Thursday, December 20, 2007

Further Thoughts on Populism, With Application to Criticisms of Edwards’ Fancy Digs

Inspired by Barkley, I have more to say about populism. In a nutshell, the word has multiple connotations, and political opinion-molders manipulate the ambiguities for their own purposes. Let’s disentangle and shed some light.

I think the Wikipedia entry is right in identifying “the people” in populist thought as counterposed to an elite that insults and oppresses them. But what do populists propose as the remedy?

Long ago, in an article for a journal with no web presence and therefore no linkability, I wrote that there are three ways that political movements can claim to be democratic. (1) They can claim that their leading members are “of the people”, that they can be trusted to represent the majority because, by birth and life circumstances, they are part of it. I called this agent-based publicness. (2) They can claim that their programs would benefit the interests of the majority. This is akin to the utilitarianism of mainstream economics, particularly if metrics, such as median income, are used to take distribution into account. I called this interest-based publicness. (3) They can promote programs or institutions that expand the direct role of the majority in deliberation and decision-making in the public sphere: transparency, participation, etc. I called this process-based publicness.

In my view, all three have a role to play, and all of them have blind spots that need to be recognized and offset. What interests me right now is not the question of what mix would be best in general or in the US in 2008, but how these different approaches are confused in our current political discourse.

First, all three can be expressions of populism if they are presented as solutions to the dispossession of the people by the elites.

And what do they look like today?

Agent-based populism: A candidate has a personal style, including a method of speaking, that shows he or she is “like us”. This could mean anything from avoiding complicated academic language to making references to pop music, to going to NASCAR races (OK, not in 2008 any more) or on hunting trips. It can also mean being multi-racial if “the people” are seen as multi-racial. It depends, obviously, on who “we” are. Mike Huckabee’s populism is, as far as I can tell, almost entirely of this sort. South of where I normally sit (in an office in the US), one of the chief populist claims for Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales is that they really understand the poor, nonwhite majority because this is their heritage too.

Interest-based populism: Every reader of this blog knows that America has reached new depths of economic inequality under Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush. An interest-based populist in this context should be someone like Edwards who campaigns on this reality and proposes policies on the grounds that they would reverse it. (Whether those policies are adequate to the job is another matter.) It is possible, however, for someone to argue that the true interests of the people are not economic but cultural, the preservation of their prejudices, taboos, etc. This opens the door to populists like George Wallace or, today, Lou Dobbs—to take an example from the media.

Process-based populism: I make a big deal of this possibility because I believe it has much more to offer than it is given credit for, but I have to admit that it is barely visible on the current political landscape. A candidate could take up this mantle by championing democratic social movements, unions and greater direct public participation in government. Civil liberties largely fall within this framework as well, as they provide the foundation for popular activism against the state. There is much discussion of how to expand the capacity and role of civil society elsewhere—in Latin America and the EU especially—but hardly any in the US. Kucinich gives us a small taste of this, when we can find him, and Obama (very) obliquely hints at it.

So this brings us to the use of “populism” as a pejorative, and specifically as it pertains to Edwards. Those who say he is a false populist because he enjoys an upscale lifestyle are relying on populism #1: he is not truly of the people. But he could live in bourgeois luxury of the most extreme sort and still deliver on populism #2. Think FDR.

A second critique of populism goes directly at #2, I believe. It is argued that the immediate interests of the downtrodden are in conflict with sound economic policy. The poor want handouts, but this would bludgeon the budget, wipe out incentives for investment, etc. By appealing too openly to the multitudes, someone like Edwards is seen as being at risk of becoming beholden to their short-sighted demands. Here the underlying presumption is that the poor have little understanding of their long-term interests and are prone to being bought off. Indeed, there is a cynical form of populism, much practiced in Latin America, in which a few highly publicized giveaways are used to win support, while fundamental policies continue to favor the rich.

My judgment, for now, is that Edwards is not guilty of this second sin.

What we mostly lack, I think, is the third dimension, empowerment. Is it accidental that it is historically linked to socialism?

1 comment: said...


I think the problem here is when one gets so many varieties of populists the whole thing just bogs down into a mess. We already have too many, proto-fascists, semi-socialists, peasant religious fanatics, and on and on...