Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

More on Populism

Some populism is good--Bryan was more right than Darrow. It’s the populists that know what’s wrong with Darwinism--its denial of personal dignity or significance and its encouragement of eugenics. And the people, by opposing themselves to the interests, remind us that people are more than beings with interests. It’s also good to be reminded that too many of our policies are basically socialism for the rich, and that wages have dropped in relation to productivity. The case against judicial activism and especially against ROE is basically populist. The religious right--or real religion in general--is a true populist reaction against the elitist atheism or indifferentism. The Republican party has fourished for a generation on the basis of a populist reaction against the elitist liberationism of the Sixties. When the Republicans become too libertarian--or show contempt for the moral concerns or understandable anxieties of ordinary people, they lose. It’s not surprising that the WALL STREET JOURNAL doesn’t have a proper appreciation of the virtues of populism.

Here are the worst things about populism: racism, prohibitionism, and no faith in what’s true about "trickle-down economics."

With unions, public and private pensions, our health care system all collapsing under pressures for productivity in our globalizing economy, I would say that, on balance, the populists are losing today. The average guy is more on his own than ever. And, to repeat myself, it’s just not true that we’re slouching toward soft despotism.

Discussions - 21 Comments

Was Bryan's argument with Darwin part of the Populist platform? That's the sense in which Grant is using the term.

If you read Grant's full essay, he discusses the things you mention in the last paragraph. The question he's asking, is why there's less outrage about it today than in the 1890s. He's arguing that it might be because government (and the Fed) is a guilty as Wall Street.

RA--Good points. Like a schoolmarm, I thought your post might start a good discussion about populism in general.

Populism at its heart was an attempt to protect the local--the hometown community--from the pernicious influence of outsiders. I don't recall the Populists of the 1890s making any particular arguments about Darwin, but Bryan's role in the Scopes Trial was perfectly natural--he was affirming the right of the community, as opposed to elites from distant universities, to decide on the content of local education. Of course, populism has traditionally, and just as naturally, come with a nasty streak of racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia.

So, if John Moser is anywhere near right, we need to combine what's true about populism--attention to the importance of place or local community for personal signficance or real freedom--with what's true about the universalism of Locke and the Declaration. For the answer, you need to read Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor--who are postpopulist or post-agrarian southern writers.

I take your point, Peter, about the average guy being more on his own than ever. But it's still hard for me to see how this can fail to be part of a (Tocquevillean) dialectic that redounds one way or another to the power of general ideas and of state centralization. Health care is the most obvious example: if orthodontics and viagra are now necessities, what can stop us from claiming more and more and thus ever incrasing the role of the state. Then add a right to bio-engineering, designer babies, etc. (I know you've explained this to me before, so it must be a lesson I have trouble digesting.) Is globalization the critical factor, making it impossible for states to pursue centralization w/o heed to economic efficiency? But I would think there are limits to the insecurity a people will tolerate. I wonder if we're approaching such limits. In my view, a reaction against the elites would in a way be deserved, but that wouldn't stop it from being counter-productive, even destructive. Please advise.

You guys seem incompetent to recognize the fundamental thing about Populism. There is no fundamental thing about Populism. To come in as a historian like Dr. Mosier does is to already have an understanding of Populism that cannot be the populist understanding itself. Populism is the resistance to the the claims of authority of the intellectual rulling class(and yet it is not). Populism is the rule of subjectivity over and against authority. That is why Bryan wanted a farmer and a regular stiff to ballance the banker on the fed. If you can fully say what Populism is, then you already no longer have a need for populism.

Populism is thus the claim to be sufficient to determine the very status of morality itself, or at the very least the character of the rules by which we reward human beings with fame or condemn them with infamy. Which is my interpretation of Hegel in so far as he opposes Critical Consciousness with Way of the World. Of course all populist movements have specific components, but by virtue of having specific components and stances and leadership they provide the grounds for future populists movements.

Barrack Obama at the moment has the closest thing to a populist movement possible. Except putting the slogan in plain English, there is nothing more populist than Vero Possumus.

With unions, public and private pensions, our health care system all collapsing under pressures for productivity in our globalizing economy, I would say that, on balance, the populists are losing today. The average guy is more on his own than ever.

