Populism and the New Axis of Evil

I wrote a brief comment in response to Paul Krugman’s regular New York Times column today on “Populism, Real and Phony.” I’m a big fan of Krugman’s work, but I thought today’s column was a bit lacking in its terminological definition of what “populism” actually is. Luckily, Jan-Werner Müller is here to help. His book What is Populism? is without doubt the best thing I’ve read to date on the subject. It is useful both for understanding the motivations and methods that forged our current global political climate, as well as for starting discussion on concrete actions we might take to reduce the very real dangers now posed by populist governments at home and abroad.

The full text of my comment is below. If you like it enough, I highly encourage you to click here and “recommend” it on the NYT website.

I’m a bit surprised at Prof. Krugman’s dismissal of “populism” as an appropriate term for these recently empowered political entities, given his usual antipathy toward adhering to the “conventional wisdom” of the moment. My guess is that he hasn’t yet had the opportunity to read his former Princeton colleague Jan-Werner Müller’s work on the subject, which offers a (re)definition of the term to something much more useful for our current political moment. Müller’s work posits that populism is defined more by its moral boundaries than its numbers. The populist appeal is essentially identity-based: an us vs. them confrontation in which the populist party or candidate claims to represent the “real” people and no one else. The key difference between this version of populism and the conventional wisdom is that the populist denies the existence of a legitimate opposition to their rule, and seeks various means — race-based, anti-elitist, or classist appeals, for example — to consolidate their dominant faction against subversive “others.”

Clarifying the definition of populism beyond a vague understanding of mass political movement is of vital importance as non-populists prepare to confront this new “axis of evil.” Knowing both who and what we are dealing with will enable us to formulate a strategy and prescribe solutions to defend against the worst abuses of these governments, and hopefully, eventually, remove them from office.


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