Muller Says Rise of Populism is Not a Uniform Wave

We don't want 'populism' to become an umbrella swear word for every kind of politics we don't like,” said scholar and author Jan-Werner Muller at his Feb. 2 talk at CEU. The Princeton University professor is the author of “What is Populism?” published in 2016. The lecture was part CEU's Re-thinking Open Society project.

When populist parties are in power, it is a challenge to open society, Muller said. “the demonization of parties, the constant conflict stirred up – it presents a challenge to actually conducting politics.” However, he also warned that to lump all populist leaders into one category is dangerous as national contexts do matter. He added that not everyone who criticizes elites is automatically a populist.

The media is reporting widely on multiple worldwide anti-government protests from the U.S. to Romania. It paints a picture, Muller said, of “the people” rising up against “the establishment, or the elites.” He said that, while that is happening in many places, we should be careful not to see it as an absolute pattern. He gave the example of Austria electing Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen as president late last year. With 53.3 percent of the vote, Van der Bellen beat right-wing candidate Norbert Hofer.

So what is the difference between being critical of the establishment or the elite and being a populist? Muller said populists always claim two things: first, that only they know what the real people – the silent majority – want. Secondly, they distinguish between the “real people,” or people who agree with them, and those who oppose them; the latter's “status as belonging to the people” can be questioned and doubted, he said. Muller gave recent examples, pointing to British politician Nigel Farage's comments on the night of Brexit. Farage called it a “victory for real people.” In his January inauguration speech, U.S. President Donald Trump said “today, we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people."

Muller also noted that populists demonize their “enemies” by attacking their characters, making it a moral, personal issue. In one case, he noted, a poll of 985 Trump supporters in Florida revealed that 40 percent of them actually believe Hillary Clinton is a demon.

When Trump tweeted 'we will unite and we will win, win, win,” it meant something different. It wasn't a promise to accept the other, it was a threat,” Muller said. “Can it not still be the case that populists could have a good effect, a corrective for the faults of established liberal democracies? I roundly reject that. Notice how in essence, populists always operate. The first step for them is a symbolic construction of who the real people are. Then they decide a singular will of those people and then they say 'I am your voice.' In this process, no one else has really talked. Populists are not interested in an open-ended process of talking with citizens about issues; they deduce it based on what or who they think real people are. By definition, for populists, if the silent majority could speak, they would be in power, so they set it up as the silent majority has been silenced and they need to make sure these people's voices are heard.”

Last October, the Hungarian government held a referendum asking citizens to vote on whether or not they should accept approximately 1,600 refugees as part of the EU's refugee resettlement plan. In order for the referendum to be valid, it would require 50 percent of the electorate to vote. With only 43 percent voting in the end, the referendum was invalid, but Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban still called it an “outstanding” victory due to 98 percent of those who voted siding with him in wanting to close the door on refugees.

The government couldn't say that the process was rigged. Even in an extreme case like this, the government delegitimized the results and said the majority of people voted the right way and then took those results to Brussels. Even in an extreme case, the populist remains faithful to actual democratic procedures,” Muller said.

Often populists run on platforms that criticize existing administrations or opponents for corruption but, when they gain power, they justify similar or worse behavior by saying that they are looking out for the will of the people by appointing those who supported them. Muller also pointed out that populists must delegitimize movements and protests against them because they can't allow the appearance that some factions of the people they claim to speak for are dissatisfied or disgruntled. This is why narratives about how external actors and money are behind civil movements and demonstrations, Muller noted. The populists must show that this is not really the people's will but something nefarious that comes from the outside.

Muller concluded his lecture by asking liberals to questions themselves and to not assume that populists and their policies are too simplistic to survive. “It doesn't mean that these regimes are impenetrable. But we shouldn't assume they will dissolve, disappear. No populist has ever run out of scapegoats. Let's give up on this naive liberal assumption that it will all resolve itself.”

He suggests that concerned politicians and citizens consider opening space for both debate and for pluralism, both of which can be challenging. If both sides continue to scorn and ignore one another, there simply is no progress and, Muller says, this plays into the hands of populists who want to demonize the opposition and insist they are not or do not speak for “real” people. It's not a given, he says, that a populace has to remain so divided – that the U.S. has to remain only blue and red, for example. Introducing other options means also allowing a platform for voices that liberals won't necessarily like or condone like those who favor extreme immigration laws or restrictive abortion laws.

In Europe, the tendency for liberal democrat politicians to try to exclude populist actors altogether – saying 'I won't even interact with you because you are beyond the pale' – this allows the populists to underscore the separation between them and elites. We need engagement with them. Talking with populists is not the same as talking like them. This area is not getting enough attention. We've already given a huge concession to populists by saying this is the way the political scene is defined: in binary terms.”