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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.

The Centrality of Gender to Right-Wing Extremism

I remember having a conversation with a postdoc while I was researching in Germany about the “right to abortion.” She gave me an amused smile, and asserted that in Germany there was no “right to abortion.” Abortion in Germany is illegal, although it is permitted provided certain circumstances are met during the first trimester. But I understand the nature of our misunderstanding now to have been a cultural one: as an American citizen, where we have had the right to both privacy and abortion for nearly fifty years, I was unable to comprehend how a highly industrialized country such as the Federal Republic had also not protected this right for their citizens.

The leaked Alito/Coney Barrett Supreme Court draft opinion is now a constant topic on our media landscape. As commentators continue to remind us, the right to privacy in a variety of situations, from interethnic/interracial relationships to the legality of queer sex and fundamental rights of bodily autonomy, is linked to the particulars of Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Center (MS), the current case about which the draft opinion was leaked. Memes are also asserting the connection of criminalization of abortion and miscarriage as essentially an attempt to eliminate the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Here’s the logic. If abortion is criminalized as a felony, and felons are not permitted to vote, by extension, women’s bodies and their uncontrollability becomes the subtextual logic that would strip women caught in this tangle of legislation of a basic right of citizenship: the right to vote and participate in democratic processes. (Women also tend to vote Democratic, even if that margin is slim, primarily due to a subset of white women who determine the needs of their husbands to be more important than their own.)

Although queers, transpeople and families with transgender kids have long been aware of the maniacal importance of gender for right-wing politics, I get the sense that some people are just waking up to the expansive attempts by right-wing politicians and actors to limit gender expression for all bodies. There is perhaps no issue more important to authoritarian actors than gender, because gender serves as a foundation for so many other rights that are deeply related to family life and the performance of gender and reproductivity. Freedom of movement is often regulated through migration regimes that extend rights through family connections that permit resettlement, residency permits and access to citizenship. Tax law is based on benefits provided for married couples; health insurance access – especially before ACA – was provided through either employment or marriage. Schools are funded through property taxes, benefitting communities in which families purchase houses – and who can afford houses? Primarily families with double incomes – or patriarchal families with substantial means from one income, typically a domain of men.

There are two posts coming on this blog: the first will compare two of the primary introductory texts about populism, Cas Mudde and Christobal Rovira Kaltwasser’s Populism: A Very Short Introduction and Jan-Werner Müller’s What is Populism?

The second will review Agnieska Graff and Elzbieta Korolczuk’s Anti-Gender Politics in the Populist Moment. Politics in Poland is not so different from American politics in some of its recent events: the Black Protests of 2016 – when the Polish courts tried to tighten an already limited abortion policy – were founded in a gendered critique of care work and ultimately successful in preventing those changes from taking effect.

Doctors can still be imprisoned for providing “illegal” abortions, however, and persuading a woman to get an abortion in Poland is a criminal act.

Critiques of “Day X” (NYTimes)

On my Facebook timeline yesterday, a photo popped up of myself at a protest of the 2017 inauguration of former President Trump. The photo was labeled, as the Facebook archive does, “5 Years Ago Today” and I was struck by the rapid passing of time, especially as covid compresses the experience of how time passes.

In terms of understanding the symbiotic relationship between profit-generating media and democratic processes, we learned a lot from how the media covered the 2016 election campaign. There was far too much pastiche for the far and extreme right (especially at The New York Times); too much misogyny from all sides directed towards Hilary Clinton; and too many reporters took far-right talking points seriously instead of seriously considering the very real threats to the continued functioning of our public media and democratic processes through this type of journalistic attention. (If you want to read a really compelling narrative about how journalists felt about their engagement, what it means to amplify the voices of those who represent a threat, and how journalists could perform their jobs differently, see this report by critical media scholar Whitney Phillips put out by Data and Society called The Oxygen of Amplification (2018).)

The “Day X” podcast not only amplifies a far-right extremist’s views by giving him airtime and including interview tape for a large part of episode three, it also fundamentally misunderstands some of the critical issues that undergird far-right and extreme-right politics.

There were three main critiques that i had of the podcast. First, there’s an unwillingness to understand one of the most obvious tenets of nationalism and how this intersects with national defense. Franco A., the former military officer who disguised himself as a refugee may have been planning a violent attack to potentially turn the public against refugee resettlement. (That happened anyway – while Franco A. was caught, other perpetrators were not, and radical groups like the Gruppe Freital, the perpetrators in Chemnitz, and individual perpetrators still managed to instigate violent acts against asylum-seekers, targeting both individuals and refugee housing.) The reporting team on this podcast seems to be flabbergasted that parts of the German military had been “infiltrated” * by nationalists. But national armies are inherently nationalist. Soldiers are not necessarily extremist, but the patriotic values that are inculcated through military training and patriotic defense (no matter how often Germans deny they feel patriotic feelings) are the definition of nationalism. While “Day X” uses a melancholy soundtrack to imply that “infiltration” of the army is a dangerous, dangerous threat, what it neglects to take into account is why people who find extremism attractive may be drawn to the hierarchical and nationalistic order provided by participation in the military of any nation. (We will look at this particular issue in a later post.)

