Notes on Populism


Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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44 Responses

  1. Avatar historystudent says:

    I won’t address the entirety of your thoughtful post, but merely aspects of your last paragraph. The problem with “normal democratic compromise” is that what passes for it is often actually none of those: normal, democratic, or healthy and rational compromise. Normal political business should be conducted so that it satisfies a basic longing among the populace for stewardship that engenders a feeling of at least a degree of confidence and well-being. The operations of democracy should also be conducted in a way that are tranparent and respectful of the participants and those they represent. Have these conditions been met? Finally, compromise, while appropriate for getting certain governmental things done, is actually damaging to our republic if it is applied to fundamental, founding pillars of our checks and balance system. To compromise over a question of whether an annual transportation budget pie should be sliced so that state X gets more than state Y is one thing. But compromises that evade constitutionality or that put our financial solvency in danger of collapsing cannot be permitted. For a country to remain on solid ground, it must be governed with prudence, foresight, integrity, and a healthy respect for its founding principles.

    One of the biggest problems with our current government (at all levels, actually) is that its functionaries have ceased, by and large, to recognize the limitations of compromise. They think everything is up for negotiation, that everything is their playground, that there are no boundaries beyond which they should not pass. This has brought us to the edge of the cliff and it remains to be seen whether we as a nation will drop off or save ourselves and America. It is not “unhinged” for citizens to demand that their representatives act in a way that is not damaging to the country.

    Americans can disagree about everything up to and including whether the U.S. should survive under the terms set down by the constitution, but we must clearly understand that if we tolerate too much “compromise” we will be a different nation. For some, abandoning our heritage is their goal. For others, this abandonment would be untenable. We’ll see who prevails.Report

    • Avatar Rufus says:

      Ah, but I didn’t say anything about the current state of the system. And do you really think it’s fair to take my statement that populist movements tend towards unhinged rhetoric and decide that, out of all the rhetoric of the Tea Party and every other populist movement, I must be referring specifically to their claim that politicians don’t damage the country? You don’t think that’s stacking the deck a bit?

      What I said was that populist movements all make the argument that they are uniquely legitimate in a way that the other parties are not: that the system has failed and they alone are called upon at this moment in history to “save the nation” from the usurpers who seek to destroy it. And that taking this attitude about your political agenda isn’t exactly the road to prudence, foresight, or integrity, regardless of whether or not you think the claims are accurate.Report

      • I think the statement could be somewhat more nuanced that “…populist political movements tend towards unhinged rhetoric…”. It’s important to note that populism as a cultural and non-political force is the backbone of the American experience in a lot of ways and quite often a force for good.Report

      • Avatar historystudent says:

        No, Rufus, I don’t think it is stacking the deck. You chose your words, and I responded to them. And you did bring up the current state of the system. In the previous paragraph, for example, you cited the Tea Party folks.

        There can be legitimate contention over whether any group (past or present) thinks they ALONE are called upon to save the nation. They may think their core ideas are the ticket but they, especially if they consider themselves populists, would be less interested in preserving their exclusivity and more interested in broadening their base. Populism has a chance of being influencial only if it is popular, after all.

        Also, the fact remains that not everything is capably solved by compromise. Your original post opined that “they cast normal democratic compromise as ‘corruption’ and a betrayal of the nation.” This is a distortion because it is not “normal democratic compromise” that is generally opposed. It is the particular sort of compromise that is seen as being fundamentally damaging. Consensus is certainly to be desired if and when it is both possible and will result in a better outcome, but it is not, as many today seem to think, a panacea in and of itself. There are instances where consensus cannot be reached and one side or the other will dominate the decision-making process.Report

  2. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Do you think it’s fair to Rousseau to reject his General Will on the basis of the inevitability that minority factions will claim to embody and speak for it? Wouldn’t Rousseau come back to say that there remains the (oh, God) silent majority, whose will still figures into (and if it is the majority, dominates) the true Will? Ultimately I think you are right that Rousseau’s construction does lend blessing to intemperate manias in the polity, but I think we need to reserve that criticism for those times when a populist movement really does come to capture the spirit of a decisive segment, or even a plurality — whatever can legitimately comprise the General Will — of the peoples’ political faculties. And even then, the dissent would continue to be part of its makeup. Certainly Rousseau doesn’t mean to bless just whatever minority can get its hands on power by hook and crook, right?Report

    • Avatar Rufus says:

      Well… no, it’s not fair. Certainly, Rousseau wouldn’t bless something like that. I suppose my problem with Rousseau is that he can be a bit naive about human nature. Certainly it’s possible for the majority to succumb to intemperate manias on their own right? For example, wanting the government to keep all the services they’ve come to expect, while cutting the deficit and cutting taxes? To me, a good example of what bugs me with the man is Émile, which strikes me as both a really interesting look at childhood education and the worst possible ideas about how to educate a child.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        Oh, the guy’s an unreconstructed idealist, not to be taken too seriously, no doubt. But if the Will in all its component parts adds up to something as unsustainable as expecting free money forever, I think he’d just say that people would deserve what they have coming to them (on the other hand, when the overrun is well within the carrying capacity of the society, inflation is not threatening in any way imminently, and the private economy is in need of as much available credit as can be gotten, well…)Report

