Since 2016, populism has changed the political map of the western world – and there’s plenty more to come. But what is populism? Does it have shared roots with fascism? And who are “the people”? Two books – one new, one old – have something to tell us
The year 2016 saw the election of Donald Trump in the US, the Brexit vote in the UK, post-coup consolidation of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and the near-election of Norbert Hofer in Austria. The year that follows will see bids for power by Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in The Netherlands. These people are widely dismissed as “populists”. But what does that even mean?
In his short new book What is Populism?, Jan-Werner Müller, Professor of Politics at Princetown University, suggests we don’t have an answer to that question. He then supplies one. A populist, he states, is someone who claims to identify with “the people”. S/he rejects everyone else. How “the people” are defined is left conveniently vague, but it is made clear that everyone not fitting that description is an outlier, a deviant, or, worse of all, part of an unresponsive “elite” against which s/he is leading a popular rebellion. Thus their views need not be taken into account. The populist, says Müller, is therefore inherently anti-pluralist – they cannot be a democrat. Yet they can present themselves as exactly that, through their claim to represent the popular base.
The first part of this definition – identification with something called “the people” – is not new, but Müller presumably wouldn’t claim it was. What may break new ground is his suggestion that this identification makes the populist inherently anti-pluralist, because any definition of “the people” must exclude stakeholders in the polity that don’t meet it. Given the diversity of modern(After the November election, we were treated to the sight of these men celebrating their victory over “the elites” in a gold-plated lift at Trump Tower.)
Müller has less to say about the way we must react to populism. He does talk about the safeguards that have been built into European constitutions since the war, but says little about the ways in which democracy has been defined, and then protected from populist capture. He could for example have raised the “tyranny of the majority” arguments set out by the Founding Fathers and by John Stuart Mill, and make the case for representative government. Müller has written widely about politics and government elsewhere, and it may be that he wished this book to be concise, with a precise focus; it explains and defines populism, and that is all it sought to do. But I believe that, having explained why populists can’t be pluralists, he could also have set out the ways one preserves pluralism.
I would prefer to have read more in this book about the constitutional pluralist structures that can protect us from populism. I would also have liked to see more analysis of why voters respond to populist leaders who clearly don’t have their best interests at heart. But perhaps these discussions would have blunted this concise, readable little book. Müller’s main purpose was simply to define populism – and he has certainly done that. Moreover his definition of populism as inherently anti-pluralist is a well-argued and elegant warning. As Trump apparently said in May 2016, “The only important thing is the unification of the people, because the other people don’t mean anything.” If you’re not sure you’re one of Trump’s “the people” (or Farage’s, or Wilders’s, or Erdoğan’s), the populist vision of democracy does not include you.
But what if you feel that vision does include you – and it is the first time that anything has? Populism is, by definition, about identity politics – a point Müller acknowledges. In a time of growing social alienation, to be offered an identity, a place in a group, even a mass-identity, can be persuasive. If Peter Fritzsche is right, we may have been here before.
Fritzsche is Professor of History at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has published widely on European and especially German history. In 1998 published a book Germans into Nazis. This took a fresh look at why the Germans ushered Hitler into power in 1933. His thought-provoking book attempts to answer the question by casting aside the conventional explanations – Versailles, the Depression, reparations – and looking at the dynamics of division in a society and the desire for unity. These explanations seem especially topical and urgent now, given current trends in Western politics.
This was important in a divided country. Fritzsche points out that (for example) Prussian voters were divided into property classes, the highest of which were allocated votes of greater value. The popular mobilization brought people together for the first time in a sense of common purpose and resulted in an unprecedented level of civic engagement – the Volksgemeinschaft, the community working as one. A side-effect was that it meant the stratified society of imperial Germany was no longer viable. But it was not satisfactorily replaced.
The new civic engagement never went away. But in the 1920s it was expressed through a series of interest groups, and parties linked to different professional or trade bodies. It was not a substitute. When the Nazis arrived, however, people did feel a sense of common purpose. The way the Nazis did this was, for Fritzsche, far more important than Versailles or reparations, which were already the subject of political discourse. As to anti-semitism, he does not deny its existence in pre-1933 Germany, but does not see the Nazis as having any ownership of it then – all parties were somewhat anti-semitic – or find any evidence that most Germans supported anything like a “final solution”. It is the Volksgemeinschaft that is important here.
Is Fritzsche right? Perhaps only Germans can answer this, but I feel he is onto something, if only because he provides an explanation for Nazism that does not rely on Germans being a weird, separate species. After all, no human is. I know plenty of Germans. They do not have two heads. A reviewer of this book in the Jerusalem Post commented that “Historians examining nations over periods of time have somehow to find a balance between what is inherent in a people and what is not, in order to attempt explanations of national attitudes and conduct.” But can you, in fact, have such a balance – is there anything “inherent in a people”? It is an important point, as ascribing Nazism to the German character has induced a dangerous conviction in other countries that they would never behave as the Germans did. Could any historical phenomenon be repeated by any country, given the right circumstances?
Fritzsche doesn’t answer that question, and he doesn’t speculate on the broader implications of his theory. He leaves that to the reader, which is perhaps what a good historian should do. But one notes that many people in Western countries seem to feel that their sense of identity is threatened, and do not feel that any entity represents them collectively. Neither, it seems, do many Americans. In fact they seem to feel that there is no single national life, no conversation, that includes them, and few fora for civic engagement. Neither left nor right answers these concerns. In this situation, many will turn to those who claim to speak for them and against “the establishment”, and who promise to return their sense of belonging. These trends at least partly underlie the Brexit vote in Britain, the meteoric rise of Trump in the US and the growth of populist right-wing movements in Europe. If Fritzsche’s thesis is correct, could the German pattern be replicated elsewhere?
Fritzsche quotes Hitler’s dictum that the nationalists forgot the social and the socialists forgot the national. Hitler forgot neither. Given people’s feelings of powerlessness against business, globalization and a perceived loss of identity, this is an important point.
If someone says to you, “I represent you. You, the people,” you have come home. You have an identity, and have no need to share it with those with whom you do not identify, whether they be Jews, Poles, Gypsies, perceived welfare scroungers, Goths or gays. They are not “the people”. But you are. As Jan-Werner Müller explains in What is Populism?, this is the nature of the beast. Meanwhile Peter Fritzsche’s Germans into Nazis invests the Nazi phenomenon with a universality that makes this book crucial in this time when, once again, it is the strident and divisive who claim to know who “the people” really are.
Mike Robbins's essay Such Little Accident: British democracy and its enemies
was published in December 2016 and is available from Amazon and other online retailers, or through bookshops
(ISBN 978-0-9978815-0-9, ebook; ISBN 978-0-9978815-1-6, paperback)