Second, the podcast includes a rather long, evasive interview with Franco A. While the reporter declares that the team thought long and hard about whether to include this interview, I don’t agree with their choice to include this much tape. Franco A. is evasive, illogical, and taking these reporters for a ride. He lies about actions he later admits in court. Watch right-wing politicians talk with reporters and they will evade their questions in similar ways: the only way to thwart this kind of attention-seeking is not to provide extremists airtime.

Finally, as I hinted at in the kick-off post to this blog’s focus on far-right and extremist politics, the reporting team in the final episode (titled “Defensive Democracy”) comes off as rather superficial about both German history and German social trends. Their subtextual adherence to the Sonderweg thesis is strong. This thesis implies that Germany’s path to democracy followed a different trajectory than in all other places and correlates with the politics of Holocaust memory in Germany in very specific ways. The notion that Germany has atoned for the Holocaust by “coming to terms with the past” and explicitly educating the public about genocide; supporting the state of Israel to the point of not even permitting critique of Israel’s land-grabbing behavior and mistreatment of Palestinians; and supposedly being shocked when right-wing extremism becomes visible in a German context, permits two further ideas. One implication is that Germans have done everything right in terms of accepting their historical culpability, which means extremists can be explained away as somehow external to the system rather than originating within it. Second, the sheer disbelief that extremism could reappear in Germany, of all places completely misreads the development of the global and transnational forms of extremism that are particular to the global conditions in which we live today. Germany is not isolated from what happens in Europe or the United States or the rest of the world. There should be absolutely no shock – in a country that saw right-wing political movements gain representation in the early 1950s, the 1969 election, and throughout the 1990s in state elections – that at some point these movements would succeed in garnering federal representation and/or compel broad, ideological social acceptance. Indeed, this has been the aim of the Neo-Nazi National Democratic Party for decades: to make extreme ideas common in public space so as to reduce the social shock when citizens encounter extremist ideologies. (For more on this idea, see: Fabian Virchow (2004) “The groupuscularization of neo-Nazism in Germany: the case of the Aktionsbüro Norddeutschland,” Patterns of Prejudice, 38:1, 56-70).

There are points in this podcast where the team attempts, but fails, to take some of these ideas into account. The critique of the German government’s tendency to label violent extremists who were connected online as “lone wolves” comes through loud and clear. Showing that at least someone on the team expressed concern at airing Franco A.’s interview means that – slowly, very slowly – journalists are reflecting on how they cover the far-right. But the overall effect I’m left with after a second listen is that these gestures are halfhearted and ultimately ineffective. The pull for sensationalism is too great. The worst thing we can do on the current media landscape is feed extremists attention and remain superficial in our understanding of where, how and why extremism arises. We need instead to think critically about how nationalism exists within rather than without state institutions.

For this reason, the next post will try to lay out some of the basic foundations of populist nationalist politics and what scholars know about it.

*I am skeptical about term “infiltration” and would like to find statistics about how often radicalization takes place within national armies.

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Day “X”

This past summer, the New York Times produced a podcast called Day X. This five-part podcast examined a mix of issues around the German Far-Right, from the National Socialist Underground murders, the police invasions of privacy known as NSU 2.0, the extremist Day X plot, and the scandals of extremists found within the ranks of the German armed forces, such as the now partially disbanded special forces unit known as the KSK (Kommando Spezialkräfte, Special Forces Command).

My initial reaction to the first episode was positive – it was clear that the journalist who produced the podcast knew the cultural and political figures who had long been targets of the far-right, such as Anetta Kahane of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation. It was refreshing, I first thought, to hear an English-language podcast that featured a cultural insider cognizant of German politics.

But as I continued to listen, I was dismayed at the repetition of the kinds of post-war tropes about German memory culture and coming to terms with the Holocaust that Michael Bodeman termed “Memory Theater” and that popular polemicist Max Czollek has criticized in his book Gegenwartsbewältigung (Coming to Terms with the Present). I reviewed Czollek’s book last year for Europe Now.

To my mind, one of the interventions that is critically needed for journalistic attention to the far, extreme and radical right movements globally are partnerships with scholars who have knowledge of the massive amount of research conducted on the far-right since the 1990s (there have been multiple waves of interest amongst social and political scientists in the far-right at various points since the 1920s). Over the course of the next year, this blog will attempt to do just that: make research conducted on the far-right accessible to a broader audience with a special focus on the contemporary German and Austrian extreme right-wing movements and parties.

Social scientists have accumulated expertise not only about voting behavior and protest behavior, but also have spent decades looking at the antagonistic politics of the far-right with respect to globalization, gender and sexual expression, education, political organizing, and separatist movements. Of particular interest in terms of these social issues for this blog will be racism, whiteness, gender politics, anti-genderism and anti-LGBT organizing, and violent crime, including the NSU and NSU 2.0 scandals.

