What's wrong with populism

Right-wing populism

Jan-Werner Müller

To person

is Professor of Political Theory and History of Ideas at Princeton. In the academic year 2016/17 he is a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. Most recently, "What is populism?" (2016). [email protected]

Is the rise of actors who are everywhere described as populists, protest party leaders or even anti-politicians a decisive indicator of a crisis in political representation? This thesis is automatically confirmed if any opposition to established parties is equated with a crisis of representation or any expression of popular anger is interpreted as a potential danger to democracy.

Political scientists today largely agree: political parties as such, at least in Europe, have seen their best days. This can be seen in the dramatic decline in membership, but also in the now very unsteady identification of voters with certain parties. Some democracy researchers like Simon Tormey go even further: They believe that they can already see an end to representative politics.

Indeed, something is happening politically in the western democracies. But the diagnosis of a crisis in political representation is premature. The decline of the traditional popular parties and the emergence of new groups such as Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece are not synonymous with a crisis of representation. To a certain extent, the opposite is true: party systems are changing because old parties are discredited and moral-political entrepreneurs like the leaders of Podemos and Syriza respond better to new conflicts in society. That is not to say that everything is fine with Western democracies. Real populism - which can be recognized by the fact that its representatives claim that they and only they represent the true people, always thought of as homogeneous - is dangerous for democracy. Populists are always anti-pluralistic; however, democracy can only be had in a pluralistic form. The crucial question of our time is whether populists develop to the point of accepting this, or whether they continue to try to discredit democratic institutions that do not express the "true popular will" they postulate - or whether the established parties take on the legitimate concerns of voters in populist parties without becoming populist themselves.

What crisis?

How can an alleged crisis of representation be determined? Certainly partly through surveys. In fact, almost all opinion polls in Western democracies confirm that elites are perceived as "aloof" and that parties are becoming increasingly unpopular. For a long time, parties have enjoyed the worst reputation in comparison with almost all other political institutions. In addition, as the political scientist Peter Mair has impressively shown, in many European countries citizens have literally run away from the parties in practice: They no longer identify with a particular party, which has made voting behavior very erratic; and they certainly do not want to become a member of a party. [1] There are hardly any popular parties in the classic sense which, for example, in a country like Austria were able to collect more than 90 percent of the votes. It can also be shown, at least in some cases, that many of the material concerns of different social classes are de facto completely left out in the supposedly representative democratic institutions - this was shown by the political scientist Martin Gilens using the example of the United States. [2]

What follows from these empirical observations? That there is political dissatisfaction is nothing new. Some may remember that the political scientist Ernst Fraenkel diagnosed widespread "disaffection with parliament" in Europe as early as the 1960s, or that in the 1990s there was endless debate in Germany about disaffection with politics. Political scientist Klaus von Beyme once remarked that lamenting about the decline of the legislature was as old as parliamentarism itself.

In order to bring analytical clarity and historical awareness into this discussion, three aspects of today's representational relationships should be distinguished here. First I point out that in post-war Europe parliaments were systematically weakened. Although the widespread term post-democracy and the implied thesis of a crisis of representation suggest so, there has never been a golden age of political representation. Secondly The aim is to show that party systems are changing, but we are still far from being beyond the principle of representation, as Tormey claims. Third is illustrated by the example of the EU that you are not in the mood if you complain about representation deficits today, but you have to understand them exactly and cannot reduce them to the usual clichés that "Brussels" is "too far away" or too "bureaucratic".

Post-war order marked by mistrust

Meetings of representatives of the people are at the heart of modern representative democracy. The relative degradation of parliaments in Europe after 1945 was based on conscious political decisions and cannot be attributed to apparently anonymous processes such as globalization or Europeanization. After 1945, architects of the post-war political order in Western Europe were very skeptical of the idea of ​​popular sovereignty, with the important exception of Great Britain. The skepticism was due in part to a discourse about "the masses" that supposedly paved the way for totalitarianism. But even without these interpretations of contemporary history, the question arose: How should one trust peoples who brought fascists to power or who collaborated with fascists during the occupation?

