The wages of populism: political death

by Chris Bertram on October 31, 2009

Back in June, I excoriated Gordon Brown for his appointment of Alan Sugar as his “enterprise czar”. Since then, I’ve sometimes wavered in my determination not to vote for NuLab again, particularly when I consider the appalling nature of their replacements (even if Rory Stewart does sound slightly exciting). After all, I sometimes say to myself, Gordon Brown did do pretty well when faced with teh end of the world, and that ought to count for something … But the latest bit of populist meddling, sacking David Nutt for saying that drugs policy should be guided by science, reminds me of why they deserve to be beaten (and establishes why Alan “the minister” Johnson is unfit to succeed Brown), Oh for someone decent to vote for.

{ 251 comments }

1

nabobby 10.31.09 at 9:29 pm

Find yourself a socialist who believes in noblesse oblige more than pretensions of equality: who wants to lead and not to follow. People of any class are mostly just peasants.
And Rory the Tory is just Boris without the laziness.

2

Sloth 10.31.09 at 9:59 pm

Chris Grayling’s complete support for Johnson’s actions suggests that while Labour do indeed deserve to be beaten, the party they are to be beaten by don’t deserve to win, and will provide nothing any more sensible regarding drugs policy. For that, you would have to look to the Greens…

3

Neil 10.31.09 at 11:01 pm

I share your frustration. But there doesn’t seem much point in voting for a bigger bunch of populists to punish them for their populism. The signal sent isn’t helpful.

4

The Raven 11.01.09 at 12:58 am

You’re in a parliamentary system. Why isn’t there a plausible other party to vote for? Or are there other parties you don’t like very much?

5

Biba 11.01.09 at 1:32 am

“…People of any class are mostly just peasants.”
Mmmm surprising then that the people aren’t “mostly” voting for the BNP eh what old boy?

6

nabobby 11.01.09 at 1:59 am

“eh what old boy?”
I wrote, “regardless of class.” No need for Etonian affectation on your part.

People vote their bias, acting on reflex, not thought.
They’re followers, most don’t want the responsibilities of freedom. And most who say they do, are lying. Respect, one way or another, is more important. An officer can respect his men. Parents can respect their children. That’s not equality. Representative democracy is just a way of giving the present leadership competition from others on the make.
A popular leader is not a craven follower of the people, he or she is a popular leader.

7

Down and Out of Sài Gòn 11.01.09 at 2:20 am

Neil and Chris: as an outsider, it sounds to me that calling this phenomenon “populism” is inaccurate. It’s authoritarianism, plain and simple. Most folk probably don’t care that much about the ins-and-outs drug policy. Of those that do, I would gather that the vast majority are for liberalizing. The end result is that sacking Nutt has cost NuLabor a few votes, but not enough to make a difference at the next election. Most of them go to the LibDems, or abstain.

However, NuLabor (and the Conservatives) probably are under the delusion that toughening the Marijuana laws is popular. Their idea of the median voter is the sort of person who writes “Outraged in Tumbridge Wells” letters to the editor – petty, angry and scared. Just like themselves.

8

Neil 11.01.09 at 2:38 am

Down and out, the motivation is probably the response from the tabloids: they will have headlines about NuLab being ‘soft on drugs’. Whether this is a response to the will of the people is a different matter, but its an attempt at populism.

9

Alex 11.01.09 at 3:26 am

“For that, you would have to look to the Greens…”

Unfortunately, most of the rest of the Green Party’s science policy is anti-scientific:

http://evidencematters.org/2009/06/01/sciencepunk-and-layscience/

10

Glen Tomkins 11.01.09 at 3:39 am

I’m originally from Louisiana. The governance of that fair state is unique in being the world’s only example of a dictatorship of the lumpenproletariat, a developement not apparently foreseen by Marx. In Louisiana, we are well acquainted with not having anyone on the ballot we care to vote for. But, I guess to compensate, there’s always plenty of people who are well worth voting against.

I suspect that if you look hard enough into the question, you will find that the lack of folks to vote for in the UK has magically been compensated for by an increase in the wonderful opportunities to vote against the folks who are even worse.

