“Liberalism is elitism”
First, many thanks to Will for spotting this article and passing it along my way. It’s one of the better articles I’ve read in some time.
Hogeland’s main point – that liberalism has almost always been, and may always continue to be, at odds with populism – is an idea I’m more open to now than I have been in the past. It’s becoming harder for me to reconcile a fundamentally nostalgic and irrational (in the Pournelle chart kind of way) political philosophy with the forward-looking rationalism at liberalism’s core, even if the two perspectives frequently end with the same policy conclusions. While I might’ve at some point pushed back against the liberalism vs. populism concept, I don’t know that I’m not coming around on that.
My only small issue with Hogeland’s article (aside from the cringe-inducing parallels he draws between WJB and Sarah Palin) is that I can’t tell if he believes in an actual populist ideology, or if, as Michael Kazin argues in The Populist Persuasion, he believes populism is more of a style of politics that can be applied to any given set of policies or politicians. At times, he seems to put his finger on core principles characteristic of an ideology, particularly when he contrasts populism with liberalism:
- Protecting the “ordinary”. “[Populism] seeks to enshrine and advance the rights and hopes of ordinary people;” liberalism “believes itself to be those rights’ best protection.”
- Skepticism of meritocratic achievement. “Populists deemed advanced formal education and its resulting expertise tools for keeping ordinary people out of the halls of power,” while liberals “hopes for social progress lay specifically in advanced formal education.”
- Nostalgia for the past. “[Populists] accused corporate hegemony of being innovative, departing from what they saw as the small-scale, family-focused ethics of the past.” Progressives, meanwhile, “hoped to move American society forward, not backward to an imagined pioneer democracy.”
- Faith in American ideals. “That the producer, not the consumer should benefit from society’s efforts was especially and rightly American, populists believed.” And that “an America true to… its democratic origins must always favor ordinary laborers over investors and small farmers over well-heeled bankers.”
- Evangelicalism (secular or religious). “The war [Bryan] kept declaring was a moral one for the transcendent virtue of self-evident good, beyond debate and petition, beyond the win-some, lose-some, art-of-the-possible quotidian.”
Those five tenets alone (and I would probably add a couple of others) make for a pretty complete ideology – one from which it’s easy to predict the resulting policy positions. If this is the case, than the rift between liberalism and populism stands to reason; there may be some policy overlap but they are entirely different ideologies with divergent historical lessons and different visions for the future.
For the most part, Hogeland also avoids the trap of chronicling a shift between left-wing and right-wing populism and he uses Bryan’s turn at the Scopes trial to illustrate not the break from economic to cultural populism, but the consistency between the two (“For Bryan… there was no shift.”) Like libertarianism, populism can be expressed in ways that are commonly associated with either the American Left or the American Right, but ultimately, it’s an ideology that doesn’t really need qualifiers.
But Hogeland also suggests again and again that populism is less concerned with policy and more concerned with presentation. “Then as now,” Hogeland argues, “the hottest blast of populist rhetoric was directed less at specific policies than at elites’ dismissal of ordinary people’s judgments, determinations, and desires.” If that’s the case, populist is the qualifying term; populist liberals, populist conservatives, populist libertarians, all are equally credible. On that point, I’m not sold. It is possible to present a decidedly un-populist argument using populist language/grievances (the “method that Bryan perfected”). Describing everyone who feels patronized by elites as “populist” is as nonsensical as considering all people who self-classify as individualists “libertarian.” I don’t think Hogeland meant that or thinks that, but enough people do that it’s worth mentioning.
That aside, I’m still trying to figure out if I’m fully on board with the belief that populism and liberalism are destined to be adversarial. It doesn’t really seem fair to put the spotlight on blatantly anti-populist liberals throughout history from William Allen White to Frank Rich and draw the conclusion that “the classic American liberal dilemma” is “warning about the dangers of plutocracy while disdaining the yahoos.” Not fair, but… on some level, it feels mostly true.
Overall, I’m not sure if it matters. So what if liberals and populists don’t think much of each other? Wilson might’ve thought Bryan was a radical rube, but it was during the Wilson administration that many of Bryan’s hardest fought battles were won (progressive income tax, prohibition, women’s suffrage, direct election of Senators, etc…). In historical terms, it matters little that the two men had reason to distrust each other. Maybe liberals and populists should give up on trying to understand each other and just settle for forming the sort of tense coalition on the Left that has marked the “three-legged stool” of the Republican tent for the last four decades.
That idea may have to be put on hold until the current moment passes. For now, the conditions have probably deteriorated to a point where even a “tense” coalition is unlikely for all except the few hangers-on who, like me, believe the principles of populism are best achieved by Democrats and by the American Left.