  3. From Rufus:

    “They sell themselves as an alternative to the political system, not as an alternative within the political system. This might be why, in the long run, they tend to either “sell out”, flame out, attempt to overthrow the system, or succeed, terribly, in overthrowing the system. “

    Unions? I think so…Report

    • Avatar Rufus says:

      Sure. And it occurs to me that this is probably what will happen to the Tea Party- they’ll eventually be something like a union or a citizen’s lobbying group seeking concessions from the GOP in the same way the unions do from the Democrats. It’s certainly easier to see that happening in the future than there being a number of tickets with (D), (R) and (TP) candidates.Report

      • I still think we’re giving the Tea Party waaaaaaay too much credit. It’s really just a more organized version of a faction that always existed within the GOP and libertarian circles.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew says:


          • With the libertarian/populist strain they really have the grumpy old men thing going for them. Once the GOP realizes they will never be able to please them they will stop brown-nosing and start ignoring.

            The Religious Right got so much power because they wanted to work within the political system to affect change. The TP wants to implode the system and politicians will go into self-preservation mode at some point.Report

            • Avatar Rufus says:

              Yeah, you’re probably right about giving too much credit. I don’t really see the Tea Party lasting more than a few years, especially if Jeb Bush becomes the next President. The problem for the GOP is that they ignore them at their peril, but they also pander to them at their peril.Report

              • I guess it’s ultimately about what they can deliver. If they can accurately claim credit for big wins in November then obviously they will have a louder voice. That’s what happened with the Religious Right. If the Tea Party vote is MIA in November or hard to correlate with exit polling they’ll fade fast.Report

              • Avatar Rufus says:

                That sounds plausible. It’s also possible that the media has hyped the importance of the movement so far that if they don’t change the entire society and bring on the rapture people will be disappointed.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                Jeb Bush?! Bite your tongue man!Report

  4. Avatar zic says:

    How populist is this?

    a new CNN poll finds that Tea Party activists “tend to be male, rural, upscale, and overwhelmingly conservative.” Although this movement tries to portray itself as independent from either political party, the poll “indicates that Tea Party activists would vote overwhelmingly Republican in a two-party race for Congress.”

    Sounds like the party of dudes who don’t want to share the driver’s seat to me.Report

  5. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Let it become a habit!Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      Thanks. I’m not sure how to put this without sounding like I’m sucking up to them, but in general, I think the other gentlemen are a lot more knowledgeable about current politics than I am. I get the news once a week when the latest issue of The Economist arrives, but am usually somewhat oblivious.

      Besides, geeking out about old books is a lot of fun.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Oh, indeed. Geek out to old books and mix that with politics!

        “So I was thinking about Health Care Reform and that got me thinking about what Virgil said in Dante’s Purgatorio when they were discussing sloth/acedia…”

        That opening to an essay on Health Care Reform would have me by the throat. I’m guessing it’d have you too.Report

  6. Avatar Jaybird says:

    My feelings on populism are mixed.

    Government that governs without the consent of the governed is tyranny, after all.

    That said, 50% of the population is under average.

    That said, technocrats have as many valleys (if not more!) than they have peaks and the valleys have more bodies in them.

    Which brings me back to localism/federalism. If I must have a group of below-average people making decisions on my behalf, I want them to be *MY* below-average people. If I must have a group of technocrats bulldozing me into a mass grave, I want them to be *MY* technocrats.

    I am more or less reconciled to the fact that I will never have a government that represents me. I am not pleased with this but… well. The root of all suffering is desire or something like that. I *MIGHT*, however, get people to agree that central control has worse downsides than local control… and if we get enough local controls, the whole “if you don’t like it, move to Somalia!” argument actually gains teeth by substituting “Somalia” with “Denver”.

    There’s more than one way to do it and there’s no only right way to do it but using one’s power to reach over hundreds of miles and force people who are not “yours” to do it “your” way is almost always the wrong way to do it.Report

  7. Avatar vkd62025 says:

    50% of the population are below the median on any given category, not necessarily below the mean (average). Basic statistics.

    In context, IQ measures are only considered reliable when they can be plotted on a bell curve, but the curve may be a skewed bell. When a measure of IQ becomes significantly skewed, the measure has to be reconsidered. Either the measure needs to be tuned, or the population has shifted. Either requires adjustment to the measuring tool. IQ is measured in standard deviations from an established mean. The standard deviation on either side of the mean MAY be identical in sample size, but that would be highly unlikely.Report

    • Avatar angullimala says:

      50% of the population are below the median on any given category, not necessarily below the mean (average). Basic statistics.

