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Reading List October 26, 2019

Is Populism a Problem?

A bumper crop of brilliant essays on why populism isn't “anti-elite”, Trump isn’t a populist, and more.
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In the UK, much to the Prime Minister’s chagrin, the House of Commons approved another delay to Brexit this week. In response, the government trotted out its favorite sound bite: this is just another example of “the people versus parliament.”

Intended to tap into populist disdain for the elite, this canny messaging strategy from Boris Johnson and his team raises questions about the nature of populism. For instance, if workers are angry with market-driven inequalities, why are they gravitating towards leaders who are cozy with crony capitalists? 

The essays in today’s reading list seek to answer this question and more, deftly peeling back the perfunctory explanation of populism as simply “anti-elite” sentiment. David Runciman argues that populism is a product of peace; Jan-Werner Müller contends that it is not anti-establishment but anti-pluralist; Cas Mudde writes that Trump is not a populist; and Jason Frank believes that the term is a trojan horse that distracts us from the real causes of democratic decline.

We’re also excited to bring you a brand new essay from Udi Greenberg on the relationship between populism and Christian Democracy. The political philosophy embraced by Germany’s leading party helped reunite Europe after World War II, but can it guide us safely away from today’s populism—or did it cause it?

—Rosie Gillies


Populism Isn’t the Problem
by Jason Frank

“The charge of populism does not just muddy our understanding of the particular claims made by anti-establishment leaders and movements, it inhibits our engagement with the more longstanding and persistent causes of democratic decline.”

• • •

Can Christian Democracy Save Us?
by Udi Greenberg

“The cooperation between populists and Christian conservatives is not a fragile marriage of convenience but the product of a substantial ideological overlap. Overcoming populism with require adopting some of the very policies that Christian Democrats thwarted decades ago.”

• • •

Understanding Populist Challenges to the Liberal Order
by Pranab Bardhan

“What the common explanation fails to explain is why, if global workers are angry with market-driven inequalities, they are gravitating toward leaders who are cozy with crony capitalists.

• • •

As American as Trump
by Cas Mudde

“Trump, despite ample assertions to the contrary, is not a populist. Like European counterparts, he argues that ‘the elite’ are uniformly corrupt. But unlike European politicians, he does not exalt the virtues of ‘the people.’ Trump is not the Vox Populi (voice of The People) but the Vox Donaldus (voice of The Donald).”

• • •

Should the Middle Class Fear the World’s Poor?
by Marshall Steinbaum

“Playing the domestic working class against the global poor—in fact, openly siding with the latter—is a recipe for instability and populist reaction. It signals to domestic voters that their economic interests are not and should not be the priority in national policy.”

• • •

Between Experts and Citizens
by Jo Guldi

“We need an analysis that goes beyond four decades of working-class resentment. Brexit in fact belongs to a centuries-old contest between expert rule and participatory democracy.”

• • •

The Democratic Coming Apart
an interview with David Runciman

“The 1890s was the great decade of populism, of inequality, and of technological revolution. So too of conspiracy theories and of peace—crucially, it was the end of a relatively long period of peace. I think populism is a product of peace, not one of war.”

• • •

Populism’s Perfect Storm
by Rogers Brubaker

“This populist moment did not, of course, emerge from nowhere. It was prepared by two sets of structural transformations which have steadily expanded opportunities for populism over the last several decades: the weakening of political parties and changes in the relation between media and politics.”

• • •

Real Citizens
by Jan-Werner Müller

“The defining orientation of the populist is not anti-elitist or even anti-establishment (for populists are perfectly content with the establishment when they are in power) but anti-pluralist. Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the ‘real’ people.”

• • •

The Rise of the Populist Right in Norway
by Sindre Bangstad

“It is notable that the populist far-right in Western Europe has learned the language of liberal values and exploited it to reach a wider demographic. The Danish sociologist Sune Laegaard has referred to this as a ‘nationalisation of liberal values.’”

• • •

Globalization Survived Populism Once Before—And It Can Again
by Suzanne Berger

“With no channels for voice, those most fearful of globalization remain isolated and vulnerable to the siren calls of populist politicians. Voice requires more than simple expression. While anyone can tweet, we need parties, unions, and social organizations to process the cacophony of individual expressions.”

• • •

Pious Populist
by Abbas Milani

“Ahmadinejad was brought to power by his ability to understand and connect with the poor. He had mastered—in his words and deeds, his gestures and dress—a kind of populism that plays on fears and anxieties, especially among Iran’s poor.”

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