Populism’s Two Paths

Populism’s Two Paths

Throughout the North Atlantic, insurgencies on the left and the right are challenging mainstream politics. The question is: Which popular movement—the left’s or the right’s—will prevail?


Earlier this year, about 25 million primary voters backed two insurgent candidates who attacked their parties’ establishments and America’s system of “rigged” economic and political competition. The democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and plutocratic nationalist Donald Trump are in most ways as opposed as matter and antimatter, but their astonishing campaigns were propelled by a shared sense of indignation that linked left and right this year: the feeling that too many ordinary Americans have suffered and seen their economic prospects slip away, even as the country’s elites have reaped the fruits of a system stacked in their favor. On both sides, voters have had enough, and they want control of their country returned to the people—or at least to politicians who they believe will represent their interests and concerns. Thus, even with Sanders sidelined, 2016 remains a populist moment.

The new populism that shook up the primaries isn’t exclusively American. Across Europe, established parties are seeing their grip on power shaken by insurgents from the left and the right. Some—like France’s National Front and the Dutch Party for Freedom—are anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. Others—like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain—more closely resemble Sanders’s campaign. Many, though not all, are hostile to the European Union, which for decades has been the shared project of mainstream parties on the left and the right.

Britain’s surprise vote to leave the European Union in June was a recent example of this growing insurgency against the political mainstream. A grassroots rebellion against the elite circles of multicultural and Europe-oriented London, the vote for Brexit came from the working-class and rural bases of both parties. In its wake, calls for similar referendums in France and the Netherlands were made by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, and Geert Wilders, Holland’s most visible right-wing populist.

Two slim and very different books published this fall attempt to make sense of this growing populist wave that is sweeping much of the Western Hemisphere. John B. Judis, a longtime political journalist and coauthor of The Emerging Democratic Majority, has written The Populist Explosion, a sweeping narrative—rich in historical and political argument—that ably ties together the insurgencies on both sides of the Atlantic. Jan-Werner Müller, a political scientist at Princeton who writes mostly on Western European affairs, offers a narrower definition in What Is Populism? But he also sheds important light on this anti-elite electoral revolt.

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Judis adopts a broad definition of populism, borrowed from the historian Michael Kazin, which includes everything from the American segregationist George Wallace to the leftist leaders of Podemos and Syriza. Populism, he writes, portrays “ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class; views their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic”; and works to rally the working and middle classes against the elite. Left-wing populism does so by punching upward at the ruling class. Right-wing populism often punches both up and down: It attacks those at the top of the economic and political ladder, but it also targets the disenfranchised, whether racial minorities, the poor, or immigrant groups.

In the United States, left-wing populism extends back to the People’s Party, which challenged Democratic and Republican power at the end of the 19th century, rallying farmers and laborers against railroads and banks. This tradition of organized people storming the citadels of organized money saw a great revival this year in the Sanders campaign.

The paradigm of right-wing populism, on the other hand, is what some have described as Wallace’s “middle American radicalism.” In 1972, Wallace voters supported federal spending on middle-class programs and saw themselves as caught between the undeserving poor and the overindulgent rich. The Alabama governor was also the candidate of “segregation forever,” and his campaign helped pave the way for the later right-wing effort to identify antipoverty programs as benefiting so-called “welfare queens.”

Judis sees the post-2008 economic crisis as the event that touched off today’s populist challenge. The Great Recession, as it has become known, helped ignite the Tea Party right and the Occupy Wall Street left. Both were opposed to what they viewed as a coalition of political and financial elites against ordinary people. But Judis’s deeper diagnosis portrays today’s populism as a growing resistance to the market-oriented policies that have dominated European and American politics since the age of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: monetary and trade policies that sent traditional manufacturing to low-wage countries; an increased role for the financial industry in the economy; and a fraying of public institutions, from universities to infrastructure, that caused many citizens to conclude that government no longer represented their interests.