This kind of skepticism extended to popular assemblies as well. The new constitution-makers wanted to prevent what the German constitutional lawyer Hugo Preuss had called "parliamentary absolutism". After all, it was the people's representative bodies that could transfer all power to Adolf Hitler or Philippe Pétain, leader of the Vichy regime that collaborated with the National Socialists. It was necessary to restrict the powers of the legislature as much as possible. At the same time, institutions were strengthened whose members never have to stand for election to the people - such as central banks or constitutional courts. Almost all of Western Europe was true: the executive and judiciary won, the legislature lost influence. This process went furthest in France, where the Assemblée nationale is the weakest parliament in the western world. But the decline of the people's representative bodies was not only reflected in the constitutions; power also migrated to the individual administrations and was increasingly exercised in concerted actions and "Chancellor rounds".

In this respect, the post-war order in Europe is not only decidedly anti-totalitarian, it is also "anti-populist" in a broad, colloquial sense: the citizens are kept at a distance, and the opportunities to participate in political decisions are restricted by courts and institutions such as the central bank . One can criticize this from a normative point of view, but then one should also bear in mind that at least some aspects of this order were justified with democratic principles: above all with the protection of individual and political rights. Constitutional courts should strengthen democracy as a whole, including with supposedly undemocratic measures such as banning extremist parties.

Today we still live with this post-war order, which was basically characterized by mistrust. One explanation for this is perhaps that this order has proven to be astonishingly flexible. Especially in the 1960s and 1970s, completely new claims to the representation of interests and identities were made. And after many disputes, many of these claims could also be realized. The success of the Greens in the Federal Republic is a good example of this.

In this sense, many of the dramatic developments in Europe over the past decade can be understood as a test case for the specifically European model of democracy. Despite all the diversity, the protest movements in southern Europe have one thing in common: They accuse established parties of being corrupt, oligarchic and unrepresentative. Professional politicians are all members of la casta damned. In addition, it is often said that all parties are ultimately identical. Many of these protest movements initially positioned themselves beyond any party politics - including the Spanish Indignados ("indignant") and Beppe Grillo's five-star movement in Italy. For many observers, the allegations sounded populist. With good reason: The distinction between a morally immaculate, homogeneous people and a corrupt, unrepresentative elite is a core element of the populist world of ideas. Only those who criticized the actually corrupt conditions in Spain, for example, made no moral claim to sole representation - they did not claim to represent the authentic people alone. [3]

In the beginning, movements like Podemos tried to organize themselves horizontally in order to break with traditional concepts of political representation, and the Five Star Movement also advocated grassroots decision-making. [4] And yet: The movements became parties that are now partly led in an authoritarian manner - Grillo is the notorious example of this, but the personal dominance of Pablo Iglesias at Podemos or Alexis Tsipras at Syriza is also exemplary. It remains to be seen whether this change from the ambitions of horizontal organization to vertical leadership was purely pragmatic. It would be premature to diagnose "populism" simply because of the presence of charismatic leaders. The fact is that groups like Podemos and Syriza have integrated themselves into the existing party system instead of restricting themselves to extra-parliamentary strategies. Syriza has de facto replaced the once dominant social democratic PASOK in the Greek party spectrum. Podemos has no government responsibility at the national level in Spain and has not yet been able to overtake the established socialists in favor of the electorate, but together with the liberal association Ciudadanos it has already fundamentally changed the party system and, in cooperation with other parties, at least the corruption economy at the local level can stop.

New parties as a corrective?

All of this does not indicate a crisis of representation, but can be understood as an affirmation of the existing political systems - even if this observation does not, of course, always coincide with the self-perception of the political actors: Podemos continues to criticize the "regime of 1978", So the post-Franco democracy, but at least for the moment cannot achieve majorities to replace this system with another. The fact that the new parties can be understood as protest parties is not a counter-argument: in any democracy it is legitimate to protest against ruling parties or to complain that existing opposition parties do not convincingly represent the interests and identities of many citizens. Peaceful protest, which is not based on a moral claim to sole representation of the supposedly "true people", as is the case with the populists, is not automatically undemocratic or a symptom of a deep crisis - the opposite is the case. This can again be illustrated by the Spanish example: Here Podemos was able to bring voters to the polls as a new group who had not previously participated in the political process and who did not find a plausible political or protest offer in the existing radical left party Izquierda Unida. [ 5] The increased participation is first and foremost a gain for democracy.

