Thursday, January 21, 2016
Populist dreamers on the right
Many years ago I started writing about rightwing populism on this blog. At the time I thought everyone understood the formula and I didn't even question the fact that it always includes an ugly authoritarian nativism. As with most ideologies that turns out to not always be true. And simple explanations of complicated ideologies are treacherous. I'm less inclined to be confident in my assumptions about things like this than I used to be.
It is, however, true more often than not. Here's one of the posts I wrote in the aftermath of Bush's re-election when everyone was once again lamenting the fact that Democrats were unable to attract the white working class Southerner the way they used to. (We don't have to to debate this endlessly anymore thank goodness --- thanks Obama!)
I see that my old pal Democratic strategist "Mudcat" Saunders is offering some more advice to Democrats:
"Bubba doesn’t call them illegal immigrants. He calls them illegal aliens. If the Democrats put illegal aliens in their bait can, we’re going to come home with a bunch of white males in the boat."
The thing is, he's absolutely right. To put together this great new populist revival everybody's talking about, where we get the boys in the pick-up trucks to start voting their "self-interest," we're probably going to need a new nativist movement to go along with it. That's pretty much how populism has always been played in the past, particularly in the south. Certainly, you can rail against the moneyed elites, but there is little evidence that it will work unless you provide somebody on the bottom that the good ole boys can really stomp. As Jack Balkin wrote in this fascinating piece on populism and progressivism:
History teaches us that populism has recurring pathologies; it is especially important to recognize and counteract them. These dangers are particularly obvious to academics and other intellectual elites: They include fascism, nativism, anti-intellectualism, persecution of unpopular minorities, exaltation of the mediocre, and romantic exaggeration of the wisdom and virtue of the masses.
Is it any wonder that the right has been more successful in recently in inflaming the populist impulse in America? They are not squeamish about using just those pathologies --- and only those pathologies -- to gain populist credibility in spite of a blatant lack of populist policy.
Populism can have a very close relationship to fascism and totalitarianism. Indeed, it may be essential. Despite Dennis Prager's confused blather, it wasn't the intellectual elites who fueled the Nazi movement; the intellectuals were purged, just as they were purged by Stalin, by Pol Pot and by Mao during the "cultural revolution" in China. These are the extreme results of a certain populist strain --- or at least the misuse of populist thinking among the people. That Mao and Stalin were commies has nothing to do with it. Populism, in its extreme form, is inherently hostile to intellectualism.
That is not to say that populism is evil. It is just another political philosophy that has its bad side, as every philosophy does. Balkin describes it in great depth, but here's a capsulized version:
The dual nature of populism means that political participation is not something to be forced on the citizenry, nor are popular attitudes some sort of impure ore that must be carefully filtered, purified, and managed by a wise and knowing state. From a populist standpoint, such attempts at managerial purification are paternalistic. They typify elite disparagement and disrespect for popular attitudes and popular culture. Government should provide opportunities for popular participation when people seek it, and when they seek it, government should not attempt to divert or debilitate popular will. An energized populace, aroused by injustice and pressing for change, is not something to be feared and constrained; it is the very lifeblood of democracy. Without avenues for popular participation and without means for popular control, governments become the enemy of the people; public and private power become entrenched, self-satisfied, and smug.
Progressivism, or modern liberalism, takes a distinctly different view:
Central to progressivism is a faith that educated and civilized individuals can, through the use of reason, determine what is best for society as a whole. Persuasion, discussion, and rational dialogue can lead individuals of different views to see what is in the public interest. Government and public participation must therefore be structured so as to produce rational deliberation and consensus about important public policy issues. Popular culture and popular will have a role to play in this process, but only after sufficient education and only after their more passionate elements have been diverted and diffused. Popular anger and uneducated public sentiments are more likely to lead to hasty and irrational judgments.