Like some other writers on the left, Judis gathers these policies under the rubric of “neoliberalism,” a phenomenon that is bipartisan and transatlantic and that is as much the work of center-left parties in the United States, Britain, and Germany as of those on the right. Judis believes neoliberal policy not only introduced a new style of market-oriented governance; it created a new constituency that felt shut out of the promises of a previous era. After a nearly 30-year burst of widely shared growth, the middle and working classes, especially in the United States, have seen stagnant or declining wages and have experienced downward mobility. They have also developed a keen sense of displacement, which the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild recently called the feeling of being “strangers in their own land.”

Judis argues that these voters have known for decades that neither a Democratic Party joined at the hip to Goldman Sachs and Silicon Valley, nor a Republican Party dominated by its Chamber of Commerce wing, had much to offer them. But the good-enough prosperity of Bill Clinton’s second term and the war-and-security fixations of national politics after the 9/11 attacks made this growing sense of populist discontent easy to ignore.

With the 2008 crisis and the recession that followed, all of this changed. The Tea Party began to wield its muscle in the Republican primaries (including the defeat of House majority leader Eric Cantor in 2014), while Occupy Wall Street began to agitate on the left. For Judis, Trump and Sanders were the obvious next steps, as the anti-establishment revolt moved from the periphery to the heart of America’s two-party system.

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The Populist Explosion brings American readers up-to-date on similar movements that have emerged in Europe. (It might be usefully read alongside Susan Watkins’s essay “Oppositions” in the New Left Review’s March/April 2016 issue, which offers a more theoretically ambitious survey of the same developments.) Judis connects the right-wing populism of Trump with Europe’s anti-immigrant parties like the National Front, the Swiss People’s Party, and the Finns Party. He also persuasively ties Sanders’s “political revolution” to left-wing parties like Syriza and Podemos.

Judis also captures what populists on the right and left in Europe have in common: a general skepticism toward the EU and globalization. In creating a single market across the continent, Judis observes, the European Union ensured freedom of movement for both corporations and low-wage workers. But it also helped to undermine the peace treaties between unions and industry that created a more equal and social-democratic Europe. The EU also imposed strict limits on budget deficits. These limits have been imposed to stabilize the EU’s common currency, the euro, and to prevent inflation, but the policy has prevented individual states from using Keynesian borrow-and-spend measures to address economic downturns, and it has forced austerity on already cash-strapped countries like Greece and Spain. Perhaps of greatest importance for Judis’s argument, it has also denied many European social-democratic parties the policy tools that they would need to pursue their traditional program of shared growth.

As a result, nationalist parties on the right have been able to position themselves as the defenders of working-class interests. When these parties arose in the 1950s and ’60s, they were the parties of farmers and shopkeepers. Since the ’70s, they’ve become the parties of the hollowed-out industrial centers where socialists and communists once dominated.

With liberal and conservative elites co- alescing around policies that create widespread economic insecurity, many members of Europe’s working and middle classes have a justified sense that political leaders don’t care much about their interests. Progressives, then, face a much more complex set of tasks than in the past: not only to begin to rebuild a more egalitarian Europe, but also to build movements that are able to stave off the nationalist temptations that turn populist sentiment into Trumpism.

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In contrast to Judis’s wide-ranging story, What Is Populism? proposes a narrower definition. Müller reserves the term for movements that “claim that they, and they alone, represent the people.” Müller’s populists deny the legitimacy of pluralism, the difficult and burdensome duty of sharing a country with different kinds of people. Instead, they announce, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did against his critics, “We are the people. Who are you?” And they echo lines like this one from Trump: “The only important thing is the unification of the people—because the other people don’t mean anything.”

In Müller’s concept of populism, its advocates assert that certain parts of the body politic count, morally speaking, as the whole people, and everyone else is nobody. This antipluralist populism easily accommodates the ugly impulse to eliminate or drive out “foreign” elements: think of border walls, deportations, racial segregation, and worse. For Müller, populism is not just democracy in an insurgent mood, as Judis might argue; rather, it is “a degraded form of democracy,” democracy betraying itself.

Starting from such different premises and stories, it might seem that Judis and Müller are talking past each other. Müller acknowledges that his is a very European view of populism, much more concerned with the exclusionary nationalism common to the European right than with the economic antielitism of groups like the People’s Party. But Müller’s approach also bears its own fruits.

