Book Reviews

The Populist Danger

Yes, democracy and pluralism must rein in populism. But do they even exist now in strong enough form?

By Jan-Werner Müller

Tagged DemocracypluralismPopulism

Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy By William Galston • Yale University Press • 2018 • 176 pages • $30

William Galston is an unusual figure: He is both a distinguished political theorist and a policy adviser to actual working politicians. Within theory, he stands for a self-conscious “realism”; in political practice, he tries to occupy whatever remains of the center ground in the hyperpartisan landscape of today’s United States. He worked for Bill Clinton in the 1990s; today, he tries to represent the voice of “reasonable liberalism” on the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal.

Now, Galston has set out to contribute to what has become a very crowded field of works trying to explain what is regularly referred to as “the rise of populism” (and the dangers it poses for democracy). Galston succeeds as a political theorist in this endeavor—his approach is conceptually nuanced, unlike much of what we get these days in media commentary and from the academy, where numerous social scientists have jumped on the bandwagon of “populism studies.” Journalists and professors alike are prone to overuse of the term “populism,” labelling as populist phenomena for which we have other perfectly fitting terms, including “nationalism” or “nativism.” Quite apart from lazy thinking—it feels safe nowadays to call all sorts of things populist, because we’re told day and night that ours is the “age of populism”—there is also the consciously ideological attempt to discredit as “dangerous populism” what might in fact be perfectly legitimate criticism of the powers-that-be. This peril is even greater in Europe, where the word “populism” carries particularly negative connotations. In the United States, on the other hand, there are remnants of the late nineteenth-century meaning of “populism,” as a largely progressive movement defending workers, and especially farmers, against Wall Street.

As a work of policy analysis, however, Galston’s book is much less convincing. This is not because what Galston says is wrong in and of itself, but because it is too unspecific in at least two notable ways. First, the prescriptions are so broad that everyone would necessarily agree with them, yet no one would know to how to implement them. Second, the link between particular policy problems and populism is often left unclear. Populists tell citizens that politics is best understood as corrupt elites lording it over a virtuous, hardworking people. Under what conditions does that narrative gain traction among a broader public, and when is it realistic to expect that addressing particular policy challenges will result in a “decline of populism”? After all, in some countries, populists have now reshaped the entire political landscape—think of Italy—not only because of the victory of populist parties there, but also because the more “mainstream parties” have opportunistically adopted populist rhetoric, including the often deeply misleading explanations for policy problems propounded by populists. Any strategy to “reverse populism” has to say something about this broader picture, or else it will come across as naïve: a quick, technocratic policy fix trying to undo profound changes in political culture.

The tone of Galston’s volume is bracing. He does not simply argue what every other book in the “crisis of liberal democracy”-genre today does: that history did not end back in 1989 when everyone was supposedly declaiming that it had, and that authoritarianism has surged against all expectations. From the start, he reveals the political theorist’s commitment to the notion of “value pluralism”: Not all desirable human values can go together, and some of these values cannot even really be compared. This stance—inspired, above all, by the liberal thinker Isaiah Berlin—leads Galston to say that liberal democracy, with its resolutely anti-heroic public culture and its moral grounding in egalitarianism, is always bound to disappoint some. This claim constitutes a salutary reminder that conflicts within (and about) democracy are never going to cease; any expectation that they would is misplaced, and not just because of contingent historical actors, but for conceptual reasons as well.

Today, discontent with democracy is, of course, not rooted in the latter’s inability to accommodate heroic conceptions of the good life. Rather, Galston claims—again playing on a realist theme—that discontent stems from the evident failure to deliver material progress. Democracy, he holds, derives its legitimacy mainly from a plausible promise of increasing prosperity for everyone. Yet that promise has been broken. In the United States, median household income has barely grown since the late 1990s. In 2017, almost 60 percent of Americans thought that the next generation was going to be worse off.

Populism always rests on a counterfactual: Populists behave as if “the people” were always fully homogeneous and had a single political will.

These indicators of rising inequality, declining social mobility, and, above all, radically diminished expectations are by now well-known. But how exactly are they linked to populism? To his credit, Galston isn’t content with the conventional wisdom that too often connects any protest movement with “dangerous populism.” Rather, he understands populism specifically as a form of anti-pluralism. Populists divide the political universe into the elite on the one side and the people on the other, and then, crucially, claim that only they speak for the latter. Galston rightly points out that populism always rests on a counterfactual: Populists behave as if what they often call “the people” were always fully homogeneous and could have a singular political will. I am bound to agree with this analysis, because—full disclosure—Galston mainly derives this understanding from my own work, as well that of the Dutch social scientist Cas Mudde.

It is very much to his credit that Galston places populism in this larger and fairly complex conceptual framework. A competing recent work, Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy, sees liberal democracy coming apart into “democracy without rights,” or “illiberal democracy,” on the one hand, and “rights without democracy” (supposedly undemocratic liberalism) on the other. Put differently, there is a split between a demand for full realization of the popular will and what is usually summed up by the notion of “rule of law”: protection of civil liberties, minority rights, and checks and balances.

