But the world is full of good men, I now reflect as I write these lines down, and yet the world drives hard into darkness and the blindness of blood.
Robert Penn Warren, All The King’s Men, 1946.
Populism is all the rage these days. Across the European continent, the rise to political prominence, influence and power of populist right-wing formations continues, and in the USA, the Republican Party’s nominee for president continue to attract a significant percentage of voters, in spite of having taken the art of lying in politics to entirely new and unprecedented levels, serial forays into hate speech against practically all but white Anglosaxon Protestant males, and a lack of any concrete political program. Whatever the outcome of next months presidential elections in the US, we can be quite sure that the long-term consequences of the seismic shifts in the ways of doing politics engineered by right-wing populists in our time will be with us for quite some time. «Accepting the right’s white identity politics as part of normal life, year in and year out, is a bleak prospect», writes Jedediah Purdy – but it is increasingly likely on both sides of the Atlantic.
For we live in what Ivan Krastev has described as a ‘populist moment’, and it is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
In the face of all of this, it is unsurprising that social science scholars have once more returned to the task of coming to terms with the elusive topic of populism. Princeton University’s German-born political scientist Jan-Werner Müller’s short monograph What is Populism?, recently published by Pennsylvania University Press in a first print running which seem to have sold out faster than most academic titles can ever aspire to, is only one of a plethora of scholarly monographs on populism from recent months. Müller’s short monograph, which first appeared in German on Suhrkamp in 2014, rovides a good entry point for anyone interested in the topic as it unfolds in our time. But it should be borne in mind that Müller’s vantage point is a very specific one both in a disciplinary and political sense – namely that of a political science professor primarily pre-occupied with identifying large and macro-level comparative patterns rather than the lived worlds of people who support populist political formations, and that of a European left-liberal. People interested in micro-level sociological or anthropological accounts would probably be better served by Arlie Russel Hochschild’s account of the lives of ordinary Tea Party and Trump supporters in Louisiana, USA and Justin Gest’s book about white working-class and populist right-wing supporting men in the UK and in Ohio, USA .Whereas for people interested in detailed socio-linguistic analysis of populist-right wing rhetoric, especially as it relates to immigrants and minorities, would be best served by the meticulous work of documentation and analysis of Ruth Wodak.
Müller starts his account with the observation that «for all the talk about populism» it is «far from clear that we know what we are talking about» when we talk about populism (Müller 2016, page 2). Furthermore, Müller argues that «we simply do not have anything like a theory of populism, and we seem to lack coherent criteria for deciding when political actors turn populist in some meaningful sense» (ibid.) Müller rightly notes that «populism is obviously a politically contested concept» and that «professional politicians themselves know the stakes of the battle over its meaning» (Müller 2016, page 9), with established political leaders eager to tag their political opponents as ‘populists’, and many populists all too eager to claim the title for themselves. My native Norway here provides an interesting and instructive case in point. For after the Norwegian parliamentary elections of 2013, which brough the populist right-wing Progress Party to power for the first time in its forty years’ history in a coalition government with the right-wing Conservative Party, the incoming Norwegian Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg and her communication advisors amidst much negative attention from the international news media
went on the offensive in an attempt to sanitize the Norwegian Progress Party’s long-standing record of instrumentalizing the ‘politics of fear’ relating to immigration and Muslims in Norway.
She publicly chastized any of her political opponents who in line with the overwhelming consensus among political science scholars with any competence on the Progress Party described the Progress Party as a populist right-wing party, and made it clear that she would henceforth argue for the uncritical acceptance of the Progress Party’s own brand new self- designation as a ‘liberal’ party.
That attempt at spin doctoring political terminology in Norway flopped in the face of the most right-wing Norwegian government since 1945 introducing new immigration policies which only in one’s wildest imagination could be described as ‘liberal’, given that it has been critizised by a wide range of international and national human and refugee rights organizations for its illiberal tendencies, and Solberg has not returned to this strategy since. Though Müller decries the «widespread conflation of right and left when talking about populism» (ibid.), he correctly diagnoses populism as being neither right or left by necessity, nor necessarily exclusively ‘Western’: prime examples of his are the increasingly authoritarian Islamist regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and the left-populist regime of the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
For Müller, it is a necessary but not sufficient criteria for inclusion among populists to be ‘critical of elites’ or ‘anti-elitist’ (Müller 2016, page 2). But the crux of the matter very obviously can not be therein, for that, as Müller readily admits (page 3) would have made practically any Republican candidate purporting to ‘run against’ Washington and the Beltway in past decades a populist. «Populist are always antipluralist», argues Müller instead: their claim to represent ‘the people’ «is not an empirical one; it is always distinctively moral» (ibid.) What Müller indicates by this, is of course that populists tend to dismiss that part of ‘the people’ which do not share their interests or aims as either immoral or in betrayal of the very same ‘people’, and hence not properly part of ‘the people’ invoked. Populism therefore counts as an «exclusionary form of identity politics» and thereby «tends to pose a danger to democracy» in Müller’s view (ibid.) The rhetoric of Norwegian populist right-wing Progress Party provides a solid case in point: in Progress Party circles, the state broadcaster NRK was long known under its epiteth ‘ARK’ (indicating that its editorial policies was somehow ‘controlled’ by the previously governing and dominant social democratic Labour Party); Progress Party MPs spoke with liberal abandon about the alleged and threacherous ‘multicultural elites’ in Norwegian academia, state bureaucracies, the media and in politics; and some far-right supporters of the party tarnished detractors as proverbial ‘quislings.’