Which leads inexorably to the totalitarian state, since that's the average guys last shelter from the storm.

Of course, populism has traditionally, and just as naturally, come with a nasty streak of racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia.

It's always all about the Jews for Moser. Not much universalism there.

It's a pendulem. At one extreme we have the universalist mass state, Leviathan, which reduces us all to mere ciphers. It grants us freedom, of a certain sort, in exchange for surrendering other types of freedom to the "New Class".

The other extreme is parochialism. In spite of Mosers amusing musings, this can and does take the form of being suspicious of the people in the next village or country. Yes, regardless of whether they are Jews or not, if you can imagine such a thing. This fosters tight interpersonal bonds of the sort which Leviathan can't abide, being a jealous god.


Parochialism can lead to strife and war. But so can universalisms - Islam, Communism, even liberalism, all insist that "there can be only one". They are simply larger scale parochialisms in one sense.

It is the "there can be only one" mindset that is the danger today, not an excess of local feeling. Universalism is an abomination on the face of humanity, a religious/philosophical construct that has seeped into political thought like the avian flu jumping the species barrier. People are never less human than when reduced to "individuals" before the state.

Ralph, More later. But for now--productivity and demography will trump what people might really want. There might be an emerging right to Viagra, but that's because people think they need Viagra more than ever. It's very EFFICIENT, and the old have more reason than ever to fear the loneliness that comes when they can't successfully fake being young. If you watch the show BIG LOVE, you can see why the use and abuse of Viagra is a necessary consequence of feminist egalitarianism. Everyone should listen to Ralph, though. He knows what he's talking about.

I can't help but wonder whether this thread is a response to popular resentments of current economic conditions and the feeling the conservatives have little relevant to say. People might think they have a right to viagra or braces for their kids, but only in the sense that they think they have a right to a television or an automobile. Yet there is not a big movement for socializing the car or tv industries. So rising expectations do not have to go along with Bigger Government.

There is a great deal of populist ferment. A large fraction of the population feels that its living standards have stagnated (I'm not qualified to judge if that is technically true). People know that their employer paid health care plans are eating up what would otherwise be their raises. The situation is not only frustrating, it promises to go on forever, getting worse every year. The situation bears some resemblance to the tax revolt of the late 1970s. Middle class tax burdens were rising at a crushing rate with no end in sight. But of course there is a limit to what people will bear from a malfunctioning system. The bottom half of the income distribution has serious gripes. They work hard. Their jobs are usually unpleasant. Their wages are stagnating, inflation hits them first and hardest. There is something sick about telling them that their expectations of health insurance coverage are unrealistic. The most frustrating thing is that conservatives actually have some good ideas that would lessen the burden (both financial and mental) that health care places on the working and lower middle classes. But conservatives are more comfortable talking about other issues, and why not? Those issues have been good to us for the last thirty or so years.

the feeling the conservatives have little relevant to say.....The most frustrating thing is that conservatives actually have some good ideas that would lessen the burden (both financial and mental) that health care places on the working and lower middle classes. But conservatives are more comfortable talking about other issues....

This "feeling" derives from the fact that there is confusion about who "conservatives" actually are. For too long conservatives have been conflated with the libertarian, Big Business "socialism for the Rich" Republicans. Conservatives have much to say about health care, lower and middle class wages, etc. Until conservatives unhitch their wagon from the GOP conservative thought will of course be confused with bridge to nowhere, let's-buy-off-the-AARP-with-Prescription-Drug-Giveaway GOP. Deservedly so. Conservatives are fully responsible for their own irrelevance...

Christopher, you make some good points, but it is unfair to put all the blame on Republican politicians. Conservative thinkers and popularizers have failed to inject conservative approaches into the public mind, at least in a way that moves people. What conservative writer, media personality, politician, whatever, has been able to talk about free market health care reforms without getting a yawn from a general audience? Conservatives just have not found their voices on the issue, but then again, most conservatives haven't tried very hard either.

