, and people just don’t get it. But in certain ways, we’re also not seeing what actually makes it not that different from other kinds of conflicts.

Jan-Werner Müller  21:01

And the last thing I would add, if I may, is that what has also I think become a very strong argument that gets repeated all the time, which is that okay, identity is so difficult and makes politics so difficult, whereas, you know, interests are easy. You can always rationally can compromise on them, you’re gonna find a solution, you can bargain, give and take, and identity is just sort of all or nothing.

Jan-Werner Müller  21:24

If you think back to what already in the late 19th-century sociologists, you know, Gabriel Tarde, the great rival of Durkheim was saying, “It’s not at all obvious that this is true.” I mean, people change their identities all the time. I’m not saying it’s easy, but people might today look at themselves in the light of new demands, new ideas, new arguments, for instance, from minorities in different ways. And yeah, sometimes that means a sacrifice of sorts, but it’s not like this is a completely impossible thing to happen.

Jan-Werner Müller  21:54

I’m not so sure that people are all that ready to compromise on material interests. I mean, to put it very bluntly, if you think of the fact that in this country right now, you already have an incredibly radicalized right-wing party, which, you know, as some of our colleagues in political science would say, basically, systematically engages in culture war to distract from what are actually very, very unpopular economic policies. You kind of wonder, look, how is this possible after 30-40 years of what cruelly but not inaccurately can be described as neoliberalism, where even nominally center left presidents weren’t doing anything that really amounted to going after the rich. So if it’s already like this now, what’s going to happen if material interests are really sort of in play in a way that they haven’t really been in a very long time?

Jan-Werner Müller  22:47

So I’m not saying this is conclusive, but I will just sort of try to shake your listeners a little bit out of this sort of very popular assumption that, oh, identity is per se, so much more difficult, and per se is sort of impossible for democratic politics to deal with. And interests are always that easy. I don’t think that division is quite as neat as sometimes suggested.

John Torpey  23:07

Interesting. One response comes to me in thinking about Tony Appiah’s work and he basically is borrowing in a way something Foucault said, which was that there was a time when people engaged in certain kinds of acts, but that didn’t make them -- in his example -- homosexuals. That was something that came along in Foucault’s reading, at least,  more recently, and this idea that we embody these particular ways of being that  flow in effect from the label. And that might make this identity, shall we say, equation, less easy. That might make identity less flexible; it might be less easy for you even to become a Muslim because they were egalitarians as compared to your Hindu kind of community, or something like that. So I, you know, I wonder about that. And that’s a difficult question.

Jan-Werner Müller  24:06

Just to clarify: I’m not saying nothing has changed. Not at all. But at the same time, the tendency, including among especially in Europe social democrats, has been to kind of paint this golden age when supposedly it was somehow simpler. But just just think of the fact that, yes, workers know they’re workers, but they don’t know that they’re part of a working class, unless there’s a socialist party that basically suggests them frames in which to understand themselves in a certain way. And this is, as you know at least as well as I do, this is not like all this time this has happened in the 60s and 70s. This is Gramsci and many predecessors who would have said, “yeah, there is a very strong component of how we think about class consciousness and so on.”

Jan-Werner Müller  24:49

So I’m just making a very limited, again, maybe pedantic point that I think the sort of differences with the past are tend to get overplayed partly because of our I think perennial tendency (and I’m not excluding myself from this) to kind of feel sorry for ourselves, that our age is uniquely complex and challenging and somehow it was easier for people in the past, which alas, I think is just not true.

John Torpey  25:12

Sure. So you may have seen an article by Tom Edsall in his weekly column the other day. It was basically a kind of reflection on the American right’s preoccupation, maybe obsession, or at least interest in what Viktor Orban has been doing in Hungary. And, you know, painted a future for us were Trump to win the next election that looks kind of not so much different from what Orban is doing. And the question basically is -there’s been talk, as you also surely know, about the emergence of a civil war in the United States, rather dramatic kind of fears about where we’re headed -but I wonder how you how seriously you take those kinds of parallels and what exactly is Viktor Orban doing? I mean, it seems to be kind of a democracy; they have elections, but there’s only really one party that’s likely to win, it seems. You know, he’s obviously taken over the media, he’s run the Central European University out of the country. I mean, that doesn’t seem terribly likely to happen here, but maybe my imagination is not grand enough. So I’d be curious how you evaluate comparison between Viktor Orban’s Hungary and the United States and what’s happening in other countries along these lines?

Jan-Werner Müller  26:40

Yeah, it’s tricky. So on the one hand, as you’re hinting as well, there are limits to these kinds of comparisons. And you know, ever since 2016, we had lots of country specialists who said, “Oh, I know about Erdogan, I know about this person, and now I’m going to explain to you why Trump is going to do exactly the same thing.” And of course, it’s never as simple as simple as that. Having said that, as also hinted by myself earlier, nevertheless, there is a kind of playbook out there by now. And there is, in particular, what our colleague Kim Shepley has called a form of autocratic legalism, where you basically do things that can look like they do comply with the law, but especially if you put all the pieces of the puzzle together, and if you realize that actually the spirit of the law is certainly violated. And what comes out in the end as a system basically does make a turn over of power maybe not entirely impossible, but highly unlikely in a way that clearly isn’t isn’t democratic anymore.

Jan-Werner Müller  27:36

Then you can say, “yeah, it’s not crazy to think about these possible borrowings.” I think the phenomena that you also talked about at the beginning is somewhat separate, but it’s also concerning to put it mildly, which is that there is now a part of the intellectual American right, which is very vocal about basically saying, “Look, Orban and all these other fantastic anti-liberal experiments in Central and Eastern Europe are great, not because they’re autocratic kleptocracies”, of course, they’re not saying that, but they are saying, “Look, these people are serious about anti-liberalism in a way that, you know, even the Republicans in this country never really are. So here’s somebody who really is serious about banning abortion. He is somebody who’s really serious about nationalism, and so on.”

Jan-Werner Müller  28:19

And what is concerning is that you get these hints, where it seems to be the case that at least some of these actors are willing to say, “well, and if parts of democracy or maybe even all of democracy has to go, maybe that’s okay, too, maybe that’s a world, that’s a price worth paying.” Of course, they don’t put it quite as openly as that, but you get these hints. And in other cases, you really feel, with all due respect, like this is people traveling to the Soviet Union in the 20s and 30s. And and saying, “Oh, it was great, you know, I didn’t see any problems.” And all these people now traveling to Central Europe, and being celebrated and looking around, and not really understanding, of course, what’s happening on the ground to some degree. And that’s something that as far as I can tell, simply didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago.

Jan-Werner Müller  29:08

And again, this is not to say that anybody who has particular views about abortion is automatically an enemy of democracy and so on. What I’m talking about is specifically this phenomenon of more or less being willing to say, “look, we’re basically not going to accept what majorities decide about certain questions anymore at all. And if that’s what it takes to get our way in terms of some of these questions, so be it.” And that’s something that, you know, might not have enormous influence at this point. But the very fact that it exists, that it is so vocal, so unashamed in a way that people weren’t 10-15 years ago, I think should make us think.

John Torpey  29:49

So I want to thank Jan Werner-Muller for his insights into the phenomenon of populism and for talking to us today at such length. I want to thank Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance. Remember to subscribe and rate International Horizons on SoundCloud, Spotify, and Apple podcasts. I want to thank and acknowledge Duncan Mackay for sharing his song “International Horizons” as the theme music for the show. This is John Torpey, saying thanks for joining us and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.