Personally, I find it salutary of Müller to be so clear and concise about the danger that populism poses to democracy, whilst being critical of the liberal tendency to pathologize the ‘fears and anger’ of citizens attracted to the messaging of populist right-wing rhetoric, as well as the increasing rapprochement – especially noteworthy in our times among established political conservatives – with populists among mainstream political actors (Müller 2016, page 5). My own interpretation of this increasing rapprochement is both more radical and disturbing than Müller’s. For it does seem that many European conservatives are currently in the process of failing to heed the historical lessons of Europe in the 1920s and 30s. For contrary to popular beliefs, and as the eminent historian Robert O. Paxton has demonstrated,
it is simply not the case that fascism came to power in Europe as a result of their own will and mobilizing power alone: «The fascisms we have known have come into power with the help of frightened ex-liberals and opportunist technocrats and ex-conservatives, and governed in more or less awkward tandem with them.» (Paxton 2005, page 23).
Which is obviously not equivalent to asserting that today’s populists on both sides of the Atlantic are fascists in the making, an analytical move which would be both ahistorical and de-contextualized. But the ‘family resemblances’ are clear enough for anyone willing to see with open eyes, and Müller argues towards the end of his short monograph that both German Nazism and Italian Fascism «need to be understood as populist movements», though they «also exhibited traits that are not inevitable elements of populism as such» such as «racism, a glorification of violence, and a radical leadership principle» (Müller 2016, page 93). Among the ‘family resemblances’ between populism and fascism are what Paxton has referred to as «mobilizing passions» and the lack of «a fully articulated philosophy», «a passionate nationalism» which is allied to a «conspiratorial and Manichean view of history as a battle between the good and evil camps, between the pure and the corrupt, in which one’s own community or nation has been the victim» (Paxton 2005, page 41).
For all the talk that populists regularly engage in about ‘Muslim’ terrorism (by which they mean salafi-jihadist
terrorism, but then of course all too often deliberately fail to make distinctions that matter if one were not primarily concerned with what serves populist right-wingers own political interests) constituting the pre-eminent ‘existential threat’ against Western democracies, Müllers assessment is salutary, and deserves to be quoted in full: «The danger to democracies today is not some comprehensive ideology that systematically denies democratic ideals. The danger is populism – a degraded form of democracy that promises to make good on democracy’s highest ideals («Let the people rule!»). The danger comes, in other words, from within the democratic world – the political actors posing the danger speak the language of democratic values.» (Müller 2016, page 6.) Populism, for Müller, is «something like a permanent shadow of modern representative democracy, and a constant peril.» (Müller 2016, page 11). Müller has little patience for political philosophers and social scientists who are tempted to regard populism as some sort of ‘healthy’ corrective to the flaws of liberal democracy that has become disconnected from the concerns and interests of ordinary people, and which suffers from a lack of representation and participation of weaker socio-economic groups (Müller 2016, pages 61, 60). Nor is he taken in by so-called ‘radical democratic theorists’ such as Chantal Mouffe and the late Ernesto Laclau. Especially Laclau comes in for a sharp rebuttal of his idea of advancing left-wing strategies that emulate part of a populist imaginary in order to contest a neoliberal hegemony. This strategy is according to Müller either «redundant» or «dangerous» (Müller 2016, page 98).
It is not that Müller is opposed to any sort of invocation of ‘the people’, but he clearly sees political invocations of ‘the people’, whether left or right, in which claims are made of being the only people, and not only of being also the people, as perilous for democracy. It is also to the credit of Müller that he does away with the widespread illusion to the effect that populism in power is a contradiction in terms, and that populists are doomed to fail to sustain their power and legitimacy in the event of their coming to power. Viktor Orban’s increasingly authoritarian Hungary is here a prime case in point.
As for Müller’s diagnoses of the wider causes for the rise of populist right-wing political formations in our time, I have to admit that I find these as having surprisingly little explanatory power. And that, it seems to me, has to do with the limitations inherent in Müller’s disciplinary framework. Müller is rather dismissive of the idea that populism arises out of economic, social and political crises (Müller 2016, page 96) which appears in recent work by the French political historian Pierre Rosanvallon.
