PARTY, POLITY AND POPULISM
Jay B. Gaskill
I began this piece as a series of posts in 2006. Those articles are reprised here – slightly condensed – then I address the current election as it will or will not be shaped by populist concerns in the last section.
Populism is of two varieties: Paleo-left (think Chavez in Venezuela and the “rich people are evil” rhetoric here at home) and Neo-American (think of dissident Chinese activists and the neglected, out-maneuvered popular center in US politics).
I’m interested in Neo-American populism. In Part Eight, I begin a discussion about the implications for the 2008 presidential contest.
Here’s the deal: We’ve evolved two cooperating political elites, each of which runs one of the two parties and shares three common traits: (1) high education levels, (2) important wealth (3) a distrust of the populist vote bordering on fear. Winning elections for each requires a periodic courting ritual during which the populist vote (on which success depends) is earnestly sought, followed by a measure of post-election betrayal.
The corporate country club conservatives and the Lexus limousine liberals have so far succeeded in achieving a rough division of the populist center: social populists on one side, economic populists on then other.
But conditions are rapidly changing. Democrats finally became desperate enough to bend the rules of political correctness in order to recapture congress. Republicans, faced with the prospective loss of the Reagan democrats (read patriotic, blue collar populists), are rethinking the “betrayal thing”.
Change is in the air. The divide-the-populist-vote-and-prosper strategies of each party are coming apart.
In Part Two, I take up the three populist issues that are causing the political elites the most trouble.
Before doing that, some preliminary observations are in order:
The general thrust of this discussion will be the influence of populism in American politics during the next decade or so, a time when it is very likely that the democratic and republican parties will undergo significant change.
- Populism as an ideology has a checkered history for a reason. All populist ideologies eventually betray populist expectations. Populism as ideology distorts the populist ethos and exploits it. This is part of the reason (the best part) that the elites in both parties distrust populism.
Neither populist issues nor populist candidates always win elections because voters triage the issues that are of most immediate concern to them at the moment and local concerns tend to trump general concerns.
A Working Definition:
Populist is meant to describe the politically relevant precepts, attitudes and core positions that distinguish an enduring majority of adults from the political elites that depend on their approval.
In general, populist positions tend to be dismissed or marginalized by the political elites as primitive or unenlightened while the elite counter positions are disdained by populist minds as effete or impractical.
It is a huge mistake for elites to think of populist positions as the product of the unintelligent or that all the elite positions of the moment represent the inevitable march of social progress. The most enduring populist positions are rooted in field-tested folk wisdom of the kind that has inspired parables like the Emperor’s New Clothes.
Both elite and popular opinions are subject to fads. The populist positions that interest me the most are the ones that endure from election to election and will be relevant to the specifically American political scene over the next decade or so. I will identify and discuss the top three populist issues but several others will necessarily enter the discussion.
Let me begin with two predictions:
- The elements in the elite-engendered ethos loosely described as Political correctness (specifically including racial-ethnic identity politics) that collide most sharply the populist mindset will be discredited within our lifetimes.
The political party or parties that do the best job of reconciling their policy stances with the core populist positions will prevail over those that fail to do so.
Here are the three most prominent threads in the reemerging American populism that will shape the parties and the political discussion over the next decade.
- Procedural populism. The signal anti-populist development of the last 65 years was the emergence of governance via non-elected institutions under the control of the non-populist elites of the two parties. Principally the courts and the administrative agencies, these new power centers have quietly and not so quietly set public policies in motion that never could have gathered sufficient popular support. Examples, many obvious, will follow as I expand this discussion. The signal pro-populist development in the same period was the emergence – principally in California producing what some political scientists are now calling “hybrid government” of the popular initiative as a tool for setting social and tax policy in ways that the legislative bodies – controlled by party elites – did not.
Me-first nationalism. Starting with Ross Perot several election cycles ago, this is the many headed hydra that the elites in both parties fear the most, and it is the most universal form of populism. The failure of the Soviet Empire is an international model is a classic case of a putative universal ideology hitting the nationalist wall. Note that party elites of all stripes tend to be more internationalist than the so called “common people”.
Tough minded populism vs. the wimp elites. This covers a whole range of issues that will be pivotal in the next decade, all interesting.
Background and a Reprise: The Larger Populist “Program” and the prospects of a “Populist reformation”
In the wake of the democratic defeat of 2002, I wrote about the coming populist reformation. It will be an interesting exercise to review just how far the democrats have moved – given their recent reversal of fortunes, because that will determine – at least in my opinion – how durable or evanescent their victory will be over the next three election cycles.