11

Martin Bento 11.01.09 at 4:03 am

Chris and Neil, How is it populism to enact a policy just because the press will attack you if you do not. The press is very much for bailing out Wall Street and pointedly reminds us that attacking their bonuses is pure Blood Lust That Will Create Not a Single Job (the importance of this “blood lust” to the question of moral hazard goes unremarked, of course). By Neil’s logic, then support for the Wall Street Bailout and Bonuses are populist positions because they are positions the politicians are under Press pressure to adopt (almost a tongue twister as well as a logic twister that). In the US, support for medical marijuana is clearly the popular position at this point. Are things so different in the UK?

12

Alex 11.01.09 at 5:15 am

Martin, I don’t think that anyone’s arguing that ALL their policies are populist.

On the subject of financial regulation, Labour have come out with a fair bit of rhetoric but aren’t actually doing a great deal. While the populist thing to do would be to “crush” the banks, it shouldn’t be forgotten that pre-crisis, New Labour essentially went along with the neo-liberal market policies of Thatcherism.

(It also shouldn’t be forgotten that Labour used to be socialist, including a certain Gordon Brown, which means you can find retrospectively hilarious articles like this from 20 years ago:

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v11/n03/gordon-brown/thatcherism

)

13

Kenny Easwaran 11.01.09 at 6:21 am

I’m not so sure that medical marijuana is the popular position. It’s passed on ballot measures in several states, but definitely not most of them. I think most people are probably moderately in favor of the idea of people having access to medicine, but there’s a very strong hard-on-crime populist front, that I think would think of medical marijuana as just a sneaky way to legalize recreational drugs (which does seem to be a major function of the laws in California at least).

The point isn’t about what the folks at the newspaper will say about the policy, but what one or two of them will be able to whip up an angry mob about.

14

Martin Bento 11.01.09 at 6:41 am

I’m under the impression that medical marijuana passed in most or all of the states where it has been on the ballot. Most states have not voted on it, and, in fact, many if not most states lack a referendum procedure that could offer the chance.

Given the variety of things that an “angry mob” can be whipped up about, especially if one assumes the mob’s anger will not go to massive violence – and it’s hard to picture marijuana decriminalization actually leading to widespread rioting – “potential to get some people pissed up” is not much of a category: it includes almost anything but the most trivial or non-controversial ideas.

15

Martin Bento 11.01.09 at 6:45 am

In fact, I would say medical marijuana is the most populist movement we have seen, since, to my knowledge, everywhere in the US it has been established, it has been through popular vote, not legislative or judicial action.

16

Martin Bento 11.01.09 at 6:54 am

“pissed up” -> “pissed off” of course.

17

Martin Bento 11.01.09 at 6:55 am

also “most populist movement we have seen” -> “most populist movement we have currently”. I make odd mistakes when I write in a hurry.

18

Martin Bento 11.01.09 at 8:33 am

Alex, I’m not saying all of their (I assume you mean Labor’s) policies are populist either. I’m questioning whether this particular policy is properly branded populist. The reason I mentioned the bailouts is that Neil cited fear of the press as the hallmark of populism, and by that standard the bailout policy would seem to qualify. I’m saying it does qualify; I’m attacking the standard.

There appears to be in the UK, as in the US, a powerful law enforcement interest group that largely gets whatever it wants in its domain. And rhere are other constituencies that one would expect to oppose marijuana. One of marijuana’s main adverse effects is that it discourages the work ethic, so the business community is likely to be strongly opposed to legalization, notwithstanding the occasional consistent libertarian. I hardly see that as a populist constituency. The popular majority that opposes legalization has been shrinking in the US, and the legalization side seems to have more passion (they are actively fighting).

19

alex 11.01.09 at 8:40 am

Does ‘populist’ mean the same in Europe as the USA? Here in the east of the west it’s a pretty right-wing position, precisely because it relies on a distinction between appealing to prejudice and knee-jerk, and articulating something in the real interests of the general population – in other words populism is opposed to social democracy.

Meanwhile, dope ‘discourages the work ethic’? But how are you going to pay for all those snacks?

20

dan 11.01.09 at 9:09 am

“pissed up” -> “pissed off” of course.

I think I like the former.

Yeah, gonna start using that.

21

John Emerson 11.01.09 at 1:14 pm

“Populism” isn’t really a term of art or science. At best it means any popular movement or opinion that conflicts with the center-left consensus. More often it’s used just to label any bit of ignorant demagoguery whatsoever. (The fact that the word “populism” is mostly just a smear word doesn’t prevent it from being used in the vast netherworld of social science literature, of course.) Until at least the 80s dictionaries did not include the generic term “populist”, but defined the term to mean an American Populist or a Russian Narodnik.

