Defining Populism (Briefly)

Politicians, both on the right and left, are sometimes called “populists” (although these days most of them are on the right). Being called a populist isn’t a compliment. An article from the Boston Review offers a definition of populism and explains why it would be good if there were fewer of them:

In 2016, [Jan-Werner] Müller published a much-heralded study, What Is Populism? Though written before [America’s 2016 election], the book reflected the anxieties of many Europeans who already lived amongst powerful populist parties and movements and became all the more relevant in the years later….

Müller’s basic argument is that the primary feature that distinguishes populists from traditional political actors is how they claim to represent their supporters. According to this picture, traditional politicians offer policy proposals tailored to appeal to a specific set of supporters, fully aware that many within the electorate will disagree. By contrast, populists are fundamentally “anti-pluralist”: they claim to absolutely and exclusively represent the people—or at least, the only people who count.

For this to be possible, the populist must reject the heterogeneity of democratic society and instead invoke a fictitious common will. (Thus the grand statements of populist leaders like that of France’s Marine Le Pen in 2014: “The sovereign people have proclaimed that they want to take back the reins of their destiny into their hands.”) Any citizens who disagree are maligned and excluded from being part of the people. They are instead seen as immoral, corrupt, or “brainwashed” actors, propping up “the elite,” the Other in the populist us-versus-them narrative.

According to Müller, it is this logic of representation that explains the behavior of populist leaders. Their frequent use of referenda, for example, is an attempt to “ratify what the populist leader has already discerned to be the genuine popular interest.” Likewise, populists frequently reject unfavorable election results as, for them, it would be impossible for the people to genuinely select other choices.

Even though they don’t represent all voters or all the people, populists act as if they do. Some of them have delusions of grandeur (as in “I alone can fix [the system]”). Too many of them think they don’t have to obey the rules.

What Was Putin Thinking?

Why did he miscalculate so badly? Greg Sargent of The Washington Post asked that question of historian Timothy Snyder, the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century:

Sargent: What is it about Putin’s way of seeing the world, and his understanding of his own mythologies, that made it inevitable that he’d underestimate the Western response?

Snyder: For me the most revealing text here is the victory declaration, which the Russian press agency accidentally published on Feb. 26. What they say is that the West just basically needed one more push to fall into total disarray.

If you watch Jan. 6 clips over and over again, you can get that impression. The Russians really have been fixated on Jan. 6.

They thought a successful military operation in Ukraine would be that nudge: We’d feel helpless, we’d fall into conflict, it would help D____ T____ in the U.S., it would help populists around the world.

Sargent: When you say Russia has been making a lot of Jan. 6 — what do they read into it?

Snyder: . . . T____’s attempt to overthrow the election on Jan. 6 made the American system look fragile. They think, “One more T____ and the Americans are done.” In invading Ukraine, they think they’re putting huge pressure on the Biden administration. They’re going to make Biden look weak.

That probably was their deep fantasy about the West: Successful military occupation in Ukraine; the Biden administration is totally impotent; we humiliate them; T____ comes back; this is a big strategic victory for us.

Sargent: There’s an essential through line from Jan. 6 to what we’re seeing now: Accountability for Jan. 6 becomes more important in this geopolitical context, where we’re reentering a conflict with Russia over whether liberal democracy is durable.

Snyder: . . . Putin’s idea about Ukraine is something like, “Ukrainian democracy is just a joke, I can overturn it easily. Everybody knows democracy and the rule of law are just a joke. What really matters are the capricious ideas of a tyrant. My capricious ideas happen to be that there are no Ukrainians. I’m going to send my army to make that true”.

That is much closer to the way T____ talks about politics than the way the average American talks about politics. I’m not saying T____ and Putin are exactly the same. But T____’s way of looking at the world — “there are no rules, nothing binds me” — that’s much closer to Putin. So there’s a very clear through line.

Sargent: . . . on some fundamental level, [Republicans aren’t] willing to forthrightly disavow Trump’s alignment with Putin and against Ukraine and the West.

Snyder: I have this faint hope that Ukraine allows some folks to look at domestic politics from a new angle.