This is what I wrote then:
The democrats and the republicans each need a leader whose visceral commitment to a muscular and farsighted defense of the homeland is immediately recognized as authentic, a leader who speaks with a distinctly American voice, the voice of a modern populist. This must be content not stylistic populism because Americans can tell the difference.
Here’s what the post 9-11 version of a renewed American populism would look like:
· Populism speaks with the confident assertion of American exceptionalism, the ideal of America as representing the powerful social exemplar for the world. This is the populism that animated the chants of rescue workers in the rubble of the World Trade Center, “USA! USA!”
· Populism is rooted in our common American social values, especially the historically pro-family social traditions that govern in the heartland. These values trump all the non-democratic institutions of governance. While I still believe that a legitimate populist movement can accommodate local custom (when popular sentiment clearly differs from the mainstream, thinking of the accommodations for gay marriage in Vermont for example), I also believe that there can be no accommodation for the anti-democratic reversal of the popular will in the rest of the country in this important area of life, especially by judicial fiat. When judges abuse their trust by overriding the popular will on essential “family values” issues, a populist rebellion is inevitable.
· Populism values the contribution of all newly arrived Americans but recognizes that the current very low rate of assimilation poses a threat to American cultural integrity. There is an emerging populist consensus about immigration: the rigorous exclusion of illegals coupled with robust restrictive border control and a very high priority for assimilation into American culture and values.
· Populism is authentically tough on crime and terrorism. National and domestic security considerations (especially during the current wartime conditions — think of FDR’s “Freedom from Fear”) trump all bureaucratic processes, political correctness, isolationist obstructionism, and fractious interest group politics. A self confident populist administration would overcome the narrow civil libertarian objections to “racial” profiling to exclude terrorist suspects and to the use biometric identification technologies and terrorist lists for all those entering the U.S.
· A populist environmental policy is explicitly pro-human, with equal emphasis on resource preservation and people access. Environmentalism by the people and for the people prevails over those who worship the environment as some quasi-deity or who elevate the protection of obscure species at the expense of the concerns of ordinary people.
· Populists favor and honor productive work (which includes the critically important work of child rearing) over all forms of subsidized idleness. Few living democrats seem to honor the pro-work ethos of FDR’s New Deal except in hollow rhetoric.
· Populists agree that the burdens of taxes must be meaningfully reduced on those who are actually working for a living. This issue transcends all the other left-right, partisan issues on tax policy.
· Populist economic and social policy is governed by the goal of promoting upward mobility without undermining the value of the goal: to be successful, financially secure, and to be allowed pass on those benefits to one’s family. Liberals find it incomprehensible that “ordinary” working people, who (from the perspective of the Euro-centric left) have no prospect of gaining great wealth, would nevertheless oppose confiscatory taxation of estates. This is because these liberals don’t take the American dream as seriously as do the so called “common” people.
In other words, there is a core populist agenda the departure from which vitiates all populist rhetoric.
FRACTURES ON THE LEFT AND RIGHT
It is increasingly the case that neither major US political party commands the enduring allegiance of more than 20-30% of the electorate overall. This leaves a powerful plurality at the center consisting of 40-60% of all voters.
THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY’S INTERNAL FRACTURES
The big tent party that once held hawks like Washington State’s Senator Scoop Jackson and doves like Gene McCarthy has become a narrower place, defined by an ideology not fully shared by the populist center.
I’m applying the term “political liberal” to the partisan liberal left, those people for whom being a “liberal”: (a) is kind of a calling, in which some one’s declaration that “I’m a liberal” sounds very much like “I’m a Seventh Day Adventist” (my apologies to all SDA’s – this is just an illustration); (b) the liberal self-identification is meant to immediately imply a specific litany – dare I say catechism — of specific doctrines. In general these are the positions that are shared by the left wing of the Democratic Party and the Green party.
A short list of the defining “positions” of political liberals would include the common liberal sentiments shared by most conservatives (opposition to racism, the devaluation of women and the concern for the protection of the quality of the natural environment, which are mainstream issues and sentiments widely shared by almost everyone). But in the “fevered minds” of political liberals, these sentiments become conflated into an epic struggle against the grotesque foes of all that is good and true. This is a mythic “liberal” construct in which all middle class whites are inherently racist; all heterosexual males are irredeemably sexist; and all businesses (save a select few who donate heavily to liberal causes) are bent on raping the environment.
