Populism is reshaping the West. Here’s what we can expect to get.

Summary: Suppressed for generations, the greed and incompetence of the West’s elites allowed populism to re-emerge. But few understand it. Many confuse it with progressivism. Elites consider it “the bad thing”, when the proles slip their leash. Populism is reshaping western nations. We should understand it. To help us, here is a clear introduction in which a professor at Oxford reviews a new book about populism by a professor at Princeton.


Is Europe Disintegrating?

By Timothy Garton Ash.

Excerpt from the London Review of Books,
19 January 2017.

A review of What Is Populism?
by Jan-Werner Müller.


I have used the word “populist” several times without pausing to define it. But isn’t it just a woolly, catch-all term for parties, movements, and presidential candidates we don’t like? What is populism? This is the question addressed in an excellent short book by Jan-Werner Müller, a German scholar who now teaches at Princeton. Müller recalls that Richard Hofstadter once gave a talk titled “Everyone Is Talking about Populism, but No One Can Define It” {at the London School of Economics, 1967}, yet he makes the best effort I have seen to give the term a coherent contemporary meaning.

Populists speak in the name of “the people,” and claim that their direct legitimation from “the people” trumps (the verb has acquired a new connotation) all other sources of legitimate political authority, be it constitutional court, head of state, parliament, or local and state government. Donald Trump’s “I am your voice” is a classic populist statement. But so is the Turkish prime minister’s riposte to EU assertions that a red line had been crossed by his government’s clampdown on media freedom: “The people draw the red lines.” So is the Daily Mail’s front-page headline denouncing three British High Court judges who ruled that Parliament must have a vote on Brexit as “Enemies of the People.” Meanwhile, Polish right-wing nationalists justify an ongoing attempt to neuter Poland’s constitutional court on the grounds that the people are “the sovereign.”

People's fist

The other crucial populist move is to identify as “the people” (or Volk) what turns out to be only some of the people. A Trump quotation from the campaign trail captures this perfectly: “The only important thing is the unification of the people,” said the Donald, “because the other people don’t mean anything.” UKIP’s Nigel Farage welcomed the Brexit vote as a victory for “ordinary people,” “decent people,” and “real people.” The 48% of us who voted on June 23, 2016, for Britain to remain in the EU are plainly neither ordinary nor decent, nor even real.

Everywhere it’s the “other people” who now have to watch out: Mexicans and Muslims in the US, Kurds in Turkey, Poles in Britain, Muslims and Jews all over Europe, as well as Sinti and Roma, refugees, immigrants, black people, women, cosmopolitans, homosexuals, not to mention “experts,” “elites,” and “mainstream media.” Welcome to a world of rampant Trumpismo.

Populism, Müller argues, is inimical to pluralism. Its target is pluralist, liberal democracy, with those vital constitutional and social checks and balances that prevent any “tyranny of the majority” from prevailing over individual human rights, safeguards for minorities, independent courts, a strong civil society, and independent, diverse media.

Müller rejects the term “illiberal democracy,” arguing that it allows people like Viktor Orbán to claim that Hungary just has another kind of democracy, authentically democratic in a different way. What Orbán has done, for example in his takeover of the media, undermines democracy itself. Yet I think we do need a term to describe what happens when a government that emerges from a free and fair election is demolishing the foundations of a liberal democracy but has not yet erected an outright dictatorship — and may not even necessarily intend to. Words like “neoliberalism,” “globalization,” and “populism” are themselves imperfect shorthand for phenomena with significant national, regional, and cultural variations. “Hybrid regime” feels too unspecific, so unless and until someone comes up with a better term, I shall continue to use “illiberal democracy.”

If the post-wall era runs from 1989 to 2009, what epoch are we in now? We almost certainly won’t know for a decade or three. On a bad Europe day, and there were too many of those in 2016, one does feel like going into cryogenic hibernation; but this is no time for freezing. No, we who believe in liberty and liberalism must fight back against the advancing armies of Trumpismo. The starting point for fighting well is to understand exactly what consequences of which aspects of the post-wall era’s economic and social liberalism — and of related developments, such as rapid technological change — have alienated so many people that they now vote for populists, who in turn threaten the foundations of political liberalism at home and abroad.

Having made an accurate diagnosis, the liberal left and liberal right need to come up with policies, and accessible, emotionally appealing language around those policies, to win these disaffected voters back. On the outcome of this struggle will depend the character and future name of our currently nameless era.

——– Read the full review of this and six other books about Europe’s crisis ———

About the reviewer

Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at Oxford and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He has written ten books, including Free World: America, Europe, and the Surprising Future of the West (2004) and Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (2017).

