The Logic of Populism

The Logic of Populism

Jan-Werner Müller’s understanding of populism is built on a theory of anti-totalitarianism designed for an enemy that no longer exists.

A demonstrator with the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party carries a placard reading, “All power comes from the people,” Mainz, Germany, November 2015 (Franz Ferdinand Photography)

What Is Populism?
by Jan-Werner Müller
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, 136 pp.


The current debate over the nature of populism brings to mind the myriad works from the 1950s on totalitarianism. During this decade Hannah Arendt, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Raymond Aron, David Riesman, and countless others debated the fundamental character of totalitarianism. By 1980 the concept had become so confusing that Aron himself wondered if it should be abandoned altogether.

Perhaps today’s cottage industry devoted to populism awaits a similar fate, although in the early days of the Trump administration the boom shows no signs of abating. But there is a different way to look at the comparison between totalitarianism and populism that is highly relevant. Early theorists of totalitarianism were all rampant anti-totalitarians. Many of them believed that the egalitarian nature of modern democracy led to the despotism of Soviet totalitarianism. A number of leading political theorists today have followed this precedent, depicting populism as democracy run amuck. This is not a coincidence. Scholars of populism have drawn from the anti-totalitarians, adopting both their insights and their blind spots.

Over the past few years, Jan-Werner Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton University, has devoted his attention to articulating the nature of populism. His lectures, articles, and popular essays on the subject have been brought together in a small and very readable book titled, What Is Populism? Since the U.S. election Müller’s book has received significant attention, and might be considered the best theoretical explanation of the populist phenomena. And like other studies of populism, the book’s key theses are heavily indebted to a strain of anti-totalitarian democratic thought—in Müller’s case, drawn from the writings of Claude Lefort and Pierre Rosanvallon.

One of Müller’s major aims is to show why a purely economic explanation for populism’s appeal fails to convince. “We continue,” he writes, “to draw on a set of assumptions derived from modernization theory that had its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s.” According to this view, if the “losers in the process of modernization” only had a better education and more cash, the populist temptation could be avoided altogether.

Müller’s depiction of this argument is very similar to what the journalist Emmett Rensin calls “the smug style in American liberalism”: a psychological diagnosis typically made by white elites to explain why the resentful and unenlightened poor have fallen for the tomfoolery of a Trump or the snake oil hawked by promoters of Brexit. Yet plenty of economically successful citizens, Müller notes, opted for the Tea Party and justified doing so on almost Social Darwinian grounds. He suggests that the smug interpretation proves the populist contention that liberal elites are out of t...

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