The discourse about populism suffers from inherent interests in using this word and concept, “populism”, not as a means for understanding the complex changes and challenges of our times but as a tool in the political arena. Populism, an explanation for a hyper-politized time, has itself been politized.
In the context of the questions surrounding our programme “The Future of Democracy” this term has been always present: How does the idea of the people change if you see them as a threat rather than a promise? How has the idea of the people itself become weaponized in creating the idea of a homogenous entity, one of the criteria that people like Jan-Werner Müller or Philip Manow use to identify what is called populism: fundamental and systemic opposition against elites in politics and society.
What exactly that elite is and what it is doing, how it can be challenged and how these challenges can be met – the answer to these questions mostly come down to where you stand yourself on the political spectrum. If you are more to the center, you will see the threats to liberal democracy from movements like the Yellow Vests in France on the one hand and the attacks on liberal institutions like the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters in a way as connected – they are all raging against the middle, where liberal rationality rules.
Populism, in that sense, can be a term that’s defending what is existing – thus robbing valid criticism its legitimacy. By talking about populism from the left and from the right in seemingly equal terms, this discourse can create an epistemic confusion that helps nobody. The great advantage and indeed success of the work of Philip Manow, like Jan-Werner Müller a fellow in the programme “The Future of Democracy” is exactly that he is very precise about how the different forms and motivations of populism can be explained, what the sources of the resistance are and how the answers to these challenges need to vary according to the different reasons.
Manow, a professor at the University of Bremen, manages to pull together the two strands that are most often used to explain populist sentiments, usually in a way that is either - or: either the market, economic woes, or the culture, racism and other forms of cultural domination and repression. Capitalism or more precisely globalization as an essential factor on the one hand, immigration and migration on the other hand as a driving force. Manow says: True, but you need to look closely how these two are connected to really understand what drives people to the barricades.
This is why the paper he wrote for Chatham House is so important, in the context of “The Future of Democracy” and beyond: Manow finds a new way of talking about the populist challenge, one that infuses his analysis with a level of understanding that remains cool and composed while trying to stay connected to the real motivations of people. It is a striking example of a political scientist not shying away from the difficult question of where you position yourself. I am sure you will profit greatly from reading this paper.