The diagnosis of a "non-crisis" of representation should not, however, go too far. For example, a Greek reader could object: "It is all very well and good that I am now represented by Syriza, who are not corrupt and are trying to pursue a progressive policy within the country. But my most important concern, namely the desire for a different euro rescue strategy, one that does not ruin my country is still not effectively represented - despite several electoral successes by Syriza. " Now the criterion for any "feeling represented" cannot be to see one's own political preferences implemented one-to-one. And yet the fictional Greek reader is right in that he can claim that the European Union as a whole suffers from specific representational deficits. It is important to understand these deficits precisely in order not to join the unreflected complaints about the "distant" and "oh so bureaucratic" Brussels - ultimately, in its complex decisions, the German cartel office is hardly closer to us, and there is no bureaucracy at all no governing in the modern world.

In a nation-state democracy, parties and their supporters who find themselves in the opposition after an election consider the decisions of a government to be legitimate in principle. Or to put it another way: in a democracy you know that you can be on the losing side, but you can also be sure that you will not be a political loser forever. Because there is always the chance to convince other citizens of the correctness of their own political ideas. Minorities can become majorities.

In the EU, however, the ideal of democracy theory may not coincide with reality in three ways: First some citizens are not ready for what English-speaking political scientists are so blunt losers' consent call - to recognize the defeat as a "loser". They have the feeling that strangers will determine their fate. This impression was also used very skilfully by the Brexit supporters to their own advantage.

Secondly Citizens who are quite ready to accept the majority situation as it is in the EU can object that they are not correctly mapped in the political decision-making process: Instead of transnational coalitions that define themselves based on common economic interests, in the euro crisis compared to nation states. And these in turn are led by governments that have an interest in coding the conflicts in national categories as far as possible, since they have to answer to their national electorate.

ThirdAs the legal scholar Dieter Grimm pointed out, thanks to the "constitutionalization" of the European treaties, many economic and financial policy decisions, which in a nation-state democracy would be subject to daily political debate, are made in an apolitical mode. [6] Disputes about the treaties would be decided by a court that does not see itself as neutral, but as a pioneer of an ever deeper deepening of European integration. An EU citizen can indeed object that the treaties (and not Brussels) are very "far away" - away from any democratic access, whether through national parliaments or the EU parliament. And - this is also an important insight from Peter Mair - precisely because it is so difficult to articulate opposition in the EU, opposition to the EU seems to be the last resort, at least for some Europeans. Which finally brings us to the populists.

Populism: symptom of crisis for what exactly?

Far too many actors in Europe are currently labeled "populism". [7] But not everyone who criticizes elites is a populist. The portrayal of the fact that in western democracies there are currently conflicts between the "establishment" and the "people" (or at least popular rebels), or, as the philosopher John Gray put it, we are experiencing an "uprising of the masses", is far too simplified. In many countries there are good reasons to criticize elites. Democracy thrives on criticism, and anyone who takes the effort to criticize has obviously not lost hope that someone will also listen and that engagement within the existing democracy can be worthwhile.

A populist is only someone who claims that he and only he represents the true people - with the result that political competitors are actually all illegitimate, or that citizens who refuse to support the populist leader do not really belong to the people. Think of a statement by the US Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, which, given the many scandalous things the billionaire is constantly saying, received little attention, but which clearly demonstrates his populist view of politics.Trump said at an election rally in May 2016: "The only thing that matters is the unification of the people, and all the other people don't matter." "The only thing that counts is the unity of the people" - that sounds rather harmless compared to what he says everything else. The second part of the sentence is decisive: "All the other people don't count." So there is one true people and one true representative of this people - namely Trump. Anyone who is against him is automatically not part of the true people and therefore does not count morally and, above all, politically. Another example is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's rhetorical question to his critics in 2014: "We are the people, who are you?" This is a claim to sole representation that is simply incompatible with democracy, which is necessarily pluralistic.

