Paschal Donohoe on ‘What Is Populism?’: Essential reading for political minds

Review: Jan-Werner Müller’s describes how the political centre can respond to populism’s rise

What is Populism
What is Populism
Author: Jan-Werner Múller
ISBN-13: 978-0141987378
Publisher: Penguin
Guideline Price: £8.99

A vastly experienced and wise colleague once offered counsel to me that has appeared even more relevant in light of recent political events. He suggested to me a rule of thumb, proposed in turn to him, by a senior civil servant more than 40 years ago.

In a previous exchange, my colleague had argued that a particular event would not happen. It was impossible, he contended. A wise civil servant sighed and advised “But minister, if you can imagine it, then it will happen”.

Many recent political events have pointed to the wisdom of this approach. If politics is the art of the possible, then the range of political possibilities has expanded.

But this expansion of possibility has developed as constraints have changed. Boundaries are wider. Political charges or claims that were once unthinkable have now become normalised. Policies once ruled out by mainstream political parties are either happening or possible.


The idea of populism is used to define and explore this political trend.

The title of this work – What Is Populism? – by German political scientist Jan-Werner Müller poses a simple question. It answers that and then achieves more. Despite the brevity of this book, it describes populism in government and advises how the political centre can respond.

The author opens with a clear warning, writing that “Populism is something like a permanent shadow of modern representative democracy, and a constant peril”. Müller looks not just to enlighten the university seminar but to offer a bracing warning for the future.

Populism is far more than a claim to challenge the existing order for the benefit of the common good. As this work notes, mainstream parties constantly make such claims. Populists differ in that they claim a monopoly of representation and understanding as “ ... they, and only they, represent the people”.

This is eerily familiar to me. It has become commonplace to claim that Irish centrist political parties do not represent the ordinary voter and their interests. It is not just their competence that is attacked but also their compassion.

I tread carefully with these claims. While vigorously repelling them, it was also apparent to me that we were coming dangerously close to a large number of those ordinary voters reaching the same conclusion. In my first budget speech I therefore contended that our defining collective political challenge was whether the political “centre would hold”.

However, this is not just about representation. Populist politicians also argue that they can define the people, their “core claim also implies that whoever does not really support populist parties might not be part of the proper people to begin with”. Thankfully this dimension of populism is not yet apparent in our political life.

Populists in power

A claim frequently made is that such purity of representation cannot cope with government. Populism, it is argued, will be sundered by the compromises and trade-offs inherent in governing.

The book convincingly argues otherwise. It details three techniques for governing that are now being implemented by populist-led or -influenced governments.

First, the state is occupied or colonised. Courts are undermined, checks and balances weakened and politically neutral institutions such as the civil service are undermined.

Second, mass clientelism is implemented – favours and rewards are offered and delivered in return for continued political support. This is by no means unique to populists. But the author argues that “What makes populists distinctive, once more, is that they can engage in such practices openly and with public moral justifications, since for them only some people are really the people and hence deserving of the support by what is rightfully their state”.

Finally, civic society is repressed. Nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) are attacked. This is an inevitable consequence of the populist claim to be the true and sole representatives of the people.

Failures and difficulties are blamed on the institutions of government, which are intermediaries that get in the way of the purest expression of the will of the people.

Don’t exclude them

So how should the political centre respond? Müller is emphatic that populists cannot be excluded from political debate. This only deepens the politics of exclusion. The successful campaign waged by France’s President Emmanuel Macron against the Front National is a textbook example of this approach.

However, this book disappoints in not offering a wider analysis as to why support for populism has grown. This is a fundamental question, and one barely posed by this book. Cultural rifts, the impact of the 2008 financial crisis and the discontents of globalisation receive no critical attention.

Structural changes in living standards and pay have occurred. Recent research by the McKinsey Global Institute notes that two-thirds of households in developed economies experienced either a decrease or stagnation in their income, prior to state benefits, between 2005 and 2015. This happened to 580 million people.

If enough voters feel that that the rules are rigged against them, they will elect those who propose to create new rules.

So given the exact clarity of this book on the form of populism, silence on these causes of growth is so significant that it verges on the puzzling. The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics by John Judis explores the demand for populism more fully.

This omission, however, is offset by many strengths. The clarity of definition and the analysis of populism in government make this book required reading for all who care about the quality and future of public life.

Those of us in the centre of political life need to stand over progress made, but better understand, acknowledge and act where progress remains to be made.

This book urges understanding and then a political and policy response. “Tough on populism and tough on the causes of populism,” to paraphrase that once-rising star of the British political centre, Tony Blair.

Paschal Donohoe is the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform

Paschal Donohoe

Paschal Donohoe

Paschal Donohoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a Fine Gael TD and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform