Pop­u­lar­ity con­test

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - PASCHAL DONO­HOE Paschal Dono­hoe is the Min­is­ter for Fi­nance and Pub­lic Ex­pen­di­ture and Re­form

Paschal Dono­hoe reviews Jan-Werner Müller’s ‘What Is Pop­ulism?’


A vastly ex­pe­ri­enced and wise col­league once of­fered coun­sel to me that has ap­peared even more rel­e­vant in light of re­cent po­lit­i­cal events. He sug­gested to me a rule of thumb, pro­posed in turn to him, by a se­nior civil ser­vant more than 40 years ago.

In a pre­vi­ous ex­change, my col­league had ar­gued that a par­tic­u­lar event would not hap­pen. It was im­pos­si­ble, he con­tended. A wise civil ser­vant sighed and ad­vised: “But min­is­ter, if you can imag­ine it, then it will hap­pen.”

Many re­cent po­lit­i­cal events have pointed to the wis­dom of this ap­proach. If pol­i­tics is the art of the pos­si­ble, then the range of po­lit­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties has ex­panded.

But this ex­pan­sion of pos­si­bil­ity has de­vel­oped as con­straints have changed. Bound­aries are wider. Po­lit­i­cal charges or claims that were once un­think­able have now be­come nor­malised. Poli­cies once ruled out by main­stream po­lit­i­cal par­ties are ei­ther hap­pen­ing or pos­si­ble.

The idea of pop­ulism is used to de­fine and ex­plore this po­lit­i­cal trend.

The ti­tle of this work – What Is Pop­ulism? – by Ger­man po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Jan-Werner Müller of Prince­ton Univer­sity poses a sim­ple ques­tion. It an­swers that and then achieves more.

De­spite the brevity of this book, it de­scribes pop­ulism in govern­ment and ad­vises how the po­lit­i­cal cen­tre can re­spond.

The au­thor opens with a clear warn­ing, writ­ing that “Pop­ulism is some­thing like a per­ma­nent shadow of mod­ern rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy, and a con­stant peril”. Müller looks not just to en­lighten the univer­sity sem­i­nar but to of­fer a brac­ing warn­ing for the fu­ture.

Pop­ulism is far more than a claim to chal­lenge the ex­ist­ing or­der for the ben­e­fit of the com­mon good. As this work notes, main­stream par­ties con­stantly make such claims. Pop­ulists dif­fer in that they claim a mo­nop­oly of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and un­der­stand­ing as “... they, and only they, rep­re­sent the peo­ple”.

This is eerily fa­mil­iar to me. It has be­come com­mon­place to claim that Ir­ish cen­trist po­lit­i­cal par­ties do not rep­re­sent the or­di­nary voter and their in­ter­ests. It is not just their com­pe­tence that is at­tacked but also their com­pas­sion.

I tread care­fully with these claims. While vig­or­ously re­pelling them, it was also ap­par­ent to me that we were com­ing dan­ger­ously close to a large num­ber of those or­di­nary vot­ers reach­ing the same con­clu­sion. In my first bud­get speech, I there­fore con­tended that our defin­ing col­lec­tive po­lit­i­cal chal­lenge was whether the po­lit­i­cal “cen­tre would hold”.

How­ever, this is not just about rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Pop­ulist politi­cians also ar­gue that they can de­fine the peo­ple; their “core claim also im­plies that who­ever does not re­ally sup­port pop­ulist par­ties might not be part of the proper peo­ple to be­gin with”. Thank­fully this di­men­sion of pop­ulism is not yet ap­par­ent in our po­lit­i­cal life.

A claim fre­quently made is that such pu­rity of rep­re­sen­ta­tion can­not cope with govern­ment. Pop­ulism, it is ar­gued, will be sun­dered by the com­pro­mises and trade-offs in­her­ent in gov­ern­ing.

The book con­vinc­ingly ar­gues oth­er­wise. It de­tails three tech­niques for gov­ern­ing that are now be­ing im­ple­mented by pop­ulist-led or -in­flu­enced gov­ern­ments.

First, the state is oc­cu­pied or colonised. Courts are un­der­mined, checks and bal­ances weak­ened and po­lit­i­cally neu­tral in­sti­tu­tions such as the civil ser­vice are un­der­mined.

Sec­ond, mass clien­telism is im­ple­mented – favours and re­wards are of­fered and de­liv­ered in re­turn for con­tin­ued po­lit­i­cal sup­port. This is by no means unique to pop­ulists. But as the au­thor ar­gues: “What makes pop­ulists dis­tinc­tive, once more, is that they can en­gage in such prac­tices openly and with pub­lic moral jus­ti­fi­ca­tions, since for them only some peo­ple are re­ally the peo­ple and hence de­serv­ing of the sup­port by what is right­fully their state.”

Fi­nally, civic so­ci­ety is re­pressed. Non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions (NGOs) are at­tacked. This is an in­evitable con­se­quence of the pop­ulist claim to be the true and sole rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the peo­ple.

Fail­ures and dif­fi­cul­ties are blamed on the in­sti­tu­tions of govern­ment, which are in­ter­me­di­aries that get in the way of the purest ex­pres­sion of the will of the peo­ple.


So how should the po­lit­i­cal cen­tre re­spond? Müller is em­phatic that pop­ulists can­not be ex­cluded from po­lit­i­cal de­bate. This only deep­ens the pol­i­tics of ex­clu­sion. The suc­cess­ful cam­paign waged by French pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron against the Front Na­tional is a text­book ex­am­ple of this ap­proach.

How­ever, this book dis­ap­points in not of­fer­ing a wider anal­y­sis as to why sup­port for pop­ulism has grown. This is a fun­da­men­tal ques­tion, and one barely posed by Müller. Cul­tural rifts, the im­pact of the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis and the dis­con­tents of glob­al­i­sa­tion re­ceive no crit­i­cal at­ten­tion.

Struc­tural changes in liv­ing stan­dards and pay have oc­curred. Re­cent re­search by the McKin­sey Global In­sti­tute notes that two-thirds of house­holds in de­vel­oped economies ex­pe­ri­enced ei­ther a de­crease or stag­na­tion in their in­come, prior to state ben­e­fits, be­tween 2005 and 2015. This hap­pened to 580 mil­lion peo­ple.

If enough vot­ers feel that that the rules are rigged against them, they will elect those who pro­pose to cre­ate new rules.

So given the ex­act clar­ity of this book on the form of pop­ulism, si­lence on these causes of growth is so sig­nif­i­cant that it verges on the puz­zling. The Pop­ulist Ex­plo­sion: How the Great Re­ces­sion Trans­formed Amer­i­can and

Euro­pean Pol­i­tics by John Judis ex­plores the de­mand for pop­ulism more fully.

This omis­sion, how­ever, is off­set by many strengths. The clar­ity of def­i­ni­tion and the anal­y­sis of pop­ulism in govern­ment make this book re­quired read­ing for all who care about the qual­ity and fu­ture of pub­lic life.

Those of us in the cen­tre of po­lit­i­cal life need to stand over progress made, but bet­ter un­der­stand, ac­knowl­edge and act where progress re­mains to be made.

This book urges un­der­stand­ing and then a po­lit­i­cal and pol­icy re­sponse. “Tough on pop­ulism and tough on the causes of pop­ulism,” to para­phrase that once-ris­ing star of the Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal cen­tre, Tony Blair.


Ma­rine Le Pen and Front Na­tional sup­port­ers sing the French na­tional an­them.

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