What exactly is populism?

Historians in the News
tags: populism



Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies and Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford. His most recent book is "Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World.
" (January 2017)

… I have used the word “populist” several times without pausing to define it. But isn’t it just a woolly, catch-all term for parties, movements, and presidential candidates we don’t like? What is populism? This is the question addressed in an excellent short book by Jan-Werner Müller, a German scholar who now teaches at Princeton. Müller recalls that Richard Hofstadter once gave a talk titled “Everyone Is Talking about Populism, but No One Can Define It,” yet he makes the best effort I have seen to give the term a coherent contemporary meaning.

Populists speak in the name of “the people,” and claim that their direct legitimation from “the people” trumps (the verb has acquired a new connotation) all other sources of legitimate political authority, be it constitutional court, head of state, parliament, or local and state government. Donald Trump’s “I am your voice” is a classic populist statement. But so is the Turkish prime minister’s riposte to EU assertions that a red line had been crossed by his government’s clampdown on media freedom: “The people draw the red lines.” So is the Daily Mail’s front-page headline denouncing three British High Court judges who ruled that Parliament must have a vote on Brexit as “Enemies of the People.” Meanwhile, Polish right-wing nationalists justify an ongoing attempt to neuter Poland’s constitutional court on the grounds that the people are “the sovereign.”

The other crucial populist move is to identify as “the people” (or Volk) what turns out to be only some of the people. A Trump quotation from the campaign trail captures this perfectly: “The only important thing is the unification of the people,” said the Donald, “because the other people don’t mean anything.” UKIP’s Nigel Farage welcomed the Brexit vote as a victory for “ordinary people,” “decent people,” and “real people.” The 48 percent of us who voted on June 23, 2016, for Britain to remain in the EU are plainly neither ordinary nor decent, nor even real. Everywhere it’s the “other people” who now have to watch out: Mexicans and Muslims in the US, Kurds in Turkey, Poles in Britain, Muslims and Jews all over Europe, as well as Sinti and Roma, refugees, immigrants, black people, women, cosmopolitans, homosexuals, not to mention “experts,” “elites,” and “mainstream media.” Welcome to a world of rampant Trumpismo.

Populism, Müller argues, is inimical to pluralism. Its target is pluralist, liberal democracy, with those vital constitutional and social checks and balances that prevent any “tyranny of the majority” from prevailing over individual human rights, safeguards for minorities, independent courts, a strong civil society, and independent, diverse media.

Müller rejects the term “illiberal democracy,” arguing that it allows people like Viktor Orbán to claim that Hungary just has another kind of democracy, authentically democratic in a different way. What Orbán has done, for example in his takeover of the media, undermines democracy itself. Yet I think we do need a term to describe what happens when a government that emerges from a free and fair election is demolishing the foundations of a liberal democracy but has not yet erected an outright dictatorship—and may not even necessarily intend to. Words like “neoliberalism,” “globalization,” and “populism” are themselves imperfect shorthand for phenomena with significant national, regional, and cultural variations. “Hybrid regime” feels too unspecific, so unless and until someone comes up with a better term, I shall continue to use “illiberal democracy.”...






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