One strength of Müller book is that he spends some time parrying bad arguments about populism, which have flourished in a variety of intellectually useless and actively pernicious think pieces. He is especially hard on the two tics of liberal commentary heard on America’s coasts: psychologizing populism as a symptom of resentment or the “authoritarian personality,” and dismissing populists as irresponsible rubes who don’t understand the tenets of sound economic and social policy.

These criticisms, Müller points out, are really refusals to take political disagreement seriously—which, after all, is precisely the political sin of antipluralists like Trump. A major problem with the horrified response to Trump’s campaign—however appropriate in other respects—has been its self-serving imprecision. Whether by sweeping the very different Sanders campaign into the same all-inclusive condemnation of “irresponsible” and “angry” movements, or by lumping Trump’s views on trade policy (a legitimate argument to make in a democratic contest) with his xenophobia (which should be considered beyond the pale), the liberal response has often created cartoons out of both left and right populism. It also misses, in Müller’s view, what is so dangerous about populism’s discontents.

The reason Trump is a dangerous populist, Müller insists, is not that he attacks elites or appeals to resentment, but something more precise: Trump trades in an exclusionary fantasy about who “the people” are. It is a fantasy that pretends to be democratic (“let the people rule!”) but is much closer to authoritarianism in its logic. If the people are always right, and Trump is their tribune, then why should Trump brook dissent or accept defeat?

Müller thinks the standard (and somewhat comforting) liberal line that populists can’t govern—because once in power, they either flail wildly and lose credibility or else morph into ordinary politicians—is simplistic. He points to the nationalist party Fidesz in Hungary and to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela to argue that the problem is not that populists can’t govern, but that they do so in ways that undercut important democratic institutions. In Müller’s view, populists tend to embrace clientelism, guiding public wealth toward the groups they consider the heart of the nation. They use state power, such as criminal prosecution, to support their allies and harry or punish the “enemies of the people.” Think of Trump’s attacks on the “Mexican” federal judge Gonzalo Curiel, or his suggestion that he would open up libel laws to help powerful people bankrupt their critics in the media.

In these ways, Trump-style populism can help to create the kind of country its partisans describe: a country split along the braided lines of ideology and identity, with the rhetoric of “unification” serving to deepen the divide between the people and everyone else.

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But a question still remains: Why this wave of populism now? Judis offers one explanation, which traces our current moment’s insurgencies to the recent recession. He also links them more generally to the economic inequality he believes was created by the past four decades of neoliberal policies. Müller doesn’t ignore economic factors, but his explanation is more cultural: Democracy promises rule by the people, but its institutions never make that promise real; there is always a gap between the promise of democratic self-rule and the ways a polity works. Populism, in Müller’s view, exploits this gap by promising to put “the people” in power once and for all.

Müller also believes that there is another cultural phenomenon at work: politics that pivots on celebrating or denouncing group identity. “When identity politics predominates,” he writes, “populism will prosper.” For Müller, populism is the ultimate identity politics, centering its concerns on the question of who is—and who is not—a part of the country. He isn’t alone in making this argument: Arlie Russell Hochschild points out that many rural and small-town conservatives see the Democrats as practicing one kind of identity politics, which forces certain cultural views on their communities, and so they respond with their own identity politics, cheering on Trump’s praise of “real Americans” like themselves.

But Müller’s criticism of identity politics needs some refinement. A lot of what we call “identity politics” is about basic forms of civic respect. What Hochschild’s Tea Party supporters see as coercion from liberals is to others the most basic protection from bigotry—not being called names, appearing in public without fear of humiliation, approaching (or being approached by) a police officer without fearing for your life. You can’t have a healthy pluralist politics when large groups of people believe that the state or their fellow citizens don’t take their lives seriously.

Moreover, the heated controversies over immigration and race that candidates like Trump exploit tie together the identity politics issues of respect and dignity with “material” issues like schooling, incarceration, and policing in ways that are difficult to pull apart. As long as identity, the fundamental fact of who you are, remains intensely relevant to how the state treats you and whether you are rich or poor, secure or precarious, identity politics isn’t going away. Perhaps what most needs to be criticized is not identity politics on its own, but the kind of politics that makes the symbolic affirmation of identity its core point.

