What is Populism? by Jan-Werner Muller

As Lanark heads down the road into 2017 pundits in the media will be using phrases like ‘uncharted territory’ a lot. Brexit, Donald Trump and rising populist movements across Europe have shattered the smug complacency of ruling elites. What has given rise to this apparent bursting forth of anger and resentment? Mmm…, I wonder. Perhaps it’s worth reading a full length analysis of this new populism? You’re going to have to live with it. The long shadows of what happened with the success of populist movements in the 20th century darken our world to this day.

We’re in terrible danger of failing to learn from the lessons of history. (Cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Nazis:_A_Warning_from_History) which show how demagogues secured a mandate out of widespread dissatisfaction.

Jan-Werner Müller organises his book around three questions, 1) what do populists say 2) what do populists in power do 3) how should populists be dealt with. He describes populism as being critical of elites, anti-pluralist and having a moral claim of representation. Müller argues against conflating populism with ‘irresponsible politics’. Such psychologising proves that ruling elites are condescending and ‘unable to live up to their own democratic ideals by failing to take ordinary people at their word’. Instead, he settles on the form of representative claims as a criterion of populism: namely, that populist claims are moral and symbolic rather than empirically testable. Populists are those politicians that claim to represent ‘100%’ of citizens while not accepting the legitimacy of other claims. In power they seek control of state institutions and thence slide toward autocracy.

To respond to populists Müller suggests ‘taking their political claims seriously without taking them at face value’. Thus, politicians and the media should address the issues raised by populists but challenge their framing. The resentments that gave rise to Brexit and Donald Trump are not going to be simply brushed aside. Our politicians need to act on these messages seriously and not treat the majority with contempt. What are these ‘issues’? Well, how about grotesque levels of inequality for a start? How about the stagnation in income, unaffordable housing costs, zero hours contracts, austerity, deteriorating public services, the scandal of tax evasion, social dislocation……

Professor Jan-Werner Müller (https://www.princeton.edu/~jmueller/bio.html) teaches politics  at Princeton.

Enquire at your local library. Check if this important title is in stock by consulting the online catalogue at https://www.sllclibrary.co.uk/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/MSGTRN/OPAC/BSEARCH

138 pages in University of Pennsylvania Press

First published 2016

ISBN  978-0812248982

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Jan-Werner Müller

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