IN SINCLAIR LEWIS’S 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, the president-to-be is described as “almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected.” His “‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman.” Said candidate espouses policies that are “against the banks but all for the bankers,” and he promotes “thoroughly tested (but unspecified) plans to make all wages very high and the prices of everything produced by these same highly paid workers very low.” This is a man both “100 percent for labor” and “100 percent against all strikes.” In short, he advocates “everyone’s getting rich by just voting to be rich.” In the real world, people would likely call a man like this many derogatory things — a charlatan, a demagogue, and a liar, for instance. Those may all fit the bill, but no doubt some would also label him a populist — a term that is at once packed with meaning and not easily understood.

In addition to Lewis’s fictional candidate, political figures from the United States’s Bernie Sanders to France’s Marine Le Pen have been labeled populists. So have Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the late Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chávez, and the campaigners who pushed for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. Was Adolf Hitler a populist? What about Andrew Jackson? If yes, what do they have in common? Indeed, the term is bandied about so frequently as to lack clear meaning. Such confusion makes Jan-Werner Müller’s timely new book What Is Populism? all the more necessary. “Might a populist simply be a successful politician that one doesn’t like?” Müller asks. “Can the charge ‘populism’ perhaps itself be populist? Or might, in the end, populism actually be ‘the authentic voice of democracy’”? Composed of an introduction, conclusion, and three succinct chapters (covering “What Populists Say,” “What Populists Do, or Populism in Power,” and “How to Deal with Populists”), this slim volume tries to bring clarity to a complex and confusing subject.

Müller is not the first to attempt to do so. As he notes, a major 1967 conference at the London School of Economics drew esteemed thinkers like Isaiah Berlin, Ghiță Ionescu, and Ernest Gellner, but nonetheless failed to pin the elusive concept down. At the time, Berlin warned of falling victim to a Cinderella complex: “There exists a shoe — the word ‘populism’ — for which somewhere there must exist a foot. There are all kinds of feet which it nearly fits, but we must not be trapped by these nearly fitting feet.” Amid the contemporary crisis of democracy, understanding populism is about much more than mere semantics. Failure to do so risks aiding defenders of an unjust status quo by, for example, causing anyone who questions an existing norm — say, tax policies that impact wage earners disproportionately to those earning income from dividend payments — to be labeled, dismissively, as populists. Equally negative, the lack of precision surrounding the term may allow civilizational threats to avoid identification — just as abuse of the terms fascist or Nazi dilutes their potency and makes it harder to distinguish actual Nazis.

While Müller concedes that populism is “not anything like a codified doctrine,” he proceeds on the assumption that it has “a set of distinct claims” and “an inner logic.” Though a necessary element of populism is anti-elitism, this is not, Müller argues, sufficient to define the term. Furthermore, while democratic politicians may deploy populist language on occasion — running for office on an anti-insider platform, for example — this is not the same thing as being a populist. For Müller, the cardinal feature of populists is that they claim to speak for “the people” as a whole, evoking this ambiguous constituency to suit their needs. For example, in the wake of the Brexit vote, Euroskeptic politician Nigel Farage called the result “a victory for real people” — a construction that implies that the 48 percent who voted the other way are not real. In another recent example, Donald Trump explained his loss of the popular vote by means of fictions of voter fraud allegedly committed by millions of illegal immigrants — people whose votes should not count (possibly not real people at all).

While punditry on populism is now trending, Müller, a Princeton, New Jersey–based political theorist, has been thinking about its contemporary manifestations longer than most. His own conjugal ties to Hungary mean he has kept a close eye on its leader, Viktor Orbán, an archetype of the species who has been in power since 2010. That country, not the current White House, forms the basis for Müller’s observations on how populists gain power and how they behave in office.

In the West, the path to political power is still decided by elections — an arrangement that populists are largely fine with. As another thinker on this issue, the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, puts it:

Unlike the extremist parties of the 1930s, the new populists do not plan to outlaw elections and introduce dictatorships. In fact, the new populists like elections and, unfortunately, often win them. What they oppose is the representative nature of modern democracies, the protection of the rights of minorities, and the constraints to the sovereignty of the people, a distinctive feature of globalization.

Italian theorist Nadia Urbinati argues more succinctly that populism “does not question the golden rule of democracy” — i.e., voting — “and is actually a radical affirmation of it.” Populists are not against elections per se; rather, Müller writes, the “core claim of populism” — that the main political figure is a personification of the public will — is “a moralized form of antipluralism.” To 21st-century populists, voters matter so long as they are the right kind of voters and referenda matter so long as they serve to confirm what a populist has “already determined the will of the real people to be.” Orbán’s government, for example, called a public referendum in October 2016 to vote on European Union plans to use a quota system to resettle refugees. Though a North Korea–like 98 percent of voters supported Orbán’s anti-refugee position, less than half the electorate turned out, making the results constitutionally invalid. Orbán promptly claimed victory anyway. “Brussels or Budapest,” he said. “That was the question, and we have decided that the right to decide solely lies with Budapest.” In other words, to Orbán the vote was valid because he heard what he wanted from the people who mattered (the ones who already agreed with him).