This is the style of Trump’s white nationalism—bullying and flag-waving by a man who has never shown interest in the lives of working people—and it fosters a blend of nihilism and narcissism, in which politics makes no real and concrete changes but instead only shows you your own reflected face.

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Arguments about how to understand populism are often also fights over something else. They are arguments about what is at stake in the politics of our time, what is the greatest danger we face as democracies, and how radically we can hope to expand equality and deepen democratic self-government.

Judis is sympathetic to populists because he believes policy elites have robbed voters of something precious: the economic citizenship—what some New Deal figures called “economic democracy”—of the mid-20th century. Like Bernie Sanders, Paul Krugman, and other social democrats, Judis recognizes that the postwar era of unions, entitlement programs, and public institutions created a better world for working people than any earlier epoch in Western history. That world was buried by the policies of Reagan and Thatcher and the transformation of liberal and social-democratic parties by groups like Bill Clinton’s New Democrats and Tony Blair’s New Labourites. Social democrats may have championed the creation of the European Union, but in reality, it is no friend of a robust social-democratic Europe.

Left-wing populists are quite right, in Judis’s view of recent history, to want to build a new version of social democracy that transcends the limits of earlier social-democratic parties. These populists champion a welfare state free of the racial and gender exclusions that limited the social democratic policies of the mid-twentieth century. For its part, right-wing populism is misguided and ugly, but Judis also finds things in it that are worth taking seriously. It, too, responds to the elites’ betrayal of the working and middle classes, who, for the first time in history, actually were “the people” for a few decades of the 20th century. Judis sees this betrayal as the most acute danger to modern democracy, and he leaves the reader with the sense that the left desperately needs a response.

Müller is sympathetic to concerns about economic inequality and the loss of democratic accountability, but his book mainly examines the ways that democracy can misfire on its own terms when the “rule of the people” becomes a way of asserting that only some groups count as “the people.” His argument is much subtler than the raft of polemics from the primary season claiming to diagnose the Trump candidacy as the perennial and predictable distemper of democracy, as if democratic politics always tended to be consumed by its own id. But Müller has the same concerns as those anxious critics of democracy who are more hostile than he is to democracy itself: that majorities—or would-be majorities—can make politics a vehicle of self-aggrandizing national myths and exclude and exploit whichever vulnerable groups the myth does not favor.

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How should we orient ourselves to the promise and danger of this populist moment? Mainstream commentators have developed a habit of describing today’s politics as a choice between openness and inclusion: free trade, immigration, diversity, and international organizations like the European Union—and their opposites—protectionism, anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric, and votes like Brexit.

When the choice is posed as being between openness, on the one hand, and parochialism and bigotry, on the other, one has to side with openness. But this version of the choice, which pits an elite-centered liberalism against an ethno-nationalist populism, tends (conveniently) to leave out the social-democratic alternative that Judis calls left-wing populism. Taking a democratic, egalitarian alternative seriously requires asking not merely “Openness—for or against?” but “What kind of openness, and for whom?”

The versions of globalization and European integration that we’ve seen thus far, with a market-oriented economic integration far outrunning democratic political control, have benefited two classes of people in particular: the privileged and mobile, such as professionals and investors, for whom borders are mainly a nuisance; and the poor and vulnerable, who would otherwise be trapped in difficult circumstances (ranging from the economic hardship of a rural Polish village to the devastation in much of Syria).

Economic integration has been much harder on the people in between, not least the members of the traditional working class, whose economic lives have become more precarious even as their cultural landscape becomes unfamiliar. It should come as no surprise, then, that they seize on nationalist politics to reassert some sense of control—at least over their own identities—as their economic opportunities decline.

