Understanding Populism

What is common between the political leaders Donald Trump, Silvio Berlusconi, Marine Le Pen, Bernie Sanders, Nigel Farage, Narendra Modi, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan? They have all been labeled as populists. If there is one political phenomenon that has presently triumphed globally, it has to be populism. While we can guess that it is used in a negative sense, the wide-ranging and frequent use of the term has made it difficult to ascertain what populism really means. For instance, does it describe particular political ideas of politicians or does it refer to the psychology of the voters who choose these politicians? Are the populist leaders on the left or on the right of the political ideology spectrum? Do populists espouse inclusionary or exclusionary policies? Do populists preach one thing and practice another once they are in power?

For those who have been flummoxed with these questions and want to understand what truly constitutes populism, how it originated, and the dangers it presents to democracy, there is help. A slim and very well written new book titled What is Populism? by Jan-Werner Müller, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, provides the answers. The book is divided into three chapters that deal with what populists say, what they do when in power, and how to deal with them.

While populists are understood to be anti-elitists, Müller contends that being against the established political leadership is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for populism. He emphasizes that the most important characteristic of populist leaders are that they are inherently anti-pluralists. Populists claim monopoly in being legitimate representatives of the people, and pit all political competitors as part of the immoral, corrupt elite. Further, anyone who doesn’t support the populists is not considered to be part of the “real people”.

Think of Nigel Farage invalidating the opinions of the 48% of the UK population who had voted against Brexit when he said that Brexit was a “victory for real people.” Or consider Trump, who didn’t win the popular vote in the US presidential elections, proudly claiming, “The only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything.”

Müller notes that populist parties lack intra-party democracy and tend to be tightly controlled by their leaders. The author argues that populist leaders project themselves as victims and think of complex policy challenges in a simplistic manner. Moreover, populists believe in conspiracy theories and blame institutions for producing election outcomes that don’t favour them. In fact, populists do all this openly and with the support of the people they represent. Think of Trump alleging that in case he did not win the elections, it would be because the vote was rigged.

While outlining how they govern when in power, Müller proposes that populists reshape state institutions to suit their will (often rewriting constitutions), exchange favours for/from elites with indulging the masses, and crackdown on dissent in society. Where the book is lacking is that although Müller dedicates a chapter to how to deal with populists, he provides few answers.

Müller’s writing is lucid, timely, and incisive. And even though the book is short, Müller substantiates his arguments with plenty of examples to ensure that the reader gains conceptual clarity about the idea that has caught the fantasy of political pundits and the masses alike.

About the author

Nidhi Gupta

Nidhi Gupta is Head, Post-Graduate Programmes at the Takshashila Institution. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research interests lie in behavioural economics and in origins of public opinion.