It is no coincidence that political liberals thickly populate some of the wealthiest and best educated coastal and urban communities in America. They are bound together, not only by a political religion, but by shared experiences. For the most part, they constitute social cohorts that enjoy six linked sets of shared assumptions and attitudes:
· A comfortable hedonism enjoyed by predominantly well educated post-religious middle class and upper class sub-populations;
· A “hip” social outlook that tends to mask or anesthetize moral qualms about the enjoyment of their position; effect this is a shared social milieu in which “style” and social “sophistication” operate to confer on their life styles a sort of gentile veneer of social virtue, one characterized by “tolerance”;
· Compartmentalized morality, especially in the arts, an attitude that holds that the arts are generally to be free of all traditional moral stances and constraints, except for a small sub-component (honored more by gesture than actually patronized) in which the condemnation of oppression and the celebration of the oppressed are featured elements;
· Non judgmental attitudes about “sins” of the educated and tolerant, overlooking drug abuse, “life-style” motivated abortions, serial divorces and a whole range sexual behavior typically condemned in less “sophisticated” cultures;
· The tendency to see morality as the avoidance of social criticism, resulting in a cinematic definition of the moral “stand”, where morality is understood primarily in terms of appearances;
· The notion that morality is properly and even sufficiently manifested by moral gestures. As a result, “correct” positions and stances trump all gritty engagement with the world, even at the expense of practical results.
How do we explain the fierce grip maintained by the religion of political liberalism over its adherents?
Liberalism’s tendency to elevate “correct” stances and gestures creates an extraordinary ability to shield the comfortable hedonist life styles of its main adherents from moral criticism. Thus the religion of liberalism represents a form of social détente and clever camouflage.
The religion of political liberalism has three principal canons:
- Nationalization of charity. Humanitarian endeavors cannot be effectively performed, nor equitably supported unless they are done by government agencies. This has the virtue of insulating its adherents from real moral claims on their personal resources. In effect, the political-moral stance that begins with the phrase– “I support….(you can fill in the blanks with a liberal cause here)” becomes the equivalent of “I gave at the office.”
Social Marxism. This stance (going by various other names of course) dictates that a doctrine of (pretended) social equality substitutes for the now discredited ruthless redistribution of all wealth. This stance (which was really the ur-source of political correctness) allows its adherents to accomplish (or at least favor) the humiliation and social repression of those whom its shifting fashions might choose to label oppressors. This is a low cost approach to egalitarianism and protects those whose sophisticated hedonism would otherwise be criticized. The appropriately expressed politically correct bromides are the camouflage of “undeserved” well off.
Collective Expiation of guilt. Social survivor guilt, the inevitable result of a sense of “unearned” well being, is expiated by this religion’s ritual practices. These rituals, for the most part, consist of bumper stickers, public gestures, cocktail party banter, and occasional political activity in support of liberal causes.
The psychological strength of the liberal religion derives from four related developments in the human condition, mostly confined to the highly developed and prosperous communities in Europe and the Americas:
(1) The collapse of traditional religious and other transcendent moral claims on the individual among the dominant intelligentsia of the developed world;
(2) The persistent, nagging voice of residual conscience, still suffered by those anti-traditional secularists who have not yet succumbed to outright nihilism;
(3) The emperor-has-no-clothes fragility of the whole act, such that any invalidation or repudiation of a part of the doctrine threatens the whole;
(4) The deep psychological dread of any prospective return to individual accountability measured by an authoritative moral system.
FRACTURES AND HINTS OF FRACTURES IN THE LIBERAL CAMP
No every liberal minded person buys into the conventional liberal catechism. Religious liberals remain alienated, pro-military liberals are rarely welcome – except as token “showpieces”. In the post-civil rights movement era, many liberals have jumped ship when confronted by the excesses of identity politics and the occasional overreaching of remedial, reparations-motivated actions of courts, regulatory agencies, academic institutions and employers. Others, former blue collar members of the FDR coalition, are irritated at welfare abuses, the seemingly unlimited influx of foreign workers and the outsourcing of good jobs.
Many others jump ship when confronted with mandatory social liberalism. These are among the latent fractures in the democratic party – once the grand FDR coalition of “working people” and intellectuals – papered over at election time via the attempted demonization of the right.
THE GOP’S FISSURES
Conservatism has undergone a renaissance mostly because of the excesses of the left.
