Nicholas Wolterstorff on Populism


Last week I had the privilege of attending a session with Nicholas Wolterstorff. It had been my wish for a long time to meet him in person. His visit to the Netherlands then was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.  On the occasion of his visit, a new book titled ‘Thinking about Shalom’ (Denken om Shalom) was presented about his ‘practical philosophy’. During the week, four meetings with him were organized about different topics (philosophy, politics, education, liturgy), but all related to ‘shalom’. The concept of shalom became very important in Wolterstorff’s thinking throughout the years. I would have loved to attend the friday meeting on liturgy, but my schedule prevented that. However, the wednesday session about politics, which was held in the beautiful meeting room of the Upper House (‘Eerste Kamer’) in The Hague, was excellent. In this post I will limit myself to Wolterstorff’s own contribution, though there were several fine speakers besides him. In particular I want to highlight what he said about populism.

9200000077785330Wolterstorff started his talk with a reference to Jeremiah 29,7: ‘Seek the shalom of the city…’. How does this mandate relate to the present phenomenon of populism? A first important step in Wolterstorff’s  analysis was the interpretation of populism in terms of loss. A populist laments the loss of a former way of life, be it the Amercian, Dutch or French way of life. A second step in his analysis is to point out that the populist claims to have a right to (t)his way of life. And if this right is not fulfilled, he considers himself to be a victim. There is – in short – a moral dimension to populism, which is often ignored. So, the question is: is the populist right in his claim? Wolterstorff said: it depends… On what? There is no serious moral reflection or the beginning of an answer yet. That at least was Wolterstorff’s conclusion.

I take these moves to be typical for Wolterstorff’s approach. He has increasingly tried to give voice to the suppressed, be it Palestinians, black South Africans, or others. This is what he seems to do in this case as well: giving voice to the populists. Put differently: he brings to light an all too often overlooked dimension of the populist’s voice. But that is not the end of the story. Populism is at least in three respects at odds with shalom:

  1. An essential part of shalom is peace or social harmony. Populists, however, tend to create hostility in society. At least they aim at increasing divisions between groups of people, the elite and the ordinary man for example.
  2. Populists demand justice for themselves, while they stay at the same time indifferent to the rights of others, like refugees, immigrants, and so on. This is also at odds with shalom.
  3. Shalom does not exclude strangers, but welcomes them and will treat them with openness and respect. Populism does the reverse, treating strangers in terms of threat and danger.

This is, summarized all too shortly, what Wolterstorff had to say about populism. The strength of his remarks is in my opinion that he gives voice to the point of view of the populists, in particular to the implicit moral dimension of his indignation. I fully agree with his analysis that populism is – at least – at three points at odds with shalom. However, it seems to me an intermediate step is missing. Imagine that these three criteria were applied to the Palestinians or the black South Africans in the 1970’s and afriekalleenblank.png80’s. I am not sure they would have passed the test of shalom at that very moment. The process of reconciliation in South Africa was hard and it took many years, while never been fully completed. Yet, Wolterstorff considered their fight to be just, in contrast to the present fight of populism. Why is that?

It has to do with the moral dimension in Wolterstorff’s analysis. The populist feels being wronged. Wronged by the politicians, the elite, and so on. But the important question is of course: is he right in this feeling? The same question apllies to the Palestinians and black South-Africans, when they felt they were being wronged. Were they right? I think so. Not everyone will agree. But even in that case, it seems beyond doubt that their complaints were of a different order in comparison with current populism. In the former case it was about their intrinsic worth as human being, in the latter case about the preservation of a lifestyle. This, I suggest, is an essential difference with a view to the assessment of the question whether one is right in his feeling of being wronged.

This is my suggestion in addition to Wolterstorff’s remarks. But it wouldn’t surpise me as this comes close to what Wolterstorff had himself in mind when he remarked about the question whether the populist is right in his claim: ‘It depends’.