We cannot analytically divide reason from emotion

In the second part of the conversation, Jan-Werner Müller interviewed by Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič talks about populism and employment of emotions, and on bipartisanship and political conflict.

Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič: In your book What Is Populism?, you defined populism as a movement that parrots democratic rhetoric, but hollows out democracy. That is, however, not an uncontested definition. Many have argued that populism has a democratic genealogy. Left-wing thinkers like Ernesto Laclau have vindicated the use of this term. Chantal Mouffe has explicitly argued for a left-wing populism, and we did see, especially in Southern Europe, parties that could be defined as populists according to a relatively strict definition – I can think of Podemos in Spain, or even more so the Five Star Movement in Italy – that have been committed to the democratic process. Are democracy and populism really incompatible, or can we talk, etymological pleonasm aside, of a democratic populism?

Jan-Werner Müller: Let me clarify one thing about my approach. I am saying that 

populist parties and movements have an authoritarian tendency, on the basis of their antipluralism. But that antipluralism is something that we see on political leaders; it does not follow that these parties and movements cannot have a representative function.

I am not saying anything about the followers, I am not implying they should not be represented or that the fact that they are represented is in itself a terrible thing for democracy. If you look at figures who obviously went into an authoritarian direction, let’s say Erdoğan or Chávez, it doesn’t follow from my approach that everything they ever said is illegitimate or they didn’t have a point in saying that Venezuela isn’t a well functioning democracy or that Erdoğan didn’t have a point in saying, we have a Kemalist establishment in Turkey that doesn’t represent well certain parts of the population…

The now famous “deep state”…

Yes. I am also not saying that everyone who follows these parties is necessarily an anti-pluralist. Some of them may well be, but some simply have policy and value preferences, or interests that they see best reflected or articulated by those leaders. It’s not that the voters of these more or less authoritarian figures are all duped. Recent empirical studies have shown that in some cases, important segments of voters of populist parties are perfectly aware that these parties might damage the democratic system, but they engage in a tradeoff: they decide that some erosion of democracy is perfectly acceptable because these people represent my economic interests or certain policies that matter a great deal to me. 

That development becomes more plausible under two conditions. One is when these populist leaders have succeeded in polarizing society a lot, so it becomes unthinkable of voting for the other side; you rather accept that there may be some damage to democracy from your side, or you have such pessimistic expectations about the future that you say: “Look, it’s a scramble, we’ve got to get what whatever we can.” This is one of the important findings from Adam Przeworski who pointed out that we now have a lot of pessimism among the electorate in Europe and in the United States, and maybe also Canada, that we’ve never seen before. This doesn’t excuse anything, but it enables to understand people who are basically saying: “This is a nasty fight, and I just can’t afford to lose it”. Obviously, democracy works better if its basic logic of “sometimes we lose, sometimes we gain” isn’t happening in a context where you feel that the stakes are extremely high.

From my point of view, 

a left-wing populism, if we take populism to mean what I think it means, cannot be democratic.

Some of the movements that you mentioned have, in my view, developed in such a way that it would be very hard to say by now that they are populist in my sense of the term. I am well aware that some of the leaders themselves have theorized themselves as being populists: Podemos is the clearest example. Nevertheless, if you look how they talk now, what structures they have built, how they are pursuing their political agenda, it would be hard for me to say that they are populist in my sense of the term. 

Let me add one last, theoretical point. I am not proposing some prohibition on “people talk”, nor am I saying that the invocation of “the people” is always toxic or dangerous etc. I am skeptical on the utility of such approach. The theorists you referenced, Laclau and Mouffe, did make important contributions to Western Marxists, or to some degree post-Marxist theorizing, when they put their emphasis on Gramsci and said: “Look, we have this very mechanical understanding of Socialist parties, they are completely stuck in an industrial age in the way they think about society, and they ought to think much more about the constructive work of articulating coalitions and constructing social hegemony”. 

Now, these arguments may sound very trivial, but when they first said this in the 1970s and 1980s, it was a real issue how leftist parties that thought of themselves mainly as representatives of the industrial working class would relate to new social movements. What I’ve never really understood is, once you have grasped the point of articulating a cultural hegemony that is, to put it very crudely, “anti-neoliberal”, what exactly is the surplus value of invoking “the people”? In other words: when you have articulated an alternative political coalition, what is the point of adding, “oh yes, and we’re also doing populism”? If the argument is that this resonates more, then you are making a quasi-empirical claim, and by now, there are plenty of examples to a least cast doubt on that claim. 

