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Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism?

Laura Chazel
Traduction de Haby Gadio et Gabrielle Pauvert
Cet article est une traduction de :
Jan-Werner Müller, What is populism?
What is Populism?
Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism?, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017, 123 p., ISBN : 978-0-8122-4898-2.

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Review translated by Haby Gadio (Columbia University, Barnard College) and Gabrielle Pauvert (ENS de Lyon), as part of the Transatlantic Collaborative Translation Workshop between Barnard College-Columbia University and the École normale supérieure de Lyon. Supervised by Professors Laurie Postlewate (Barnard-Columbia) & Layla Roesler (ENS de Lyon).

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1How can we fail to notice that today, the academic world is divided on the meaning and the importance of the concept of “populism” in academic debate? Can this term, so often used in the media, be considered a scientific concept? As the political scientist Federico Tarragoni notes, the study of populism—which he calls “populology”—is, in Europe and North America, limited today mostly to warning against a phenomenon often defined as “illiberal,” “anti-democratic” and “pathological.” Another school of thought, whose main figures are Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, defends the existence of a “democratic populism” that is perceived as a “remedy” to cure the ailing democracies. Thus, Jan-Werner Müller's What is Populism? must be understood and analyzed within the context of the academic battle for the definition of this word so present in the media. Right from the start, in the introduction, Müller affirms that populism is in essence “anti-pluralistic” (p.3) and represents the “[true] danger for democracy” (p. 6). He thus sides with the authors who try to define the term in order to radically combat the phenomenon thus defined.

2In the first chapter, the author lays the foundation for his analysis of populism. This term is defined from its internal logic which opposes a “morally pure and entirely unified” people to a “corrupt and morally inferior elite” (p. 20). Throughout his book, Müller distinguishes “populists” from “democrats” and considers populism as “the permanent shadowy effect of representative democracy” (p. 11). The populist parties are, in their nature, anti-democratic, as witnessed by the importance given to a “leader” and the perceptible tendencies towards authoritarianism in their partisan organizations. Yet, the author underlines that these criteria are not sufficient to identify a party as “populist.” Populists present themselves as the sole legitimate representatives of a homogeneous “people” and it is precisely this logic, which he calls “pars pro toto,” which allows them to have a specific quality relative to other political parties. For Müller, populism and anti-pluralism are inherently bound together. To reinforce his argument, the author relies on the opposition between the empirical and the symbolic. While the “democrats” claim that they represent a part of the people (a majority) based on electoral results that are legitimate (because they are empirical), the “populists” rely, on the contrary, on the symbolic and moral representations of an imaginary “people.”

3In the second chapter of the book, the author shows that even though populists present themselves as anti-elitists, they are not doomed to remain in the role of the opposition. They are indeed, capable of governing without losing credibility. Once in power, they can continue to exploit the dichotomy between “pure people” and “corrupt elite.” Here, the author gives the examples of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro who mobilized the argument of an “economic war” carried out by imperialists to justify the chaos in Venezuela. Generally, Müller explains that the populists in power replicate three patterns: they exercise a form of “State colonization”, they engage in “mass clientelism” and they have the tendency to want to eliminate civil society (like for example Vladimir Putin when he accuses NGOs of being “foreign agents”). Further in the text, Müller returns to the notion of “illiberal democracy,” which he outright rejects. While numerous researchers denounce the “illiberalism” of populism, the author refuses the use of this adjective because populism endangers not only liberal democracy, but democracy as a whole. Authors like Belgian philosopher Chantal Mouffe adopt a radically different approach and consider that liberals, due to their incapacity to recognize the inevitably conflicting dimension of all societies, de facto, deny politics itself. The populist logic that she promotes would, on the contrary be able to draw an agonistic border between “us” and “them” without rejecting pluralism. Müller briefly returns to Mouffe’s theory. He immediately presents her as a “leftist theoretician,” thus implicitly assigning her a position that is primarily political, but without actually bothering to discuss her analysis.

4In the third and last chapter, Müller explains the success of populism through three major factors. First, the “broken promises” of democracy that would never able to have the “people” (an imaginary entity) govern, but would settle for a governing “majority.” Second, the collapse of partisan systems and the inability of political parties to play their role of mediator between a pluralist and heterogeneous society, and a political system which applies the decisions of the majority. Third, the preponderance of technocratic systems in contemporary democracies. On this third point, Müller draws a parallel between technocracy and populism. On one hand, technocrats claim expertise that cannot be disputed because it is supposedly scientific and rational. On the other hand, the populists claim the legitimate representation of a united and homogeneous people. Technocracy and populism would be incapable of opening a democratic and plural dialogue and would thus be, in essence, “apolitical.” Once again, the lack of perspective in the author’s analysis is regrettable, in that it does not discuss the theories which, on the contrary, consider populism as the summum of political activity. Likewise, can we really say that populism and technocracy depoliticize in the same way? And does this not introduce confusion by breaking from the very history of the term populism, particularly in Latin America where populism represents for its critics an absurd economic management from the point of view of the technocratic rationale they defend?

