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The power of populism: What makes a leader a populist?

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Populism is spreading around the world. But what exactly makes a leader a populist?

It’s the first episode of our week-long series The power of populism.


Jack BeattyOn Point news analyst. Author of the Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America and editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Nadia Urbinati, professor of political theory at Columbia University who focuses on democratic and anti-democratic traditions. Author of Me The People: How Populism Transforms Democracy and Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth and the People.

Jan-Werner Mueller, professor of social sciences and politics at Princeton University. Columnist for the Guardian U.S. Author of What is Populism? and Democracy Rules.


MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Populism. Long a force in American history.

CHAKRABARTI: The dictionary defines populism as a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people.

CHAKRABARTI: Who feel that their concerns are disregarded.

CHAKRABARTI: Who feel they’re ignored by established elite groups.

JACK BEATTY: In cultural populism, it goes toward minorities. Resentment is at the heart of this populist drug.

CHAKRABARTI: Populism is also: ‘To be closer to the people of closer to the popular will.’

CHAKRABARTI: I’m Meghna Chakrabarti welcome to an On Point special series, The Power of Populism. Its global reach. Its authoritarian danger. And it’s Democratic promise. Episode one: What makes a leader a populist? On Point news analyst Jack Beatty is here. Hello, Jack.

JACK BEATTY: Hello, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: So how far back in U.S. history, Jack, do we have to go to find the roots of the word and the concept of populism?

BEATTY: To the late 19th century and to the founding in 1892 of the People’s Party. It was originally that was going to be the title, but it quickly became known as the Populist Party. That was because someone objected that while you could say someone was a Republican or a Democrat, you’d gulp if you called him a ‘people’s.’ So a friendly Democratic leader … suggested populist, and that stuck. Of course, the objection to that was, well, they’ll call us pops. And sure enough, within days, newspapers in America were calling the People’s Party pops.

CHAKRABARTI: And so how long did that this this first populist movement in the United States last, Jack?

BEATTY: Well, it didn’t last long. It had a buildup, though, that was so promising, you know, in the long ripple wake of the Civil War. So hard times for the farmer. Commodity prices fell off a cliff. Corn, which sold for $0.45 a bushel in 1868, went for $0.10 a bushel in 1888.

In 1877, just as the country was recovering from the great railroad strike of that year, which saw the National Guard using bayonets and Gatling guns against workers from Baltimore to Saint Louis. In 1877, 14 men and women met in a cabin in the Lampasas County, Texas, and began the Farmers Alliance. It grew to be the largest mass movement in American history within ten years.

Every other farmer in Texas belonged. One in four farmers, black and white in the South belonged. It spread through the Plains states. Its message was carried by 40,000 alliance lecturers who went and spread the gospel of self-help. We must form cooperatives. Rejection of the view that our problem is overproduction. It’s not overproduction. We’re being fleeced by railroads, by bankers and so on. And they created these cooperatives, but they were crushed out by corporate interests quickly.

Who wouldn’t give them a railroad pass, wouldn’t allow them on railroads, banks wouldn’t give them credit, etc. So the populist the Farmers Alliance was forced into politics. Because neither of the other of the two parties, Republicans in the North, Democrats in the South, would address their grievances.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Well, so what I want to do, Jack, for the remainder of the first part of this conversation is talk about some of America’s most noted populist leaders from that time onward. And the first has to be William Jennings Bryan. And so here he is in his cross of gold speech. Now, at first he gave that in the late 1900s. And this recording you’re about to hear is circa 1920s. When he actually recorded that speech.

WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN: They tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard. We replied that the great cities rest upon our broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farm and your cities will spring up again, as if by magic, but destroy our farm and the grass will grow in the streets of every city of the country.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Jack, tell us about the importance of Bryan.

BEATTY: Well, in that speech, in fact, he concluded that speech by the famous line you quoted. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold. And he held out his arms in the cruciform shape. And when he did so, a cry went up from the audience, quote, Down with gold, down with the hook, No Shylocks of Wall Street, down with Christ killing gold bugs. Anti-Semitism was an element of populism all through.

