A week ago, I took a shot at teasing out six of the concepts in play in the dominant discourse about populism in the US: progressive economics; direct democracy; trust in crowds; democratic legitimacy; prejudice; and economic focus. The responses I got suggest that some folks read what I wrote as a stab at defining what populism is, or even advocating what it should be. I’m sorry for the confusion; I don’t think those six components at all represent what populism is or should be.
In particular, I decided after some consideration to include prejudice on the list not because I see prejudice as an intrinsic feature of populism or even a common corollary to it, but because recognizing the explicit or often implicit argument that populists are bigots is crucial to understanding the way populism is generally discussed in the media by people who are themselves, not coincidentally, members of elites.
Truth is I don’t think there’s anything particularly bigoted about populism, anymore than there’s anything particularly bigoted about democracy as a system of government. I do think that the tendency of elite pundits, be they Joe Klein or Paul Krugman, to associate populism and prejudice is itself worthy of explanation, much like the stock movie moment where we recoil in extra horror because the guy with glasses and a degree is taking out his torture instruments (“But he’s a professional! How can he be acting like a brute?”). As Barbara Ehrenreich wrote, in Fear of Falling, about the elite’s discovery of a working class onto which to project its own anxieties in the wake of 1968:
This discovery ocurred at what was for many middle-class intellectuals a time of waning confidence and emerging conservatism. Professional authority was under attack; permissiveness seemed already to have ruined at least one generation of middle-class youth. And so, in turning to the working class, middle-class observers tended to seek legitimation for their own more conservative impulses.
In tweaking Martin Lipset’s “Working-Class Authoritarianism” thesis, Ehrenreich draws (inter alia) on the work of Richard F. Hamilton, who found that it was the wealthy and well-off who sparked trends like lynching in the American South. Hamilton found much stronger support for Nazism – the specter which inspired a generation of intellectuals to fear mass movements – among “wealthy urbanites and rural gentry” than working-class Germans. That’s not to dispute that the spread of noxious bigotry amongst majorities in comparatively democratic countries is a chilling warning against putting too much faith in the wisdom of crowds. But it is to say that there’s no reason to entrust a narrow elite to better steer clear of atrocity than the rest of society. The scariest effect of the credulence in the “Working-Class Authoritarianism” hypothesis is less an exaggeration of the prejudices of the majority than a blindness to the prejudices of the minority.
It’s difficult to enumerate, let alone count, the levels of outrageousness in Grover Norquist’s comparison a couple years ago between Nazis singling out non-Aryans for murder and the American electorate singling out the extraordinarily wealthy for a tax on the transmission of extraordinary wealth between generations. But a weaker version of his argument undergirds an unsettling amount of the pundits’ discourse on populism: The impulse of a majority to demand more from a minority is always bullying, always bigotry, no less so when the minority in question is those who have colossal fortunes to pass on than when the majority in question is Jews or Blacks. Such a hypothesis seems to inspire Joe Klein’s argument earlier this summer that America faces a struggle between a
Party of Sanity, representing the pragmatic centrism of the business and professional elites, and a Party of Passion, representing populist anger about outsourcing, illegal immigration, social permissiveness and Bush’s overseas activism…there appears to be a growing market for a moderate version of “America First” populism, which has been represented in recent presidential elections only by extremists like Pat Buchanan and Dennis Kucinich. The outlines of this product are well known: more restrictive trade and illegal-immigration policies, a “bring the troops home soonest” foreign policy and a more conservative view of social issues like abortion and gay marriage…[populists] agree on neo-isolationist, nativist and protectionist issues…Populists of both strains tend to believe that the system is rigged by dark and powerful forces that prevent the little guy from getting ahead, which means they tend to be angry…In the end, the only plausible path out of the current morass is for the Party of Sanity to regain control of the political process from the partisans now running it into the ground.
In other words: Resenting Jews, resenting immigrants, resenting homosexuals, resenting obscenely wealthy CEOs who drive a global race to the bottom by downgrading, devaluing, and firing the employees whose work makes their wealth possible – what’s the difference? (As Sesame Street used to teach, “One of these things is not like the other ones…”) In Klein’s worldview, anger is unseemly, and there are lots of angry people (he offers Feingold and Brownback as examples), who thus have more in common with each other than with the saving remnant of non-angry, eminently reasonable “business and professional elites” with everyone’s best interest – even that of all those angry people – at heart. And why should we trust this elite with the masses’ well-being? Because the masses are hateful, just like all masses always are – remember Pat Buchanan?
Trouble is, what if there are indeed some powerful people out there with massively more power to set the terms of “the system,” however defined, than the rest of us, and with – dare I say it – interests of their own which may not represent those of most Americans (some might dare call those interests “dark”)? What if that elite is indeed making it harder for “the little guy” to carve out a dignified and rewarding life for him or herself? Might it be that this guy – be he feeling angry, hopeful, or otherwise – has better options at hand than entrusting his future to Joe Klein and his army of Sanity?