POPULISM TRUMP-STYLE: A THREAT TO DEMOCRACY ?

My latest article, just out on Impakter Magazine

TRUMP POPULISM: A THREAT TO DEMOCRACY ?




BOOK REVIEW: WHAT IS POPULISM? BY JAN-WERNER MÜLLER 

UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA PRESS, AUGUST 22, 2016. 136 PAGES. 

From Brexit, the referendum that kicked the UK out of the EU, to Trump’s election predicated on “draining the swamp” in Washington and making “America Great Again”, the sudden rise of populist nationalism shook the US and Europe in 2016. With Trump in the driving seat, what will 2017 hold? Should we worry?


A new book “What is Populism?” by Jan-Werner Müller, a noted German political scientist, brings much needed answers. It provides an elegant explanation of a phenomenon of our times, populism, that threatens to upend the post-World War II global order as we know it.

WHO IS THE AUTHOR AND WHY SHOULD WE PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT HE SAYS?

Professor Jan-Werner Müller, born in 1970, comes with impressive credentials:  he studied at the Berlin Free University; London University College; Oxford St. Antony’s College and Princeton University. He was a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford (1996-2003) and a Fellow in Modern European Thought at the European Studies Centre, St. Antony’s College (2003-2005). Since then he has been teaching in the Politics Department, Princeton University where he currently directs the Project in the History of Political Thought at the University Center for Human Values.

“What is Populism?” was first published in Germany in April 2016 (by Surhkamp) and brought out in English (by University of Pennsylvania Press) last August with some modifications to adapt it to an American audience; but the interesting analysis of Hungary’s dramatic slide into autocracy under populist strongman Viktor Orban has remained intact. Considering Orban’s style of government (for example, in his recent “State of Hungary” speech on 10 February, he violently attacked the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, see Fox News report here) and his plan to run for re-election in 2018, that section of Muller’s book is highly relevant.

The book is short, some 130 pages, consisting of just three chapters, an easy read, made all the easier that the conclusion consists of “Seven Theses on Populism” that neatly summarize the whole book. It has drawn attention in academic circles and sells well on Amazon (ranked #11 in the category “comparative politics” at the time of writing).

WHAT EXACTLY IS “POPULISM” AND WHY SHOULD WE WORRY?

As Müller notes in his introduction, “no US election in living memory has seen as many invocations of ‘populism’ as the one unfolding in 2015-16”. And the same can be said now of the coming elections in Europe, in some key EU member countries: France, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy (though elections in the latter may be postponed to next year).

In all these countries, populist parties are on the rise and all uniformly promise to bring down the “established order”: down with the Euro and the European Union, up with borders, each country onto itself. Just listen to the front-running candidate for the French Presidency, Marine Le Pen of the Front National, it’s an eye-opener. Here is what she said on February 5 when she launched her campaign in Lyon, unveiling a 144-point program calling for leaving the euro-zone, holding a referendum on European Union membership, and limiting immigration:
 Globalization is my enemy, one in the name of global finance and one in the name of radical Islam […] They will lead to the disappearance of this France, as we remember it and as we love it. One advances under the guise of liberal economics, the other under the guise of religious liberty.

Perhaps what is most bizarre about populism is that it can arise on the right as well as on the left. The label applies equally to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. And, as Müller writes, it is “primarily associated with particular moods and emotions: populists are ‘angry’; their voters are ‘frustrated’ or suffer from ‘resentment.’”


IN THE PHOTO: ANGER AT A TRUMP RALLY IN CHICAGO 22 OCTOBER 2016 PHOTO CREDIT: JUSTICE VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Beyond that, Müller notes, we haven’t had a convincing “theory of populism”, there is no “coherent criteria” for deciding when politicians turn populists. And this is where his definition comes in, setting out exactly what makes for a populist and how he (or she) is different from the run-of-the-mill politician in a democracy.

After all, any politician in the opposition will attack the establishment. It is in the DNA of the opposition. And all politicians try to appeal to their voters and do this in emotional terms (if they can). They know emotions will move voters.

Could populism be “the authentic voice of democracy” as the American cultural historian Christopher Lasch maintained?

Müller begs to disagree.  He puts forward deceptively simple and strikingly logical criteria that set a populist apart from a regular politician:

Curious about Müller's "strikingly logical criteria"? Click here to read the rest.


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