See his articles at The Guardian, his articles and reviews at the New York Review of Books, his website. and his Wikipedia entry.

About the author

Jan-Werner Müller is a professor of Politics at Princeton. See his bio and publications here.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about trade, about globalization, about Trump’s campaign, and especially these…

  1. What the press won’t tell you about Trump and populism — See Walter Russell Mead’s famous essay about Jackson.
  2. Why the Left is missing the rising populist movement.
  3. The Right struggles to understand Trump and populism.
  4. Liberals look at Trump and populism, but see only their prejudices.
  5. Racism is the dark side of populism. Will it divide and defeat us?
  6. Populism arises amidst workers abandoned by the Left, seeking allies.
  7. Professor Mark Blyth explains the real roots of Brexit & Trump.

20 replies »

  1. Populism means one thing. The arrogance and control with which a political class, backed by corporate lobbyists, is coming apart. The internet is also partly responsible, a second Reformation is underway. The political class, or elites as some call them, were caught off guard. Hence the rush to demonise and control the web.
    Inequality has also played a part, unfair taxation systems weighted in favour of tiny elements of society, glaring social differences, constant war, controlling memes.
    Global warming? A lie. 9-11? A lot of doubt in many minds about TRUTH.
    Then the rush to create superstates like the EU, with a view to world government. Globalised trading has lead to disenfranchised groups of skilled people. Central banking’s inability to ensure prosperity, meddling governments affecting free markets via regulatory democracy.
    A “war on drugs”. A “war on terror”. Populations kept in a state of fear via crony media which lies.
    And that bogeyman Russia is to blame meme. It does not wash with people anymore.
    Mainly though, migration, its impact on western populations underestimated.
    Then individuals. Blair, Bush, Obama, Cameron, Merkel and a host of others. Seen as puppets.
    Then the Putin factor, whenever did a Russian leader elicit such popularity in the west? He is seen to be moral and truthful, also he takes action and is unafraid to.
    So along comes Trump. It is just deserts to me, the front that calls itself liberal, is really nothing but communism. And the elites whine because of Brexit, then Trumps election.
    History has cycles, we are entering a cycle of immense change. Pundits can bleat all they want, speculate and hand wring. It is unstoppable.


    • Jon,

      “Populism means one thing.”

      I doubt that. Populism, like most political movements, is an amorphous thing – complex and changing.

      “we are entering a cycle of immense change.”

      For two centuries every decade in America has seen immense change. It’s difficult to compare rates of change. WWI, WWII, and the Long & Great Depressions stand out. But the other decades are all much the same. I don’t see anything happening so far that would make this period stand out, but it is early days yet.

      “It is unstoppable.”

      The one constant I have found is that such confident forecasts are almost always wrong. I suggest you listen to Yoda: “Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.”


  2. I submit that ‘populism’ as it is presently being labeled, is simply a symptom. The actual disease is the elitism so blatantly expressed by the author of the above almost hilariously clueless article.
    The term ‘educated idiot’ comes to mind….


    • Iseeitfx,

      “I submit that ‘populism’ as it is presently being labeled, is simply a symptom.”

      There are no “first causes” in the social sciences. Everything has causes, and affects other things. The medical model of “disease” and “symptom” doesn’t work well in sociology, except as a superficial metaphor.

      “the author of the above almost hilariously clueless article.”

      That’s not much of a rebuttal. These people are both experts in this field. I doubt that can be said of you.

      “The term ‘educated idiot’ comes to mind….”

      Me too, when reading your comment.


  3. The pro Clinton protesters haven’t a clue why half the country didn’t choose Clinton. The Davos crowd doesn’t understand why conservatives distrust them. The rich Germans don’t understand why energy costs and noncultural German immigrants infuriate the lower economic German. And none seem to feel disagreements are even worth trying to understand.
    Populism is not rooted in the “deplorables”. It is an outgrowth of the monied, ruling elites who are insulated from their actions. The necessary analysis is proceeding in the wrong direction.


    • Doug,

      That’s an important point. Inequality returning to its Gilded Age-era peaks and a long series of outright pro-elite presidents (Reagan to Obama) brought the 1% to a level of success not seen since the 1920s. The counter-movements of OWS and the Tea Party were clown shows. Arrogance and hubris are normal responses.

      But — it is far too soon to describe Trump as populist. Obama won by evoking progressive themes, but in office governed mostly as Bush III — furthering the power of the Deep State and Wall Street. ObamaCare was the exception, but it benefited big corps — who were groaning under medical insurance costs (it was Christmas to health care sector companies).

      Similarly Trump won by evoking populist themes. But he’s stacked his administration with plutocrats and bog-standard far right conservatives. Is there a single populist among them? The celebration of Trump’s hope for change looks as delusional at this point as it was before Obama’s inauguration.

