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Populism for Social Democrats

One acquainted with Thomas Frank’s work–notably his 2004 bestseller What Is the Matter with Kansas? –might expect him to be circumspect about populist movements. His whole thesis in that publication, after all, was that conservatives had tricked the common Kansan into votes against his own best interests. It would be reasonable to expect Frank to adopt the situation, apocryphally credited to Winston Churchill, which”the best argument against democracy is a five-minute dialogue with the average voter.” The folks are bigoted rubes who don’t understand what’s good for themselves, not as the entire nation. 
Yet Frank’s new effort, Individuals, No, champions”popular sovereignty and civic participation” as the remedy for our political ills. Frank unabashedly celebrates”the populist impulse”: the belief that the working person is victimized by elites; a vast majority of”the folks,” rather than the legislation, is the most important source of political authority; and that political elites’ job is to perform the majority’s bidding. ‘More flames!’ Is the clarion call for a better America.
How do Frank be so optimistic about”the folks” regardless of his familiarity with their right-wing bigotry? His answer can be found in the difference between political material and political process. Right-wing anti-elitist speak-for-the-people-ism, you notice, isn’t really populism in any way. “`Demagogue’ is an obvious one, however, there are many other people –‘nationalist,”nativist,”racist,’ or’fascist,’ to mention a few.” Mob fervor, the basest form of political process, isn’t itself the issue, as long as it is in the support of substantively fantastic ends.
Real populism, he asserts, is substantively left-wing since it is procedurally democratic; it demands supply of wealth and state interventionism because that is what a vast majority of those people want.
The Pops, since they were understood, gave the word populism”its original meaning” and Frank mocks people who’d”take this specific sentence back to the Latin root and…begin all over again from there” as”inverting” the appropriate”historic meaning” of populism.
No Authentic Populist, hence, can endorse deregulation (though one is knowledgeable about those kosher butcher arrested for violating New Deal regulations testifying that,”in my business, I am the expert,” a continuation of the common guy if there ever was one) or support strongman rulers. How can it be otherwise, if the Populists”devised the term”?
This is a clever sleight-of-hand. The phenomenon we call populism predates the Populist Party and its own tenets, which appeal to neither the left nor the best, continue. People who have warned against excesses of democracythe”anti-populists” who are really the focus of Frank’s study, who indulged in that which he calls”the Democracy Scare” –in the founding to President Lincoln to now, were correct to be suspicious of politicians who’d do whatever they felt”the folks” demanded.
The need to control”the public” –to restrain the worst impulses of a democracy–is at the heart of our constitutional system, reflecting a healthy skepticism towards pure majoritarianism a century before the rise of the Populists.
In Federalist 51, Madison wrote that”a reliance on the people is, no doubt, the principal control on the authorities,” but cautioned that the folks could themselves become dangerous. He reasoned that”experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions” to”allow the government to control the governed; also in the next place oblige it to control itself” With these considerations in mind that the Framers fashioned associations, such as the Senate and the Supreme Court, which will check the passions of those people inside a democratic system.
Abraham Lincoln embraced an anti-populist stance well ahead of the Populists coordinated politically when he resisted the centrality of popular sovereignty to the argument over slavery’s expansion. He was more explicit in his 1838 Lyceum Address, denouncing”the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions instead of the sober judgment of Courts.” When masses of individuals gather to enact their will by absolute majority and fail to submit to the mediating forces supplied by legislation, they behave as a”mob.” (Conversely, when the folks are powerless before nine unelected judges, as Lincoln noted in response to the Dred Scott decision, democracy has ceased to be purposeful; a functioning constitutional republic accounts both.) Populism is exactly what we predict the removal of this constitutional filter which typically distills and refines popular sovereignty.  
The exact fears–not to mention reform but of political made only by majority might– animate today’s anti-populism. Frank misses this point because he will not phone Trumpism a brand new movement, disregarding the 2016 election for a cataclysm which”only happened because of the Electoral Collegean anti-populist tool from long ago.” While that is true in some way –we don’t really understand how an election determined by popular vote could have goneit also downplays the role of mediating institutions such as political parties in maintaining rabble-rousers out.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders’ tried hostile takeovers of political parties, allowed by main systems that empower”the public” rather than elites in smoke-filled chambers, would be the indications of populism that so disturbed the anti-populists. Yet Frank dismisses the role played by deference to the common person in elite-run associations, as if populism could only rear its head in electoral politics. ‘d Republican gatekeepers defied the vast majority of their principal respondents and listened to the best interests of their party–as they may have achieved in a less-democratic ago –Trump would never have obtained the nomination. However, such defiance is unthinkable in a populist age that prizes the will of the people over all.
Subsequently, on January 6, then a mob seized with conspiratorial fervor descended on the Capitol to take back the people’s home in the elites they thought had rigged the election. The President, an outsider who throughout his presidency insisted on speaking as one, egged them on with reckless disregard for constitutional norms. Frank would argue this is a totally different phenomenon–he’d likely call it”fascist”–but only frames fascism as populism shot to its logical conclusion. Regular individuals, feeling motivated by elites and eager for drastic mass action, spurned the rule of law and the Constitution, insisting that they were the legitimate origin of political power. 