So the crucial question for the well-being of democracy is not which political actors are protesting for whatever reason or which can somehow be classified in the extremely vague "anti-establishment" category. The question is who makes this kind of moral claim to sole representation and thus denies all opponents the legitimacy in principle. The question is also who (as is always the case with populists) assumes a supposedly clearly identifiable will of a homogeneous people, which then supposedly only has to be implemented by the populists. This notion, according to which disputes are unnecessary in a pluralistic community and political decisions do not require lengthy decision-making processes, is then in fact "anti-political" because it is anti-pluralistic. Democratic equality does not mean homogeneity or, in Carl Schmitt's word, similarity. In a democracy, according to Jürgen Habermas, the people only appear in the plural. [8]

But what does the fact that Trump, Erdoğan, Orbán, Le Pen and the chairman of the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid Geert Wilders are populists mean about the state of representative democracy? First of all, just this: The success of these politicians shows that there are apparently many citizens who consider the representations offered by these actors to be convincing. We cannot automatically assume that all voters of populist parties also have anti-pluralist attitudes - even if there are some indications of this based on political science studies. Rather, one should in principle accept that the political offers of populists also cover legitimate concerns of citizens. It is wrong to think that interests and identities are always objectively present and that the successful politician only has to appeal to them - on the contrary, the rhetorical offer of the politician can only lead to parts of the population perceiving themselves as politically important collectives. What is sometimes contemptuously referred to as the "Trumpen proletariat" certainly did not arise out of nowhere or even to be understood as Trump's personal invention. But the self-perception of the "Trump people" as the silent majority and thus the true people would probably not have existed without Trump's frightening ability to evoke a kind of "White Identity Movement".

And yet the successes of the populists point above all to a basic conflict between, to put it very briefly, a pluralistic principle that calls for greater openness to the world and inwardly the recognition of minorities, and a desire to preserve existing conditions - which is also reflected in it relates to the balance of power in matters of gender and minorities. This conflict has economic, but also moral-cultural dimensions. Both can be openly talked about, but not with a moral claim to sole representation, as the populists do - and certainly not in the racist way that Trump is constantly demonstrating. Trump's argument about the "false song of globalism" and the question of whether everyone is really always a winner of free trade deserves a democratic debate; the claim that Muslims should all be suspected of terrorism is not.


So the question is whether the parties described can also act in a non-populist way - whether they can accept social change and, more specifically, their own election defeats and not repeatedly seek to delegitimize them in the name of a supposedly silent majority or even a true people . To give an example: It is not in itself questionable for the Federal Republican democracy if there is still a party to the right of a CDU that has moved far to the left. Criticism of the euro bailout policy, demands for partial withdrawal of European integration or even less immigration - you don't have to like such positions, but they can be part of a normal democratic debate. In other words: The AfD in its original, above all euro-critical version was not a threat and could even be seen as a gain for representative democracy - disaffected CDU voters had another option. The AfD in its current state is largely a different matter. Anyone who thinks that all other parties are illegitimate and that one is living in a dictatorship just because one is not in power as a representative of the supposedly true people; Anyone who whispers about a secret project for the exchange of the German population and ignites them with slogans such as "Resistance" and "Revolution" is a populist. So the question is in which direction parties that "protest" in the broadest sense will develop. At least one thing is clear: if they take a populist route, they will consciously try to stir up more and more citizens against pluralistic democracy - according to the motto: "Something cannot be right with our democratic institutions, because the real people have nothing to say ". The next step is then the conspiracy theory.

There are no patent remedies for influencing these developments. There are examples of situations where the emergence of relatively "normal" nationalist parties has clearly weakened racist parties - think of the competition between the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie and the Vlaams Belang in Belgium. There is no doubt that politicians who seek to morally discredit legitimate protests against the euro bailout policy ("Anyone who says that is an enemy of Europe!") Can contribute to the radicalization of citizens - here, "mainstream representatives", not least Angela Merkel, are doing the Ultimately, populists do a great favor. Instead, democratic politicians should try to take the economic concerns of the "trump proletariat" seriously - and at the same time counteract the consolidation of the self-perception of Trump voters as a kind of persecuted white majority.