      As I have said so many times, Failure To Learn is our key characteristic. It keeps us weak.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. FM:

    There is much chatter among political bloggers, of the break down of our current modes of both government and economical models. Do you suppose there can be any one cause for this current state of things or would you say that the coupling of all things combined are leading to the extreme discontent with in western societies…

    Corrupt and out-of-touch elites using their monetary powers to manipulate a government to ensure they can continue amassing already massive fortunes without concern of the many possible out comes of their indulgent and some what ignorant endeavors.

    The breakdown of ethical standards in place of the “we are all equal” and “he/she has done really bad things BUT is really a good person” line of liberal thinking.

    The inability for intelligent, educated individuals to reanalyze ancient systems of spiritual thinking and bringing this knowledge into the twenty first century, but rather allowing the power of the church to continue playing on weak minds in order to maintain it’s own illegitimate powers.

    The redefining of gender identity; where apparently such a thing no longer exists.

    And my favorite, the belief among the common population that we (westerners) have the most effective and civilized form of economic/government systems on the globe, while turning a blind eye to the above mentioned issues (not that is the entire list).

    It would seem that from what ever angle it is approached, our current advanced civilization is in danger if we do not find logical ways of giving the entire system an overhaul. This seems like an unattainable goal, but only because of the collective mentality whether it be the thinking of those at the top or those at the very bottom of the social structure. If this past election season has taught me any thing, it is that we are still a very under evolved and immature people…it is a shame one can study our societies just two generations back and we seemed to be showing so much promise!


    • Kristine,

      All good questions! They deserve more attention than I can spare at present, but here are a few notes in reply.

      (1) “There is much chatter among political bloggers, of the break down of our current modes of both government and economical models.”

      This has been a constant during the Boomers’ lives. The End is Always Neigh. Both Left and Right play this hard, but imo the Left more so. Both are delusional on this subject. The underlying concept is that except for the esoteric elite (who see the problem), everyone else are fools — hence linear extrapolations are in order. In fact they are almost always false. Also, our social and physical systems are quite robust.

      The Y2K hysteria is the paradigm for these. Years of panic, billions spent — mostly wasted on an almost non-existent crisis. Asian nations saw through this nonsense, did little, had few problems. This is a flag that deserves attention.

      (2) “The inability for intelligent, educated individuals to reanalyze ancient systems of spiritual thinking”

      I’ll bet big that this is almost a constant of history. Mesopotamian priests, Medieval Catholic priests, and today’s cult gurus all sing the same song about this.

      (3) “It would seem that from what ever angle it is approached, our current advanced civilization is in danger if we do not find logical ways of giving the entire system an overhaul.”

      That’s revolutionary thinking. It’s rarely tried, and almost always ends in disaster. Revolutionists burn with confidence that they understand the world. In my experience they are usually unusually ignorant about the world. We would be better of letting a group of janitors and waitresses spin the dials on society’s controls than a group of revolutionary leaders.

      Incremental change is almost always best. Few dangers are of the kind on the TV show “24”. There are seldom ticking time bombs in society. Analysis, slow change, watch for results, change again. That was the thinking of the Founders, and why they wisely made our system above all resistent against revolutionaries. Distributed power, checks and balances, with the Constitution as an anchor.

      Do you suppose there can be any one cause for this current state of things or would you say that the coupling of all things combined are leading to the extreme discontent with in western societies


    • “If this past election season has taught me any thing, it is that we are still a very under evolved and immature people…it is a shame one can study our societies just two generations back and we seemed to be showing so much promise!”

      Well I’m actually going to disagree with this, because we have what, three times as many people now? And we have far fewer violent convulsions, less violent crime overall… Right now, we had a great scandal because the KKK might have considered staging a march somewhere in North Carolina, which I believe did not happen – a couple of generations ago, they were turning dogs and firehoses on peaceful marchers, and weren’t exactly committed to NOT lynching people.

      We have plenty of problems in a wide range of ways but you can make a great case that this period of history is the best period in… ever, considered worldwide. (This doesn’t mean things are great everywhere, obviously, or else populism would probably not be much of a thing.)


    • FM:
      WOW…your response was so full of ignorant sentiment I had to take a step back from “American” exceptionalism for a moment to regain my logical perspective and hope that we are more then hairless monkeys on a crash course of advanced civilization.!
      (2) “The inability for intelligent, educated individuals to reanalyze ancient systems of spiritual thinking”
      I’ll bet big that this is almost a constant of history. Mesopotamian priests, Medieval Catholic
      priests, and today’s cult gurus all sing the same song about this.