Not a dominant one, but it was there. Bryan, of course, wanted an expanded currency. He wanted inflation. He wanted free silver coinage that would essentially allow more money in the in the system that would raise prices for farmers. Of course, it would raise prices for consumers, too. And that was the problem he lost out in in northern cities.

He was an interesting man, 36 years old. They called him a son of toil. In fact, he was the son of a prosperous Nebraska judge. But from early on at four years old, he started giving little speeches to his playmates and rhetoric and great soaring oratorical feats. That’s what he was known for. The Times said he was oratorical monomaniac.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, so that that undercurrent of anti-Semitism that you noted was also sort of blew out into the open with another populist from the thirties, Father Coughlin. Of course, we heard a little bit of his voice in that introductory set of sound. But I want to move forward and into the 1930s through the ’60s with two very different versions of American populism. So first of all, here’s Senator Huey Long in December of 1934 calling for the redistribution of wealth in America.

HUEY LONG: 4% of the American people own 85% of the wealth of America, and that over 70% of the people of America don’t own enough to pay the debt, to pay over. How many men ever went to barbecue and would let one man take off the table what they intended for 9/10 of the people to eat?

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s Huey Long, perhaps one of the most famous populists of the early 20th century in the United States. Economic populism there. There’s also another very profoundly deep strain of populism in America, Jack, as you know. And that has to do with cultural and racial resentment epitomized by George Wallace. And here he is in his inaugural address as Alabama governor in 1963 with some infamous lines.

GEORGE WALLACE: From this cradle of the Confederacy, this very heart of the great Anglo-Saxon southland, that today we found the drum for freedom … time and again down through history. And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.

CHAKRABARTI:  Just take a second or two to talk about Wallace.

BEATTY: Well, his populism, it can sound reminiscent of Bryan’s in the Populists. He said to his people, You’ve been treated like doormats long enough. He attacked the pointy-head college professors who can’t park a bicycle straight. When hippies yelled at him from the crowd, he’d say, Oh, I thought you were she. So he picked up on lots of class resentment. But down deep at the bottom of him was this dark, you know, racism. It is a comment, though, isn’t it, that our system was strong enough in 1968 to reject a racist. And in 2016, we elected one.

CHAKRABARTI: Virtually at the same periods of history, we have cultural and racial based populism, and we also have economic populism. And I think we’re living in one of those moments right now with, of course, you know, former President Donald Trump really maximizing that cultural resentment part of American populism. And then perhaps on the economic side, there is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Here’s a moment from a Senate committee hearing where he points out what he believes is the fact of an American oligarchy.

BERNIE SANDERS: Today in our country, the two wealthiest people now own more wealth than the bottom 42% of our population, 130 million Americans, two people, 130 million Americans. Anyone who thinks we do not have an oligarchy right here in America is sorely mistaken.  

DONALD TRUMP: These are the forgotten men and women of our country, and they are forgotten, but they’re not going to be forgotten long. These are people who work hard but no longer have a voice. I am your voice.

CHAKRABARTI: Donald Trump there at the Republican National Convention in 2016 during his nomination acceptance speech, again highlighting a classic trait of populist leaders. They’re presuming that their voice speaks for all. I’m joined today by Jack Beatty. He’s on Point’s news analyst. And joining us now in the conversation is Nadia Urbinati. She’s a professor of political theory at Columbia University.

And also with us is Jan-Werner Mueller. He’s a professor of social sciences and politics at Princeton University, a columnist for The Guardian, U.S. Professor Mueller, welcome to On Point.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, I wonder if I could start with you, Professor Mueller, because in your book, What is populism? You have this very pointed line. You say populism is something like a permanent shadow of modern representative democracy and a constant peril. What do you mean?