5Throughout his book, Jan-Werner Müller defines and analyses populism from the internal logic that, according to him, structures it. He thus makes the choice to set aside the political content of different movements that he studies. He thus falls in line with those political scientists who define populism as a “thin ideology” (opposing two homogeneous groups: the people and the elite) combined with a “thick ideology” capable of encompassing the whole political spectrum. This approach allows him to put contemporary figures as diverse as Evo Morales, Viktor Orban, Rafael Correa, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hugo Chavez on the same plane, but also to assimilate Nazism and Italian fascism. While the analysis of populism as thin ideology can permit us to take a distance from the traditional right/left analytic framework and best grasp the logics of this phenomenon, the examples chosen by the author in his book seem, nonetheless, questionable. It seems to us that the restrictive definition that he gives to populism does not allow [for] the construction of a theoretical framework adequate to analyze the new European “leftist populisms,” that grew out of the economic and financial crisis of 2008. Indeed, when he uses European examples, Müller concentrates exclusively on right-wing populisms and skips over the progressive populist wave which has been sweeping across Europe for the past few years. Though he recognizes the existence of “leftist populisms,” the author nonetheless considers that this designation cannot apply outside the Latin-American continent. Müller says nothing about Podemos, Syriza, Jeremy Corbyn or Jean-Luc Melenchon, and does not even bother to justify this absence of analysis. And yet, numerous commentators associate the notions of “democratic populism” or “progressive populism” with these parties and these political figures. Unfortunately, the author does not take the time to discuss the terms and their application to these political forces in this book.

6It seems particularly regrettable that the author omits an analysis of Podemos’ populist strategy, since the young Spanish party is seen today as a unique case, given the high degree of reflexivity on populism its leaders have developed, in the elaboration of their strategy. Indeed, Podemos’ strategy has often been analyzed as an attempt to apply Ernesto Laclau’s and Chantal Mouffe’s theory of populism, and yet this reflexive practice has no equivalent in the history of populist parties. Müller addresses this question extremely briefly when, on the last page of his book, he criticizes the influence of the Laclaucien theory on the European left without explicitly mentioning a political party. In his own words, this populist strategy is “redundant” (a dull attempt to put in place a 2.0 social-democracy), and even “dangerous” (if it defends a morally pure and homogeneous people). However, in Podemos’ populist logic, as it is theorized and supposedly practiced by the leaders of this party, the question is not that of defending the idea of a “homogeneous” and “already existing” people, but rather that of constructing new political identities from a plurality of heterogeneous and radically democratic social demands. Müller prefers the idea of “constructing a majority” over Podemos’ slogan, “construct a people.” In our opinion, a 2017 academic analysis of populism cannot settle for skimming over this question and ignoring the Podemos case because the reflexive posture of the party creates dialogue [between] political theory and concrete theory and thus directly impacts the very object of “populology.” Indeed, the circulation of this reflexivity can already be measured. First in the academic field, there is an abundance of analyses discussing the notion of “populism” based on the writings of Laclau and Mouffe. Then in the political field, we can clearly observe a direct impact of the populist strategy of Podemos on the other European leftist parties.

7More generally, the absence of a true analysis of populism in the present day is regrettable. As many commentators have pointed out, “populology” seems to come down to a simple “prescriptive theory” indicating a series of remedies that can cure the supposed “pathology” that is populism. This is precisely the logic that Jan-Werner Mueller subscribes to. In chapter 3 of the book, he encourages for example the “democratic parties” to open the debate with the populist parties in order to fight them. He thus warns against the temptation of forming a protective barrier that would, in the end, reinforce the populist argument that there exists a real oligarchic conspiracy against them. This normative approach can be questioned, especially since its defenders have the means of using an authoritative argument through their status of political science researchers, and affirm under this name, that populism–a qualifier which is often simply used to designate a new party which has electoral success–must be fought, without taking the time to deeply analyze the motives for this phenomenon.

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Laura Chazel, « Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism? », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, mis en ligne le 10 février 2021, consulté le 27 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Laura Chazel

Ph.D. in Political Science (Sciences Po, Grenoble and Complutense, University of Madrid).

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