When we were in the Cold War, one reason the civil rights movement had the success it did, and one reason we kept up a welfare state, was that we were concerned about the Soviet rival.

Russia is a radically anti-democratic country now. Not only has it done frightful things to its own society; it has invaded another country that happens to be an imperfect democracy. We’re also an imperfect democracy.

When you have to look straight at the reality that a big powerful country is aimed at taking imperfect democracies and wiping them out, that gives you pause. I’m hopeful the realization that democracy rises and falls internationally might change the conversation at some deeper level about how we carry out our own voting.

Sargent: Rising populism made Putin think Western liberal democracy was on the losing end of a grand struggle. But Biden and the Western allies may have seen that populism as a reason to get more galvanized and unified in response to the invasion.

Snyder: In Putin’s mind, there’s a kind of confusion of pluralism with weakness. He’s misjudged both Zelensky and Biden, who are both pluralists: They’re both willing to look at things from various points of view. That can look like a form of weakness.

But history also shows that you can be a resolute pluralist. . . . Zelensky and Biden both embody that: At the end of the day, this whole idea that we listen to each other is something that we’re going to defend.

People in Ukraine are used to being able to exchange views and listen or not listen to their own government. That’s the thing which makes them different from Russia right now. That’s not something Putin can see from a distance.

Sargent: You put your finger on something that’s been an anti-liberal trope for at least a century: That pluralism is in some sense crippling to the possibilities of resolute national action. Putin is steeped in that type of anti-liberal philosophy, isn’t he?

Snyder: Authoritarian regimes look efficient and attractive because they can make rapid decisions. But they often make rapid bad decisions — like the rapid bad decision to invade Ukraine. Putin made it with just a handful of people, so he could make that decision rapidly.

That’s the reason you want institutions, the rule of law and pluralism and public discussion: To avoid idiotic decisions like that.

He’s been working from a certain far-right Russian tradition — that the state and the leader are the same person, and there should be no institutional barriers to what the leader wants to do.

It’s important for us to see that this is the realization of a different model, which has its own logic.

Sargent: Paradoxically, we’re seeing that model’s decadence display itself.

Snyder: Of course the situation is dangerous right now. But a lot of the sparks that are flying out of Russian media are a result precisely of their own fear and their own sense of crisis.

Your word “decadence” is helpful here: When you’re decadent, what you say starts to depart more and more from the way the world actually is. Some Russian politicians are talking about how Poland needs to be taught a lesson. That’s alarming but it’s also unrealistic.

Sargent: I want to explore something you said to Ezra Klein: That in many ways, the response from the Western allies has been realistic and grounded, in that they aren’t trying to do too much. . . . 

Snyder: The thing that I’ve liked about the Biden administration is that they don’t have this metaphysical language that previous administrations have had about American power. They’ve stuck much closer to the ground.

They say, “We can’t do everything. But we can be creative and do a lot of things.”

By the way, that includes some stuff that we and others could go further on. We have to keep pouring arms into Ukraine, and the Europeans — now is the time to move forward on not buying oil and gas from Russia.

Sargent: What’s your sense of where this is all going?

Snyder: This war is happening because of the worldview and decisions of essentially one person. And I think it comes to an end when something shakes the worldview of that one person.

If the Ukrainians can get the upper hand and keep it for a few weeks, I think the worldview we have been talking about may start to shudder.

The right side has to be winning. That’s when we might have a settlement that ends this horrible war.

Summing Him Up

Last night, I was musing about the current crisis and asked myself again why they didn’t see that he’s a con man, so his promises about “the forgotten men and women of our country” were pure baloney. The answer that occurred to me was that he said what they wanted to hear about race and immigration. That was enough for them to give him the benefit of the doubt on economics.

This morning, Neera Tanden summed him up very well:

The economic populism was always the con. The racism was always real.

Populism and the People

Our new President, henceforth known as DT (or maybe DDT, as in Damn DT) is often called a “populist”. That suggests he’s somehow especially close to “the people”. But during last year’s presidential campaign, it was often said that Bernie Sanders, the self-described “democratic socialist”, was a populist too. Using the same terminology for both DT (DDT?) and Sanders sounded odd, since their political campaigns were so different. How could they both be populists? Besides, don’t all successful politicians in a democracy say they represent “the people”? Otherwise, they wouldn’t be successful politicians.