JAN-WERNER MUELLER: So my understanding of populism is that not everybody who criticizes the powerful is necessarily a populist. Not everybody who, as a presidential candidate runs against, you know, Washington, D.C., which is pretty much what every presidential candidate does, is a populist. Populists are those who claim that they and only they represent what they typically call the real people or also the silent majority.

They claim a kind of monopoly of representing the people with the consequence that all other contenders for power are deemed fundamentally illegitimate, corrupt, and, to coin a phrase, crooked. And less obviously, that all those who don’t agree with the populists understanding of the real people are basically excluded from the people. So long story short, populism is not just about anti-elite ism, it’s also about anti pluralism, the tendency to exclude others at the level of party politics, but also at the level of the citizenry themselves.

And that’s always going to be possible in a democracy. As long as we have representation, somebody can always come along and say, I am the only one who represents the real people. And that always means there is an authoritarian danger, which is also why, with all due respect, I would strongly object to this false equivalence between Sanders and Trump.

We may not like Sanders’s policies for all kinds of reasons. He’s not a danger to democracy. Trump really is a populist who goes for the politics of exclusion, who calls every critic un-American, who reduces all politics to questions of belonging, and hence is a threat to democracy.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so, Professor Urbinati, before I go to you, let me go back to Jack Beatty really quickly. So, Jack, you heard Professor Mueller there saying by definition, part of what a populist is a danger to democracy. But you actually wanted to include both Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren, in this sort of tradition of American populism. And thinking back to what we just talked about in the previous segment, that the origins of American populism came out of this desire for more, you know, economic equality. I mean, do those things constitute a danger to democracy, Jack?

BEATTY: No. And I don’t think the populist movement did at all. It was very unfortunate, however, that McCarthyism in the ’50s gave rise to a great sort of neuralgia among American intellectuals toward mass movements. And they look back in history, Richard Hofstadter, notably, and found the shadow of McCarthyism in populism from the 1890s.

And I think it was that projection of McCarthyism … distorted so much of what was, to use the phrase we’ve been using in our introduction, the democratic promise of populism, because after all, what the populace wanted was a government that would respond to needs to the crying needs of the people. Both parties ignored them in quite an oligarchic way, as Bernie Sanders says, and they had to create their own party, which ran in 1892. Lost, but was one of the most robust showings of a third party in American history. They had to do that in order to get their voice heard.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Professor Urbinati, let me go to you here. What do you make of this particular definition of populism, that it must include the fact that a populist movement may be a danger to democracy?

NADIA URBINATI: I agree. It may be a danger to democracy. I also disagree to put everybody who claims to talk in the name of the people or equality to put them in the basket of populism, because then the social Democrats are populists, then socialists are populists, which is not true. So we have to make a distinction between a populism as a project of power and the populism as an idea coming from the bottom up, claiming for a democracy that respects the promises of democracy and that it is naturally anti-illegal. Democracy was born against oligarchy.

So I don’t see in Sanders nothing that is consistent with populism, because populism is a project of power. The word ‘ism’ is very important because it implies that a leader uses the people as excluding and including or as expelling or exalting somebody against somebody else. In order to propose himself or herself as the true representative of the true people. This is what Sanders has never done. He never said these is the real people. He says justice. He speaks for equality, which are different discourses.

So I would make a distinction between forms of claiming for justice and forms of claiming for populism. Also, because only the leader can tell us who is these people he’s talking about and why he’s talking for that people instead of other people. And if we ask a populist to answer this question, the populist tell us, because we are the true one. But doesn’t tell us what really they want, they tell us against them, but they never tell us to do what? So populism is an empty basket within which the rhetoric of the leader, the one who wants to have power, for instance, who comes from outside of the political establishment makes, in order to propose himself.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, can it truly be such an empty basket? And, Professor Mueller, let me turn this one to you. Because clearly populist movements take hold and spread. Because I take Professor Urbinati and his point very well about the sort of narcissism, the powerful, charismatic narcissism of a populist leader. But the movement takes hold because it’s responding to some deeply held belief or need amongst the populi, amongst the people. And one of those beliefs or needs is that the elite of their nations are not responding to the needs of the people.