The best example is a movement that was directly advised by Mouffe – Mélenchon. If you think of the switch he made between 2012 and 2017: in 2012, he was very internationalist, basically saying that whoever drowns in the Mediterranean is our issue, we are France, we are a universal nation etc.; in 2017, tricolore everywhere, much more “people talk”. By now we know, as sociologist Éric Fassin has shown very clearly, that this idea that a populist turn is going to win back citizens who had committed to the Front Nationale, simply didn’t happen. If the idea is that the left is going to articulate a different conception of “the people”, and that is going to draw back people who had fallen for a “wrong” idea of the people (a racist, ethnic, patriarchal, etc.), then it doesn’t seem to work. I’m not saying that one election proves conclusively the work of a theory, but it does reinforce the doubts that some of us have had about this particular political strategy. 

With Chantal Mouffe you can also see a strong influence of Carl Schmitt, and his idea that politics is the business of defining who is friend and who is foe. She articulates it differently of course, but for her, like for Schmitt, the defining feature of politics is not policy, nor “the care for the world” as Hannah Arendt would put it, but contention. This reduction of politics to the sheer polemical passion is a striking feature of contemporary public debate. Trump’s greatest appeal, especially among a certain profile of young voters, is that he’s “owning the libs”. What matters are not the candidate’s qualities or achievements, not even his ability to inspire his followers, but the simple fact that he, as they say on the internet, “triggers” the other side. This Schmittian idea that the essence of politics is in identifying the adversary is something that has become very pervasive today, if not in political theory, definitely in practice. As someone who wrote an intellectual biography of Schmitt, how would you comment on this development?

One small correction: I’m not a biographer of Schmitt. I wrote about him as a path into understanding some debates in postwar Europe, but I’m not really interested in Schmitt’s personal biography. 

Here, I’m afraid I again disagree with Chantal Mouffe’s point that politicians have unjustly forgotten the importance of emotions. Of course politics is also about emotions. Obama also mobilized emotions, Willy Brandt mobilized emotions. Ok, maybe Angela Merkel doesn’t mobilize emotions, but in itself nothing follows from these observations. 

The question is which emotions and, less trivally, we cannot analytically neatly divide reason from emotion.

Mouffe likes to rant against Rawls and Habermas as horrible rationalists, but they are not engaged in denying the role of emotions: they are engaged in thought experiments to test our intuitions and help us to theorize. They are not writing political manuals and telling us that, as citizens, we ought to be completely unemotional – this is a total caricature of what these theorists are about. 

Furthermore, if you think even only of negative emotions, like anger and fear etc, we’ve known at least since Aristotle that these have a cognitive element, they are not just irrational irruptions coming from nowhere. Somebody is angry because they have a sense that the world is unfair, or that they have been treated unfairly. We can then talk whether that judgment is correct or not, but talking about “emotions” in general is a total dead end, as a theoretical discussion; at the level of politics, given that Chantal Mouffe’s latest book, For a Left Wing Populism, explicitly presents itself as a book of political strategy, party politicians and their staff going to laugh if someone comes to them and says: “You know, emotions are important, too!” Everyone knows that! 

Of course, politics is also about conflict. It is not designed to allow us to all come to a consensus. This is a misguided expectation. As an example of this view, if you read Anne Applebaum’s latest book, Twilight of Democracy, at one point she explicitly writes something like: “If we all follow the rules, we are going to arrive at a consensus.” No, we are not going to arrive at a consensus! We are going to arrive at a legitimate government and a legitimate opposition; and then the game continues. The point of legitimate opposition is precisely that it can hold the government to account, articulate alternative visions.

What I’m saying is really Civics 101, but it’s amazing how as a reaction to the sheer divisiveness of populists and the fact that their political business model is, indeed, dividing people and polarization, commentators have gone to the other extreme; now, we are expecting democracy to be about consensus, bipartisanship etc. Obviously, if politicians come to the conclusion that certain problems require forms of cooperation, then great; as you say, there really are policy challenges, politics is not a game for fun. 

But like emotions, bipartisanship is normatively neutral: it’s neither good nor bad in itself. What is dangerously naïve is this notion that we should redefine democracy as such as device at arriving at consensus. That’s not what it is, and that is also not what theorists of deliberative democracy like Rawls or Habermas are saying. This is why Chantal Mouffe, when she points out the importance of conflict, is simply restating basic points about liberal democracy. 