The answer is that populist politicians claim to represent regular people, in particular the regular people who are suffering at the hands of the rich or powerful. According to John Judis, the author of The Populist Explosion, “populists conceive of politics, or affect to conceive of politics, as a struggle between a noble populace and an out-of-touch, self-serving elite”.  

Thus, during the campaign, both DT and Senator Sanders vigorously attacked the Wall Street bankers and CEO’s who regularly rip off the rest of us and send American jobs overseas. In similar fashion, they both complained that corporate media and party officials had “rigged” the system against them. They both implied that without the interference of corrupt media and political elites, a wave of popular support would carry each of them to the White House, at which point the interests of salt-of-the-earth regular people would finally be protected. 

All politicians claim to represent the interests of the average citizen, of course, but DT and Sanders both emphasized their populist credentials. Clinton, for example, delivered a positive, inclusive message. She promised to work hard to help us all live up to our potential. We would be “stronger together”. Her opponents sounded much, much angrier. Just give them the chance and they’d bring the powerful to heel and “drain the swamp”!

Nevertheless, there is something wrong with how we use the word “populist”. The term comes from the Latin populus, which means the people or the general population. Since “the people” includes everyone, it would make more sense if politicians who promised to help the people in general were called “populists”. Between Clinton, Sanders and DT, it was Clinton who most deserved to be called a “populist”, even though that’s not how we use the word. To be a populist in the standard sense, a politician needs to divide the people into at least two categories: the good people and the bad people. A populist politician promises to punish or corral the bad people in order to protect the good people. That’s what Sanders and DT both promised to do, over and over again.

Even so, there is a difference between the populisms of the left and right. The difference is explained by Richard King in a review at the Sydney Review of Books site:

Judis does make a distinction between populists of the left and the right. For while left populists tend to preach a ‘vertical’ politics of the bottom against the top, right populists will often posit a third entity, living among the people and said to be in allegiance with, or given special treatment by, the elite. [The] content of this third group is variable: Jews, intellectuals, Jewish intellectuals, Muslims, the media, Mexicans, Poles – the list is as long as human bigotry is deep. Judis calls this ‘triadic’ populism and it is clearly very different in character from the dyadic populism of the left….

Indeed, so different are these two forms of populism … that I wonder whether grouping both under the same rubric obscures more than it reveals. Judis is very careful to distinguish between these two forms of populism, and it’s clear that he does so morally, too. But the division of ‘the people’, in the right wing model, into legitimate and illegitimate entities – in-groups and outgroups; friends and foes – is so different from most left wing conceptions of “the people” that we are really talking about a separate phenomenon.

Right-wing populists aren’t satisfied drawing a line between the noble majority and a corrupt elite. They look for others in society to attack, either because those other groups are working with the corrupt elite, or benefiting from the elite’s bad behavior, or simply because they’re (supposedly) up to no good. The review quotes another author, Jan-Werner Müller, who says that a populist like DT willclaim that a part of the people is the people – and that only the populist authentically identifies and represents this real or true people”:

Recent instances of this mindset are thick on the ground. Post-the Brexit vote, UKIP leader Nigel Farage declared the Leave vote a victory for ‘real people’. Similarly, at a campaign rally last May, [DT] announced that ‘the only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything’…. This is fundamentally different from a politics that paints the interests of the large mass of people as at odds with a ruling class or establishment….

In terms of populism, therefore, we can categorize politicians in three ways: 

True Populists: Those, like Clinton, who promise to represent the people as a whole. They should be called “populists” but aren’t;

Standard Populists: Those, like Sanders, who promise to represent the common people and fight the corrupt elite (e.g. Wall Street, party leaders); 

Fake Populists: Those, like DT, who promise to represent some people (“the Silent Majority”, “real Americans”), to fight the corrupt elite (e.g. the press, party leaders, government bureaucrats) and also to fight dangerous “others” among us (e.g. “bad hombres”, “radical Islam”).

For the time being, we’re stuck with the last kind.