They’re not providing a nation of, you know, of care and equality to the people. And I wonder if part of the reason why many elites, and if we could be completely honest, in modern day America, I’ve got a vaunted historian in Jack Beatty. I myself am a member of the media, and I’ve got two celebrated professors here. We need to be honestly considering ourselves a member of the quote-unquote elite, is part of the problem. Is that the populace just don’t like the elite. Professor Mueller?

MUELLER: Allow me to make two points, which will also sound horribly pedantic. So again, it’s not the people who are captured by populist leaders. It’s particular groups. There’s nothing wrong with appealing to the forgotten. There’s nothing wrong with saying that existing arrangements might be bad for certain parts of the population and would be crazy in retrospect to say, oh, whatever, or let’s say Chavez in Venezuela or Erdogan in Turkey ever said about forgotten part of the population was crazy and they shouldn’t have said this. That’s all fine.

What’s not fine is to basically buy into this division between the people and the elites. Donald Trump never even captured the majority of the American people. So it’s a bit strange to now say that he somehow was able to appeal to the people. He was able to appeal to certain parts of the people. And secondly, again, very pedantic, forgive me, the elite is not a homogeneous phenomenon. There are very different forms of elite actors. And if again, you allow a Trump example. When he presented his cabinet, if I remember correctly, the combined worth was about $4.3 billion.

Now, that’s a bit strange for somebody who, you know, says, Look, I am your voice and I will do something for the forgotten. But who are these people? Well, they were mostly, for shorthand, Wall Street types. And that’s very different from professionals like journalists, lawyers, God forbid, professors who kind of claim a certain authority on the basis of specialized training and education. It’s very easily, very easy to mobilize right wing resentments against professionals as a particular kind of elite. Whereas very often the very rich get off by saying, look, you know, I made my own money.

Trump himself, of course, said, you know, I can’t be corrupted because I have enough money myself. So elite is a very slippery term. And again, we should be careful not to repeat how populists present themselves. Because we slip in certain assumptions that, you know, they genuinely represent ordinary people. No, they don’t, necessarily. And they have nowhere really come to power in Western Europe, with the exception of Italy that maybe Nadia wants to say more about without the help of very established conservative elites. It’s never just, you know, parts of quote-unquote, ordinary people who helped him into power. It’s always the Republican establishment, right wing conservatives in parts of Europe who ultimately say, yeah, we are going to bring these people into government.

CHAKRABARTI: Jack Beatty, Professor Mueller used the word never there. Do you agree?

BEATTY: Well, never. I think that’s what Jane Austen called the ‘never’ of conversation. This business of populism and Trump, I think Martin Wolf of the Financial Times has it right. He says, Trumpism is Pluto populism. After all, look at the 2017 tax cut. Each of the Koch brothers got a half a billion more dollars a year as a result of that tax cut. That’s a giveaway to the plutocrats. So there’s a kind of mislabeling, I think, that is very useful for Trump because he can see, say, I’m the tribune of the common man or, you know, Sean Hannity, who makes $47 million a year, can say, I’m standing up for you. But the truth is, that’s what, you know, Ross Perot called gorilla dust. You throw that in people’s eyes and they can’t see the real truth. The real truth being the Republican Party is the party of wealth, the Koch brothers.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, I want to go back to something that that all of you mentioned. That one common trade in populism around the world, is the populist leaders claim to represent, quote-unquote, you know, the real people. We heard, you know, from Sarah Palin long ago, that phrase of real Americans over and over and over again. And forms of that have come up more recently. For example, here is Donald Trump’s inaugural address in January of 2017. You might remember it as the American Carnage speech. But Professor Urbinati, there’s a specific point which we’ll play right now that really caught your ear.

