... lively ... It should be said that Müller’s concept of populism—as something that’s inherently opposed to pluralism and ultimately democracy—is pejorative and not uncontroversial, especially among those on the left who want to reclaim the word. But his definition also offers the benefit of a clarifying specificity ... this is one of those rare books about a pressing subject that reads less like a forced march than an inviting stroll ... Müller takes care to situate the United States in an international context, using examples from other countries to illuminating effect ... hopeful, though its author cautions that he’s not particularly optimistic.
The truths Müller expounds may well be self-evident, and they are worthy goals for Western democracies presently roiled by crises of legitimacy and longer-term policy drift—but Müller’s analysis rarely engages with the root causes of these crises. He proposes procedural fixes that are well-considered but leaves them largely to float in a conceptual and ideological vacuum. Populism is the villain of this book. But that may be largely because it misconstrues a tradition that could revitalize democracy ... There are of course real hazards in formulating broad-based responses to demagogic, bigoted strongman movements—but the notion that authoritarian populism has so deeply infected public discourse that fighting it with movement-style protest can play into its own sinister and divisive agendas seems a quasi-paranoid flourish not at all out of line with Trumpian and Bannonite rhetoric in its own right ... Müller’s line of argument distorts the actual legacies of populism, particularly of American populism ... It’s more than a little wearisome to continue insisting on this point amid the recent barrage of tracts that demonize populism as Democracy Rules does ... in Müller’s institutionalist scheme of analysis, unions and workers are another AWOL constituency in the vast phantom public ... Against the backdrop of today’s crises, an oversight on this scale seems astonishing.
In this fascinating, readable work, the author helps readers understand exactly how democracy is meant to work. Meticulously researched and clearly spelled out, the narrative demonstrates what democracy is and isn’t ... For such an all-encompassing, often messy, and contentious subject, the author maintains a concise, consistently informative narrative that explains key terms and theoretical frameworks in a way that should engage a wide audience. An essential examination of what democracy is and can be, how it can be abused or strengthened, and how we can move forward.
... [a] muddled meditation ... Müller views the struggle through a wide-ranging survey of political theory and practice ... Müller’s hang-dog take on democracy...isn’t very directional ... This ruminative sketch asks plenty of pressing questions, but offers few clear answers.