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The Anti-Democratic Heart of Populism

SANTIAGO – Many of the men and women who turned out for the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund in early October were saying something like this: “Imagine if the Republicans had nominated someone with the same anti-trade views as Trump, minus the insults and the sexual harassment. A populist protectionist would be headed to the White House.”

The underlying view is that rising populism on the right and the left, both in the United States and in Europe, is a straightforward consequence of globalization and its unwanted effects: lost jobs and stagnant middle-class incomes. Davos men and women hate this conclusion, but they have embraced it with all the fervor of new converts.

Yet there is an alternative – and more persuasive – view: while economic stagnation helps push upset voters into the populist camp, bad economics is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for bad politics. On the contrary, argues Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Mueller in his new book: populism is a “permanent shadow” on representative democracy.

Populism is not about taxation (or jobs or income inequality). It is about representation – who gets to speak for the people and how.