Last May, at a campaign rally, Donald Trump said, “the only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything.” Jan-Werner Müller quotes that phrase both in his book What is Populism? and in a useful summary article that he wrote for The Guardian. Müller defines “populism” so that it describes Trump, Hungry’s Viktor Orbán, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Britain’s Nigel Farage, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but not Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn. The difference isn’t their placement on a left-right spectrum but their attitude toward diversity. In his book (p. 101), Müller writes:
Not everyone who criticizes elites is a populist. In addition to being antielitist, populists are antipluralist. They claim that they and they alone represent the people. All other political competitors are essentially illegitimate, and anyone who does not support them is not properly part of the people. When in opposition, populists will necessarily insist that elites are immoral, whereas the people are a moral, homogeneous entity whose will cannot err.
Müller thinks that populists despise actual participation because the bestpolicy can already be deduced from a correct understanding of “the people.” If populists support referenda, it’s only because they expect their view to win. When they lose elections, they are prone to declare them illegitimate. Their fundamental stance is inconsistent with immigration and an independent civil society, both of which threaten an imagined uniformity of identity and beliefs.
The results are very dangerous (p. 102):
Populists can govern, and they are likely to do so in line with the idea that only they represent the idea of the people. Concretely, they will engage in occupying the state, mass clientelism and corruption, and the suppression of anything like a critical civil society. These practices find an explicit moral justification in the populist political imagination and hence can be avowed openly.
Note that Müller’s account avoids attributing views to populists that they would dispute. It doesn’t assume, for instance, that Trump is a representative of “deplorables,” defined by their racism and sexism. It takes his explicit views at face value and explains their dangerous implications.
That said, “populism” can have a different meaning. It can be explicitly and fundamentally pluralist. In her recent book Populism’s Power: Radical Grassroots Democracy in America, Laura Grattan writes:
Radical democratic actors, from grassroots revolutionaries, to insurgent farmers and laborers, to agitators for the New Deal, Civil Rights, and the New Left, have historically drawn on the language and practices of populism. In doing so, they have cultivated peoples’ rebellious aspirations not just to resist power, but to share in power, and to do so in pluralistic, egalitarian ways across social and geographic borders.
In the examples that Grattan explores, populists who celebrate “the people” (in contrast to corrupt elites) do not merely tolerate diversity or accommodate themselves to it. They are actively enthusiastic about pluralism, inventing “alternative” spaces and styles of engagement, inviting disparate actors to join in their festivals and parades, emphasizing freedom of speech and assembly as core values, and usually preferring to retain some distance from the state. In fact, one of their political liabilities is their tendency to splinter because they fear uniformity.
In the US context, being populist in that sense requires a concern for racial and ethnic inclusion. However, traditions of pluralist populism go back to Old World countries that were more ethnically homogeneous. Mikhail Bakhtin recovered the medieval spirit of carnivals, of special feast days, and of places set aside to be fairs. In the carnival, all social strata, deviant groups, odd individuals, and exaggerated behaviors were welcomed and expected to mix on terms of equality. The spirit of carnival was populist in the sense that it encompassed the whole people and undermined hierarchies and distinctions, but at the same time it celebrated differences, novelties, and creativity. It was part of what Grattan calls “the language and practices of populism.”
The carnival was a world apart. It didn’t reliably improve the everyday world of authority and control except by giving people circumscribed times and places in which to escape and create ephemera together. Democratic revolutions drew on the carnival tradition, but not in sustained or satisfactory ways. I think that countering Trumpian populism requires liberal norms: limited government and individual rights guaranteed by written laws and independent courts. These protections are necessary but not very vibrant and participatory. We also need a dose of pluralist, carnivalesque populism to answer the grim version on offer from men like Donald Trump.
Here is Grattan’s talk at this year’s Frontiers of Democracy Conference.
See also: is Trumpism akin to the European right?; the word “populism”; why the white working class must organize; Gerald Taylor on property, populism, and democracy; against a cerebral view of citizenship; St. Margaret of Cortona and medieval populism; and a darker As You Like It.