DONALD TRUMP: Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people. For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Urbinati, what was it about that moment in his speech that caught your attention?

URBINATI: A very interesting moment. Because of these words used two times, merely. This is not merely a government like the previous ones. This is not merely a majority substituting for another one. Precisely the opposite. A democracy based on elections and a constitution is merely one majority after another one. But Trump, like all populists, my countries and elsewhere, they had the same experience. They always pretended their own majority special is not like the other ones, because they don’t consider the majority rule as an important fundamental rule of democracy.

For them, majority is the name of a collective majority or a social majority. That is the good people versus the other who are not good, presumably. So it is as if a member of civil society, I would say so, that is for them is not simply the elite, but is the political class against which they mobilize all the leaders, populist leaders. They come from outside the political class, they say outside the establishment, that they declare to be the real civil society, people working, making money, success with their own hands and brains.

And they claim for this reason, to have the legitimacy of talking for the real majority of the people, not merely, the one that receive a majority of votes. This is an important switch that the populists make, or all of them, from the former rulers or formal procedures to substantive conception. So not the majority rule, but the rule of the majority.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. So the words specifically that you highlighted was merely. And you’re saying that it that it’s nothing there’s nothing mere about it at all, that it’s well outside the norms of a functioning democracy. Jack Beatty, we’ve got a minute before we have to take our next break.

BEATTY: Yes, that that business of excluding people of, you know, making a distinction between the sort of symbolic and conjured majority and the mere electoral majority. Professor Mueller shows how that is one of the constants of populism, going back really to pre-Nazi days where you know, it was the conjured people that were above the mere people that voted. And I think you hear that after all … No democracy for Trump because the real people are behind him.

CHAKRABARTI: Tomorrow, in episode two, we’re going to be talking about populism around the world. And here’s an example, by the way. This is former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2010 at a motorcycle show in Milan.

SILVIO BERLUSCONI: Don’t read newspapers anymore. Don’t read them because they cheat on you. This last situation, for instance, is a paper storm. At the end, you’ll see how what happened will turn out to be nothing else apart from an act of solidarity by the Prime Minister. An act of solidarity that I would have been ashamed not to carry out, but that I carried out because I always do. Because that’s the way I am. As always, I work unceasingly. And if I occasionally happened to look a beautiful girl in the face, it’s better to like beautiful girls than to be gay.

CHAKRABARTI: A translator there explaining what former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said back in 2010. Now, Professor Urbinati, in your book Me, The People, you talk about how populist leaders are leaders beyond parties. What did you mean by that?

URBINATI: Because as I start saying earlier on, they come from serious society in the name of regaining power to the people versus the political class that stole the power from the people. So in that they criticize political parties, either they conquest parties from inside, this is what Trump has done with the Republicans or in the case of Berlusconi, he constructed actually both his own party, created his own party with his own money.

In order to make the party do what he wants the party to do. So the party for them is a means to achieve power and not a place or an order or a system thanks to which people can develop their own ideas, interests and compete for a representative democracy. In this sense, we saw in Europe clearly that the more parties decline in relevance in relation to the ability to organize and to represent the people, the more populist leaders that took over. So there is a relationship between decline of party democracy and increasing possibility for populist leaders.  

CHAKRABARTI: Well, we’re going to talk more about sort of democracy as a potential sort of ironically, a fomenting ground for populism. But Professor Mueller, let me turn back to you for a moment, because it occurs to me that we’ve been pulled towards, for obvious reasons, talking about populism in the U.S.

Populism in Europe and how that’s played out over some time. But suddenly I was thinking about frequently there are governments in Latin America that have been coined or termed as left-wing populists who frequently do not arise from the billionaire classes in Latin America. I mean, so does that mean that there isn’t always this sort of beyond the parties thrust to a populist leader?

