In a recent article published on Public Seminar, Jan-Werner Mueller affirmed that populism is by its very nature not only anti-elitist, but also anti-pluralist: “Populists claim that they, and only they, represent the people.” He then attacked the undemocratic tendency populist politicians show when they lose the elections: they “begin to question the existing political institutions, which are obviously producing the wrong outcome, or even accuse the winners of fraud, as Donald Trump just did.” Of course, Mueller admitted, unsatisfactory electoral results will not prevent populists from speaking in the name of “real Americans,” but at that point, we should call them out for what they are: “not the true disciples of democracy, who want to implement an undistorted popular will, but in fact a danger to democracy.”

Given the brevity of his article, this conclusion remains a bit cryptic for the reader: is he claiming that populism is dangerous for democracy only when it is the expression of a minority that pretends to decide for the entire electorate? Or is he making a stronger claim — according to which populist politics is always undemocratic? Given the relevance of his reflection in the context of the current US primaries, I think it deserves a closer look.

Mueller’s most detailed position on populism can be found in his 2014 essay “‘The People Must Be Extracted from within the People’: Reflections on Populism” in which he maintains that “populism… is a profoundly illiberal and, in the end, directly undemocratic understanding of representative democracy” (p. 484). In this perspective, populists adopt a moralistic understanding of politics, opposing “a morally pure and fully unified, but ultimately fictional, people to small minorities who are put outside the authentic people” (p. 485). Even if they do not refuse the principle of representation, populist politicians endorse it as long as the general public agrees with them: they “view the people as essentially passive, once the proper popular will aimed at the proper common good has been ascertained” (p. 486). In short, populism’s account of representation “is ultimately not compatible with representation based on the actual input and the continuous influence by citizens divided amongst themselves” (p. 487). Therefore, populists would be against the features often associated with parliaments, such as extended deliberation.

It is now clear that Mueller’s critique of populism is a radical one: we should avoid its temptation in every occasion, because doing otherwise would endanger, among other things, a democratic notion of representation. However, when it comes to formulating an alternative to the populist turn in contemporary politics, his view appears problematic: What is the alternative? An approach that seeks to bring in those currently excluded — what some sociologists sometimes call “the superfluous” — as well as those risking permanent exclusion because of the impact of austerity, while at the same time keeping in the very wealthy and powerful (p. 491).

It seems to me that, at least when it comes to the current American situation, a solution of this kind (which was originally formulated with reference to European politics) is no longer available. Indeed, it is precisely the influence of the very wealthy and powerful that condemns huge amounts of people to being politically superfluous. We can clarify this point by recalling an example Hanna Pitkin made in The Concept of Representation, her classical 1967 study on representation. Suppose that, in the visitors’ gallery in Congress, a person asks another whom a certain Congressman on the floor represents:

“He may be asking whose representative the Congressman is ‘officially,’ so that an appropriate answer would be ‘New Jersey’s sixth district.’ He may be asking party affiliation…if the questioner and his neighbor are political scientists or journalists on the track of a pressure-group scandal, the appropriate answer may be, ‘Oh, he represents the natural-gas boys.’…This is what a political scientist means when he says that the test of representation is not whether the leader is elected, but how well he acts to further the objective of those he represents.” (pp. 121-122)

Unfortunately, empirical data tell us that the circumstance Pitkin saw as “scandalous” in the 1960s is close to being the norm in today’s United States. As Martin Gilens wrote in “Inequality and Democratic Responsiveness,” his famous 2005 article, “when Americans with different income levels differ in their policy preferences, actual policy outcomes strongly reflect the preferences of the most affluent but bear virtually no relationship to the preferences of poor or middle-income Americans” (p. 778). As a consequence, we have to recognize that the usual conception of democratic representation is not properly at work in the United States.

It is important not to parody this last claim: its validity does not postulate the bad faith or the greed of the best-off, but relies on a matter of fact — namely that, under the current circumstances (e.g., the ways in which campaigns are financed), some individuals simply retain an unfair potential for political influence. Their ability to turn economic power into political power is so impressive that Dean Machin argued in “Political Inequality and the ‘Super-Rich’: Their Money or (Some of) Their Political Rights” that we should impose on the super-rich a choice between their wealth (what makes them super-rich, in the end) and some of their political rights — such as “entitlements to fund political parties and issues; to stand for office; to work or volunteer for political parties; and to control media outlets” (p. 122). In a similar context, the possibility of putting together the superfluous and, for example, the top 1% looks incredibly difficult to conceive — let alone to realize.