Distinguishing real citizens from false ones can be done in any number of ways — the categories of race, sex, class, language, nationality, religion, profession are all popular, but malleable, means. Lewis’s fictional candidate rails against a “state in which college professors, newspapermen, and notorious authors are secretly promulgating […] seditious attacks on the grand old Constitution.” Here, as in other cases, education or critical thinking skills are the disqualifying factor. It is not uncommon for populists to denigrate both the high and the low ends of the socioeconomic spectrum: rich bankers and welfare deadbeats are equally attractive targets, and particularly potent in combination. In Müller’s view, Barack Obama provided the ideal foil for populists because he simultaneously symbolized an Ivy League “elite that does not truly belong and marginal groups that are also distinct from the people.”

While declaring whole swathes of society illegitimate, and therefore beyond the bounds of the democratic system, may seem an extreme approach, it is often perceived as a legitimate reciprocation for earlier slights. If elites have disregarded the common man or woman for years, then the inverse is long overdue, goes the thinking. This reaction is emotional but, as Müller points out, not necessarily irrational. Moods — resentment or rage — often have lucid roots, and enmity and alienation can have empirical explanations. As Müller puts it:

The simple fact is that “anger” and “frustration” might not always be very articulate — but they are also not “just emotions” in the sense of being completely divorced from thought. There are reasons for anger and frustration, which most people can actually spell out in some form or other.

Still, it is no secret that frustration is at the heart of today’s populist revival. As Krastev pointed out in his 2007 essay “The Populist Moment,” while people overwhelmingly support democracy as a principle, they do not perceive it as functioning particularly well. In the 2015 WIN/Gallup International “Global Views on Democracy” opinion poll, 76 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that democracy is “the best system of government,” but just 50 percent concurred that their own country is “governed by the will of the people.” Regionally speaking, North Americans offered the highest support for democracy as a system (82 percent), but just 47 percent of North American respondents believed the system works. The gap in Western Europe is even worse: while 80 percent held that democracy is best, just 40 percent believed the people’s will is taken into account. By contrast, in the rising countries of East Asia — not normally viewed as bastions of liberal pluralism — 69 percent of people believed government policies accurately reflect the public interest.

This belief that the system is not performing is exacerbated by the collapse of trust in traditional institutions like mass political parties and the media. Once viewed as a bridge between the public and the state, they are now largely seen as impeding expressions of the public will. Perhaps the biggest factor in declining support for traditional parties is what Urbinati has called “mainstreamism,” a conviction that all parties are complicit in an insipid status quo divorced from genuine popular sentiment. This trend, which has obliterated long-held distinctions between left and right, is embodied in the post–Cold War embrace of neoliberal economics by nominal leftists like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schröder, as well as the embrace of liberal social values by purported rightists like Angela Merkel and David Cameron. Belgian theorist Chantal Mouffe famously compared most contemporary elections (until recently) to a choice between Coke and Pepsi.

While distrust of the powerful and the urge to make one’s own voice heard is a constant — and necessary — feature of an engaged public sphere, the concurrent weakening of institutions that traditionally served as channels for popular grievances means that these sentiments are now more scattered and, potentially, more destabilizing. As Müller argues, the regime of Orbán in Hungary shows that populists are capable of governing, though they tend to “engage in occupying the state, mass clientelism and corruption, and the suppression of anything like a critical civil society.” Furthermore, much of what they do in office is designed to guarantee victory in future elections. In some cases, populists set about rewriting their country’s constitutions (Müller notes that both Orbán and Hugo Chávez have done this), a stratagem that makes governing difficult for anybody who comes next, even when they defeat the populists in a fair election.

The most important argument of Müller’s book is his assertion that populism is not — as some, such as Christopher Lasch, have posited — anything like a helpful corrective to democratic systems. Instead, it is “the permanent shadow of representative politics.” He adds: “outside observers should be absolutely clear that it is democracy itself that populism damages,” in part through its persistent recourse to demagoguery. Hugo Chávez was known to give eight-hour speeches on his Aló Presidente television show, while Sinclair Lewis’s populist president:

would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth; but he would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts — figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.

Just add a spray tan and orange hairpiece, and voilà.


Benjamin Cunningham is a Prague, Czech Republic–based writer and journalist. He regularly contributes to The Economist, the Guardian, and Politico, and is a columnist for the Slovak daily SME.