Along with the tireless US-based Dutch scholar Cas Mudde, Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller is one of the most notable Western voices on the subject of populism. His main contribution has been to question dubious claims by populists to be speaking on behalf of real people. More often than not, populists are elite ‘outs’ seeking to oust the elite ‘ins’. That, at least, is how Mudde would probably put it, since he has a punchy style. Müller makes something of a theoretical meal of it.
Müller’s new book is a supplement to the small library of recent works, notably by David Runciman, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, on the endangerment of democracy. The threats include democracy’s own late-middle-aged torpor, the zero-sum approach of populist insurgents, the appeal of technocratic authoritarianism and the material improvements that countries like China use to buy off the middle classes. To this Müller adds the ‘secession’ of the global ultra-rich, with their plush bunkers in New Zealand, the ‘demophobia’ of some of the temporarily marginalised liberal middle classes and the hollowing out of traditional forms of democracy by illiberal vested interests in the United States, Hungary and Poland (the UK is moving that way too).
Müller is not an alarmist: notwithstanding over-rehearsed arguments to the contrary, the 1930s will not be repeated, except as farce and kitsch. Rather, he seeks to recover what in olden times would have been called the ‘spirit’ of democratic politics and establish how the civically minded can protect