Tue, Apr 23, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Understanding the driving forces behind populist politics

By Jan-Werner Mueller

It is similarly misguided to think that populist politicians, once in power, will not be able to govern effectively, because they have emerged from protest parties whose agendas are defined entirely by what they oppose. Rather, what is distinctive about populists in power is that they attend only to their clientele (the rest of the population is utterly undeserving) and ride roughshod over checks and balances.

From a populist perspective, this makes perfect sense: Why should they accept checks on their power if they represent the authentic will of the people?

Populists can live with representative democracy; what they cannot accept is political pluralism and the notion of legitimate opposition.

It was this tendency to demonize opponents, not particular policies favoring the poor, that made Chavez a populist.

In Finland, to take another example, it is the claim of uniquely authentic representation, not criticism of the EU, that makes the revealingly named True Finns a populist party.

Likewise, the Italian populist Beppe Grillo’s attempt to empower ordinary citizens is not a cause for concern; but his claim that his Five Star Movement deserves nothing less than 100 percent of seats in parliament, because all other contenders are corrupt and immoral, certainly is.

It is this feature of populism — the idea that the people want only one thing, and that only true representatives can give it to them — that explains a symmetry (often evoked, but seldom spelled out) between populism and technocratic government. Just as technocrats assume that there is only one right solution to every policy challenge — hence political debate is not necessary — so, for populists, the people have one, and only one, uncorrupted will. Liberal democracy assumes just the opposite: space for different perspectives — and for political alternatives.

Jan-Werner Mueller is a professor of politics at Princeton University and a member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences

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