That sounds right to me. What a fine tribe it is, too. Balkin goes on, however:
Like populists, progressives believe that governments must be freed of corrupting influences. But these corrupting influences are described quite differently: They include narrowness of vision, ignorance, and parochial self-interest. Government must be freed of corruption so that it can wisely debate what is truly in the public interest. Progressivism is less concerned than populism about centralization and concentration of power. It recognizes that some problems require centralized authority and that some enterprises benefit from economies of scale. Progressivism also has a significantly different attitude towards expertise: Far from being something to be distrusted, it is something to be particularly prized.
What is more difficult for many academics to recognize is that progressivism has its own distinctive dangers and defects. Unfortunately, these tend to be less visible from within a progressivist sensibility. They include elitism, paternalism, authoritarianism, naivete, excessive and misplaced respect for the "best and brightest," isolation from the concerns of ordinary people, an inflated sense of superiority over ordinary people, disdain for popular values, fear of popular rule, confusion of factual and moral expertise, and meritocratic hubris.
And there you see the basis for right wing populist hatred of liberals. And it's not altogether untrue, is it? Certainly, those of us who argue from that perspective should be able to recognise and deal with the fact that this is how we are perceived by many people and try to find ways to allay those concerns. The problem is that it's quite difficult to do.
Richard Hofstadter famously wrote that both populism and early progressivism were heavily fueled by nativism and there is a lot of merit in what he says. Take, for instance, prohibition (one of William Jennings Bryan's major campaign issues.)Most people assume that when it was enacted in 1920, it was the result of do-gooderism, stemming from the tireless work by progressives who saw drink as a scourge for the family, and women in particular. But the truth is that Prohibition was mostly supported by rural southerners and midwesterners who were persuaded that alcohol was the province of immigrants in the big cities who were polluting the culture with their foreign ways.
And progressives did nothing to dispell that myth --- indeed they perpetuated it. (The only people left to fight it were the "liberal elites," civil libertarians and the poor urban dwellers who were medicating themselves the only way they knew how.) This was an issue, in its day, that was as important as gay marriage is today. The country divided itself into "wets" and "drys" and many a political alliance was made or broken by taking one side of the issue or another. Bryan, the populist Democrat, deftly exploited this issue to gain his rural coalition --- and later became the poster boy for creationism, as well. (Not that he wasn't a true believer, he was; but his views on evolution were influenced by his horror at the eugenics movement. He was a complicated guy.) And prohibition turned out to be one of the most costly and silly diversions in American history.
It is not a surprise that prohibition was finally enacted in 1920, which is also the time that the Ku Klux Klan reasserted itself and became more than just a southern phenomenon. The Klan's reemergence was the result of the post war clamor against commies and immigrants. The rural areas, feeling besieged by economic pressure (which manifested themselves much earlier there than the rest of the country) and rapid social change could not blame their own beloved America for its problems so they blamed the usual suspects, including their favorite whipping boy, uppity African Americans.
They weren't only nativist, though. In the southwest, and Texas in particular, they were upset by non-Protestant immorality. According to historian Charles C. Alexander:
"There was also in the Klan a definite strain of moral bigotry. Especially in the Southwest this zeal found expression in direct, often violent, attempts to force conformity. Hence the southwestern Klansman's conception of reform encompassed efforts to preserve premarital chastity, marital fidelity, and respect for parental authority; to compel obedience to state and national prohibition laws; to fight the postwar crime wave; and to rid state and local governments of dishonest politicians." Individuals in Texas thus were threatened, beaten, or tarred-and-feathered for practicing the "new morality," cheating on their spouses, beating their spouses or children, looking at women in a lewd manner, imbibing alcohol, etc.
Yeah, I know. The more things change, yadda, yadda, yadda. The interesting thing about all this is that throughout the 20's the south was Democratic as it had always been --- and populist, as it had long been. But when the Dems nominated Al Smith in 1928, many Democrats deserted the party and voted for Hoover. Why? Because Smith was an urban machine politican, a catholic and anti-prohibition. Texas went for Hoover --- he was from rural Iowa, favored prohibition and was a Protestant. Preachers combed the south decrying the catholic nominee --- saying the Pope would be running the country. Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia went Republican, too. Now, one can't deny that the boom of the 20's was instrumental in Hoover's victory, but rural America had been undergoing an economic crisis for some time. However, then, like now, rural American populists preferred to blame their problems on racial and ethnic influences than the moneyed elites who actually cause them. It's a psychological thing, I think.
