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  • What’s in a Name?
  • Jeffrey C. Isaac (bio)
What Is Populism? By Jan-Werner Müller. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, 123 pp.

Although the revolutions of 1989 seemed to promise a new “post-ideological” era of liberal-democratic ascendancy, we have long been caught in a powerful authoritarian undertow that often goes by the name of “populism.” In this timely and illuminating book, political scientist Jan-Werner Müller analyzes that phenomenon while warning that it “tends to pose a danger to democracy” (p. 3). Although he published this work before Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency, Müller has since made it clear (in the Guardian on 24 January 2017, among other places) that he sees Trump as an “arch-populist” and a “threat to democracy.” And Trump is just one example of a trend that has not only affected the established democracies of Europe and North America, but is indeed global, stretching to countries as diverse as Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela.

This book draws on Müller’s scholarly work and his many essays for a broader audience examining the rise of right-wing populism in Central Europe. Brief but rich in insights, What Is Populism? offers a powerful critique of populist antiliberalism. But Müller’s account is not without flaws. To begin with, it takes an overly narrow approach to the range of political projects covered by the term “populism.” It also falters by conflating the concepts of “democracy” and “liberal democracy.” And while Müller astutely warns of the “dangers” that populism can present to liberal democracy, he fails to give full credit [End Page 170] to the role that certain kinds of populism have played and can play in invigorating liberal democracy.

According to Müller, populism is an antidemocratic discourse with its own “logic.” Populists say that they wish to challenge nefarious elites and to restore the unvarnished sovereignty of a “single, homogenous, authentic people” (p. 3). They claim to speak and act on behalf of this “true” nation while asserting that their opponents fall outside of it, or perhaps even are “enemies of the people” (p. 42). Populists may at times participate in liberal-democratic processes, but the “logic” of their position forces them to seek the permanent defeat of their “enemies” and the creation of an authoritarian state. Populists in power seek to capture the state and use it to advance this agenda, thereby threatening judicial and media independence, civil service professionalism, and political pluralism—and with them liberal democracy itself.

Müller sees populists as dangerous, but does not cast them as a hostile outside force. He argues, rather, that they respond to and exploit the vulnerabilities of liberal democracies from within, promising impossible solutions to real problems inherent in liberal-democratic polities. It is thus important for liberal democrats not only to understand the “logic” of populism and the threat posed by populists’ tyrannical tendencies, but also to deprive populists of political momentum by effectively addressing the problems that they exploit.

Liberal democrats, in other words, need to understand populism in order to defeat it. Channeling such key liberal writers as Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, and especially the Austrian constitutional scholar Hans Kelsen, Müller furnishes a concise and devastating critique of populists’ antipluralist leanings. He believes that liberal democracy is the only form of state consistent with the plurality of the modern world (a view that I share). At the same time, Müller’s “theory” of populism is imprecise, and he overreaches in his critique. I am tempted to say that this is due to the very militancy of his defense of liberal democracy.

Müller’s examples of populist proclivities invoke such diverse political actors as Trump; comedian Beppe Grillo, leader of Italy’s Five Star Movement; former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi; French far-right leader Marine Le Pen; the Netherlands’ anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders; Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán; increasingly authoritarian Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; George Wallace, a U.S. segregationist politician and presidential candidate in the twentieth century; and former or current South American leftist presidents Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, and Evo Morales...