What I tend to see reproduced in the U.S., German and Austrian press are a wide variety of opinion statements that are not supported by the evidence we have gathered through decades of interdisciplinary research. If one of our primary visions of society includes a healthy democratic public sphere, we cannot permit the spread of tropes about extremism that are not based in evidence. Misunderstanding the intent or structure of right-wing political discourse will ultimately hurt any attempts to intervene.

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Angela Merkel Re-elected as Head of CDU

Today at the CDU Party Meeting in Essen, Angela Merkel was re-elected as the head of the CDU. With 89.5% of the votes, Die Zeit  is reporting that these aren’t great numbers. Interesting to note, however, is that Merkel’s numbers in 2004 were worse: at that time, she only received 88.4% of the votes.

What I find compelling in the past several weeks of Merkel’s public appearances is the notion that Merkel’s domestic and foreign appearances highlight different sides of the Chancellor. After the decision to allow refugees entry into Germany, Merkel was frequently portrayed as having moved to the left. In her pivot on refugee issues and national identity in this speech for a domestic audience, Merkel has moved rightward. I’m quite interested to explore how Merkel will navigate this question of position in the leadup to the fall elections.



There’s a German idiom that may also be similar in British English, but it’s one I’ve never heard Americanized:

“Ich glaub’, ich bin im falschen Film.” Literally this means: I think I’m in the wrong movie. Figuratively, it means that something is out of place. Something went wrong, and you ended up on someone else’s movie set. You’re thinking to yourself, this can’t be happening. This is surreal.

Refugees arrived in the Saxon town of Clausnitz last Thursday, February 18th, late at night. Saxony is the province where PEGIDA was founded, and Clausnitz is right near the border to the Czech Republic. PEGIDA and their Czech counterparts (right-wing populists) have marched together during events held in Sebnitz, about an hour and a half away.

On Thursday, this video was posted to YouTube, which shows terrified refugees sobbing as they exit the bus to chants of “Wir sind das Volk! We are the people!” As Stefan Kuzmany wrote in Der Spiegel on Friday: these demonstrators are not das Volk:

You’re not the people. […]

You’re grown men who make children cry.

I post this video with reservation: the camera is focused on the refugees, but I really wish it were aimed at the demonstrators. They should not be allowed to remain anonymous; a faceless mob. That imbues them with power, and objectifies the refugees who are already nameless and faceless and invisible as individuals. According to the BBC, the state Interior Minister, Markus Ulbig, described [the situation] as “deeply shameful.” All the more reason to shame the perpetrators through identification – rather than the victims.

As this story has developed, some troubling events have come to light. As the SZ reported, the manager of the asylum home is a man aptly named Thomas Hetze, a member of the AfD (Alternative for Germany) Party. He holds what they call “a questionable worldview.” I’ll say. Hetze has publicly hetzte (incited) citizens at events where he’s spoken out against “asylchaos” or “refugee chaos.” Despite his political attitudes, the government office responsible for staffing his position says he can stay:

“As long as he doesn’t break the law, there’s no problem,” says Diester Steiner from the government office of the county (Asylstab). That Hetze applied for this job despite his political convictions shows that he has a good attitude.” (SZ)

This comment itself is surreal. Hetze, with his political ties, seems to have informed others about the arrival and created this PR and humanitarian disaster. According to the MDR, Hetze’s brother was part of the group organizing the mob. I’ve seen tweets implying that Hetze himself was one of only a few people who knew the refugees would be coming. Nighttime arrivals seem to be common practice, perhaps to avoid precisely this kind of politicization. With right-wing violence high in this area, and asylum homes being burned down with impunity as a method of protest, political orientations matter because some of them in this day and age are violent. Humans are social creatures. Our networks may not predict, but they surely influence, our actions.

Even more embarrassing are the comments of the President of the Chemnitz Police, Uwe Reißmann, who defended the actions of the police on that evening and declared at a press conference that refugees would be charged with provocation for filming. One ten year old boy  gave protestors the middle finger as he was dragged crying off the bus, and through the mob into the building designated for housing. That, apparently, was a provocation. Being verbally assaulted by an angry mob? That was a situation that was “unpredictable” and “impossible to contain.” The federal minister of the interior, Thomas de Maziere, defended Reißmann’s actions on Sunday evening on the ARD network:  “I can’t think of any criticism of this police engagement.”

I think I’m in the wrong movie.


Update: 2/22/2016 8:45am EST: According to this article in Stern, Hetze has been removed from his post – for his own protection.



feministische studien

it’s my pleasure and honor to have an expanded version of “Angele Merkel on Anne Will” posted by the feministische studien on their blog. one of the best places to find interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary feminist work in a german context, the fs has been around for over thirty years and offered a blog about current debates since november 2014. their blog includes contributors who write in german and english, so please have a look.