(By 1932, of course, all hell had broken loose. Nobody cared anymore about booze or catholics or rich New Yorkers in the White House. They were desperate for somebody to do something. And Roosevelt promised to do something. Extreme crisis has a way of clarifying what's important.)
So, getting back to Mudcat, what he is suggesting is a tried and true method to get rural white males to sign on to a political party. Bashing immigrants and elites at the same time has a long pedigree and it is the most efficient way to bag some of those pick-up truck guys who are voting against their economic self-interest. There seems to be little evidence that bashing elites alone actually works. And that's because what you are really doing is playing to their prejudices and validating their tribal instinct that the reason for their economic problems is really the same reason for the cultural problems they already believe they have --- Aliens taking over Real America --- whether liberals, immigrants, blacks, commies, whoever. And it seems that these folks have been feeling this way forever.
It's a surefire way to attract those guys with the confederate flags that Mudcat is advising us is required if we are ever to win again. On the other hand, short of another Great Depression, how we keep together a coalition of urbanites, feminists, liberals,racial and ethnic minorities and nativist rural whites, I don't quite get. Nobody's done it yet.
What made me think of this? Ross Douthat ,whose column today talks about how he once loved Sarah Palin because he believed she represented a new form of right wing populism in which social conservatives battled the economic elites on behalf of the working and middle class. He discovered that she wasn't really up for the task but apparently held out the belief that this was a formula the Republican Party could benefit from. Here's part of what he's written today:
Trump and Palin together on a stage is the closest American politics has come to offering the populist grand new party that Salam and I called for two presidential campaigns ago.
Except that it isn’t what we called for, because we wanted a populism with substance — one that actually offered policy solutions to stagnant wages and rising health care costs, one that could help Republicans reach out to upwardly mobile blacks and Hispanics as well as whites, and so on down an optimistic wish list.
Whereas Trump-era populism, while it plays very effectively on economic anxiety, mostly offers braggadocio rather than solutions, and white identity politics rather than any kind of one-nation conservatism.
I would like to tell you that this is all the fault of the Republican leadership — that had they been more receptive to populist ideas in 2008 or 2012, they wouldn’t be facing a Trumpian revolt today.
That’s roughly the argument that David Frum makes in this month’s Atlantic, in a sweeping essay on the roots of Trumpism. And he makes a strong case. A large part of the Republican donor class would rather lose with “you didn’t build that!” than compromise on upper-bracket tax cuts. It would rather try to win Hispanics with immigration reform a hundred times over than try to win them once on pocketbook issues. It prefers to campaign as though it’s always 1980, and has little to say to people who have lost out from globalization and socioeconomic change.
A critique that stops with G.O.P. elites, though, might let the voting public off the hook. Because it’s also possible that Trumpism, in all its boastful, lord-of-misrule meretriciousness, is what many struggling Americans actually want.
That is, at a certain point disillusionment with the system becomes so strong that no wonkish policy proposal is likely to resonate anymore. So you can talk all you want (as Marco Rubio’s water-treading campaign has tried to do) about improving vocational education or increasing the child-tax credit, and people will tune you out: They want someone who will arm-wrestle the Chinese, make Mexico pay for the wall, smite our enemies and generally stand in solidarity with their resentments, regardless of the policy results.
Since this is a recipe for American-style Putinism, it’s not exactly a good sign for the republic that it seems to be resonating. But those of us who want a better, saner and more decent populism than what Donald Trump is selling need to reckon with the implications of his indubitable appeal.
No kidding. But it's still missing the point. Trumpism is right wing populism. Nativism, racism and ressentiment are baked in the cake for a certain kind of person and the only way to make it work is to roll with it. And as Douthat points out, mix in a little nationalist fervor and where that leads is authoritarianism.
Maybe somebody will be able to figure out a way to thread this needle differently but I'm going to guess that this might be beyond the scope of today's Republican party. They can't even handle the Tea party.
digby 1/21/2016 11:00:00 AM