Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The challenge of populism

Populism has always been a discourse that could easily swing from a healthy component of democracy to an unhealthy appeal to demagoguery. It has its left and rightwing variations that can inspire and frighten. During the past few weeks there has been references in the media to the populist reaction to the abuses of Wall Street. All too many political leaders are ready to ride this wave of anger as they should but they should also be weary of the paranoia that can feed off legitimate anger and become destructive to democratic institutions.

George Packer in the New Yorker:
The modern American right, which is congenitally vulnerable to paranoia, gives into its own tendencies most readily when Democrats are in power and its own sense of dispossession is greatest. The John Birch Society thrived under Kennedy; talk-radio demagogues and the militia movement came into their own during the Clinton years; the prospect of a big Democratic win last year had a lot of conservative pundits and some Republican candidates describing Obama as a radical, a socialist, or worse. In some quarters the language has gotten more intemperate since he took office and started governing like the center-left politician that he’s always been. It isn’t just language that’s symptomatic of the paranoid style. It’s the certainty of a conspiratorial hand behind every decision; the evangelical fervor that sees every political dispute as an ultimate contest of good against evil.

Lately, the media has seized upon the word “populist” with all the mindless fury of a mob of…populists. To restore some meaning to the word besides popular outrage, turn to Hofstadter again. He wrote about populism as well, in “The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R.,” where he emphasized—and maybe overstated—the irrational resentments of the political movement that started in the late nineteenth century as the anti-Wall Street People’s Party and, by the postwar period, had produced among its offspring the anti-communist reaction of McCarthyism. Populism could spring up on the right and the left, and at times—as in the case of Father Coughlin and his Depression-era Social Justice Movement—it was hard to tell them apart. “The phenomenon I am concerned with,” Hofstadter wrote, “involves not so much the progression from one political position to another as the continued coexistence of reformism and reaction; and when it takes the form of a progression in time, it is a progression very often unattended by any real change in personal temper.”

In our own era, populism has been a force for the right, and it’s been channeled toward what Hofstadter, citing Theodor Adorno, called “status politics,” which we now call cultural politics. Hofstadter believed that status politics replaced interest politics during periods of prosperity, like the nineteen-twenties (the return of the Klan, Prohibition, the Scopes trial, etc.), and the nineteen-fifties and sixties (McCarthyism and the rise of the new right). But one could also argue that cultural politics has been perpetuated by the economic erosion of the decades since the early nineteen-seventies: reformers were unable to arrest the slide of the working- and middle-class, so those Americans focused their passions on social issues.

In 2008, with a new depression looming, interest politics finally overtook status politics, which is why the name-calling and cultural appeals of the McCain-Palin campaign didn’t work. In general, this turn benefits Democrats (see F.D.R.), and it has given Obama the chance to set the terms of political discourse for years to come. But if interest politics turns into the kind of populism that rejects all forms of institutional authority—and we’re closer than we’ve been since at least the nineteen-seventies—the public mood will sweep aside Obama’s program of reforms and quite possibly turn into a new sort of reaction: anti-bank, anti-Washington, anti-immigrant, anti-global. The populist temper and the paranoid style are not the same thing, but they are related in obvious ways: when the former loses its bearings, it can degenerate into the latter. For example, the (populist) idea that Timothy Geithner is too close to Wall Street to protect the taxpayers could eventually turn into the (paranoid) idea that Timothy Geithner was appointed in order to protect the bankers at the expense of the taxpayers.

Obama is a liberal, and liberalism can’t afford to be deaf to populism, or it ends up in the graveyard where the campaigns of McGovern and Dukakis are buried. Nor can liberalism, which seeks to strengthen institutions of governance, afford to be driven by populism’s destructive side. Thus, Obama’s recent comment that he wants not to clamp down the public’s anger, but to “channel” it (he didn’t add: “so it doesn’t destroy my presidency”). It takes the political skill of a Roosevelt to uphold the liberal value of rational governance in the midst of a populist storm. Roosevelt felt that his biggest political challenge lay not with the Republicans, who were moribund between 1932 and 1937, but to the left, where the populist demagogue Huey Long kept threatening to take on the Democratic President. Today’s Republicans are at least comatose, but there’s no obvious political equivalent to Long. The popular passions that nearly made Long a dictator, though, are still with us, and they could whip left, right, or both simultaneously.

In short, a lot is riding on the bailout.

1 comment:

Comrade Kevin said...

And this is the reason where unchecked populism is nothing more than a mob mentality seeking to justify its existence by way of complex terminology and position statements.