Instead , Müller zones in on the unforeseen consequences of a post-World War II European political order founded on a deep distrust of «unrestrained popular sovereignity, or even unrestrained parliamentary sovereignity» (Müller 2016, page 95) among European mainstream political elites of all stripes. This «explicitly antitotalitarian and, if you like, implicitly antipopulist order» will in Müller’s view «always be particularly vulnerable to political actors speaking in the name of the people as a whole against a system that appears designed to minimize popular participation.» (Müller 2016, page 96). It is in other words that perennial beast of European populists, namely technocracy, and its embodiment in the EU, which is Müller’s best bet as an explanation of the present rise of populism in Europe. That, and the weakening of party democracy and party systems across Europe (Müller 2016, pages 78, 79), and the new social and political conflict lines in Western societies between citizens who favour openness and citizens who favour closedness (Müller 2016, page 92). This seems unsatisfactory to me on several counts. For one, it leads one to overlook the fact that the current rise of populist right-wing formations in Europe has also happened in countries with strong party systems, such as Germany, France, the UK, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Secondly, it leads one to an analytical neglect of the lived worlds of populists and their supporters in Europe.
As readers, we actually learn very little about what it is about these lived worlds that manifests itself in support for populist right-wing formations; and I would argue that much of this has little to do with either the EU or the current state of European political party systems. Thirdly, Müller’s vectors exclude any consideration of the role that mainstream media has long played in providing privileged platforms for the political framing undertaken by populist right-wing fringe actors turning mainstream
on both sides of the Atlantic.
This is less a question of mainstream media having any actual political sympathies for right-wing populists (though some undoubtedly do) than the fact that shrinking audiences and advertising revenues leads mainstream media in many Western countries to adopt editorial policies which privileges the kind of polarized and polarizing ‘outrage industry’
which suits populist right-wingers’ interests perfectly: the rise of Trump has created a splendid windfall for US cable news networks willing to give his many outrageous and bizarre statements more airtime than those of any other presidential contender. Add to this, the rise of a ‘post-truth’ politics in which right-wing populists (and others) may engage in political lying to an extent which no media fact-checker is able to keep up with, and the balkanization of the public spheres that the rise of online social media has with certain qualifications led to, and you have the proverbial ‘perfect storm’ for right-wing populist politics.
Apart from learning the by now very obvious fact that populist sympathizers are overwhelmingly male on both sides of the Atlantic, we actually learn precious little about who on earth these people are from Müller’s book. One should, in other words, pay more attention to what anthropologists usually proscribe in situations like these: namely culture and cultural factors – in combination with politics and economics. Scholars identified with a traditional left position has for some time now argued that the rise of populism on both sides of the Atlantic are to be explained by reference to the alienation of white working-class males under conditions of neoliberalism. No one has argued more passionately and eloquently for this view than one Thomas Frank.
But the data simply does not bear this out: Conservative Party and UKIP home-owning citizens over the age of 65 voted for the Brexit campaigns’ platform of ‘keeping immigrants and the EU out, and minorities in their place’ in far greater numbers than any working-class Labour or Scottish National Party voters under the age of 25.
And pollsters have found Republican Party identification and white ‘racial resentment’ (a term Müller would likely disapprove of) to be a far more reliable indicator of support for Donald Trump than working-class background.
Most disappointingly, Müller has little to offer when it comes to suggesting responses to populism. Apart from noting that a policy of maintaining a cordon sanitaire designed to isolate populist right-wing political formations from the political mainstream is not tenable, and may have the counter-productive effect of making populist right-winger’s claim of being stigmatized and marginalized by mainstream political actors all the more credible to their supporters, Müller limits himself to underlining that populism must be contested on the terrain of democratic politics and reasoned democratic deliberation, and that a «new social contract» is required for Europe. «Talking to populists is not the same as talking like populists», he concludes (Müller 2016, page 84). Which would be well and good – if only present-day mainstream political actors in Europe heeded the advice. Which, alas, many ominious signs have long suggested that they do not. “Power speaks only to power”, wrote J.M. Coetzee in Dusklands in 1973, and the generally mediocre crop of politicians these days favour power over principles any given day of the year.
Or, as Robert Penn Warren concluded in his novel based on the life and times of the one-time populist governor of the state of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932, Huey Long (1893-1935), arguably the greatest novel ever written about populism: «We shall come back, no doubt, to walk down the Row and watch young people on the tennis courts by the clump of mimosas and walk down the beach by the bay, where the diving floats lift gently in the sun, and on out to the pine grove, where the needless thick on the ground will deaden the footfall so that we shall move among trees as soundlessly as smoke. But that will be a long time from now, and soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.»