MUELLER So I would agree … that there is a connection between the rise of populism and how parties evolve. I wouldn’t say that populist ideas necessarily always come from outside parties, but certainly they will run their own parties if they have one. Some of them don’t. Bolsonaro was president for a while without having any party whatsoever. But if they have the party, they will basically run their own party in a highly autocratic way. And I think, again, it comes down to this core feature of anti-pluralism.

If you say that only you represent the people. How would you tolerate any other voices, any other kind of pluralism? On Latin America specifically, sometimes a contrast is drawn between so-called inclusionary populism in Latin America and exclusionary populism in other parts of the world. I don’t find that particularly helpful because, again, we might simply be talking about socialism, social democracy, as Professor Urbinati already explained. And if it doesn’t have this element of exclusion, which some of them do certainly have.

… If you see that phenomenon, if you see political opponents treated like this, if no legitimate opposition is recognized, then we’re talking about populism, at least in the sense of the word that I’m trying to advance in order to give us a more precise understanding of certain phenomena. And not have this sort of very global term where everybody who’s ever said anything nice about the people or ordinary people is suddenly a populist, because then on one level, we’re all populists.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Professor Urbinati, about Professor Mueller’s point regarding the kind of populism that he’s talking about embraces an anti-democratic modus operandi. What do you see in Latin American populism as it’s similar to other forms of populism worldwide?

URBINATI: Well, the Latin American populism is kind of the cradle of populism. They started the experimentation of different forms of populism, and they think is very connected. I mean, scholars have shown that the populist experience in Latin America is very much connected to the constructions of the people as the sovereign agents of the nation or the state, which was a different process than in Europe. And in these constructions of the unity of the people in relation to, you know, different kinds of populations, from immigrants to colonizers or Native Americans, all together to construct the people.

That was, for the time being, a moment of unification. … That is a process that is peculiarly connected to the tradition of Latin America. We have to connect the people all the time, populism with the specific tradition of his country. So a populist can have a specificity that is different from other kind of populist because it speaks the language, uses the terms that the people or the public opinion of his own country and the sense. So it’s not globally in the sense of flat and without distinctions, it’s very important to consider those distinctions.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Jack, I want to spend the rest of the conversation trying to understand what the causes of contemporary populism might be. I mean, it seems to me that all the examples that we’ve discussed are populist movements that have emerged in democracies. So is it is there some kind of irony here that democracy may be a prerequisite to populism?

BEATTY: It seems to be. It’s that democracy’s not living up to their promise. I think that’s the key. You know, someone said America isn’t a tragedy, it’s a disappointment. People are disappointed. They’re disenchanted with democracy. It promises so much. And for so many, it delivers so little. Either economically or in terms of representing their views. You know, a study of the U.S. Senate in the ’90s found that basically most of the legislation passed and most of the attention was for the top richest people in the country, middle class people a little bit.

A third of the country, nothing from these senators. That’s the kind of thing that creates populism, being ignored. And I think for many bigoted people, and I’ll be clear about that, they felt their views were being ignored. Until Trump came along and said, no, no, I’m with you, we can say we hate political correctness. We don’t want to defer to anybody. It’s a great white country.

Well, let’s hear a little bit about how that populist rhetoric is, you know, pervading through much of the Republican Party. Here’s Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene on Lindell TV last month. It’s a conservative talk show, and this was just days before Donald Trump was recently arraigned in New York.

MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: Real America sees Washington, D.C. as the enemy. And if they indict President Trump on fake charges, to go after him to try to stop the movement that they cannot stop, he is going to win 2024 in a landslide victory and then we’ll put him in the White House and he will finish what he started. We will gut the government of all the traitors that are serving the globalists in America.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Mueller, what do you think of this notion that a democracy fails or disappoints a critical mass of people? And that’s one of the things that allows populism some purchase.

MUELLER: So clearly there has to be something going on that allows the rhetoric of certain populist leaders to resonate and be successful. But again, I think it would be a mistake to now equate populism with critiques of globalization, with, you know, so-called grievances that are economic. This is not new. This, again, is completely legitimate. But it’s different from the kind of thing we just heard.