In 2006, I wrote that –
“The last election may or may not expose the growing ideological fractures in the conservative ranks. We can assume, for the purposes of this analysis, that the Iraq conflict will have been moved to a background issue by 2008. Will the conservatives be able to mount an effective challenge to the democrats?
“That depends, in my analysis, on the extent to which the conservatives recapture their earlier populist momentum (that was driven by mostly populist rejection of elitist democratic liberals). The GOP lost its populist identification in 2006. This debacle was driven by a popular revulsion at the ruling congressional republicans who were seen as phony populists. To understand how this happened we need to review the surfacing cracks in the conservative movement.”
As a coherent belief system, conservatism is in flux. Revulsion at the excesses of the left no longer fully or adequately defines “conservative”.
Here is my short list of the conflicts and overlapping sub-movements within this loosely defined conservative alliance:
- The religious vs. secular conservatives (the latter unconcerned about God in the pledge or the Decalogue in the public square);
The “social” conservatives vs. the “socially tolerant” ones (generating issues like abortion vs. free choice and traditional marriage vs. “new paradigm”);
The libertarian conservatives vs. the public order conservatives (this fuels the drug legalization conflict, among others);
The isolationists vs. interventionists (isolationists went silent when the Trade Towers fell, but returned as the “Why is Israel so important, anyway?” crowd);
Between the nationalists and internationalists (of which the free trade vs. American protectionism is but one example).
The President first identified himself as a possible populist political leader when he was the governor of Texas. Having run an oil company and a baseball team “W” plausibly presented as less patrician and more authentically “blue collar” (if that phrase isn’t already obsolete) than his father. His first presidential campaign was headed to victory when a last minute revelation of his all-to-cleverly hidden DUI broke. The aura of inauthenticity nearly cost him that election, and did depress his popular vote.
The President’s populist persona reemerged post 911 in the rubble of the World Trade Towers. It was plain to all discerning observers that on that day and in the company of the firefighters, police and rescuers, “W” was among men like those he had rubbed shoulders with in the oil business and on the baseball field and that he was comfortable. Everyone in that rubble zone felt that this President was one of them, and that the “SOB’s” who’d done this to our country would be made to pay. A populist republican president was born in that moment, riding the one issue that trumps the typical republican rep as the party of corporate CEO’s and the country club set – Don’t tread on America.
As I wrote in 2006 –
“The [“USA!” Theme] will always trump the rest provided two conditions are met: (1) the leader doesn’t break trust with the American people and (2) we actually succeed in beating our enemies.”
In the immediate wake of the 911 attacks, the fractures on the right were healed, and the left was silenced. Then the American response became complicated, protracted and victory “in the cinematic sense” seemed far, far away…
THE IMPACT OF THE BUSH PRESIDENCY
The liberal intelligentsia who woke up on 9-12-01 yet they were not yet changed by the experience.
When the republican Texas governor, whose occupation of the White House on that occasion was an historical fluke (from their point of view), suddenly became a credible populist, tremors of real fear rippled though the entire democratic establishment. The democrats had endured a previous republican populist under the movie star turned Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan. A repeat performance by RR II could well have ended the democratic dominance of the American political scene for decades. These democrats knew, but were loath to publicly acknowledge, just how far their party had strayed from the blue collar roots of the FDR coalition – hence the “Reagan democrat” phenomenon and the Democratic Party’s ongoing vulnerability.
Insiders in the Democratic Party knew all too well that a majority of their former “working class” allies were not in favor of the abolition of the death penalty for murder, had absolutely no pacifist inclinations when it came to anyone who would dare attack America, and no longer responded like red diaper baby ‘neo-com’s to the anti-capitalist, class bating that had served their European labor counterparts so well.
I believe that the original impulse that fueled the liberal campaign to stoke hatred of George W. Bush was fear. The democratic inner circle knew that this president must be stopped from gaining real traction among their “natural constituencies” at all costs.
When President Bush – who had relied on the same intelligence that had led President Clinton to the same conclusion – was confronted with the post invasion failure to find Saddam’s large stocks of WMD’s, the democrats were quick to exploit the issue: They instinctively knew that the weak link of any populist leader is a betrayal of trust.
Had “W” been a more effective, visceral populist, instead of the inherently decent son of George and Barbara, he would have turned on Clinton’s CIA, fired several scapegoats, and invaded Syria.
