Daily Bread for 8.27.21: Defining Populism

Good morning.

Friday in Whitewater will be partly sunny with scattered thundershowers and a high of 91. Sunrise is 6:15 AM and sunset 7:36 PM, for 13h 21m 08s of daytime.  The moon is a waning gibbous with 75.5% of its visible disk illuminated.

 On this day in 1832, Black Hawk, leader of the Sauk, surrenders to U.S. authorities, ending the Black Hawk War.

 This summer, Isaac Chotiner interviewed Jan-Werner Müller, author of What Is Populism?, on a definition (or in Chotiner’s formulation, a re-definition of populism. Excerpts from the interview with Müller appear immediately below:

Given the ways the world has changed over the past five years, has your conception of populism changed as well?

My understanding of populism has always deviated somewhat from the inherited American understanding of that term, which goes back to the late nineteenth century, and the sense that it is about Main Street versus Wall Street. Partly against the background of a European understanding of politics, I essentially want to argue that populism is really not just about criticizing élites or being somehow against the establishment. In fact, any old civics textbook would have told us up until recently that being critical of the powerful is actually a civic virtue, and now there’s much more of a sense that, well, this could actually somehow be dangerous for democracy.

So it isn’t as simple as that. It’s true that, when in opposition, populist politicians and parties criticize sitting governments and other parties, but for me what’s crucial is that they tend to allege that they and only they represent what they often call the “real people” or, also very typically, the “silent majority.”


But it indeed does have two detrimental consequences for democracy. The obvious one is that populists are going to claim that all other contenders for power are fundamentally illegitimate. This is never just a disagreement about policies or even about values, which after all in a democracy is completely normal, ideally maybe even somewhat productive. No, populists always immediately make it personal and they make it entirely moral. This tendency to simply dismiss everybody else from the get-go as corrupt, as not working for the people, that’s always the pattern.

Then, second, and less obviously, populists will also suggest that anybody who doesn’t agree with their conception of the real people, and therefore also tends not to support them politically—that with all these citizens you can basically call into question whether they truly belong to the people in the first place. We’ve seen this with plenty of other politicians who are going to suggest that already vulnerable minorities, for instance, don’t truly belong to the people.


Long story short, for me populism isn’t about anti-élitism. Any of us can criticize élites. It doesn’t mean we’re right, but this is not in and of itself anything dangerous for democracy. What’s dangerous for democracy, and what I take to be critical to this phenomenon, is basically the tendency to exclude others. Some citizens don’t truly belong, and we see the consequence of that on the ground in India and Turkey and Hungary and in many other countries.

(Emphasis added.)

This tendency of the right-wing populists to exclude others leads them to the fallacy that the greater includes the lesser: in their thinking, if they can banish someone, so to speak, they can do whatever they want to him or her prior to banishment.  They do not observe traditional moral or ethical limits on their own claims or actions against others. They reject traditional expectations of self-control or responsibility if applied to them. See Jane Jacobs with Useful Advice on Responsibility (for Whitewater, Richmond Township, Delavan, Etc.).

A part of their approach — and this is true of Trump and his ilk — is that they accuse others of the very deficiencies so evident in them.  So, hysterical right-wing populists accuse their opponents of being hysterical, etc. Trump, himself, no longer recognizes the concept of lying if applied to him: he contends that anything he says is a legitimate disinformation effort.

A recent school board meeting in Oshkosh shows what happens when these right-wing populists don’t like a lawfully imposed regulation: Oshkosh School Board meeting postponed after protesters disrupt it, argument breaks out.  (There is a reason that the Fort Atkinson School Board had two police officers on duty in the room during a recent discussion of COVID-19 protocols. It was a sensible precaution.)

Although for now there are different kinds of conservatives in Whitewater, it’s a fading distinction —  every kind of conservative will have to adopt a populist line or the populists will replace him or her with one of their own, true-red kind. In effect, populism will not accept even different kinds of conservatives. (They see others outside their ranks in crude, simple-minded ways, conflating terms so that a single opponent becomes simultaneously a “liberal, progressive, socialist, Marxist.”

(Note well, Whitewater: Using these four terms indistinguishably is a measure of a disqualifying lack of knowledge or of sheer indifference. There is, however, a fitting term for someone who so misuses these distinct categories: ignoramus.)

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2 years ago

[…] they want what they want, and they will ignore or break tradition, reason, or law to get it. Their first and fundamental position is […]

2 years ago

[…] populists are the opposite: easily slighted, hot-headed, and susceptible of ill-formed ideas. See Defining Populism, Conservative Populism Moves in One Direction Only, and Who Rampaged […]