What is Populism? and Populism: A Very Short Introduction

As we come up on the 2022 midterm elections in the United States, and right-wing extremism expressed in the idiom of populism continues to circulate alongside a growing number of politicians sounding the alarm about democratic survival (see Joe Biden and Barack Obama’s recent speeches, along with Liz Cheney campaigning in my home state of Michigan for Elissa Slotkin), I wanted to take a comparative look at two short books about populism that were published in 2016 and 2017, right at the moment of Trump’s campaign and presidency.

What is Populism?, by Jan-Werner Müller, was published by German publisher Suhrkamp in 2016 and then in English by the University of Pennsylvania Press that same year. He is a political philosopher currently working at Princeton who has written several books on theories of democracy and right-wing figures, including Carl Schmidt.

Populism: A Very Short Introduction, by Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, was published by Oxford University Press as part of the Very Short Introduction series in 2017. Cas Mudde is a political scientist at the University of Georgia and very well known as a scholar of right-wing politics and European extremism. Kaltwasser is a professor of political science at Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, Chile.

These two books are very different. Mudde and Kaltwasser have written an introductory text that is historically informed and investigates multiple forms of populist movements globally over multiple centuries. Müller’s book is more of a political polemic that was very popular as an explanatory text in 2016, and certainly made the rounds of academics in the humanities as a book outside of political science that many people read and talked about.

As political commentators opine in these days before the midterm elections about red waves and disastrous inflation and candidates in the Republican Party who also adhere to the Big Lie, I am consistently surprised by the willingness of large media outlets to provide oxygen to narratives that they (should) know will harm the democratic and civic fabric of society. Trying to predict the outcome of an election, an activity that certainly provides clicks but also can demotivate voters by suggesting that the outcome is a foregone conclusion and not dependent on their individual behavior, is an activity I consider destructive. And yet, in the days leading up to the election, this is perhaps the most common style of both articles and clickbait in various races from the House and Senate campaigns down to governor’s races and state legislatures.

Consequently, I was actually appalled when reading Müller’s text to notice that his book makes some fundamental mistakes. His overarching argument is that populism is a danger to democracy, a reductive thesis that I would not expect from a political theorist. Mudde and Kaltwasser offer a more sensible approach to populism as a movement, pointing out that populist rhetoric can often serve to bring more people into civic and political engagement. What happens after a populist movement succeeds in contesting elections depends upon whether those civically engaged newcomers persist in populist rhetoric and political tactics that become more extreme, or whether the political system can appropriately shape their behavior in ways that temper impulses that could become a danger to democratic procedure.

The other mistake Müller makes is to confuse media spectacle and representation in political rhetoric for action and ideology. Mudde and Kaltwasser do not make this mistake, perhaps because they are more focused on political representation and electoral outcomes and don’t confuse that with representational narrative forms that are the object of discursive analysis.

Publishing for a general audience often relies on polemic and for authors to confirm beliefs their audience already holds. Müller’s text fits this paradigm: rather than looking explicitly at populist movements in comparison, at the various outcomes a populist movement could have within a democratic system, and at the role of the media in stocking or stifling populist rhetoric, his narrative confirms (slippages included) the opinions and fears of an audience dismayed by the populist tactics employed by Donald Trump and the contemporary Republican Party, as well as the Alternative for Germany party.

The problem with this style of writing is that polemic does not educate – it irritates. Especially on this topic, a narrative that plays fast and loose with parsing the variety of outcomes and futures made possible by certain semantic behaviors in the media runs the risk of amplifying some of the sentiments the author purportedly wants to act against. To put it more simply: Müller conflates right-wing extremism with populism and by doing so, stokes attitudes of fear and anger.

Admittedly, it is much more difficult to hold the attention of a general audience when you make the kinds of reasoned demands of readers that Mudde and Kaltwasser do. They look at the origins of populism in 19th century Russia and the United States; explore different movements globally, especially in Latin America and Europe, and require a level of distance between the environment in which the reader may live and the distance of an historical and analytic gaze. Their examples require either tolerance on the part of the reader for not having immediate associations with political contexts and leaders with which they may not be familiar, or a willingness to move slowly through the text in ways that may challenge reader assumptions. If you don’t have a global framework already in place when you read their text, and if you don’t have a basic mental map of Latin America, Europe, and Asia and a rudimentary understanding of the political systems in place in the largest countries, I can imagine their text would be challenging to read. But I want to emphasize that this text is not written in an idiom for experts: the Very Short Introduction series is explicitly designed to introduce readers to a theory, topic or formation. All of us who teach literacy in its various incarnations have extensive work to do in teaching our students that quality texts deserve their energy and attention.

Authors who write texts for general audiences and the presses that publish them have a responsibility, especially when writing about politics and extremism, to not add fuel to the fire. We need to craft narratives that are both accessible and specific enough in their analysis that they don’t become part of polemic machinery that generates sales at the expense of analysis. As highly trained readers, we also have a responsibility to bring that critical lens to the texts that we read and to resist being drawn in by an industry that somehow seems hell-bent on contributing to democratic collapse.