The Perils and Promise of Populism

Populism is all the rage these days, though like many other -ism’s, it can be notoriously hard to define. It may be instructive to compare populism to Ben and Jerry’s ice cream: pleasant to the taste, unhealthy in excess, and vaguely associated with communism. Also, it comes in many flavors.

Populism can arise on both the left and the right. The two politicians of the last decade who have drawn the biggest, most enthusiastic crowds are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, both populists. By contrast, Jeb Bush and Joe Biden – establishment politicians through and through – gave speeches to single-digit crowds, and most pathetically asked supporters to “please clap.”

There’s the GameStop populism that just recently threatened Wall Street, the Reddit nerds with their rocket emojis taking on the hedge fund bros. No one was killed or injured in the effort to short squeeze GameStop, though a few “Chads” may have had their feelings (and their portfolios) hurt. Most people would identify this as the good sort of populism. We love seeing David take on Goliath; it’s even better when he actually wins.

But then there’s bad populism, like the kind we may have witnessed on January 6th. There’s always a certain madness to the masses, regardless of why they have chosen to amass. It’s hard to be entirely rational when you are surrounded by cheering — or jeering — crowds, and reason is essential to democracy.

Populism fueled the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930’s. The Nazi Party was born from populist discontent following World War I and the massively unpopular Treaty of Versailles, but the Nazis only grew in popularity after the market crash of 1929 and resulting global depression, the worst impact of which was crushing unemployment. Here were the conditions tailor-made for populism: angry, embittered, and now jobless men cast adrift on the rubble of Europe’s crumbling institutions.

As Hannah Arendt explains in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the German masses were susceptible to media manipulation and conspiracy theories, including the idea that the world was secretly run by a cabal of Jewish financiers. “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world,” writes Arendt, “the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true…”In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true…”

Around the same time Nazism and Fascism were brewing on the right, communism was ascendant on the left. Karl Marx may have intended the liberation of the masses by the masses — a true proletarian revolution. But since Lenin and his Bolshevik coup, communism has been largely an “elite” project, promoted by intellectuals who think they know more than three thousand years of human experience would suggest, and certainly more than the common people they seek to lead.

Populism has been cast as an attack on liberal democracy, but it predates liberalism by a couple millennia. Long before Hitler and Mussolini, there were populists in Greece and Rome such as Cleon and Clodius. Writing in The Atlantic, Kori Schake notes that Thucydides, one of the first historians that we know of, was “an unapologetic elitist” who “characterize(d) the establishment as moderate and sensible—all of the disasters that befall both Sparta and Athens in the History are brought about by populists.” This includes Athens’ loss to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War.

Historians likewise blame the populism of the Gracchus brothers and later Clodius for the fall of the Roman Republic. Of Clodius, Vittorio Buffacho writes:

Gaining notoriety in 62 BCE when he gate-crashed a solemn, all-female religious festival, he then became one of the most violent and politically dangerous leaders of a populist faction that engineered the exile from Rome of the most ardent defender of the Republic: Cicero. He went on to terrorize the streets of Rome with his private militia. But apart from using violent means to shake the foundations of the status quo, his political project also included radical reforms in the interests of the common people, the Roman plebs, including passing laws that made the distribution of grain in the city entirely free.

Populism and the Politically Excluded: Lessons From Ancient Rome

After decades of executions and political dysfunction, many Romans were willing to accept the rule of Augustus in exchange for a return to law and order.

But instead of looking to populism as the cause of all these negative outcomes, it may be more instructive to view it as a symptom of institutional decline. Populism can be compared to a fever: it arises as an attempt to destroy a threat to the body politic, though it may have the perverse effect of killing the host.

The dictionary defines a populist as “a person, especially a politician, who strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by the established elite group.”

