Notes on Populism
Note: I’d like to stick my toe in the political waters a bit here, but do not intend to stray far from old books and art: my virtual bread and butter. However, E.D. Kain’s recent posts about populism have raised some historical questions for me. Never fear, canon fans! This won’t become a habit.
I have some small historical critiques of Mister Kain’s piece, while agreeing in a larger sense with his conclusions. I’ve already noted that have been several populist movements that would be more accurately described as counterrevolutionary than revolutionary, back to at least the Vendée; this doesn’t affect his overall point. I’d also note that the norm in America seems to have been for populist movements to flame out; in Latin America, they seem to usually rally around a caudillo; in Europe, some flamed out, others (such as the Peasants’ War) were crushed by the state, and some, indeed, led to tyrannies. E.D. uses the example of the French Revolution as characteristic of populism. While I’d be a bit skeptical about taking the claims of the French revolutionaries at face value, I think it’s still a legitimate illustration. It’s also noteworthy how hard it is to find populist movements that have been successful in the long term.
The example is telling; it seems to me that Mister Kain is evoking, consciously or unconsciously, Edmund Burke’s warnings about the French Revolution, which were quite correct. As Burke noted, the Revolution descended into the reign of terror almost inevitably, and I think the reasons this happened do have something to do with populism. In fact, most conservative critiques of populism, at least in Europe, come back to the Revolution. Chateaubriand memorably described it as a river of blood separating the old world from the new.
A suggestion: populist movements are actually making two claims at once; the first claim simply puts forth their particular platform, what they want, don’t want, ideas for the future, etc; the second claim is that their platform uniquely represents the will of the people. Therefore, by attacking the platform, you are, to some extent, attacking the will of the people, and are in some sense anti-democratic. This defensive claim is, I think, what gives populist movements their notable lack of self-criticism and aura of a higher truth. Certainly, it must be evident by now that Tea Party members can be insufferably enamored with the smell of their own farts in very much the same way that Obama supporters were a year ago.
The problem that this aura of democratic truth posed in Revolutionary France was that, if “the people” argued to, for example, change the calendar, whoever argued against them was, at first implicitly and then explicitly, understood to be an “enemy of the people”. By committing the Revolutionary government fully to the belief that the sum of human desires constitutes a higher truth, Revolutionary politics became increasingly extreme and mercurial, almost by necessity. I think the “pettiness” Kain refers to comes from this inability to self-criticize. Certainly these movements fall prey to divisions (splitters!) pretty quickly, but as individuals, they can be remarkably self-assured. The Tea Party, for example, seems weirdly unaware of its most glaring flaw: their relative lack of a coherent philosophy of governance.
Of course, it can be objected that all democratic parties claim to speak for the will of the people. However, by necessity, when those parties function in higher office, they are required to make concessions and seek consensus with “those people” who disagree with them. Their claims are rhetorical. At some point, a party that cannot sublimate its desires to a higher good simply cannot function in a democratic state. As with individuals, the reality principal requires a certain amount of repression in order to function in a civilization.
But with populist movements: which I would define as being both bottom-up grassroots movements of political outsiders, and as making these specific claims: there is a serious difficulty in working with a system that they have already posited as “elite” and enemies of the public will. 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. If I had to guess with the Tea Party, I’d imagine they’ll eventually be part of the GOP.
I think Mister Kain is quite right to be skeptical of populism. The problem isn’t so much demagoguery or that these movements are any more likely to be wrong than the rest of us; it’s their unnerving Rousseauiste faith that, if we could only hear the pure voice of the people, it would always speak the truth. It’s their lack of doubt. What is more troubling about populist movements is that, in taking their individual mandate as the “will of the people”, they cast normal democratic compromise as “corruption” and a betrayal of the nation. They can’t seek consensus with the people who disagree with them because those people are held to be at odds with the national will or character. Thus their attacks on those individuals become increasingly extreme and unhinged.