      The mean approaches the median as population size grows. In a nation of 300 million people the mean and the median will not be very far off at all.Report

  8. Avatar vkd62025 says:

    The genius element of our system of checks and balances is the unique structuring of the voice of the majority (House of Representatives) being moderated by the mandate to be equally fair to every State (Senate). The requirement that the President signs the laws, and the laws must be able to stand the scrutiny of the Supreme Court, further ensures that the laws are viable and cogent, and presumbly pass the Constitutional test. It’s an amazing system.Report

  9. Avatar Vicki Daggett says:

    The genius value in our system relies on checks and balances established by the Constitution. The will of the majority of the people (House of Representatives) is moderated by the requirement that laws must be equally fair to the majority of States (Senate). Our laws must also be signed and administered by the President, and must pass scrutiny by the Supreme Court as to Constitutional grounding. It is an amazing system, and the envy of the world.Report

  10. Avatar mike farmer says:

    I think I love Vicki. Our original system took Hobbes-like and Rousseau-like routes to totalitarianism into account.Report

  11. Avatar Thurman Hart says:

    I would adapt some of the ideas of Maurice Duverger on political parties. The Democratic and Republican Parties truly aspire to being elite parties…where they demand support because they are able to impact policy. This is best seen in the Democratic Party’s tolerance of the Blue Dogs. A truly ideological party would throw them out. But to do that would cost them their majority, so they appeal through influence rather than ideology.

    Mass driven parties tend to organize around ideology. So when the masses see the party pulling for influence over ideology, they rebel against the system. Because of the centrist orientation of both major parties, this leaves ideological purity sitting out on one fringe or another. They might be able to get a lot of attention across the country, but they are particularly unable to win even a single Congressional district…because that is what the definition of fringe means. 10% of 300 million people is a lot, but when that 10% is spread thinly across the country, they have absolutely no political power.

    Well, not quite. They have the power of rhetoric and media. In prior days, they wrote novels and plays. Now they blog and hold for-profit “conventions.” In such an atmosphere, it is easy for the naive to mistake activity for efficacy. So they get a lot of press, and fall flat on their faces when elections come around.

    I read recently (sorry, can’t find it to provide a link) that somewhere around 90% of teapartiers have never been involved in any political activity before now. That tells us a lot about why they are so fractious (because they never learned to belong to a group) and why they are so bad at getting their goals politically (because they have never learned to work the political system).Report

  12. Avatar mike farmer says:

    “I read recently (sorry, can’t find it to provide a link) that somewhere around 90% of teapartiers have never been involved in any political activity before now.”

    But this is going to make all subsequent elections interesting — we could possible have 25-30 million new voters in the system. Theoretically enough for a third party to do something unexpected and game-changing. It’s an interesting tim to be alive. We’re on the cusp of something — what that is is not clear.Report

    • Avatar Thurman Hart says:

      Actually, it won’t matter at all. The statistics of large numbers sounds impressive, but no one has shown me where tea party types make up a large enough faction to win a single seat. As they showed in NY, they can be big enough to throw the election, but that isn’t really the target.

      The link for the ninety percent figure is this one:

      • Avatar Rufus says:

        Does “no political activity” include voting? It’s hard to imagine that all of those middle aged people have never voted before. Lots of people haven’t been to rallies or protests or belonged to political organizations before though.Report

        • Avatar Thurman Hart says:

          Well, it doesn’t mention what the definition of “never involved” means, but many of the same crowd mention voting for McCain/Palin…I think they mean they have never held party office or worked/volunteered for a campaign. Hard to tell.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          I would probably have assumed that “no political activity” might allow for voting, but it means nothing more than that. No caucusing, no supporting this guy over that guy in the primaries, no putting signs on one’s lawn, no bumper stickers, no petition drives, no getting out the vote.

          If someone who voted every 4 years told me that he had never been involved in political activity, I wouldn’t feel like he ought to correct his sentence, particulary.Report

          • Avatar North says:

            Yeah, voters are kind of like the audience. They clap or boo for the actors and lines. If someone went to the theater every night to watch plays for years I think they could still credibly say they’d never had any activity in theater.Report

  13. Avatar mike farmer says:

    Well, since only about 50% of eligible voters actually vote, if the other half are inspired, it will definitely be interesting — this is what I’m talking about. No policial activity could very well mean not voting. We historically have had weak turn out.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      That would be truely fascinating.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      The rule of thumb I’ve always heard is that Republicans tend to just show up and vote. It’s an honor and a duty and the price of democracy is eternal standing in line and all that. GOTV efforts, as such, would tend to always benefit Democrats then…

      But that’s not how it traditionally goes, is it?

      The Dems had the Congress sewn up for decades. The Senate too, for the most part.

      Well, we’ll see. I still have my doubts but if you’re right, we’re going to see something topsy-turvy come November and… I reckon, anyway… the polls don’t know how to ask the questions that will explain why people came out.

      God help me, the Republicans will call it a mandate…Report