Why does populism ultimately fail?

"Populism only looks democratic"

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DEFAULT: What is populism?

Jan-Werner Müller: Populism is a moralistic understanding of politics that contrasts a homogeneous, pure, usually hard-working "people" with an allegedly corrupt elite. The belief behind this is that only some members of the empirical people are really "the people". This is what the populists claim to represent; According to their understanding, they alone are the executors of the authentic, clearly definable and indisputable will of the people.

DEFAULT: What happens when populists come to power?

Müller: Many populism researchers believe that populists cannot rule because they are largely protest parties - and protest cannot rule because one cannot protest against oneself. But there is definitely a populist style of government. Populists do something that could be described as mass clientelism: they reward their supporters, occupy the state with their people. Other parties also do that to some extent. But with the populists there is a certain inner stringency: Because they said in advance: The people are not the whole people at all. Only a part of the people is the true people, and they morally deserve to benefit.

DEFAULT: In the words of the FPÖ this means, for example: "Our money for our people".

Müller: Or take the Fidesz government in Hungary: It also pursues a flawless clientele policy, but at the same time has high moral standards. In their logic, only the "Fidesz people" deserve to be looked after, the rest of the people can actually be left out without a guilty conscience. Populists do things and say things that are stringent in themselves and in their logic.

DEFAULT: So the question should be: How does the definition of popular will à la populism differ from that in liberal democracy?

Müller: The populist appears with the claim: I alone carry out the only true will of the people. Contrary to popular belief, populists no longer want direct democracy or greater political participation; they are not against representative democracy, but have a deeply illiberal understanding of it. For them, representation should function like an imperative mandate. But democracy means that there is pluralism and room for debate. And that no one should be able to do what suits them without further legitimation constraints, because they claim that they are the only ones who embody the will of the people. The populists actually promote the idea of ​​a passive people, about which the populist is the only one who really cares.

DEFAULT: You say that populism points to serious deficits in liberal democracy. How does he do that?

Müller: Many liberal theories of democracy cannot say what "the people" should be. If one now thinks that the people determine what the people are, the cat will bite its tail. To say that the people determine themselves historically is normatively not a satisfactory position. The populists point to the problem that we don't have a good answer to the question of how to legitimize borders.

DEFAULT: So should one, when criticizing populism, focus more on its foundations - for example, its form of völkisch thought - than on its outward appearance? The simple messages, the staging and the construction of the enemy image are often criticized.

Müller: Yes, because this usual criticism of populism is not necessarily fruitful. Not everyone who criticizes the euro is populist per se. The statement "If the euro fails, Europe fails" is just as simplistic and does not do justice to the complex reality of European integration.

DEFAULT: How does populism relate to nationalism? The constructed community to which he refers is defined above all by its demarcation from the "others".

Müller: Right-wing populism in particular always constructs a top and bottom, whereby neither the top nor the bottom do not belong - think of left-liberal or neoliberal elites in Eastern and Central Europe on the one hand and the Roma on the other. At the same time, populists are constructing an unholy alliance between the below and the above. In this logic, the illegitimate elites above promote the people below who actually do not deserve any support, for example with subsidies. To make things worse, in the European context, for example, both below and above are supported and financed by an outside power, namely the alleged "monster Brussels".

DEFAULT: Are emotions always manipulative as a transport vehicle for content because they target affects?

Müller: Anyone who reduces populists to "playing the keyboard of the lower instincts" makes it too easy for themselves. It is difficult to define who engages in politics with emotions and who does not.

DEFAULT: Western society is increasingly fragmented, the use of media is highly individualized, and there is no longer a common place where information and identity can be acquired. Doesn't anyone who wants to govern here have to use simplistic messages?

Müller: We are entering an age that, along with the Italian philosopher Nadia Urbinati, could be called a direct representative democracy, even if that sounds paradoxical at first. Think of Beppe Grillo in Italy. He says: We can bypass the middlemen and women, we no longer need the traditional parties and the traditional media. We no longer need someone to prepare fundamental political decisions and world views for us, we can enter the discourse directly. The idea that you can at least get to the gates of Parliament without any intermediaries is new, and it is largely an illusion. But it carries the promise of individual autonomy and empowerment. The good old days of the big people's parties, where everyone could feel in good hands depending on their preference and milieu: It is probably permanently perdu.

DEFAULT: What role do the media play in the formation of populism - for example when they personalize politics and sharpen statements in order to make them conveyable?

Müller: This is a long-term trend that has helped create the conditions for populism. But the media did not produce populism. This trend has been going on for some time in Eastern and Central Europe, also because fixed party systems were never established there after 1989. One should think about whether it would not make sense today to say: The East is the future of the West. Because much of what is perceived as very dangerous in Eastern and Central Europe today is conceivable in other parts of Europe. Partly it's already there.

DEFAULT: Doesn't the concept of right-wing populism also give shelter to parties and movements that, more correctly, should be described as right-wing extremists or neo-fascist?

Müller: Indeed, more conceptual work would be needed here. In any case, you make it too easy if you construct a symmetry of extremes. To say that Syriza would be the counterpart to the Golden Dawn in Greece and that these extremes meet somewhere is not justified. It is not enough to be a critic of globalization with perhaps naive ideas about the economy to qualify as a populist. The populism test is whether someone says: I - and only I - represent the French, German or Austrian people. But not all right-wing populists are right-wing extremists, not all of them ask a systemic question and say: We would like to reorganize the entire system in a clearly undemocratic direction.

DEFAULT: However, in a defensive democracy as a party one should not say that if one does not want to risk a party ban.

Müller: A crucial difference between right-wing extremists and right-wing populists is that the right-wing populists, although they are not true democrats, are ultimately prepared to obey the rules of the game. Orban said in 2002: The nation cannot be in the opposition - but in the end he accepted the loss of the election, albeit with enormous protest. But there was no civil war in Hungary. With the Golden Dawn in Greece or Jobbik in Hungary that would not be so safe. In my opinion, one should think seriously about party bans.

DEFAULT: You say that party bans would backfire on the populists.

Müller: Certainly. A ban would legitimize the populists in their martyr role and strengthen their claim that they are the only ones who break taboos and tell the "inconvenient truth".

DEFAULT: How do you pull populists' ground then - one hour of political education in compulsory schools per week will probably not be enough.

Müller: There is no magic bullet. An opportunist strategy is to try to take over the issues raised by the populists, thereby keeping them small. Apparently that doesn't work, because it legitimizes the populists even more. Complete exclusion is also of little use. So you should become politically active and say: We take the people and their arguments seriously. Taking the questions seriously does not mean accepting the answers. One should move away from the level of the individual political fields towards fundamental questions: What actually gives you the right to see yourself as the only true representative of the people? Why are certain others supposedly not included? Can that really be justified openly? (Lisa Mayr, DER STANDARD, 11/27/2013)

Jan-Werner Müller, 43, is a professor in the Department of Politics and founding director of the Project in the History of Political Thought at Princeton University. He speaks on 11/27 at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna on the phenomenon of populism.


Institute for Human Sciences