Cover Image: What Is Populism?

What Is Populism?

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A short digestible book on one of the most vexing questions of recent times - What is populism? With definitions ranging from it being antielitist to antipluralist, its usage has become muddled with everyone in the political spectrum (left to right), have been using it as a cuss word while others have been embracing it as the panacea for everything plaguing their country.

In this remarkable short volume, Jan-Werner Müller addresses this question with wide-ranging tools borrowed from sociology, history and politics. What he argues here, is that populism is inherently "anti-elitist", raging against the political elite which they justify by claiming to represent a popular mandate from a set of disenfranchised people and by saying a "set of disenfranchised" OR "real people" aka those who agree with their narrow definition of politics, it is also "anti-pluralist" and finally with their claims to marginalise all opposition, it becomes "anti-democratic" too.

A worthy read indeed! Though, what I would have liked is for the author to go on to develop a "What is Populism" checklist, in the same vein as How democracies die? , and then support the checklist with historical records of politicians and various regimes using the same for their own purposes. And hence I am left with a feeling of something vital missing from the overall book structure.
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Quite a technical book which requires a good knowledge of history and politics, but an important one to have.
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This is a very informative book, competently handling a topic that's on everyone's minds given the world we live in. A must read.
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Not as accessible as I'd hoped, unfortunately. A fair amount of knowledge of philosophy and political history is required to fully understand, though I did take some important points from the book.
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Populism has had a massive affect on our political landscape in the last few years from Trump to Brexit and everything in between. This book takes a look at where populism began and how it has risen to such prominence now and what is yet to come.
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An interesting book on populism that educates readers about the different definitions and expressions that it plays in modern day politics.
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This succinct book about a word that is bandied about constantly, nowadays, cuts to the heart of the political climate. From current and historic figures who claim to be populists, to the people who vote for them, this intelligent book explores the driving forces behind the movements and how best to address those who subscribe to them.
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This is a very topical subject and I was hoping to gain some insights into this area. But even though the book is fairly succinct, I found it to be a very difficult read. This could be due to a lack of background knowledge on my part but I don't feel like I got as much from it as I'd hoped.

However, the author did a great job of using quotes to illustrate their point and the summary section at the end with the theories on populism was very useful. I may consider dipping into it again to remind myself of some points and I would recommend it to people with more of a political background.
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What Is Populism? by Jan-Werner Müller........I thought I would download and give it a read. I found this book had Good questions, and bad answers regarding the nature of populism. But, was not a book for me. However, It would make a brilliant book for a book club etc and would create wonderful discussions between everyone. Some maybe heated. Everyone has an opinion about this and would be a fab conversations between others.
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Populism’s core claim, says Jan-Werner Müller, in this slim and important book, titled What is populism?, is the idea that populists are the only legitimate representatives of the people and that the will of the people is above all else.  But according to populist logic only some of the people are actually the real, pure people who are deserving good government.  Populism is thus, a moralised form of antipluralism. 

Populism is a poison and a real danger to democracy. But that does not mean that one should not engage them in political debate.  Isolation and zoning is not the answer. Perhaps the best way of dealing with populists is pragmatism. At the end of the day, even a populist must show results. Engage them in honest, public dialogue and  propose solutions to the problems they seek to politicise. It takes time, it is laborious, but it is worth trying.
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This is a well-written, thorough, and important book. The author has taken on the challenge to define what the term "populism" actually means, examining movements that have been called populist over the last 150 years, both on the left and on the right, and reflecting on Trump's rise to power. This short book is concise, enjoyable, and digestible. A must-read for anyone living or interested in the EU or US...
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An interesting but arguably over-long discussion about the apparent rise of populism in several seemingly democratic countries such as Turkey, Hungary, Poland - and of course - the US. It raises the question whether populism represents a positive movement or a reaction to increasing dissatisfaction and frustration with ponderous, conservative, administrations unable to cope with increased globalisation, complexity, and rapid technological change.  Perhaps what we really yearn for is not a populist leader, but an administration that actually does something! We all know that a benevolent dictatorship is the solution but dictatorships - and populist leaders - tend not to be benevolent for long!
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Interesting but difficult to read and understand. This reads more like a giant essay than a book and I found myself with more questions than answers. As someone with a moderate understanding of politics I felt like much of this went over my head - a Political student or someone more involved in politics would probably get more out of it that I did. I felt that much of it was repeated multiple times - so much so that I kept flicking back to see if I really had read the information somewhere else before...and I usually had! It doesn't so much as tell you what populism is but just that it isn't what you think it is, or it might be depending on your viewpoint. No hard and fast answers to questions posed really, just lot's of examples of populism from countries around the world whose politics and politicians I know absolutely nothing about. 

Thanks to Net Galley for a free copy in exchange for an honest review.
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To many, the world doesn't make much sense anymore. The checks and balances essential to a well functioning democracy are being callously discarded, ironically in the name of democracy itself.

Populism is often blamed for this, but as with so many -isms, it seems to resist definition. Muller does an exceptional job at explaining Populism and how it subverts democracy, and this serves as a warning to citizens, particular in Europe. Perhaps most impressively, the book doesn't resort to technical jargon but remains an engaging read even for those not well versed in politics.
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This was a more challenging read, but interesting none the less - I found the ideas well described and discussed. It certainly raises lots of thought provoking ideas and became something I had 'on my mind' and sparked lots of great conversations!
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Populism is one of those things that we all think we know but when you try to explain it we often struggle. Müller makes a good effort of doing that difficult task for us though.

