Princeton University professor discusses populism during Amicus Curiae lecture


Jesten Richardson

Jan-Werner Mueller, a professor of politics at Princeton University and author of the book “What is Populism?,” discusses populism during a lecture in the Amicus Curiae Lecture Series on Constitutional Democracy.

Populism, though known for its criticism of elites, actually poses a danger to democracy because it excludes certain citizens and contenders to power, a Princeton University professor said Wednesday, while giving a lecture in the Amicus Curiae Lecture Series on Constitutional Democracy.

“It’s certainly true that when populists are in opposition, they criticize governments and other parties, but above all, they also do something else,” said Jan-Werner Mueller, a professor of politics at Princeton University and author of the book “What is Populism?.”

“They will say, in one form or another, that they and only they, represent what populists very often refer to as ‘the real people’ or also ‘the silent majority’,” Mueller said. “Yes, populists are critical of elites, they are, if you’d like, anti-elitist, but they are also, and that is crucial, anti-pluralist.”

Populists exclude others both at the level of politics, with other contenders for power, and at all the level of the people themselves, with certain citizens they do not deem to be “quite real,” Mueller said.

The populists’ claiming of a certain monopoly of representing the people, or at least those they consider the “real people,” will have two consequences which spell danger for democracy, Mueller said. The first of these is that populists will say that all other contenders of power are “fundamentally illegitimate,” Mueller said.

This will not just be a disagreement about policy or values, which could be productive to democracy, Mueller said, but populists will make the matter highly personal and moral, seeing the other contenders for power as “simply corrupt characters.”

The second and less obvious consequence is that populists will call into question whether citizens who do not share the populists’ understanding of “the real people” or support the populists politically truly belong to the people at all, Mueller said.

There are things that should be done and things that should not be done when confronting populists, and some ways of confronting populists that some people have tried in the past did not work for both strategic reasons and moral reasons, he said.

One typical thing that has happened, though arguably more so in Europe than in the U. S. and Canada, has been for politicians to react to populists by trying to exclude them entirely. Mueller said it seems to him this is a huge mistake, both on a strategic level, as this total exclusion confirms stories populist leaders tell their followers about the elites, and on a moral level, as it is responding to populists excluding others by excluding populists.

Another extreme politicians have gone to is saying that populists have discovered something about what is truly going on in society and others need to become more like them, Mueller said. He said he thinks this is also “deeply mistaken” on a strategic level and a moral level.

On a strategic level, a strategy that is like imitation is not likely to work because people will see the politicians as counterfeits of the populists and as people who are now discussing what they once told the people were “completely illegitimate positions,” Mueller said. On a moral level, if mainstream politicians start to adapt, sooner or later, what is considered acceptable will change, he said.

There is no alternative to engaging with populists, Mueller said, but “talking with” populists is not the same as “talking like” populists. Engaging with populists does not mean people have to accept the way populists describe certain problems, he said.

Once a debate is possible, people can reasonably disagree in a democracy, Mueller said. But it is crucial that politicians mark the difference between “baseless conspiracy thinking” and credible contributions to a debate and also make clear the limits of what is “legitimately possibly” in a democratic debate where people can have many different policy opinions, he said.

It is also important to “de-culturalize our conflicts,” Mueller said. Populist leaders have tried to deepen cultural divisions because polarization is what they do and it helps to keep them in office, and democracy is supposed to help us deal with conflicts in a civilized way, but the contenders of power have to recognize each other as legitimate in order for it to work, and problems arise when people no longer recognize each other as legitimate, he said.

“I think maybe the most important thing to take away from this lecture is that we should not view those who disagree with us as a monolithic force that we cannot deal with, but rather we need to talk to each other, understand each other and try to get people to change their minds if we disagree with me,” said Patricia Proctor, director of the Simon Perry Center for Constitutional Democracy and the Amicus Curiae Lecture Series on Constitutional Democracy, following the lecture.

The next lecture in the Amicus Curiae Lecture Series on Constitutional Democracy will be Thursday, April 11. The lecture, titled “How the South Won the Civil War: The Significance of the West in American History,” will be given by Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College.

Jesten Richardson can be contacted at [email protected].