The populist mind is combative and loves a decisive victory. This president’s troubles flowed from his inability to deliver victory quickly enough. As I wrote in early 2006: “I am certain that the Iraq conflict will be a background issue in 2008. But how it seems to be resolved before then will help shape the political landscape for a decade or more.”
Eventually the political landscape will be formed by the larger war, the jihad against the West, by the energy production independence issue and by that sleeper issue that won’t go away: Who will be working in this country at what jobs, for whom and at what pay?
THE COMING POPULIST REFORMATION
As the conservative and liberal elites grapple with the implications of coming populist reformation, everyone should remember that the main populist strands of opinion, concerns and perspectives are not the only such threads in American politics, just the ones most often neglected by the elites of the left and right. This is why populism tends to erupt from time to time, instead of congealing around a particular party or set of interest groups.
The center of gravity of American populism is located among those who are too busy working, earning and living real lives (elites would say “mundane” lives, here) to become political junkies. They periodically awake — like the mythical sleeping giant – only when provoked by prolonged policy neglect or irritated into sufficient anger by repeated disregard of their core values and concerns. When the elites forget who really serves whom for long enough, there is hell to pay.
Populism has a sharply different look and feel in the USA as opposed to, say, Venezuela or Iran because the American middle class is so well entrenched and numerous that its numbers overwhelm those who cling to hereditary privilege.
While ours is not a fully “classless” society, its various divisions tend to be blurry and membership levels very fluid as people and families migrate from hardship to wealth and back again. This is the country where the less wealthy can reasonably aspire to wealth and the wealthy can reasonably worry about losing everything.
In this milieu, there are only two great “class” divisions in the populist mind that really matter: those who work, create value and struggle to make productive things happen for themselves, their families and the community at large, and those who manipulate the former group.
In the populist mind, the manipulative class includes the idle rich, the idle poor, and the political and cultural leaders who exploit the productive “class”.
As I wrote in 2006 —
“The coming populist reformation will be driven by the events and exigencies of the next few years because these challenges will bring the failures of elites of right and left to address the core populist values and concerns into sharp relief.
“The elites could have seen this coming. Think of the California tax revolt, the popular resistance in many states to judicial or administrative attempts to impose political correctness (as in the aborted attempt to conflate gay rights with the earlier post-slavery struggles of the civil rights era) and the abrupt right turn by the democrats on the border security issue.
“What are the challenging events and exigencies of the next few years? The broad outlines are already clear. The pattern was first evident with the oil and hostage crisis under the non-populist President Jimmie Carter and became blatant with the 9-11-01 attacks on American soil. There are a number of vital sub-issues, among them the primacy of the English language, the obligation of the elites to control the influx of unassimilated “outsiders” and to vigorously promote the assimilation of the “newly arrived” and the fervent wish of those who work for a living to be able to retain their earnings. These populist issues (in altered form) are alive and well in Europe where the elites may have irretrievably mucked thing up. Here, the American elites on the right and left are on notice that there is still time to avert disaster.
“Incidentally, when one is discussing disaster in the context of growing populism, ‘disaster’ can take one or both of two forms: (1) The trigger event that inaugurates a true populist eruption – through neglect or deception – actually happens; (2) We get a powerful, irresponsible populist figure on the stage bent on ‘sticking it to’ the elites. The notion of a ‘populist reformation’ is that the elites will be able to reconcile rational policy to the main populist concerns before a triggering disaster takes place. The game so far has been one of obfuscation, placation and deception. In the hyper information age, this game is now over. Information flow has been democratized.”
The list of hot button populist issues and pending challenges to our elites is longer than this, of course. I’ll get to several more as this discussion progresses.
THE BLUE DOGS OF WASHINGTON
As I observed in 2006:
Political junkies know that “Blue Dog Democrats” are the party’s moderates and semi-conservatives. They have been locked out of the building so long that they have turned blue in the cold, hence the term.
Well, as a result of the last Congressional election, there are more of them. And as a group, they are less politically correct than the dominant democrat species. Within the small group of original Blue Dogs we find Representative Jane Harmon, ranking democrat of the House Intelligence Committee, by all accounts an intelligent and effective moderate. The new Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, a quintessentially politically correct liberal had twice snubbed Ms. Harmon. The Class of 06 will give this Speaker much more trouble. And there is more trouble still in the making.
I am predicting that the worst excesses of political correctness will be rejected by the American people first then by their representatives. We are beginning to see the first signs of this trend; the coming populist reformation begins to gain traction in Congress.
