It bothers Jan-Werner Müller, a German professor who teaches at Princeton University, that the term “populism” is normally used without a precise definition. He offers one in his book “What is populism?” (2016). To him, the decisive issue is that populists claim to be the only legitimate representatives of “the people”. Müller considers this notion as inherently undemocratic since no nation is a homogenous entity. Indeed, every nation is marked by diverging and competing interests.
In a democracy, different interests are expressed by different parties, and government policies result from controversial debate, relying on majorities that are based on coalitions of various interests. Accordingly, different views matter, broad-based discourse is welcome, and opposition to the government is legitimate. Populists, however, deny that there are diverging interests and pretend that they are the true representatives of a homogenous nation which is being abused byan exploitative coalition of elitist leaders and parasitic minorities, who are pampered by the state. They do not engage in nuanced discussions of policy details, since that would not fit the grand scheme of “us versus them”.
As Müller elaborates, the populists themselves decide who exactly they consider to belong to the nation. That definition may vary as political circumstances change. In any case, populists claim to know what the people want. They are not interested in nuanced debate, whether within their own organisations or society in general. They demand appreciation and read any criticism of themselves as an attack on “the people”.
Müller admits that his definition does not fit the one historically used in North America, where “populists” used to represent farmers’ interests in rural areas as opposed to those of city-based banks and railroad companies. While they criticised big corporations, they did not deny that private-sector forces had a role to play.
The contemporary populists Müller has in mind, in contrast, insist that only they know what the nation wants and that, accordingly, only they can govern it properly. Their promise of homogenous harmony, however, cannot be fulfilled since every nation is marked by conflicting interests. Unable to make their vision come true, populists stay angry and aggressive even after winning elections. Claiming that anyone who opposes them is thwarting their wonderful intentions, populists in power keep hounding opponents. As the Princeton scholar explains, they need scapegoats.
Müller shows why the implication of populists coming to power is always a constitutional crisis. As long as they are opposition forces, populists see and bemoan corruption and cronyism everywhere. But as soon as they are in office, they resort to those means themselves and pretend they are acting in self-defence. Moreover, they are prone to changing laws, regulations and constitutional clauses to perpetuate their power. They will strive to limit media freedom, suppress civil-society activism and monopolise their grip on state institutions. According to Müller, they cannot but keep casting themselves as the representatives of the “silent majority” fighting on behalf of the ever threatened “real people”.
According to Müller, democracy is certainly damaged, but does not necessarily end once populists take office. The big issue is whether civil society, the media and a host of institutions prove resilient enough to keep a check on the government, stemming the centralisation of powers.
It is often argued that populists basically attract people who have lost out in the processes of modernisation and globalisation. Müller warns that this notion is misleading, as populists actually find support among a variety of social groups. In particular, they attract people with social-Darwinist leanings.
The way to resist populism is to insist on pluralism, diversity and broad-based controversial debate. As Müller argues, however, the governments of many western countries – especially, but not only in the EU – have been promoting technocratic ideas according to which there are no alternatives to their market-driven policies. This attitude is undemocratic too, according to Müller, and it serves the populists, who claim to offer an alternative to the status quo.
Colin Crouch is a British sociologist who similarly argues that technocracy has been undermining democracy. He made his case in the book “Post-democracy” (2004), reasoning that western nations have been becoming less democratic since the 1970s. The book’s title is a bit misleading, however, since Crouch does not argue that democracy has ended, but only that it has historically peaked.
Crouch does not suggest that elections were rigged or that democratic principles were violated in other ways. His point is that people’s active participation in public life has been declining, as is evident in voter turnout, for example. Moreover, trade unions, churches and other big organisations have been losing members as well as influence. While Crouch appreciates the diversified activism of many small civil-society organisations, he insists that they are not substitute for mass organisations. He stresses that the interests of society’s lower strata are increasingly neglected in public discourse, no matter which major political party is in power.
In a recent book (2016), the Frankfurt-based sociologist Oliver Nachtwey takes a close look at German society. His assessment is even gloomier than the one made by Crouch. According to Nachtwey, contemporary German society as a whole is marked by downward mobility. He argues that life has become ever more precarious not only for sections of German society, but for the vast majority.
Nachtwey elaborates that, unlike in the past, Germany’s welfare state is no longer designed to safeguard every person’s standard of life. Evermore people are working without the social protection that is linked to standard employment because they are self-employed or have temporary jobs, for example. In the past, moreover, employment was normally life-long. Today, it is common knowledge that jobs will be cut in the next economic downturn. In this context, reduced unemployment benefits increase worries.
Pensions have been cut too, and the subsidised private saving schemes that were supposed to supplement them are not proving as lucrative as promised. Accordingly, people are concerned about living in poverty after retirement. Compounding problems, the young generation has fewer opportunities for upward mobility.
Nachtwey’s publication shows why many Germans feel nostalgic for a more secure past. The author leaves no doubt that populists can benefit from such feelings – and they can do so among almost all strata of society. Trends have been similar – and mostly worse – in other European countries. How social-protection is organised is specific to every nation state, but the general sense of erosion is felt everywhere. The big question, in Nachtwey’s eyes, is whether European governments can rise to the populist challenge by adopting policies that restore people’s confidence. Grand visions won’t do; policy detail matters very much. Failure is likely to reduce popular support for international development programmes.
Crouch, C., 2004: Post-democracy. Cambridge/Malden, MA: Polity Press.
Müller, J.-W., 2016: What is populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (in German: Was ist Populismus? Berlin: Suhrkamp).
Nachtwey, O., 2016: Die Abstiegsgesellschaft (The society of downward mobility – only available in German). Berlin: Suhrkamp.