In defining populism we actually end up with a good perspective on pluralism too. The relationship between these two isms is a significant part of where this text has the greatest to offer.  Both in understanding the current status but also the issues we must consider in going forward.

Offering many widespread, global references, Müller shows and shares her broad knowledge of the subject. A fairly neutral perspective is maintained throughout, giving a serious, academic air to the whole thing. Although a fairly dry read it, did keep me engaged. By minimising the political opinion and delivering data it doesn't antagonise the reader and left me feeling a little more aware of the subject.

A good and insightful read.
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A small but detailed essay about what populism is, with specific reference to the current global political map, such as the rise of the likes of Donald Trump, Recep Erdogan and the battle between Marie Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron for the French presidency.
As with Keith Olbermann's recent "Donald Trump is F**king Crazy", I can't help but feel that the people who would most likely learn a lot from this book, are least likely to read it. It's a pretty impenetrable, serious essay on the topic. Perhaps a more populist recounting would reach a wider audience..
As it stands, it is more of a reinforcement of thoughts and ideas that you've already had, albeit far more eloquently articulated that my angry brain when confronted with the current state of the world.
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Thought Provoking and Original
Thought provoking, analytical, original and deep. This is not the easiest read but it provides an excellent history and overview of the rise of populism in world politics today.

Keep persevering - it is worth it!
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A clear guide to populism, and how it affects current politics.
In the wake of Brexit  and Trump this makes very interesting reading, and shows clearly how populism has influenced recent decisions.
While not being an easy read, it is succinct and well argued enough to make you want to keep reading.
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“The only important thing is the unification of the people - because the other people don’t mean anything.”  Donald Trump, May 2016.

Although this book spends much time analysing populist movements in Europe, such as Poland and Hungary, and on politicians such as Erdogan, Geert and Farage, Muller also reflects on Trump’s rise to power and the populist techniques he has used to achieve his position.  It’s a shame in some ways that it was written during his campaign rather than since he took office but there is an afterword written in 2017 which ties the arguments in the book together to reflect on the Trump presidency.

So - how does Muller define populism?  Here is a summary of the main points:

* Populists claim that only they can represent the people

* Whoever doesn’t support them is not part of the real people (In addition to the above quote, Farage’s triumphalism after Brexit is a perfect example of this.  He called it ‘a victory for real people’ thereby questioning the status as members of the political community of the 48% who voted against leaving.)

* Populists pit the pure, innocent, always hardworking people against a corrupt elite who do not really work (other than to further their self-interest) and, in right wing populism, also against the very bottom of society (those who also do not really work and live like parasites off the work of others).  [Their invective, not mine or Muller’s!]

* There is no need for debate in government as the populist is the spokesperson of the people - he knows what they want. Trump on inauguration day, ”the day the people became the rulers of this nation again”.

* Populists will react to the outcome (or even the possibility) of a negative vote by declaring that the system is ‘rigged’ or ‘corrupt’ and love to invest in conspiracy theories.  Sounds familiar!

* Populists cut out the middleman and distance journalists, preferring ‘direct representation’, eg Trump, the “Hemingway of Twitter”, giving the illusion of direct access with someone who tells it like it is, and labelling the press as ‘fake news’, the ‘failing’ NY Times, ‘CNN - so bad and so pathetic’. He has even said of the media in general, “I really don’t think they like our country.  I really believe that.”

* Their central symbolic statement is virtually empty.  What does ‘Make America Great Again’ actually mean, other than that the people have been betrayed by elites and that anyone who opposes Trump must also be somehow against ‘American Greatness’.  What is ‘America First’ achieving except isolationism, ie us against them.

Many important points are made in the afterword, particularly that we have to be careful not to demonise populist leaders. They should be criticised because they are a threat to democracy and to liberalism but we shouldn’t stop debating with them.  Some serious issues have been raised and they must be recognised, just not framed in their terminology.

Clearly ‘anger’ has played a role in Trump’s ascendancy - anger in some of the population at cultural changes they object to, whether its immigration or social-sexual liberal values; anger that their country no longer represents ‘them’ (Muller says those holding this view are generally white Protestants); and there are also genuine material grievances, ie the sense that their economic interests aren’t represented in Washington, grievances that are backed up by hard data.

To sum up, Muller says “Populism..can be useful in making it clear that parts of the population really are unrepresented...Populism should force defenders of liberal democracy to think harder about what current failures of representation might be.”

This book is really just a longer version of many newspaper articles that Muller has had published on this subject but that’s why it appealed to me.  It perhaps goes into more detail than I needed in order to fully understand his arguments but I found the comparisons between populist leaders in Europe, South America, and now Trump in the USA, illuminating.

So - what does the statement at the top of this review mean?  For all their talk of unification of the people, it is in the interests of populism to divide people.  The statement clearly says if you’re not with us, you’re against us.  

Having read this book, I’ll now be watching Trump and others with a better understanding of their modus operandi, albeit with an even stronger sense of foreboding than before.  For voters, this book serves as a warning of the ease with which voters can be manipulated by those who claim to represent our interests.  A straight 5 stars from me.
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