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Giving populism its due

E.J. Dionne Jr. on

The bottom line: Yes, there was a backlash against immigration, but above all, Italians were furious at politicians of the old parties and disheartened over the long-term economic decline of their country. Populism may well get Italy into a lot of trouble, but it's not hard to see why Italians are sick of what they've had. Elites need to pay attention.

The sharpest critique of populism, articulated well by Princeton University's Jan-Werner Muller, is that in defining "the people," populists often exclude large segments of the population. They "treat their political opponents as 'enemies of the people' and seek to exclude them altogether." These dangers are captured in the titles of two important new books, one by my Brookings Institution colleague William Galston, "Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy"; the other by Harvard scholar Yascha Mounk, "The People Vs. Democracy."

The sort of populism Muller describes is indeed a threat to liberal values. For their part, Galston and Mounk in no way overlook the sources of disaffection that have led to populist advances. They take seriously the urgency of easing the social and economic crises that provoked the current upsurge.

Nonetheless, there should be no denying that other populist traditions (I'd insist that the American brand from the 1890s is one of them) maintain faith with democracy, push ruling elites to face up to injustices that undermine free institutions, and create the mass movements that social change requires.

The historian Richard Hofstadter was a critic of the populists, yet in his classic 1955 book "The Age of Reform," he recognized that ruling classes can be pushed in two quite different directions. "One of the primary tests of the mood of a society at any given time," he wrote, "is whether its comfortable people tend to identify, psychologically, with the power and achievements of the very successful or with the needs and sufferings of the underprivileged."

Populism takes root when those in charge reject the second option.

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E.J. Dionne's email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group


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