When these populist insurrections take the form of National Front xenophobia and Trumpist intolerance, opposing them is essential. It is also politically and morally easy, especially for those of us who have done pretty well under a regime of neoliberal openness. It’s far more difficult to think through what kind of political openness a progressive alternative should pursue and, perhaps more discomfortingly, what kind of economic boundaries might also be necessary to create a more egalitarian society in a global economy.

No politics can be defined only by openness, no matter how appealing that might sound. Politics needs boundaries and lines; it needs a specific community. The reasons for this are not sentimental or cultural; they have nothing to do with “real Americans” or la France profonde. They are practical requirements for institutions of self-government, in particular when it comes to the economy.

The difficult and unpleasant fact is that to be for social-democratic policies today means also being for borders, for a line demarcating who is in and who is out, and for limits on the mobility of labor. Economic policies are partly the product of a peace pact between classes and between capital and labor, especially over questions such as mobility and borders. Any egalitarian economy will come under stress when capital is free to leave and labor is free to enter.

There is still a vast moral and political difference between a “France for the French” economy of the National Front variety, which is exclusionary and hierarchical both within and outside national borders, and a national economy that is fair, inclusive, humane, and free of ethno-national caste systems—but that is also in critical ways closed.

This is a genuine dilemma for the left. It will not bother the nationalist right, which is at home with “protecting our own” through social and political exclusion. But those who want to combine economic democracy with cosmopolitan moral concern, personal freedom of movement, and an egalitarian social order must face a set of tough questions with no easy answers in sight. Democracy remains caught within borders, and the power of democratic politics to shape and discipline the economy will only grow weaker without some geographical and economic boundaries being drawn.

To build an alternative to right-wing exclusion and neoliberal openness, left-wing populists need simultaneously to acknowledge the importance of borders and to work on developing the kinds of internationalism that might eventually allow political accountability to keep pace with globalization. The left must find ways to resist the exclusionary interpretations of borders and national communities and to build cosmopolitan movements that engage many national governments at the same time. Carving this path between nationalist exclusions and neoliberal openness will be difficult, and it will be the work of many years to come.

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The United States’ two major parties, as well as many in Western Europe, are busy absorbing their populist revolts. Trump’s campaign has threatened to break the Republicans’ coalition of Southern and rural white voters away from wealthy business interests and libertarians. Sanders’s campaign, too, introduced a class rift among the Democrats, attracting lower-income blue-collar voters who haven’t historically supported “insurgent” candidates in the Eugene McCarthy or Howard Dean mold.

Judis thinks that left-wing populists like those in the Sanders movement have a historical mission, much like the original People’s Party and its progressive successors: They can help replace transatlantic neoliberalism with 21st-century versions of economic democracy and citizenship—a new New Deal, you might say.

Müller agrees that the Sanders campaign was a just response to an unequal economy and a money-soaked political system. But for him, the urgent task now has less to do with the left and more to do with the right. He believes we need to head off those populists who are distorting legitimate discontent into racist and illiberal movements. The key thing, Müller argues, is to engage the likes of Trump’s supporters without adopting any of their bullying or exclusionary themes. The French, who erected a cordon sanitaire around the National Front even as President Nicolas Sarkozy adapted its anti-immigrant themes for his center-right party, did it all wrong, from Müller’s perspective. Bernie Sanders, who punched up at “the billionaire class” without turning to xenophobia or ethno-nationalism, did it right.

Because the populists won the Republican nomination and lost the Democratic one, a possible result of this year’s presidential election is a realignment in which the Democrats secure a landslide victory by attracting big tracts of the Republicans’ “respectable” constituencies. It might also mean that the party will shed even more votes among rural and working-class white Americans than it has before. This would split the poor and the working class by race. White workers and poor people would be clustered as right-wing nationalists in a Trumpian movement party, while black and Latino workers and poor people would be lodged in an antiracist but economically moderate Democratic Party. Neither group would be in a position to demand meaningful economic reform.

Under that bleak scenario, “populism” on both sides of the Atlantic would mean something closer to Müller’s destructive and exclusionary nationalism than to Judis’s hopeful revolt. Which of these turns out to be the more apt understanding of populism is a question that history and politics, not argument, will decide. In the meantime, these two books serve as a valuable guide of what might come next.

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