The Populist Reformation vs. the Political Correctness Imposed by the Elites
By this time in history, the term PC (or Political Correctness) should require little explanation. Yet I’ve discovered a large variation among audiences; often –while a plurality “gets it” — a substantial number of people – especially on the “left coast” have never actually given the matter any thought; for them the whole idea is dismissed as some “talk show” construct.
Political Correctness is a form of social Marxism in which the role of the proletariat is replaced by an ever expanding victim class, including groups that are “entitled” to redress of grievances. These grievances can include mere slights, among other things, the offense of speaking ill of them (an offense determined solely by the victim class). This places open discussion, free speech and normal social interaction hostage to the most overheated victim-sensitive souls among us, and opens up an avenue for a form of blackmail by persons or groups posing as victims.
One current side effect is the notion of “multiculturalism” a construct based on an ethos of tolerance so extreme that we are now expected to tolerate as “equally valid” groups and individuals whose intolerance poses an actual danger to our essential freedoms.
Former British Labor PM, Tony Blair, a brave man with common sense, made the following observation in 2006, to the consternation of the left on his side of the Atlantic:
“If outsiders wishing to settle in Britain were not prepared to conform to the virtues of tolerance then they should stay away. He added: ‘Conform to it; or don’t come here. We don’t want the hate-mongers, whatever their race, religion or creed.
“If you come here lawfully, we welcome you. If you are permitted to stay here permanently, you become an equal member of our community and become one of us. The right to be different. The duty to integrate. That is what being British means.”
A major American public figure giving a similar speech might well be required to apologize for his or her violation of “PC” rules.
PC is a socio-political ideology based on four elements:
- A radical egalitarianism, the notion that all human differences are arbitrary and accidental and that the proper goal of society is: (a) to pretend these differences don’t exist; and/or (b) to force social reality to conform to the construct in which they don’t exist.
Systems of legal, peer, and cultural repression designed to punish those who deny or oppose #1.
A “victim” coalition to implement #2 against all who resist (who now become, by definition, the oppressors).
A style of implementation that conceals the hard edges of the forgoing by promoting fictional voluntary compliance, forms of social “reeducation”, and “consensus building.”
This amounts to a thinly disguised return to tribalism (whose membership is defined by PC victim/oppressor categories), a de facto repeal of the gains for the individualism and rationalism of the Enlightenment. The latent incoherence of the PC agenda becomes evident when conflicts emerge – as they already have– among the various “victim” groups, and when membership of one or more such victim groups must be narrowed, eliminated, or the excluded members even redefined as oppressors. The group of favored minorities resembles an exclusive social club. The exclusion of the Jews in the decades after their active leadership participation in the American Civil Right’s movement coupled with the growing anti-Semitism among some African-American leaders is one case in point.
The attempt to exclude hard working, “over-achieving” Asian-American students in the affirmative action context is another. The prospective exclusion of Hispanic-American males (as “too Catholic” and “too macho”) is the newest trend. Well educated, high achieving African-Americans are not far behind.
The growing tribalism has actually prompted some to self identify as “Euro-Americans” but I doubt that membership in “club victim” will be open to them.
The populists are now laughing at the PC elites. Think how they/we will look to some future generation:
All this will change. The PC elites are about to be rescued by the coming populist reformation.
As I write this, the burgeoning presidential candidacy of Barak Obama, a post-movement “black” male, seem for the first time in American politics to transcend ethnic identity politics.
WHY AMERICAN POPULISM IS UNIQUE
There is an apparent contradiction for anyone who tries to write sympathetically about populism, because doing that is an “elite” activity.
Or is it? My favorite populist thinker of the 20th century was Eric Hoffer, the immigrant longshoreman. He was self educated, trenchant and brilliant. His signature work, “The True Believer” was a classic takedown of the elites of communism, Nazism and the religious authorities whose organizational structure these two bloody secular religions of the last century copied. I had the privilege of seeing this passionate, coherent longshoreman twice when I was a student in the Bay Area. He was a man who maintained from life experience that the common people were “lumpy with talent” and that the idle intellectuals were a dangerous combination of skill and lack of judgment.
As a student, I worked in road construction and enjoyed the company these older guys for whom a 10 hour day with a shovel or jackhammer was a career, as opposed to a source of tuition money. As a lawyer, I’m now unable to deny my “elite station” in life.
My predicted populist reformation is not a populist revolution. We’ve seen far too many of those events; they end badly for the working people these revolutions purport to help.