Galston, by contrast, puts four distinct concepts into play: the republican principle, which he equates with popular sovereignty; democracy, which, following the seminal contributions by the political scientist Robert Dahl, he defines as majoritarianism limited by basic rights essential to popular will formation (most importantly, freedoms of speech, assembly, and the media); constitutionalism as an enduring framework for both enabling and constraining the exercise of public power; and, last but not least, liberalism as a set of limits on what the state can do to individuals. It’s important to note that these liberal protections are different from the basic rights crucial for democracy: A religious minority can have its chances for self-expression curtailed, as with the headscarf bans that have been spreading across Europe. Such a measure is clearly illiberal; but it’s not the same as the attempts by, for instance, the current Polish and Hungarian governments to restrict freedoms of assembly—actions that are clearly anti-democratic.

Galston’s complex scheme is helpful in understanding not only what populism is but also what it is not. Let’s examine what Galston sees as the populist posture toward all four concepts. With respect to popular sovereignty, Galston rightly explains that, in the abstract, populists have no problem with it; on the contrary, they actively celebrate it. This is true even if, I would say, that glorification of “the people’s rule” is often undertaken in bad faith—think of how Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán simulates sovereignty with highly manipulative referenda dubbed “national consultations.” Populists are self-declared lovers of democracy itself—though, here, Galston notes that the picture requires some nuance. Populists certainly endorse majority rule in theory—but if their understanding of “the real people” does not include visible (and, especially, vulnerable) minorities or, for that matter, anyone who disagrees with their concept of the “real people,” then populists often proceed to infringe upon the democratic rights of those who, as Galston puts it, are “outside the charmed circle of the people.” As he goes on to explain, populists thereby violate democracy in Dahl’s sense, not just majority rule, but majority rule plus fully secured democratic rights. Galston also explains that populists are skeptical of constitutionalism; instead they profess belief in the unbounded rule they’ve obtained from the will of the “real people.” Finally and not surprisingly, they oppose liberalism, especially if it means protections for the very minorities whom they deem separate from the “people” for whom they claim to speak.

These distinctions are complicated. But they are also important in an age when many liberals have proven themselves all too willing to outright concede the term “democracy” to populists. Again, think of Orbán, who has proudly declared himself an “illiberal democrat,” and whose regime is now regularly referred to as an “illiberal democracy” by Freedom House, Foreign Affairs, and other mainstays of the U.S. and EU policy establishments. Whether liberals have done so as a result of intellectual laziness or because they secretly harbor long-standing suspicions of what the great unwashed in a democracy might do is hard to say. What matters is that thinkers like Galston have shown us a conceptual path of how to avoid this mistake without having to agree on overly specific understandings of democracy, liberalism, constitutionalism, and popular sovereignty.

Alas, toward the end of the book, Galston actually makes the bold claim that populists are inherently anti-pluralist, but not anti-democratic, and hence a clear danger only for liberal democracy. It is hard to see, however, what a nonpluralist democracy would mean in practice. The point of democracy, after all, is to enable conflict—and, in that sense, pluralism—within agreed political and legal parameters; it promises those who lose elections that they will not be excluded from the political process. It also reminds majorities that they should not overreach in ways that—were they in the minority—they’d be bound to reject in the name of protecting democracy as a whole.

In any case, the empirical picture is clear enough: Plenty of populists in power today have indeed violated constitutionalism, liberalism, and, not least, democracy. As mentioned, Galston, like many observers, points strongly to Poland and Hungary, once considered consolidated democracies, as examples; in the latter, Orbán’s far-right populist government has been manipulating the political process and radically reducing media pluralism, as always, in the name of “the people.” Galston does not want to exclude the possibility that similarly far-reaching attacks on liberal democracy could be undertaken in the United States. As he puts it succinctly, “That an event has never happened is no guarantee that it will not happen.”

So what is to be done? Galston lists a whole range of policy challenges in the United States that ought urgently to be addressed: the need for robust growth and higher wages, a serious commitment to full employment, strengthening links between thriving cities and rural areas particularly hard-hit since the Great Recession, campaign finance reform, and, as he puts it, a “responsible nationalism.” (Of course, that last point leaves open the question: Who decides what counts as “responsible” in dealing with such a heavily fraught topic? Justin Trudeau’s notion of responsibility—or that of other Western leaders—is likely rather different from Steve Bannon’s.)

Only his final suggestion of de facto new curbs on immigration might prove controversial for most of Galston’s readers; everything else seems both clearly desirable and in dire need of details that move us beyond conventional wisdom, rather than just repeating it. Less obviously, Galston never quite explains how these policy issues are linked to populism and, in particular, its rise. He does think that the latter is about more than just economic anxieties. Yet even the much-discussed “cultural anxieties,” which he briefly addresses, do not, in a straightforward manner, explain why populists succeed in convincing citizens with their specifically dualist image of corrupt elite versus virtuous people.

