What is Populism? by Jan-Werner Müller

711yM-1806L-1I’ve been trying to get to grips with Populism for ages. Before the debacle of 2016. Way back, perhaps whenever UKIP became something to be responded to rather than just stepped over, like a child’s toy in the garden. Thing is, I’ve sort of known what it is but it always seems too difficult to speak about, to explain to others. Müller’s book gives you the vocabulary and also the historical and political insight to make sense of a discussion with one who is still searching.

It’s a short book as well — always a bonus — and it answers the question very well. So well, that I’m simply going to say, read it. Read it now and keep it to hand as the developed world descends into chaos. The book will be necessary not to explain what populism is — by the time the chaos descends, we’ll all know — but because you’ll need it to remind yourself and others what things were like before everyone just threw up their hands in horror.

Not everyone, I need to say. There are many who will follow the populists because, well, they are populists. Those who speak of “The People” as a homogenous whole, whose will is clearly delineated and who have a resolute antagonism to anything perceived as ‘elite’. They are populists. Those who want to oust any opposition to their points of views, they too are populists. Those who seek to change the constitutional framework once elected to the executive: those too. Also, the ones who want to disregard the needs of the minority, or the needs of anyone who can’t pretend to think like them. They are populists as well.

Apart from them, this book is needed to remind us that things can be different again. And we will need it sooner than we expect, I fear. Müller writes clearly and wisely about who is and who isn’t a populist. He makes it very clear that not everything a populist does is exclusive to populism. He makes it very clear that the present system of democracy is not perfect; he just points out that it’s better than populism.

I’m being too pessimistic perhaps. I cannot see the future in any detail and I hope I am wrong. But the ways in which populism is explained in this book leads me down a dark and stoney path to a viewpoint over a bleak and desolate landscape where the hope of all kinds of non-populists has been extinguished to be replaced by oppressive, Gilead-like hatred and oppression, a return to ancient (or imaginary) societies where the rule of law was imposed rather than desired and where the hopes of individuals is snuffed out in favour of this thing they call “The People”. A thoroughly exclusivist society, devoid of diversity.

Sounds rubbish. Sounds Orwellian. Orwell almost got it right. His only mistake was to allow his vision to be construed as Communist. Big Brother is a populist. But not all populists are big brother.

I was left at the close of the book with two concerns. The first is in response to Müller’s desire that we should find ways to talk to populists. You don’t need to be like them but you need to speak to them. I agree. But, goodness it isn’t easy. The clamour against evidence, emotion, spirit and reason is loud, and it is difficult to remain calm when faced with hyperpolarized rhetoric that starts out as ‘whataboutism’ and ends with straightforward abuse. But, keep at it, because the second concern is even more difficult:

Why do people follow populists? By no means everyone who supports a populist is one themselves. I know. I have ‘met’ them. Online, mostly. And they are scary in their blind acceptance of the principles of populism (“I’m right because I know the will of the people”). No matter how much passion, reason, wisdom, experience, facts or tolerance you put into a debate with dedicated follower of populism, you come out feeling roughed over. It’s all done out of a desire to be listened to, but they, the followers, don’t know how to reflect on the attitudes that are leading them by the nose to chaos. They follow not just blindly, but joyfully. As someone said, “You give them sausages, tell them it’s rib-eye, and they come back for more rib-eye.” The horror of the absence of debate is dark. The derision regarding the mainstream democratic politicians is appalling. The desire to be louder than everyone else is abusive. And we liberal elite (whoever they are) just stand around helpless to say or do anything other than rant a bit on our blogs and on facebook groups. We stand back because we are frankly rather confused. It is like coming across two drunks fighting outside a pub. Do you wade in and tear them apart, or do you stop short and loom on in despair? We too normal to do anything, but too invested in society to do nothing.

Populism will win not because it has any value in people’s lives or any capacity to bring good lives to people, but because it feeds the inner demons of the ignorant and disenfranchised: two over overlapping groups, by the way.

The ignorant follow populists because they present a simplistic argument. They are the herd, and the herd are the people, sorry “The People”, whose will is obvious because, having been told they are “The People” the simple will is to ‘have our country back’ or ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Suddenly the ignorant are given a stance that feeds their ignorance. If you don’t know what democracy is, then it is easy to say that it’s been stolen from you. If you don;’t know what your country is, then how would you recognise it if it was given back?

And there’s the overlap with the disenfranchised. They bleat about the system being against them, the establishment is corrupt (we know it’s hardly squeaky clean, but this isn’t Nigeria), and so the populist feed their disgust by nipping at the heels of the bleaters, deluding them to thinking that the only way is populist. “My vote counts” only works if it is expressed in a way that leads to victory for your gang, and if your gang happens to be expressing the will of “The People”, then it’s bound to be worthwhile voting for them. If you’ve never been shown how to have a vote, then being told you’re going to be given one sounds very attractive. You don’t have to like then populists, but they are doing you a favour. For now…

All the while, the country descends into disorder. It’s not that manifest yet. But it’s bubbling under. And when we’re in full-blown post apocalyptic times (I do hope it’s not mad max), I will be re-reading Müller, hoping to dream of the future with a serious and respected parliament: reasonable, calm and polite.