The generalized use of the word as a throwaway insult seems to be an aspect of the transformation of the left-center into an administrative elite after WWII. Richard Hofstadter’s books, among others, provide an intellectual rationale for the smear and are heavily used in indoctrinating young American wonks, but his portrait of the Populists and Progressives is polemical, not based on primary research, and presentist (he though Joe McCarthy was a populist). A case could be made that the American Populists were not populist in the current sense of the term, even though the term traces back specifically to them.

A neutral definition of populism allowing for both benevolent and malign forms might be OK, but I don’t see anyone using it that way. Both in the US and in Europe a lot of the energy behind progressive movements was populist (e.g. “obrerismo” in leftist movements), but the administrative left today seems to be committed to an anti-populist , gradually-retreating defensive holding action preserving their positions of influence, with The People serving as the enemy.

Anti-popular politics in the Democratic goes back a long way; the era of popular politics only lasted from about 1890 to 1941, with dwindling aftershocks up until 1968, and even during that era there was fierce internal resistance. After WWII anti-populist ideology got big boosts from the Straussians, from such critical theorists as Adorno, and from the neoliberals (on whom see Mirowski’s “Road From Mont Pelerin”.) Hofstadter was watered-down pop-Freudian Adorno.

The root anti-populist argument is simple: Hitler was a populist, and look what happened. Another reading of the same data might argue that Germany in 1918 was so hierarchal and authoritarian that it couldn’t make the transition to democracy or even liberalism. (Adorno seems to have been crushed by German labor’s refusal to obey its wise Communist leaders, though of course they did just switch to different authoritarian leaders). Mayer’s “They Thought They Were Free” shows the motives of the Germans who at least passively accepted Naziism: the Nazis were like corrupt urban bosses in the US, and helped out people who needed help when none of the established authorities were willing or able to do anything. The churches, the vanguard left parties, the Austrian economists, the Straussians and the Schmittians were all fervent in their belief that The People should be seen and not heard and that The People existed for the State, Church, Party, or Market, and not vice versa.

Hitler of course was no better, but he successfully exploited a weak spot in the existing authoritarian establishments in order to replace them with a new authoritarian establishment.

22

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.01.09 at 3:45 pm

@21: populism is a tactic, like, say, terrorism or general strike or filibuster (obstructionism). Hitler was a populist, Gandhi was a populist, MLK was a populist. George W Bush was a populist. Populism requires a simple (simplistic even) message, some clearly identifiable evil that must be defeated to set things right – Jim Crow, Jewish cabal, Saddam, British rule. It’s impossible to lay out your populist case in a thousand page bill. You have to compress it into 10-15 words, like this: “we fight them over there so that we don’t have to fight them over here.”

What do you suggest this simple message should be for this “administrative left today” (whatever it is)?

23

belle le triste 11.01.09 at 3:49 pm

“All power to the powerless; to the powerful, the scaffold” is simple and flexible

24

Ben Alpers 11.01.09 at 3:50 pm

A few thoughts:

To me, too, it seems bizarre to call what Gordon Brown did “populist.”

John Emerson is right that the term “populism” migrated from describing two discrete political movements–the Peoples Party of late 19C US and the Russian Narodniki–to being a much broader word, usually invoked pejoratively. But I disagree in many ways with his intellectual history of this journey. For example, he gives far too much weight to Hofstadter’s Age of Reform in his story. First, for a couple decades before Hofstadter’s book, the term “populist” had been associated with more recent potentially scary grassroots movements. See, for example, this New York Times Sunday Magazine story from June 23, 1935, The Drums of Populism Are Heard Anew. Largely a brief history of the Populist movement of the late 19C, the article’s hook is that Father Coughlin and Huey Long are the latest example of an old American phenomenon. A Long speech is described toward the end of the article as “populism brought up to date.” The term is still being used to describe a specific historical phenomenon, but the author also sees it as representing a more general tendency. (See also this 11/11/34 article from the Times on California politics following the defeat of Upton Sinclair, which concludes: “Mr. Sinclair represents a ferment, not a conviction. He is as symptomatic as populism and boils.”) . We’re not at “populism” as ahistorical bogeyman yet; the term’s primary reference is still to the People’s Party. But we’re well into the history of its transformation.

