What is Populism?

Jan-Werner Müller, Princeton University
Thursday, November 30, 2017 -
4:30pm to 6:00pm
A71 Louis A. Simpson International Building
Thursday, November 30, 2017 -
4:30pm to 6:00pm

Donald Trump, Silvio Berlusconi, Marine Le Pen, Hugo Chávez—populists are on the rise across the globe. But what exactly is populism? Should everyone who criticizes Wall Street or Washington be called a populist? What precisely is the difference between right-wing and left-wing populism? Does populism bring government closer to the people or is it a threat to democracy? Who are "the people" anyway and who can speak in their name? These questions have never been more pressing.

In his book, "What is Populism?," Jan-Werner Müller argues that at populism's core is a rejection of pluralism. Populists will always claim that they and they alone represent the people and their true interests. Müller also shows that, contrary to conventional wisdom, populists can govern on the basis of their claim to exclusive moral representation of the people: if populists have enough power, they will end up creating an authoritarian state that excludes all those not considered part of the proper "people." He proposes a number of concrete strategies for how liberal democrats should best deal with populists and, in particular, how to counter their claims to speak exclusivy for "the silent majority" or "the real people."

In his talk on November 30th, Müller will discuss the research in his book as well as explicate the phenomenon of populism and relate it to psychologizing accounts of politics based on “resentment” and “anger.”

Jan-Werner Müller studied at the Free University, Berlin, University College, London, St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and Princeton University. From 1996 until 2003 he was a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford; from 2003 until 2005 he was Fellow in Modern European Thought at the European Studies Centre, St. Antony’s College. Since 2005 he has been teaching in the Politics Department, Princeton University.

He has been a Member of the School of Historical Studies, Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, and a visiting fellow at the Collegium Budapest Institute of Advanced Study, Collegium Helsinki, the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, the Remarque Institute, NYU, the Center for European Studies, Harvard, as well as the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, Florence. He is a co-founder of the European College of Liberal Arts (ECLA), Berlin, Germany’s first private, English-speaking liberal arts college, for which he served as founding research director. 

Professor Müller is the author of Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth Century Europe (Yale UP, 2011), Constitutional Patriotism (Princeton UP, 2007), A Dangerous Mind: Carl Schmitt in Post-War European Thought (Yale University Press, 2003) and Another Country: German Intellectuals, Unification and National Identity (Yale University Press, 2000).  His book Was ist Populismus? was published by Suhrkamp in April 2016; the University of Pennsylvania Press brought out an American version in September of 2016 and it has been published or is scheduled to be published into more than 20 languages.  

Sponsored by
Fung Global Fellows Program