What we just heard is a division between the real people, which implies some people who are unreal or, as you know, was also clearly spelled out, are actually traitors. And that is specific to populism. And that might be easier in situations that have less to do with the economy than with situations where you either already have some kind of sense of cultural war or certain divisions which can be culturally or, to put it more bluntly, racially charged in certain ways.

That makes it easier for populists who, of course, always talk about unifying the people to do what they actually want to do, which is to divide the people. They are for shorthand, kind of polarization entrepreneurs and for that. Very often, cultural divides are more useful than economic divides.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so then comes the critical question. You’ve written about how there is the populist claim that there is a singular people of which the populist is the only representative. And so therefore, fomenting those divides is a means by which to prove that they are the sole representative for anyone who cares about the preservation of a democracy. What is the effective counter argument to that claim?

MUELLER: One claim is that contrary to the kind of, forgive me, communitarian kitsch that we so often hear and our conversation today, which is we have to overcome, all our divisions, we have to heal as a country. No, democracy is about conflict. Conflict is not illegitimate in a democracy. The question is how we talk about conflict.

If you do what populists do, which is to basically deny the standing of other citizens completely, if you tell them to, I won’t repeat the word that Trump used, but you know what I’m talking about when I say go back to your own countries, when you basically say, I’m not even going to get into a conflict with you because you don’t belong here, You’re not American, you’re un-American. As Trump very often called critics. You can’t resolve conflicts or deal with conflicts in a democratic manner.

That’s something that I know sounds very abstract, but I think it can be realized in ordinary talk, in people basically saying, look, we somehow have to live with our disagreements. They’re not all going to go away. But let’s be more conscious of how we talk about other people, how we address them, how we basically don’t go for this politics of complete exclusion.

CHAKRABARTI: I have to say, Professor Mueller, explain for another 30 seconds, because I don’t quite understand.

MUELLER: So if you have a disagreement or a conflict around ideas, interests, identities for that matter, you can say, look, what’s the issue here? What about, it’s the substance of our conflict. You have arguments. I’ve arguments we can debate them and eventually they’ll be resolved on the basis, as Professor Urbinati explained, of the majority principle.

And by the way, you also then can question that outcome in the way that populists so often do, when they lose an election by saying, But look, you know, we of course, represent the silent majority. If we don’t win, that means the majority must have been silenced, ergo it was rigged and so on. So there’s a kind of pattern there as well.

But that’s a normal way of dealing with conflict. If I say to you, look, you’re not a real American, I’m not even going to talk to you. You have no place here. You should go back to your own country. I don’t quite see how that’s compatible with a democratic way of addressing conflicts and disagreements. That’s the difference. I’m trying to get out.

CHAKRABARTI: How is the kind of counterargument that Professor Mueller is proposing possible in a country where the populists are actually the ones in power? Because by definition they do not believe in a pluralism of belief. So wouldn’t what Professor Mueller is saying fall on deaf ears?

URBINATI: I think Mueller Professor Miller is completely right. I agree with him. And the question is that as we know, there is no such a thing as the people. The people is a purely political construction. It’s not like a nation that you can have different languages, religion, you can define them. But the people is a very political construction, which means that there are ways, different ways of doing so. And there are populists who want to tell us there is only one people.

The people is plural. … So it means that the only way to live together peacefully is in a democracy in which there is plurality inside because there is freedom of expressing plurality. The only way to solve our conflict is assuming that they are never solved, both forever, once, forever. And as we count our votes, majority rules.

Related Reading

The Conversation: “Is Democracy Dead or Alive? What democracy exactly are we supposed to nurture?” — “The ideology of democracy has disfigured democracy and is one of the reasons for its weakness today.”

London Review of Books: “Populism and the People” — “They do not​ all look the same. But group them together and they clearly form a political family: Orbán, Erdoğan, Kaczyński, Trump, Modi, perhaps Netanyahu, Bolsonaro for sure.”

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