How populists win when they lose

How populists win when they lose

Today, it appears that every single election in Europe can be reduced to one central question: "Is it a win or a loss for populism?" Until the Netherlands' election in March, a populist wave -- or, as Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party, put it, a "tsunami" -- seemed irresistible. Now, however, the wave has suddenly receded: following Emmanuel Macron's big wins in France's presidential and legislative elections, we are supposedly living in a "post-populist moment".

Unfortunately, this view of populism's rise and fall merits the label often attached to populism itself: simplistic. The notion of an unstoppable wave took for granted that both the UK's Brexit referendum and Donald Trump's election in the US were triumphs for populism, rather than for establishment conservatives.

Both Mr Farage and Mr Trump are populists, but not because they criticise elites. After all, vigilance toward elites can in fact be a sign of democratic engagement. What distinguishes populists is their claim that they alone represent the "real people" or "the silent majority". For populists, an election is never just about opposing policy views; it is about the personal corruption, immorality, and fundamental illegitimacy of all other contenders for power.

Less obvious, but more pernicious, is the insinuation that citizens who do not share the populist's conception of "the people", and hence do not support the populist politically, are less than legitimate members of the polity. Think of Mr Farage claiming Brexit was a "victory for real people". The 48% who voted to remain in the EU, he implied, might not be part of the "real" British people at all.

Or think of Mr Trump announcing at a campaign rally last year: "The only important thing is the unification of the people -- because the other people don't mean anything." In other words, the populist decides who the real people are, and whoever refuses to be unified on the populist's terms is excluded -- even if they happen to have a British or a US passport.

Populism is thus a form of anti-pluralism. To say that "the people" are rising up against "the establishment" is not a neutral description of political developments; it's actually populist language. It accepts the populists' claim that they authentically represent "the people".

In fact, figures like Mr Farage or the Dutch populist Geert Wilders come nowhere near attracting even a majority of the electorate. When politicians and journalists lazily concede that populists articulate people's "real concerns", they betray a deep misunderstanding of how democratic representation actually works.

Democratic representation is not the reproduction of objectively given interests and identities. Interests and identities are formed as politicians make offers of representation and citizens respond. Mr Trump, for example, undoubtedly succeeded in persuading some Americans to see themselves as part of something like a white identity movement. But that identity -- and the way its adherents frame their interests -- could change again.

The image of an irresistible populist "wave" was always misleading. Mr Farage did not bring about Brexit all by himself. He needed the help of established Conservatives such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Likewise Mr Trump was not elected as the candidate of a grassroots protest movement of the white working class; he represented a very established party and received the blessing of Republican heavyweights.

In fact, if anything, Mr Trump's election was a confirmation of how partisan US politics has become: 90% of self-identified Republicans voted for Mr Trump; they clearly could not fathom voting for a Democrat, even if many Republicans in surveys registered deep doubts about the party's nominee. To this day, no right-wing populist has come to power in Western Europe or North America without the collaboration of established conservative elites.

The idea that the Dutch and the French elections heralded the arrival of a "post-populist moment" fails to appreciate the distinction between populism as a claim to a moral monopoly on representation and the policies typically promoted by populists as part of their exclusionary identity politics. For example, Mr Wilders, who really is a populist, did less well than expected in March. But his main rival, centre-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte, adopted Wilders-like rhetoric -- telling immigrants that they should leave the country if they do not want to behave "normally".

Mr Rutte has not become a populist -- he does not claim to be the sole representative of the authentic Dutch people. But political culture is shifting to the right, without any kind of democratic authorisation. Populists may be winning, even though they are nominally losing, as conservatives copy their ideas.

This dynamic was evident in the UK's recent election as well. Ms May, who called the snap election when the Conservatives had a 20-point lead in opinion polls, bet that she could destroy Mr Farage's UKIP by imitating it. She succeeded in that goal, but alienated many citizens with her Trump-like rhetoric.

As Harvard University's Daniel Ziblatt has pointed out, the consolidation of democracies in Europe has depended on the behaviour of conservative elites. During the interwar period, when conservatives opted to collaborate with authoritarian and fascist parties, democracy died. After World War II, they chose to stick to the rules of the democratic game, even if core conservative interests were not faring well.

Our own era is not remotely comparable to the interwar period, and today's populists are not fascists. But the lesson still holds: the choices made by established elites, as much as the challenges posed by insurgent outsiders, determine the fate of democracy. Those who collaborate with populists -- or copy their ideas -- must be held accountable. (Project Syndicate)


Jan-Werner Mueller is Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna. His most recent book is 'What Is Populism?'.

Jan-Werner Mueller

Professor of Politics at Princeton University

Jan-Werner Mueller is Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna. His most recent book is 'What Is Populism?'.

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