She has this distinction, if you remember, between enemy and adversary: thinking of your opponent as an enemy is bad, she says, but thinking in terms of adversaries is perfectly ok. I agree with that, but it’s not a new point nor a particularly profound one. Not that this should be a litmus test for the validity of a political theory, but if you went to a politician and say “my big insight is that politics is also about conflict”, they are going to laugh you out of the room. The question is: what are the boundaries of conflict? One of the points that I have been trying to make is that you cannot conduct conflict in such a way that you start to define certain citizens and certain groups as being beyond the polity as such. That is a hard border that matters. Political conflict in a democracy can’t mean “everything goes”, but within that hard border, many things are possible. 

Many have argued that the rise of authoritarian populism in the last decade is a reaction to the depolitization of “Big Issues” after the fall of the Berlin Wall. From the left you hear one version of this criticism: we had an undisputed liberal consensus in economic policy, and that hollowed out political discussion. And you have an analogous argument on the right: there are certain issues, like the rights of sexual or ethnic minorities that were depoliticized by being treated exclusively as issues of human rights. There is a common ground of these two criticisms – a very strong critical reaction to what we could call a liberal consensus of the 1990s. Do you think this criticism is justified, and if it is, what is a better way to move into a more conflictual and yet non-destructive way of doing politics?

I think that at a very broad level, there is something to this criticism. Here, I agree with Chantal Mouffe that a certain kind of third-way rhetoric, which is still practiced by Macron who is saying that he represents the reasonable center and the opposition is formed by crazy extremes, is in its own way antipluralist, and therefore it facilitates populist actors (which does not mean that therefore populists are the authentic representatives of democracy). The question is what follows from this diagnosis? One is that not every form in politicization is desirable in itself just because it repoliticizes issues that have been previously consensual or left to experts. It is not desirable, for example, that basic decisions on congressional districts in the US are made by political actors. 

There are sometimes very good reasons to depoliticize institutions that are invested in setting the ground rules of democracy.

This is not to say that there are “objectively right” answers to these questions, but nevertheless we shouldn’t go to the other extreme and say, “the more decisions are taken politically, the better”. 

My second point tackles a genuinely difficult question in democratic theory: at which point do you concede victory? At which point so you admit, that battle was fought and lost, we should accept the results and move on. This is, I think, really the case in the issues about minority rights that you mention. You now have overwhelming majorities that reject criminalization of homosexuality and want to fully include gay people as equal members of society, which has a number of legal consequences. On what ground does somebody who still holds a different view going to say “that’s because we’ve depoliticized the issue” when this simply isn’t plausible anymore? At a certain point you have to accept the outcome. If you don’t, you are in danger of being susceptible to conspiracy theories like the ones sponsored by the Kremlin, according to which the EU has an agenda to make people gay etc.

Yet, let me reiterate that this is a difficult and highly context-dependent question. If you think neoliberalism is a bad thing, there would have been a period when that economic model seemed like a matter of common sense, and a minority fought to repoliticize these issues. What battlefields are still open for fight cannot be easily determined in a quasi-objective manner, but I would say one thing: whatever political fight you want to reopen or engage in, it has to happen within what I’ve called “hard borders”. It is incompatible with democracy to deny the standing of other people who might be in this democratic fight. This is what populists do. 

I would not say that somebody who wants to restrict abortion laws or have less immigration is in itself an undemocratic actor; we can talk about these things in a democracy. But if that package of ideas comes with saying that whoever disagrees with us isn’t a proper Slovene, Hungarian, German etc, then it’s a problem for democracy as such. You can criticize me, who are you to establish these hard borders, but if you want to accept democracy, then you have to accept the rules that make it viable. If you are breaking those ground rules, then you are playing another game, where other things become possible. But it can no longer be qualified as a democracy.

End of Part II of the interview. The first Part you can find here.

Jan-Werner Müller is a professor of politics at Princeton University.He is the author of Another Country: German Intellectuals, Unification and National IdentityA Dangerous Mind: Carl Schmitt in Post-War European Thought, Was ist Populismus? His Christian Democracy: A New Intellectual History, based on his Carlyle Lectures in Oxford, is forthcoming with Harvard University Press; his Democracy Rules will appear with FSG.

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