One more point. I hated the Bridge to Nowhere. I even more hated how Senator Ted Stevens defended the project (he seemd to say he would rather give up his Senate seat than lose the project. Its a win/win situation.). But the problems that conservatives currently face cannot be explained away by their embrace of corrupt, incompetent, unprincipled Republicans. In the current enviorment, uncrooked, pure Reaganite conservatives would face just as uphill a struggle. At least they would if they ran on warmed over Reaganism, even if it was very, very heartfelt. Broad income tax cuts, low inflation, deregulation, and welfare reform were a program that had wide appeal thirty years ago. That program helped make a majority. Parts of the program are still worthwhile but as a whole it is insufficient to todays economic and political challanges. I don't think that has sunk in yet.

Excellent posts from Pete and Christopher. I promise to plagiarize from them, as appropriate.

why is viagra a result of feminist egalitarianism?

I appologize for my comments in 7.

Pete says: "Conservative thinkers and popularizers have failed to inject conservative approaches into the public mind."

Why is it the thinkers and popularizers who get to inject approaches into the public mind?

Was it not George W. Bush who came up with "compassionate conservatism", what sort of slogan do politicians require injected so as to seem to be more populist?

In a previous post Dr. Lawler stated that fund mannagers don't do anything productive, but what fund mannagers do is read the impact of thinkers, ad men and popularizers upon consumer surplus and move money to sectors most commesurate with projected demand. As far as I can tell politicians don't act much differently, except that they do so for honor, prestige and meaning instead of profit. So populism supposedly injects itself back into politicians. But the populism that is injected into politics is never really the populism of the average guy.

In a sense the process is illustrated by the fact that Faulkner narrated the Sound and the Fury via a retard but Satre and literary critics told us what it meant.

This goes back to what Clint said about his friends working dead end jobs, it is not simply that the jobs are dead end, but that such dead end jobs are devoid of meaning and significance. A little economic struggle is acceptable, but the insult of being completly alienated from determining what is meaningfull or counts as an argument is unbearable. Not only does he work harder and longer, but those who have jobs that are leisurely and IMPORTANT take it upon themselves to speak on his behalf and tell him what he should or should not be PISSED about. They inject into him the words that are off limits...be it fuck or nigger. The common man uses such words often enough that they should have ceased to have significance altogether had the establishment and those who produce meaning not shored up the terms that give offense.

In the United States today there is no such thing as racism or sexism that is not located in the lower class(that class incapable of injecting meaning or controlling status.) That the common man is by and large anti-intellectual, sexist and racist is no mistake. If you find a poor white man that won't hesitate to spout off against niggers, or crack a joke that his wife belongs barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, then what you are finding is a man devoid of the socialization of power. The common man is thus harrased at every juncture of his life not simply by economic factors, but by a much larger sense of having absolutely no control over the rules of the game. Cindy Sheehan wasn't protesting simply the death of her son, but the fact that his death was outside her ability to control its meaning. In her view the lip service payed in the form of honor given to troops is simply a manifold ruse to keep down soldier pay but more importantly to allow talking heads to demonize her for running against the entire edifice of the concept of honor. Cindy was thus degrading the memory of her son by protesting that she should be able to question the underlying purpose and meaning of his life, and the Bush administration refused her because they knew that to make an omlette one must break a few eggs, and to break eggs one must give them a sense of worth and dignity.

On every single level of american life you can see the struggle to shape and assign meaning, but those with work to do and mundane concerns to attend to never have an opportunity to have a say, and they don't have a say because they haven't the leisure to dabble in meaning, they must take it second hand, and be wary of it least an empty promotion and praise simply means more work and similar pay. Upon this view racism and sexism are simply chimeras of the intelligencia designed as sorting mechanisms for the dispensation of power and praise. The revolt against what is PC generally found on the right is essentially nothing more than a rejection of institutionalized socializing power, and in a sense the lower class racism and sexism is just a more complete rejection of what is PC.

Essentially what we have is a sort of shooting fish in a barrel that countinues vis a vis the ongoing political battles over recognition, in this struggle it is always the "average guy" who looses, and he looses because he is not as heavilly armed intellectually. The average guy may know what he wants, but his knowledge is like that of the pot smoker vis a vis pot. It is the Chemist whose argument counts because he knows the properties of THC. It matters little that the people have clamoured for the writting of a history of the average man, or of black studies or asian studies, or feminist studies. Such subjects still have to be studies, and in being studies abstract from the subject by elevating themselves as experts in its meaning.

