Hannah Arendt once made a memorable distinction between philosophy and politics: whereas philosophy is about the person, politics is about the people. That is, while philosophy is primarily concerned with the natural ends and highest ideals of a given individual, politics is about what can be achieved among multiple people whose most fundamental commitments may be at odds with one another. Of course, political institutions both require and develop some concept of human nature; but in the end, politics is about the “coexistence and association of different men.” Politics is predicated on difference—or, as Arendt famously put it, on “the fact of human plurality.”

Arendt’s distinction came to mind repeatedly when reading Jan-Werner Müller’s important and concise book, What Is Populism? (2016). Consider some basic facts: Last year we saw the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union; the growing strength of nationalist movements in Europe, including the campaign of Marie Le Pen in France; the consolidation of power by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey; the rise of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines; and, of course, the election of Donald Trump in the United States. While the differences between each of these movements are real and significant, each has been described as fueling and benefiting from populism. But do we really know what we mean when we use that term?

Müller is, by all accounts, a trustworthy guide for answering this question. His short book focuses not on the dynamics of social movements, but on the habits of populist leaders. In three brief chapters, he takes up three related questions: 1) What do populists say? 2) How do populists govern? and 3) How can populists be dealt with?

What do populists say? The lambasting of elites was a common feature of 2016’s “populist” political movements. Müller makes clear, however, that anti-establishment rhetoric is a necessary but insufficient feature of populism. All populists are anti-establishment, but not all those who denounce elites are populists. Anti-establishment rhetoric is too common to be a useful distinguishing feature—in the United States, even incumbent politicians position themselves as “against Washington” in some form or fashion. For populism to mean anything distinct, we must be able to identify some other feature that sets populist leaders apart.

“This is the core claim of populism: only some of the people are really the people.”

And this is where the concept of difference comes in. Müller argues that the distinguishing feature of populism is a kind of “anti-pluralism,” by which he means the designation of some segment of the population as the source of all that is good and true about that society. Populists claim to be against the establishment as representatives of a mythical, idealized version of the “true people.” “This is the core claim of populism,” Müller says: “only some of the people are really the people.” Müller describes populism as the “shadow” of representative democracy, an ever-present threat. The way to consolidate power over a polity that claims to honor the will of the people is to redefine “the people” itself—and sadly, contemporary examples of this abound.

How do populists govern? Müller argues that, contrary to conventional wisdom, populist leaders can successfully enact their agendas within the structures of representative democracies. What would such governments look like? As Müller has it, when populists come to power, their governance tends to be marked by three things: attempts to “hijack the state apparatus” for their own ends; a kind of “mass clientelism” that doles out government benefits to those to whom they are indebted; and systematic efforts to sideline institutions of civil society. Showing just how this is true in populist regimes is the essential burden of Müller’s second chapter, and his description of contemporary efforts to enact these commitments should give us pause.

How can populists be dealt with? This leads us to Müller’s final chapter on “How to Deal with Populists.” There, Müller discusses and rejects a number of strategies political actors have employed in response to populist movements. The main one is a kind of strict non-cooperation. When populist leaders emerge, recognizing their legitimacy is ruled out, and, if they are elected, issue-based coalition building is off the table. The main problem with this strategy, of course, is that it doubles down on the populist’s own strategy of exclusion. As Müller puts it, “one is reminded of what gave [George] Wallace’s counterpunches against liberals such force in his day: he could claim with some plausibility that ‘the biggest bigots in the world are…the ones who call others bigots.’”

So, in Müller’s view, populist figures must not be excluded. Even though they represent a perennial threat to the goods of liberal democratic governance, they must be engaged as legitimate parts of the body politic. And yet, Müller is clear to say that “talking to populists is not the same as talking like populists.” In his view, the antidote to populism is a sustained defense of the goods of pluralism:

As John Rawls argued, accepting pluralism is not recognition of the empirical fact that we live in diverse societies; rather, it amounts to a commitment to try to find fair terms of sharing the same political space with others whom we respect as free and equal but also as irreducibly different in their identities and interests.

Whether or not Rawls always kept this commitment, Müller’s claim regarding the need to talk to populists without talking like them strikes me as perfectly apt for a moment like ours. As Arendt and others have recognized, when we face the depth of our differences across ethnic, cultural, and religious lines, we tend to feel the pull of all-too-simple solutions. When we recognize how profound those differences can be, our fear of difference can drive us to purge or ignore some undesirable element of the population. While he doesn’t develop it fully, Müller’s analysis highlights the need for a renewed commitment to a common life in the midst of deep difference.

But the work of “accepting pluralism” is not primarily conceptual. It’s not about accepting propositions, but about enacting practices of neighborliness in actual communities of difference. In this way, pluralism—that is, the sustained commitment to live in peace with those with whom we disagree—does not simply recognize the empirical facts of plurality and difference; it is a normative commitment that must be articulated, defended, and above all, embodied. In recent months we have suggested (see Vol. 71, Vol. 69, Vol. 51) that this commitment has to begin on the smallest scale—when neighbors care for each other’s children, when co-workers make an effort to get to know one another, when common projects are undertaken and unlikely coalitions built, and when communities take responsibility for the plight of the vulnerable in their midst.


From all of us here at Culture Briefing, Happy New Year! And thanks to those who filled out our brief survey at the year’s end. We are digesting the responses and look forward to incorporating your insights into future Culture Briefings. If you didn’t get a chance to take the survey, please do so HERE, and if you have additional feedback you’d like to provide, please write our editor at plorish@newcitycommons.com.