President Donald Trump is a populist. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a populist. The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was a populist and so is his successor Nicolas Maduro. But what exactly is a populist? German political scientist Jan-Werner Mueller, who teaches at Princeton, tries to define the term in his recent book, What is Populism?
Populism cannot be just anyone who criticizes the elite/status quo or else every person running for office is by definition a populist. Also once they win the office they can’t or don’t criticize themselves and yet we still call them and they still call themselves “populists.” We need a better definition of the word.
A populist, Jan-Werner Mueller argues, is an anti-pluralist. What’s a pluralist?
A plurality is a large number or quantity greater than another. A candidate can win “a plurality of the vote,” for example, without winning a majority. Pluralism, in political science, is the idea that society is made up of a large number of distinct individuals who may have different interests in some matters but who all have to live together. They are not a single unit; they are many different units. The world itself is pluralist with 195 separate but distinct countries all co-existing on the same planet.
A populist leader claims to speak “for the people” and implicit in that is the idea that “the people” are a single monolithic unit all with the same desires and interests. But that is not reality. That is an illusion, a fantasy, because if “the people” are one unit of the same mind, then they speak with one voice and the populist leader claims to be the single representative of that voice. Anyone who disagrees with said ruler is therefore, obviously, an enemy of the people. For Donald Trump, the media is the “enemy of the people” anytime they publish anything other than fawning praise. Anyone who opposes the populist leader is by definition an anti-populist and therefore an “enemy of the people.”
It’s not ironic then that populists speak the language of democracy but the end result is the opposite of democracy.
What is ironic is that a country like the United States, known for its embrace of “rugged individualism” and libertarianism, is now embracing populism.
When Donald Trump speaks of “the people,” he means it in the singular. That’s why he can say “I don’t get along with rich people. I get along with the middle class and the poor people.” When he speaks of “the American people,” he means his supporters whom he likewise imagines as a monolithic unit. But only 42.6 percent of the country actually approves of Trump, according to the latest rolling average at FiveThirtyEight.com, so in reality it’s a minority of the people who are included in “the people.”
I agree Donald Trump is a populist, but the United States is not a populist country. Our strength lies in our embrace of pluralism, in our respect for the individual and for democracy, the system that allows us all to live together while keeping our separate, unique identities.
Barb Howe has a graduate degree in political science from the University of Florida.