Welcome back, dear reader! In our first blog post, we unraveled the fascinating insights of Jan-Werner Müller into populism. We saw how Müller defines populism as a political approach that focuses on identity politics and how populists claim to represent “the real people.” Now, let’s dive deeper into how this phenomenon affects democracy.

Populism: a threat to democratic values?

Populism often presents itself as the true voice of the people, but this poses a significant risk to democratic plurality. Müller highlights how this claim to exclusive representation undermines the essence of democracy, namely the diversity and freedom of expression. In lots of countries, we see how populist movements sometimes offer simplistic solutions to complex problems, jeopardizing the rich diversity of opinions and interests.

Take, for example, recent developments in the European Union, where populist leaders like Viktor Orbán in Hungary are pressuring the rule of law and freedom of the press. Müller’s analysis helps us understand how such actions threaten not only local institutions but also broader European democratic values.

The role of media and public opinion

Populist leaders are often masters at manipulating the media and shaping public opinion. They use emotional language and simplistic narratives to convey their message, often with little regard for factual accuracy. This was clearly seen in the Brexit campaign, where emotional slogans and misleading information played a key role. Müller emphasizes the importance of a critical and independent press as a counterbalance to these manipulative tactics.

Here are three examples that illustrate how populists play with public opinion:

1.Brexit Campaign: One of the most striking examples of misleading information during the Brexit campaign was the claim that the United Kingdom paid £350 million a week to the EU. This claim, prominently displayed on a campaign bus of the pro-Brexit group, was widely criticized as misleading, including by the UK Statistics Authority. The figure did not take into account the rebate the UK received from the EU, nor the funds that flowed back to the UK. [Source: BBC News, “EU referendum: Vote Leave’s £350m claim ‘misleading’, says UK statistics authority”, May 27, 2016]

2.Trump’s Campaign: During Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, there was frequent use of emotional and often polarizing language. An example of this was his promise to build a wall along the border with Mexico to combat illegal immigration. This promise, although appealing to part of his base, was overly simplistic and ignored the complexity of immigration issues. Moreover, the claim that Mexico would pay for the wall was not realistic, which became apparent later. [Source: The New York Times, “Trump’s Border Wall: How Many Miles Have Been Built?”, January 10, 2021]

3.Populism in the EU: In Italy, the Lega party, led by Matteo Salvini, often used simplistic and emotional rhetoric, especially around immigration issues. An example was Salvini’s claim that migrants were the cause of a large part of the crime in Italy. However, this assertion was contradicted by statistical data, showing that migrants did not disproportionately contribute to the country’s crime rates. [Source: The Guardian, “Salvini’s migrant crackdown in Italy: ‘He has created a climate of fear’”, August 14, 2018]

These examples show how populist leaders often rely on emotional and simplistic messages, which do not always align with factual reality. Müller’s emphasis on the importance of a critical and independent press is therefore crucial in countering such misleading tactics.

How to counter populism?

It’s a delicate balancing act to combat populism without undermining democratic principles. Müller suggests addressing the underlying causes of populism, such as economic inequality and feelings of political alienation. Instead of imitating populist rhetoric, democratic leaders should work on restoring trust and promoting inclusive politics.

Stronger than populism

As we prepare for our final post in this series, where we will discuss strategies to address the roots of populism, it’s important to remember that democracy is a constantly evolving process. It requires our ongoing attention and commitment to protect the values of pluralism and freedom against the simplistic temptations of populism. Let’s continue to learn and grow in our understanding of these crucial issues. See you soon!