As if to hammer all of populism’s problems, Republicans in Congress were cowed by their components into allowing President Trump off the hook for his role in stoking the riot. ‘d the impeachment vote been anonymous, many Republican representatives would have shrunk Trump to the curb. But fear of reproach at the hands of”the public” –such as that endured by vocal Trump critic Rep. Liz Cheney–kept nearly all of them in voting their conscience.
Frank may counter any great thing taken too far (or in support of the wrong ideals) can grow to be an issue. Very good people, often with valid concerns, may be prone to mob mentality, however, there’s not anything inherent in populism which leads inexorably to such a result.
A movement such as populism, which claims there is such an entity as”the folks” without ideal unanimity, transforms majorities to totalities.Populism’s defenders are wrong to create such a circumstance. Finding political authority in the amazing masses of the individuals and positioning their pursuits in contrast to people of elites naturally encourages conspiracy theories and violence. Just a thin line separates blaming the people’s anxieties on elites–that our machinations are blatantly made inconspicuous–out of elaborate notions about who really controls the banks, the media, along with the authorities. “Adversarian” politics, which pits the righteous masses against self sustaining elites clinging to freedom and power, lends itself to ends-justify-the-means violence, or to using strength in numbers to carry back the reins of power in the name of these folks. 
“The individuals,” as anti-populists understand well, are not consistently so virtuous. Majoritarian rule warranted in the name of”the public” often tyrannizes minority groups who rely upon the principle of law for security against democratically-enacted injustices. Contemplate former Alabama Governor George Wallace, who Frank asserts is No Authentic Populist (because he had been a”demagogue,” and”no rebel”) but whose rhetoric perfectly encapsulates what’s the issue with populism.
Not in the name of this Constitution, nor even the principle of law, nor even the dictates of conscience did Wallace insist on”segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” in his 1963 Inaugural Address but”in the name of the best people that have ever trod this earth.” He would frequently ground his rankings in a”covenant with all the people” to be their assign, contrasting his political doctrine to elites who have their”little think tanks” and”who write in magazines”
Frank loves the rhetorical populism of FDR, who”was among all the folks” and”talked always about the desperate need to take power away from economic elites and return into the average American” but refuses to see Wallace in exactly the exact same light. (Never mind that FDR’s economic”reforms” were largely corporatist, bringing enormous business into bed with the authorities for price-fixing schemes and anti-competitive”industrial recovery” measures.) Why are FDR’s words populism at its best but Wallace’s rhetoric never populism in any way? One possibility is that, just as Frank suffers a blind spot to mediating associations, he’s crippled by the all-too-common impulse to consider politics only on a nationwide scale. Another is that he’s gerrymandered the meaning of populism around historical figures of whom he approves.
The truth is that Wallaceas much like another politician, has been an adherent of this mantra allegedly coined by William Jennings Bryan, Frank’s paradigmatic Populist:”The people of Nebraska are for free silver. Therefore, I am for free silver. I’ll look up the motives ” (On his deathbed in 1991 Wallace laid his segregationism at the toes of Alabamians, arguing he”needed to stand up for segregation or be conquered” before pivoting to assault Ronald Reagan’s tax policy for”unsuccessful…the middle and poor classes.”)
Combine pure majoritarianism using the conceit that some self-interested minority of elites is outside to find the common person, and it is easy to fashion an argument which the people of Alabama must stand firm in tyrannizing a minority. “The people” are sovereign, and by electing Wallace governor they have spoken against the outside forces who’d undermine them.
A majority, in fact, speaks with one voice. Anti-populists have picked up on this feature and criticized populism to be”anti-pluralist.” That is, it treats”the public” as a”it” –generally personified in a single executive such as Wallace or Roosevelt–rather than a”they,” with dissidents whose rights issue even if they are a minority.
Frank’s response to this review displays he doesn’t really grasp his interlocutors’ issues. He mischaracterizes pluralism as the worth of welcoming individuals of various races and genders to the fold and then argues that populism isn’t”sexist or racist or discriminatory.”
What Frank has described is called”diversity” Pluralism means living in peace among individuals who abide by habits, norms, and values along with your own. It implies not imposing one-size-fits-all legislation and norms among a diverse population. Pluralism needs, for instance, cognizance which kosher butchers have religious requirements which shouldn’t be trampled by federal”industrial recovery” policy a President such as FDR believes is very great for”the public.” It needs sensitivity towards the means in which a majority cannot be permitted to speak with one voice.
A movement such as populism, which claims there is such an entity as”the folks” without ideal unanimity, transforms majorities to totalities. 49.9percent of Alabamians could have detested segregation–a lot of whom, naturally, endured its indignities–but so long as 50 percent -plus-one vote for Wallace, the dictates of populism require him to speak for”the public” and oppress the minority on behalf of most. It is necessarily exclusive.
That does add up to rule by”the people” But such a style of politics isn’t exactly what our Constitution prescribes, and with great reason. Frank’s populism would prefer it do .