More significantly, mainstream American liberalism’s suspicion of what would come to be most commonly referred to as “populism” was well established in the late 1940s–half a decade before Hofstadter’s book–by such works as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Vital Center (1949)….though Schlesinger himself doesn’t use the term “populism” in this way, and in fact goes out of his way to distinguish between his most immediate target–Henry Wallace– and the big-P Populists of the 19th century. Schlesinger’s general term of abuse is “progressive,” but this was, in part, dictated by Wallace’s running as the candidate of the Progressive Party.

As I’ve said on an earlier thread, Hofstadter was wrong about populism (in both its big-P and small-P forms), but there is nevertheless much of value in his work.

25

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.01.09 at 4:10 pm

The administrative left (Obama, Clinton, Pelosi, Reid?) should be demanding gallows for somebody? For the powerful? Come on.

26

John Emerson 11.01.09 at 4:11 pm

The administrative left is defined by a principled rejection of the populist tactic. (I actually reject your definition of populism, though it’s better than many). It is not possible for them to adopt a populist message.

The administrative left is the left which accepts the institutional heritage of the political left, and often works within it, while generally disdaining contemporary left politics and defining political goals in terms of preservation of what’s already been accomplished. Party leaders, tenured academics, administrators, some union leaders, many non-profits and political groups, etc.

What has motivated my most recent populist rants has been the Democratic party’s inability and principled refusal to make a political stink about the financial crash. They behaved very responsibility, gave the banks their money, and tried to go on as though nothing had happened. We’re going to be suffering the consequences for a good long time, and someone is sure to be blamed. It will almost certainly be the Democrats; the teabaggers are already at work.

I could say this tough-minded liberal liberal style: “It doesn’t make any difference whether someone should be blamed; somone will be blamed. That’s just a political reality.” But I tend toward the populist and feel no need to translate into liberal wonk language. I think that someone should be blamed.

“Blame” also can be translated as “accountability”, which liberals can’t reject out of hand. But the Democrats have not asked for accountability either.

Democratic corruption is a big factor, of course, but there’s a professional trained incapacity too. Democrats basically ceded populism to the Republicans 50 or more years ago (implausible as that seems when you look at the actual Republican Party), and Democratic wonks-to-be are indoctrinated in anti-populism right off at the beginning.

P.S. Kazin noted in his book on populism that Democrats have been advocating populism off and on for two or three decades already, and that it’s never copme to much. What I say that the democrats are too invested in the big money game for them to be able to go populist.

If you define populism in terms of movements rather than tactics you come closer to the truth. But the administrative liberals do not want popular movements.

27

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.01.09 at 4:27 pm

I believe populism is a tactic that attempts to create a movement, but the movement itself is only a means to an end. Think of Mao and his Red Guards, for example: populism, movement, the goal achieved, the movement suppressed and destroyed. It’s all politics.

28

The Raven 11.01.09 at 4:44 pm

Obviously, the Green Party position on biological science research is much more of a concern than NuLab’s position on war, or labour itself.

Croak!

29

belle le triste 11.01.09 at 4:50 pm

I’m not sure we disagree, Henri: as a tool, the populist call is inevitably bound up in contradiction. The people who successfully make the call aren’t bothered by this; the people who are bothered never reach for it.

30

belle le triste 11.01.09 at 5:06 pm

John, do you consider Alan Grayson a populist?

31

shah8 11.01.09 at 5:26 pm

As a black guy’s who’s all too aware of just how fucked up most people are, I have good reasons to perceive populism in a perjoritative light. Genuine populism tends to be *very* unhealthy for minority or oppressed slight majorities, because one of the truest hallmarks of populism is how much conflict permeates its narratives. Not only because populism might arise out of a fustration with moderated administration but also because the language of who you hate is so much simpler than the language of aspiration. Thus the political economy tends to form around killing/oppressing people and taking their shit. It’s how Gandhi’s nationalist populism decayed into the violent seperation of 1947. The structure of populist government is how Californian republicans are still politically able to ideologically cohere despite the dramatically bad consequences of their attitudes to the state as a whole.

