Populist Tango

Via Daniel Munz, who's pinch hitting over at Ezra's place, I see that my old pal "Mudcat" Saunders is offering some more good 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 to get up 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.

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.

That sounds right to me. What a fine tribe it is, too. Balkin goes on, however:

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.

In the past, the way that's been dealt with has been very simple. Get on the bigotry bandwagon. In some ways, everybody wants to be an elitist, I suppose, so all you have to do is join with your brothers in a little "wrong" religion, immigrant or negro bashing. Everybody gets to feel superior that way.

There was a time when the Democratic party was populist/progressive --- William Jennings Bryan was our guy. (He was also, if you recall, the one who argued against evolution in the Scopes trial.) He ran his campaigns against the "money changers" in New York City; the conventional wisdom remains that his Cross of Gold speech with it's economic populist message was the key to his enormous popularity in the rural areas of the west, midwest and south. I would argue that it had as much to do with cultural populism and Lost Cause mythology.

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 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 beseiged 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 rural folk 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, liberals, ethnic minoritites and nativist rural white men, I don't quite get. Nobody's done it yet.

*I should be clear here and note that Jack Balkin does not necessarily endorse my views on nativism and populism in his paper. He notes that there has been some revision of Hofstadter's analysis and that some scholars have found substantial regional differences among rural populists. I agree to the extent that I think this is a much more salient aspect of populism in the south. But history leads me to agree with Hofstadter that nativism and racism are powerful populist impulses pretty much everywhere. It may change colors and creeds, but it's always there.

Balkin does point out some of the difficulties in creating a coalition of progressives and populists and suggests that academics in particular have a hard time because they really are, well, intellectual elites. It's interesting. One of the more intriguing things his thesis alludes to is that the crusade against popular culture may be the least populist thing we could undertake. The rural populists really don't like the liberal elites telling them what's good for them.