What is Populism?

"Populists may be militarists, pacifists, admirers of Che Guevara or of Ayn Rand; they may be tree-hugging pipeline opponents or drill-baby-drill climate-change deniers. What makes them all “populists”, and does the word actually mean anything?" The Economist recently asked.

Jan-Werner Müller, a political scientist at Princeton University answered in a book-length essay: What is Populism? “Populism is seen as a threat but also as a potential corrective for politics that has somehow become too distant from ‘the people,’” Müller writes.

“Populism, I suggest, is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unifiedbut I shall argue, ultimately fictionalpeople against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way inferior.” (19-20)

Populists justify their acts by claiming that they—and they alone—speak for the people. Müller says the populists government's exhibit these features:

  1. Attempts to colonize the non-partisan state apparatus (judiciary, civil servants, etc.) with representatives of “the people”
  2. Corruption in the form of mass clientelism — trading specific benefits or favors for political support
  3. Efforts to systematically to suppress civil society seen in opposition

“Of course, many authoritarians will do similar things. The difference is that populists justify their conduct by claiming that they alone represent the people.” (p. 4).

What sets populists apart is how they define who “the people” is. Populists, by Müller’s definition, often view citizenry in narrow terms, purposely excluding specific groups. “Right-wing populists also typically claim to discern a symbiotic relationship between an elite that does not truly belong and marginal groups that are also distinct from the people.” (p. 23)

“Apart from determining who really belongs to the people, populists therefore need to say something about the content of what the authentic people actually want. What they usually suggest is that there is a singular common good, that the people can discern and will it, and that a politician or a party (or, less plausibly, a movement) can unambiguously implement it as policy.” (p. 25)

When in power

“Populists in power tend to be harsh (to say the least) with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that criticize them. Again, harassing or even suppressing civil society is not a practice exclusive to populists. But for them, opposition from within civil society creates a particular moral and symbolic problem: it potentially undermines their claim to exclusive moral representation of the people. Hence it becomes crucial to argue (and supposedly “prove”) that civil society isn’t civil society at all, and that what can seem like popular opposition has nothing to do with proper people.” (p. 48)

For all the potential problems populists bring—the silencing of opposition civil society or the press, the corruption, the narrow definition of what it means to be a true citizen—the reasons populists become popular stem from a very specific issue:  parts of the population are truly underrepresented.

“Those defending democracy against populism also have to be honest that all is not well with existing democracies in Western Europe and North America…[T]hey are increasingly suffering from the defect that weaker socioeconomic groups do not participate in the political process and do not have their interests represented effectively.” 59-60


The man in the crowd photo by Hernán Piñera.