Many would reasonably suggest that the inscription on Plato's academy should include grammar, but in suggesting such they certainly haven't considered all the angles of geometry.

In this sense they are similar to the Marxists who would stipulate false consciousness, in stipulating false consciousness one also stipulates true consciousness and therefore reinserts an authority relationship vis a vis subjectivity.

Upon this view what we are seeing is that the Republican party is incapable of speaking for "conservatives", and that the Democratic party is incapable of speaking for "liberals". What we are seeing is the failure of both fund mannagers and the failure of politicians and the failure of unions to be able to unify enough disparate subjectivities, and in fact of being able to say anything concrete in the first place. The problem with subjectivities is that there is no one to blame, there is no accountability. The conservatives who stood for the policies of president Bush and probably voted for him twice simply fucking evaporate, and explain in minute detail how they really didn't like or agree with X, Y, or Z. McCain is pro-Iraq war, but he would have done things differently. Where one would think there would be agreement, one finds only that the damn devil is always in the details. This is why I think the common man simply would not tolerate this whole conservative or libertarian philosophy nonsense. Look, John: Its fucking simple, we have donkeys and elephants. You are a Democrat or a Republican, you support McCain or you support Obama, and you aren't allowed to qualify your statements or elevate them with sophistry. Damnit if you have a political sign in your yard supporting a candidate, then essentially you agree with all of his positions, or at the very least the position that is important enough to entail agreeing with all the others...end of story?

On Viagra and feniminist egalitarianism: The poor polygamous husband has to treat all his wives equally, even if that is quite contrary to nature. Viagra, more generally, compensates for natural injustice and helps men meet egalitarian demands.

A large fraction of the population feels that its living standards have stagnated (I'm not qualified to judge if that is technically true).

It is true. The median male wage, in constant dollars, is about what it was in the early seventies.

Peter,

Your article is brief, serious and insightful. It is precisely because I like the article that I would take issue with the following sentence.

Here are the worst things about populism: racism, prohibitionism, and no faith in what’s true about "trickle-down economics.

Where to begin? The word racism functionally means very little in contemporary usage. One might infer that you meant to imply that white Americans who prefer America to remain American, who doubt counterfactual liberal dogma regarding the malleability of human populations, that believe that race actually matters, are benighted. So, I am unsure as to what you are getting at, here.

Prohibition was a mistake. I am not aware however that our having tried it caused much lasting harm (though, inasmuch as the alternate U.S. history in which Americans skipped Prohibition necessarily remains unknown, I suppose that someone could make a tenuously plausible case that this or that modern evil had descended from that era). At the risk of committing a nonsequitur, I would observe that drunkenness is a greater evil than prohibitionism is.

Regarding trickle-down economics, I think that you are right, but I am not sure that it is a matter of faith. I wonder whether it is not more a matter of simple understanding. People just do not understand the essentials of macroeconomics: the role of prices, for instance; or the institution of money. One suspects that, if folks grasped the basics better, they would draw more sensible conclusions. There is room for public debate regarding the necessity and wisdom of labor unions, unempolyment insurance, tariffs, capital-gains taxes, etc., but people who do not even clearly grasp the role of prices in preventing shortages cannot discuss such issues sensibly.

The religious right--or real religion in general--is a true populist reaction against the elitist atheism or indifferentism. The Republican party has fourished for a generation on the basis of a populist reaction against the elitist liberationism of the Sixties. When the Republicans become too libertarian--or show contempt for the moral concerns or understandable anxieties of ordinary people, they lose. It’s not surprising that the WALL STREET JOURNAL doesn’t have a proper appreciation of the virtues of populism.

This is a gem of a quote. Good article. Thanks.

(P.S. I am aware that I risk being dismissed as a racist nutcase by questioning the received antiracist dogma. I cannot help that. I have no particular axe to grind--except inasmuch as I believe it no crime for traditional white Americans contentedly to be themselves--but I do have a low tolerance for conventionally mandated hypocrisy. Facts are facts, even when they do not fit the familiar, liberal antiracist talking-points list.)

I regret that I mismanaged the software's paragraph control above.

Leave a Comment

* denotes a required field
 

No TrackBacks
TrackBack URL: http://nlt.ashbrook.org/movabletype/mt-tb.cgi/12611