Instead I’m predicting (and supporting) a mutual adjustment of the relationship between the manipulative elites and the productive men and women who actually make things happen.
This reformation is only possible in contemporary America because here the distance between elites and non-elites is smaller than anywhere else in the world, and the fund of experience, common sense and talent in the “populist sector” often exceeds that of the elites.
Ours is a unique situation, the product of three converging social forces:
(1) the democratization of information flow (note that the cyber-revolution is already changing the information dominance of the academy);
(2) the democratization of economic processes (success of the pricing systems and entrepreneurial models of modern capitalism that are copied within socialist economies produce a sort of quick-entry elite group and destabilize the older ideological and hereditary elites);
(3) the decline of the authority of the manipulative elites because of the corrosive effects of an overly-fluid relativistic value perspective that has caused the withering away of the traditional moral underpinnings of all ruling cliques everywhere that the post-modern ethos has penetrated.
Just how dramatically different is the American situation? Compare just two examples:
In rural India, the ancient practice of sati is still being practiced. Widows are expected to be burned alive on their husband’s funeral pyre. The urban elites of India condemn (and prosecute) this barbaric “populist” practice as murder.
In this country, a late term unborn male, heart beating, just short of unassisted viability outside the womb, is dismembered at the prospective mother’s request. Some of our elites defend this as a “therapeutic medical procedure” and as a “proper exercise of female autonomy”. Some of our populists condemn the practice as “barbaric, approaching infanticide” or even as “murder”.
Leaving aside all of the constitutional law arguments and nuanced public policy debate on the abortion issue, we elites might reasonably concede that it is not at all clear whether the elite position always represents the more enlightened moral perspective.
This raises the major reason that our current circumstances auger a populist reformation that will soon effect a transformation in one or both of this country’s political parties.
The older established elites operated openly, sustained by a mantle of moral authority grounded in deep tradition and/or universal moral principles commonly accepted as normative by an overwhelming majority.
The post modern elites are so disconnected from the popular ethos that the must attempt to operate in the background, their actual attitudes and positions cloaked with three well honed opinion shaping “technologies”: deception, obfuscation and distraction. This is a hard act to maintain in the information age, much like that of the emperor who thought none of his subjects would notice that he was naked.
A necessary caveat: At this point I will seem to have romanticized the populist ethos. This is really the contrast effect. The modern populist perspective looks very good next to the post modern moral ambivalence and narcissistic indulgence (including a tendency to faux moral posturing) that prevail among the manipulative elites.
Naturally, there are aspects of the populist mindset (especially on the fringes) that I don’t share. For example, I am much more inclined to support changes in public policy and private practice that include our gay and lesbian friends in the mainstream than is typically acceptable within the populist mindset. But I differ with the typical elite perspective that dismisses American populist thinking as retrograde or barbaric. I agree with the populists who would not conflate the full social integration of our tiny gay subpopulation with the struggles against slavery. In the main, the distinctively American version of populism has captured a great deal of folk wisdom and common sense morality that the elites should dismiss only at their peril.
A special qualification: By contrasting the manipulative, non-productive elites with the much larger group of us who are engaged in productive work, I have radically changed the contours of the normal populist-elite divide, and effectively reduced the number of issues held in common that define the populist perspective.
I would specifically include among the populist cohort those of us who toil at creative tasks. The creative-productive among us have their own set of “issues” with the manipulative, non-productive elites.
Modern American populism, in this expanded and general sense, is much more functionally egalitarian than non-American populists and much more so than our own manipulative elites who profess an ideal utopian equality that is functionally empty.
At the deepest, often unexamined level, our elites have a very strange egalitarian notion indeed, one driven by the psychological contradiction between an ingrained narcissism and the need to be “well thought of”. I see three elements operating in the manipulative elite mindset:
(1) Those who think alike are morally equal.
(2) Material inequalities of all kinds should be redressed by some kind of compensation.
(3) The manipulative elites manage to feel insulated against the (truthful) allegation that they’re part of the “inequality problem” by selectively demonizing the people who don’t think like them. After all (these elites typically think) that retrograde, unenlightened mindset is the root cause of all the world’s ills.
Our home grown populists are united by a common experience of productive struggle. That experience validates of the value of earning which leads quickly to the idea that all men and women are entitled to keep the fruits of their productive efforts. Inequalities tend to be readily accepted by the populist mind when they are not accomplished by fraud and are not accompanied by hypocrisy.
