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Two Populisms?

Nowadays when I read the word “we” I ask, “who is this ‘we’?” Rarely is “we” truly universal. Determining who “we” refers to often reveals who the author is concerned about.

In What is Populism? Jan-Werner Müller stresses this point: often, “we” excludes as it seemingly includes. He 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 unified–but, I shall argue, ultimately fictional–people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior. (pp. 19-20)

It’s a useful definition even if potentially controversial–according to him, the American Populist Party was not actually populist. What makes it useful to me is that is does capture a type of politics, one dangerous to democracy. Nevertheless, I have some worries about his account.

Perhaps the least of them is his claim that Sanders is not populist, something he simply asserts on page 93. This, of course, is a serious worry politically–one reason I strongly oppose Sanders is because he is profoundly undemocratic in exactly the way Müller argues populists are. It’s less of a worry theoretically, however, since claiming Sanders is a populist does not challenge Müller’s central claims. He simply categorized him wrongly.

Still, as Barney Frank observed back in 1991,

To him, anybody who disagrees with him is a crook; there are no honest disagreements with people. Bernie’s view of the world is that the great majority of the people agree with him on all the issues and the only reason he does not win is that the Congress is crooked.

Sanders has not changed over time. During the primary he made a series of dishonest attacks on institutions that opposed him, be it the DNC for briefly cutting off his campaign’s access to a voter database because his campaign took advantage of a firewall being accidentally dropped or Planned Parenthood for supporting Clinton. Like the populists Müller describes, Sanders too blames the media for people’s disagreements with him (while ignoring the question about the importance of diverse representations). Moreover, Sanders’ focus on changing primaries so that non-Democrats can vote on them while ignoring caucuses shows the populists’ selective use of democracy. Finally, Sanders’ inability to realize there is honest disagreement came to a head in Nevada, where he excused his supporters’ violence and spread conspiracy theories, all while trying to undo the popular vote. In short, Sanders is a populist and consequently a threat to democracy. Fortunately, he lost the primary. Unfortunately, he is still admired by many.

Sanders also validates Müller’s claim that it is important to address some of the issues populists raise. One should not simply ignore them. Clinton and the Democratic Party did pay attention to them (sometimes for the worse, e.g. the focus on campaign finance reform instead of voting rights) but it did bring on board most of his supporters. It did not, however, bring on many of the diehards who formed the anti-democratic, often harassing, wing of his base.

Trump, of course, ended up winning the election and he’s a populist of a different stripe, one who reveals a more serious problem with some of Müller’s analysis. Trump ran on bigotry. His we is white people. He ran against elites because they supposedly favored non-whites or in fact because they were the new elites. So one potential flaw with Müller’s definition is that the elites populists run against are often as fictional as the people. Perhaps they are even more so. Moreover, it is not elites as such that Trumpian populism opposes: it’s elites supposedly allied with the oppressed.

Another serious problem is that he does not get into how certain groups are seen as the people. As the case of America shows, it is often because of already existing systems of oppression. I suspect Europe is much the same: the rise of right-wing populism is probably tied to the collapse of imperialism and an influx from former colonies. This is something Müller seems almost doggedly determined to avoid saying. Perhaps he believes it can go without saying. However, at times he goes too far in excusing populists. For instance,

One is reminded of what gave [George] Wallace’s counterpunches against liberals such force in his day: he could claim with some plausibility that “the biggest bigots in the world are…the ones who call others bigots.” (pp. 83-84)

This, quite frankly, is absurd. Opposition to bigotry is not bigotry. Wallace’s voters no more than Trump’s were “economically anxious.” White supremacy was their issue and they (rightly) felt it was under attack.

Once one realizes that bigotry often helps forms “a morally pure and fully unified” people and maintaining their supremacy is their main issue, three important points follow. First, Müller’s emphasis on not ignoring populists and their issues seems misguided. One should not give bigots what they want because what they want is more bigotry. Second, one suspects there are at least two important types of populism. One whose group identity is formed by bigotry and another that isn’t. Though to a large extent the issues Sanders addresses are those that center the needs of white men, white supremacy never united his followers they same way it unites Trump’s (or maybe it is better to say it was a different type of white supremacy). While both Trump and Sanders are undemocratic, the bigotry at the center of Trump’s movement makes him much more harmful than Sanders. Any account of populism that fails to distinguish between the two is seriously incomplete. Third, and this is in part a corollary of my second point, some populists attack actual elites. Others do not. Right-wing populists like Trump attack elites mainly insofar as they protect and help groups that are oppressed. Sanders concentrates his attacks on a wealthy, powerful elite, albeit rather indiscriminately and any organization that disagrees with him quickly gets labelled elite.

But even with those caveats Müller is correct to worry about populism, and he gives a good, if partial, analysis as to why it worrisome.

 

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