Galston does hint at one possible answer: Liberal elites, he intimates, have been treating “less educated fellow citizens” with “disrespect.” They have been “flaunt[ing]” status differences, and have dismissed far too many people with “references to flyover country.” This critique—as commonsensical as it might seem in today’s America—is problematic in two respects: For starters, democratic citizenship does not include an entitlement to full-scale cultural respect. Galston’s own valuing of pluralism might have suggested a more realistic account of democracy, in which citizens don’t necessarily like each other’s ways of life, but nevertheless can settle on fair terms for living together in a pluralist polity.

In America, polarization is big business. One only needs to look at the earnings of Sean Hannity to realize that the culture war pays handsomely.

The second problem is more serious: Cultural differences are not automatically political and bound to foster political “tribalism” as a result, even if so much commentary today suggests precisely this kind of cultural determinism. Rather, in the United States, polarization is big business. One only needs to look at the earnings of a Rush Limbaugh or a Sean Hannity to realize that the culture war pays handsomely. Hence the clichéd notion of “legitimate grievances” is also not as straightforward as Galston’s unobjectionable call for dialogue and respect suggests. “Grievances” rarely appear in an immediate, objective form; they are often already mediated by particular, individual interpretations. Very few people might directly experience the cultural “disrespect,” of which we hear ad nauseam, yet many are being told by talk radio and Fox News that the bicoastal elites love nothing more than sneering at “flyover country.”

Thus, any account of populism today has to take into account what one might call the changing infrastructure of democracy, and the new media landscape in particular. It will also have to suggest ways in which particular demands within a democracy can be addressed without reducing them to the stuff of tribal identity and culture wars—which is, after all, the business model of populists. One danger, in this regard, is of reverting to the kind of “Third Way” rhetoric, of the Clintons and Tony Blair in particular, echoes of which can most clearly be discerned in the self-presentation of the man nowadays often hailed as the one great savior from populism: French President Emmanuel Macron.

In the 1990s, Blair (and his major intellectual inspiration, social theorist Anthony Giddens) celebrated the transcendence of the left-right paradigm in favor of a pragmatic, reasonable center. Macron has likewise appealed to both sides of the aisle in the name of uniquely “rational” solutions to policy challenges; and, indeed, both members of the socialist party and conservatives joined his En Marche movement. But note the danger here: The idea of “the center” becomes shorthand for a technocratic stance which presents itself as the only reasonable option, in contrast to the irrational extremes of left and right. This approach is bound to provide an opening for populists who will (rightly) claim that there’s no such thing as a democracy without choices, and that politics is not exhausted by a simplistic conflict between the reasonable and the unreasonable.

Against this backdrop, it is noteworthy that Galston ends his book simply with a call for “democratic leadership”—again, who could really argue with that?—but also an account of what he calls “the incompleteness” of democracy. Democracy, he claims, is always going to be characterized by tensions (for instance, between particularism and universalism). This is a salutary reminder that technocratic approaches to democracy are suspect because they deny these tensions, and that technocracy, just like populism, is in fact a form of anti-pluralism.

But pluralism, not least the version of it advocated by Galston, harbors its own dangers: Instead of fighting for their convictions, pluralists might engage in a kind of trimming, or even the cynical triangulation for which Blair, Clinton, and other proponents of the Third Way are often remembered today. That peril is compounded when we use phrases such as “responsible nationalism,” which might enable opportunistic and, ultimately, deeply harmful concessions on immigration and refugee policy for the sake of capturing the vote of some mythical “moderate Trump supporter.”

One can agree or disagree with the view that democracy is incomplete, but there’s little question that Galston’s book is. His conceptual scheme to diagnose populism is indeed plausible, but the proposed remedies, as mentioned, prove far too vague. Even if “specialists” could somehow miraculously fill in all the blanks, there is a deeper problem: The notion of a bipartisan reassertion of a moderate center—something Tony Blair himself has called for repeatedly after Brexit and Trump—relies on a traditional understanding of a left-right spectrum where the extremes are somehow automatically suspect. What is needed today, instead, is not some kind of “reasonable” balancing between ideological extremes, but rather clear convictions that also make it plausible for voters to, once again, believe that democracies offer them a choice. Love him or loathe him, a figure like Jeremy Corbyn (who is certainly not an anti-pluralist, and hence also not a populist by Galston’s understanding of the term) has shown that a post-Third Way left can do well by consistently rearticulating its core commitments. The latter, of course, would need to come hand in hand with innovative thinking on addressing policy challenges; and that, by definition, requires plenty of details.

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Jan-Werner Müller teaches politics at Princeton University. His most recent book is What is Populism? (Penguin, 2017).

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