There are conscientious and reasonable members of the manipulative elites who will be able accommodate the coming populist reformation. But this will require some self-reassessment. I see two takeaway points that will be central to this process:
- All of the most salient and durable populist positions represent “field tested” values, enduring social norms whose utility is well established. These include tough “rule-consequences” policies for crime control, the obvious morality of retribution against our enemies on the foreign policy stage, the need for robust protection of the earned fruits of the productive efforts of “the people”, and for strong, effective policies to protect the health and stability of the families who make and rear children.
The elites owe respect for all strongly held populist positions such that major reversals or changes should never be accomplished via deception or manipulation.
THE 2008 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
THE ABC’S OF MODERN POPULISM
- Common sense
Yes, there really is a faculty called common sense, however rare it appears within the DC beltway.
In both good and hard times, modern populists simply want good economic results, ideology be damned. This is why the anti-capitalist left is chastened and the anti-spending right has been marginalized.
Regrettably, the movie industry has conditioned us (especially those with a populist bent) to expect all wars (domestic and foreign) to follow the track of a movie thriller in which the bad guys are vanquished at the and the good guys triumph in the last fifteen minutes; roll credits.
- Crisis emergence
Distrust of elites
Most populists actually have lives, jobs and families. Perhaps naively, they expect the political elites to do a good job without much supervision. When things get out of hand the populists wake up, pay attention and there is hell to pay. This crisis emergence happens over couple of election cycles.
Populists tend to be loyal in an expanding circle of nested communities, starting with immediate family and ending with USA. You can forget that “citizen of the world” nonsense.
Any, yes, the elites – especially those who are condescending – are NOT trusted.
CYNICAL EXPLOITABILITY SET
- Victim identification
These are the Paleo-Left Populists, the ones who tend to respond to the grand gesture – “We know you are victims of oppression and neglect and we are here to help you”. This is a dwindling group, largely replaced by the Neo-American Populists who now outnumber them.
The disproportionate power of the Paleo-Left Populists comes from the confluence of two factors:
(a) They can be frightened into election day turnouts by their handlers (see the contrast with the “Crisis emergence” behavior above);
(b) The residual social guilt of the non-oppressed (a dwindling factor) gives them disproportionate political clout.
THE CANDIDATES FOR “POTUS”
In an earlier post, I described the then viable presidential candidates in capsule form:
Contenders in the Presidential Wannabe Races
· Hillary is Nixon without the anti-communism.
· Obama is Carter without the southern governorship.
· Edwards is a trial lawyer without a chance.
· McCain is Truman without the charm.
· Giuliani is Dewey without the wedding cake.
· Romney is FDR without the wheelchair.
· Thompson is an actor/lawyer without a TV gig.
At the time, I left out the Rev. Governor Mike Huckabee.
· Huckabee is a Republican Bill Clinton without the bimbo eruptions.
These were thematic capsules, concededly bit ‘snarky”, but containing a grain or two of truth, to wit:
· Senator Clinton shares former president Nixon’s paranoid tendencies (recalling her jeremiad against the “great right wing conspiracy”) and some of his social awkwardness.
· Senator Obama is the fresh new face that follows public disgust and weariness with ‘business as usual”, remaining (as the former Georgia governor did) a symbolic candidate weak on specific proposals and concrete experience. Edwards is out.
· Senator McCain is the uncharismatic ‘character’ candidate in the Harry – “Give ‘em hell!” – Truman role.
· Giuliani was like the 1948 republican candidate Thomas Dewey — also a respected New York prosecutor (he was ridiculed by a Truman supporter as looking like the little man on the wedding cake). And like Dewey, Rudy ran a complacent, shoe-in campaign, only to surprise everyone by losing.
· Governor Romney is the multi-millionaire, larger-than-life, central casting candidate who – like FDR (who ran on a balance the budget campaign in 1932) – has been all things to all people.
· Mr. Thompson, a fine man, cursed by merely normal presidential ambition, instead of the required demonic kind, will probably go back to television as soon as the writer’s strike is settled.
· Gov. Huckabee is a brilliant, think-on-his feet communicator, reminiscent of Bill Clinton. What is it about Arkansas?
Tomorrow is Super Tuesday. The shape of the general election race may or not be clear that early, but we already can be certain of two things:
(1) It will be McCain or Romney against Clinton or Obama.
(2) The neo-American populist vote will prove decisive.
How will that play out in practice? I’ll offer an early opinion in detail this Friday…