The problem of representation, in any case, runs even deeper. As Ernesto Laclau reminded us in On Populist Reason (2005, p. 158), representation is a “two-way process”: the representative has not simply to transmit the will of the represented, but also to give credibility to it — that is, to demonstrate that such a will, even if coming from a sectorial group, is compatible with the interests of the whole community. For this reason, the representative cannot be depicted as a passive figure, because she has “to add something to the interests (s)he represents.” This addition will be reflected in the identity of those who are represented, which is thus modified by the process of representation. Laclau then remarked,

“If we have a fully constituted will — of a corporative group, for instance — the representative’s room for manoeuvre would indeed be limited. This, however, is an extreme case within a wider range of possibilities. Let us take, as the opposite extreme, the case of marginal sectors with a weak degree of integration into the stable framework of a community. In this case we would be dealing not with a will to be represented but, rather, with a constitution of that will through the very process of representation. The task of the representative is, however, democratic, because without [her] intervention there would be no incorporation of those marginal sectors into the public sphere. But in that case, [her] task would consist less in transmitting a will than in providing a point of identification which would constitute as historical actors the sectors that (s)he is addressing.” (pp. 158-159)

This last quotation enables us to make a further step: those who occupy marginal sectors of society — i.e., the people Mueller calls “superfluous” — have to face not only a gap in the responsiveness of the institutional system to their demands, but also a deficit in the very elaboration of understandable requests. By contrast, small elites are likely to control more strictly their representatives’ behavior — their interests being considerably homogeneous and therefore even easier to promote.

The role of populism is precisely, in Laclau’s view, to unify a myriad of unsatisfied popular demands in an “equivalential chain” constructed around one of them, which becomes hegemonic without deleting the particularity of the other demands. In so doing, populism can overcome the main difficulty of standard theories about democratic representation: their tendency to consider “the will of the ‘people’ as something that was constituted before representation” (pp. 163-164).

This is precisely what Bernie Sanders is trying to do these days: his constant appeal to economic equality contains a lot more than a single request to raise taxes on top income percentiles. Functioning as a synecdoche, as a part referring to the whole, it also encompasses serious concerns for racial and gender justice, questions relating to environmental and intergeneration fairness, proposals for increasing the political participation and influence of ordinary Americans, the refusal of a neoimperialistic geopolitics, and much more.

Sanders is clearly a populist, but in a way that challenges both Mueller’s and Laclau’s understandings of the notion. Indeed, as the former maintains, Sanders has a moral understanding of politics, partly based on an opposition between the pure and the corrupt. At the same time, similar to several other populist figures on the left (e.g., Pablo Iglesias), he encourages extended confrontation and deliberation as well as “the actual input and continuous influence by citizens divided amongst themselves.” Just to make an example, and even if he has still a lot of things to learn about minority rights, he let activists of Black Lives Matter interrupt some of his political meetings and listened to their opinions and demands. His entire campaign in based on a sort of grassroots movement raising notable amounts of funds by collecting a number of small donations.

Sanders, moreover, does not “consistently and continuously deny the very legitimacy of [his] opponents” (Mueller 2014, p. 487) and embodies a kind of populism less antagonistic than Laclau might think. To use the jargon of political theorists, Sanders is creating a political dichotomy without defining the other side as enemy by nature: his communicative style implicitly questions the assumption Chantal Mouffe presented in The Return of the Political (1993) that “to construct a ‘we’ it must be distinguished from the ‘them’, and that means establishing a frontier, defining an ‘enemy’” (p. 69) — an idea that has clearly affected Laclau’s own position. The senator from Vermont is a populist who talks about issues and constantly avoids getting personal even in television debates. His strenuous opposition to privilege and oligarchy is inspired not by a generic hatred, but by a realistic understanding of the actual political situation. We have a desperate need of a populism such as this if we want American democracy to be rescued.