Well, sometimes the elites do disregard the concerns of the ordinary people. When confronted with the starving multitude, Marie Antoinette may not have actually said “Let them eat cake,” but this sentiment has been common throughout history, as it remains today. Picture Nancy Pelosi standing in front of her $24,000 fridge suggesting people stave off lockdown fatigue by indulging in $13 a pint ice cream. Imagine an unemployed hair stylist or restaurant worker watching such a display.

Is it any wonder that Americans tend to prefer Bernie Sanders in his fifty-cent blue surgical mask and hand-knit mittens to Pelosi and her preening?

Talk of ice cream and mittens may seem superficial, but it is symbolic of a larger problem. Trust in virtually every institution has dramatically declined, from government to media to education. Now we can add police departments and public schools to the ever-growing list of institutions in crisis.

The people are angry? Good. They should be.

Elites exist in every advanced society, but they are tolerated by the masses only insofar as they pilot the institutions people need and value. 

The purpose of our government is to protect the life and liberty of the people. But what happens when politicians use their power to line their own pockets, or to shut down the economy based on flawed models?

The purpose of the media is to report the facts so the people in a democracy can make informed decisions. What happens when they distort the facts, and even peddle outright falsehoods, to push a political agenda?

The purpose of higher education is to cultivate responsible, enlightened citizens who can go on to positions of leadership. What happens when our colleges and universities eschew free speech and open inquiry in favor of indoctrinating the youth into the toxic cults of Critical Race Theory and intersectionality?

The purpose of institutional religion is to minister to peoples’ spiritual needs and provide clear moral guidance. But what if pastors and priests prioritize money and power over the truth?

In such an environment, is it any wonder that the pitchforks are coming out, at least rhetorically?

Add to this institutional decline the palpable contempt emanating from today’s cultural elites toward their social “inferiors” — the implication that everyday Americans are racist and sexist and homophobic and transphobic, that they are — to paraphrase Barack Obama — bitter xenophobes clinging to their guns and their religion. Andrew Yang recently observed that in the minds of many voters, the Democratic Party “has taken on this role of the coastal urban elites who are more concerned about policing various cultural issues than improving their way of life that has been declining for years.” And there is much truth to this statement.

So, where do we go from here?

It is important to note that reform is almost always better than revolution… like, 99% of the time. Revolutions make for better television, but they are also messy and dangerous, usually resulting in something worse than the Old Bad Thing they were trying to topple. See: the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Arab Spring.

The American Revolution succeeded because it was more limited in its scope, even conservative in a sense. Yes, it involved acts of destruction and violence: the Boston Tea Party for example, and the tarring and feathering of customs officials. But the men who met in Philadelphia began with the goal of restoring their ancient rights as Englishmen. They pointed back to the Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution, and the English Bill of Rights, while also having one foot in the Enlightenment.

So despite the justifiable anger and disillusionment felt by so many in this present moment, I would advise against “eating the rich,” at least for the time being. We do not need to burn the old house down, nor should we. What we need now is renovation and restoration, not revolution.

Politicians are always seeking to channel populist sentiments into policies that suit their own agendas: take Elizabeth Warren’s call for a wealth tax, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. But the cure for what ails us will not be found by taking a top-down or government-driven approach.

The best thing we can do right now is to engage in the hard work of building back our institutions, one brick at a time. This effort must include government at every branch and level, but also media, education, the arts, and the economy. The forces of globalization and monopoly pose real challenges to authentic democracy, but the Internet offers opportunities for local and small-scale innovations to get off the ground.

The old gatekeepers have fallen away, and the new ones have not yet stifled the possibility of competition. We should act now before they do, to re-localize our economies, support small businesses over mega-corporations, volunteer in our communities, talk to our neighbors, and return to our churches and synagogues. We should spend more time reading the Bible and our founding documents than doom-scrolling on twitter, more energy creating things of lasting value than attacking our political opponents on the other side of the culture war.

That, at least, is the kind of populism I can get behind.

I am planning to write a future post about Jesus and populism, which I will link to here.

Twitter @FPphilosopher

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