      WTF…a poor choice of words but highly excepted among the declining intellect of modern day tweeters and face bookers…

      What part of “Mesopotamian Priests, And “Medieval Catholic Priests” rings modern understanding of reality to you.! It is clear with your frequent posts on GCC that you are NOT among the few who understand science along with most of your reader-ship…and we wonder how Trump got in to office…Hmmmm

      Once asked if he would ever run for office his response ‘ I don’t know…but if I did, I would run as a republican those are the dumbest people in America! They believe anything they hear on fox news (or FM web site) I could lie lie lie…my numbers would be great…” Not a direct quote but I believe you might find it in a 96 or 98 volume of time life…Kristine out


    • Kristen,

      I replied to your first comment with “All good questions!” Your second comment is a rant, consisting of insults without a shred of evidence. It was a waste of your time, since nobody pays attention to such things (the internet overflows with evidence-less rants).

      It would obviously be a waste of my time to reply.

      Life is too short to pay attention to such people. Goodbye.


  5. Academics and ivory towers springs to my mind. Then academia and its institutions are part of the overall problem. Out of touch. “Those who can do, those who can’t teach”.


    • Jon,

      “Then academia and its institutions are part of the overall problem.”

      I strongly disagree. Academics are supposed to be disengaged, giving them the perspective of the outsider — cognitive distance from the centers of power. That’s a basic structure of western society, true in the past as well as today. Bloom explains this at length in the second half of “Closing of the American Mind”.


  6. Continuing on our last discussion – which you did not get – at all, while I was following it. Victor Davis Hanson is discussing the two cultures. City and Country. You might like his references to Greece and Rome. It is an old question.

    Trump and the American Divide” — “How a lifelong New Yorker became tribune of the rustics and deplorables.”

    What I have brought to the discussion is ecology. And since you assumed that a given culture could not exist outside of the ecology that formed it, may I also suggest “Two Ecologies“.

    and here we have some one proposing war between the City people and the Country people. “Coming Out For War“.

    Framing all this as a moral war fits in perfectly with divide and conquer. I don’t see it as a moral war at all. You might as well consider having a war between outer space and the back 40 down on the farm. They are two different ecologies. The rules are inherently different. If we respect that and get each culture to respect the other (a tall order) we will be much better off.

    I do think a proper symbiosis (note “proper”) has more advantages than a war of cultures.


    • M Simon,

      (1) “Continuing on our last discussion – which you did not get”

      Nice to see that you are channeling your inner hippie! “You just don’t get it, man.” It’s the weakest possible reply. It makes sense only if given while high.

      (2) Thank you for the pointers to Hanson’s work. He’s always interesting.

      (3) As for your framing of current US social conflicts.

      Regional and urban/rural differences characterize US history going back to the Founding. Such an analysis is useful if you show that these differences are wider today. I very much doubt that. My guesses is that the great homogenizers of the modern mass media have substantially narrowed those differences during the past few generations.

      They are more obvious in today’s political parties because the two dominant coalitions have re-sorted themselves by ideology, reversing the temporary distortion caused by the Civil War.


  7. The City vs Country divide has been a feature of human politics for 5,000 years or more. Too bad we haven’t figured it out yet.

    What would make it wider? Well that is self evident. Greater divergence between the ecologies. And what would some of the divergence be? Cities are closer to their carrying capacity. Detroit would be a prime example.

    And Jefferson had a handle on it long before the systems driving the differences were even moderately understood.

    “When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.” – Thomas Jefferson


    • Simon,

      (1) Your comment is, as usual, fact-free. Let’s look at the numbers. First, the 2010 Census showed that 81% of America lives in urban areas vs. 19% in rural areas. It’s a free country, and people vote with their feet.

      Second, let’s look at this on a finer scale. “Urban” does not mean “city” or even “densely populated. At 538 Jed Kolko of Trulia describes their research. 26% of Americans describe where they live as urban, 53% say suburban and 21% said rural. “Residents of ZIP codes with more than 2,213 households per square mile typically described their area as urban. Residents of neighborhoods with 102 to 2,213 households per square mile typically called their area suburban. In ZIP codes with fewer than 102 households per square mile, residents typically said they lived in a rural area.”

      (2) “Cities are closer to their carrying capacity. Detroit would be a prime example.”

      That’s absurd, even as made-up facts go. Detroit is mismanged. Detroit is not unusually dense among US cities; US cites are not dense by global standards.

      (3) Jefferson the demographer.

      Jefferson was a bright guy, but his knowledge of demography and morals is not deep. His dream of a rural America, ruled by plutocrats like himself from their plantations, was abandoned by America long ago.


Leave a comment & share your thoughts...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s