Populism might sound really cool for people who haven’t met enough absurdly petty people, but for minorities who have absurdly petty go out of their way to interact negatively with them…

32

John Emerson 11.01.09 at 5:27 pm

Grayson certainly is using populist rhetoric. I don’t know much about his history or his stands on issues in general. If populism is regarded as a movement, one man can’t be a populist. Grayson is apparently doing his fundraising outside the Democratic Party know, which is populist.

I have to conced the point on the origins of anti-populist rhetoric to Ben Alpers (whose book I just ordered). What I blame Hofstadter for is institutionalizing the anti-populist view in undergrad education, among standard average liberals, and within the Democratic Party. (Sometimes I say “Hofstadter, Schlesinger, Galbraith, Bell, et al.”) His three books (Paranoid, Anti-Intellectualism, Reform) have been in print for 50 years or more, and all three of them still sell more copies annually than any other book on populism except Goodwyn’s.

The Dem-populist split started in 1937 when Roosevelt made a turn to, of all things, fiscal conservativism. The onset of WWII pretty much destroyed the Congressional populists, who had no unity on foreign policy — ranging from left wing popular fronters to isolationists. The squashing of the Progressive Party at the beginning of WWII was just mopping up.

33

John Emerson 11.01.09 at 5:44 pm

Historically, racism was the biggest blot on the Populists’ record. That’s true of the US as a whole, however. The Democrats, in particular, remained the segregationist party until 1965.

Even though the Populists were not anti-racists, while they were around there was competition for black votes, which had a generally beneficial effect. Once they were gone, the antipopulist Democrats and Republicans cut deals allowing the disenfranchisement of black citizens in the South. The Republicans did this even though the Republican Party was a factor in several southern states, but would no longer be so once these states were lily-white. As Walter Karp has explained, the two parties had very few ideological differences around that time, and were more interested in keeping their own supporters in line than in competing for power. (Bryan was sabotaged by his own party every time he ran as a Democrat, whether or not the Populists were involved.)

34

shah8 11.01.09 at 6:23 pm

Ok, but putting aside a bunch of snark, I’m just going to suggest that you’re wildly blinkered on this topic.

1) I was using race as a demostration of populism’s overall tendency to devolve into pograms of various types. That isn’t a call for a statement of black people had it very bad, moving on…

2) Even in the trite response you gave, the timelines are vastly confused. AFAIK, the populist movement didn’t exist as a concrete movement until after the end of Reconstruction. Also, as a general rule, there was no viable populist party in the South until Long, and this was a major factor in preventing and slowing down electoral success for populists and their aims.

35

Martin Bento 11.01.09 at 6:30 pm

The main objection to populism that seems to be arising in this thread is the belief that it tends to simply identify enemies and define itself in opposition to them. But is that not also what a definitionally pejorative application of “populist” does?

36

John Emerson 11.01.09 at 6:48 pm

Shah8: No, the Populist Party of 1890-1896 was strongest in the South and spread from there to the west. The Southern populists were basically destroyed when the party endorsed the Democrat Bryan, since they were in a deathstruggle with the Democrats.

Since you introduced yourself as a black guy, I responded in terms of the racial question. What else could I have done? Was I just supposed to immediately admit that you were right? The racist / anti-Semitic accusation has been used against the Populists all along, including by Democrats with their own skeletons in the closet, and I don’t think that it’s valid in the context of American life in general.

I am willing to grant that you are a black guy, your own words, who has the same mistaken idea of populism that most other educated people do, mostly but not entirely for the same reasons, if that’s what you want. You do the same thing the rest of them do, which is to take the worst populists as definitive or the word.

As for Huey Long, he was corrupt, authoritarian and a demagogue, but less racist than the Southern norm.

This shouldn’t be authoritative, but apparently the attempt of the Stormfront Nazis to recruit Huey Long to their cause failed.

37

alex 11.01.09 at 6:53 pm

Well, OK, you can say “I’m a populist, I believe in articulating policy around the short-term perceived interests of as large a constituency as possible, without regard to the long-term consequences for their well-being”, but it doesn’t sound very good, does it? Because if you’re arguing that ‘populist’ means something different than that, most of the other possibilities for serving the interests of a wide constituency already have other labels – from Social Democrat to Conservative, according to taste.

38

John Emerson 11.01.09 at 7:00 pm

On the timeline, the Republicans conceded the South to the Democrats, and to segregation and disenfranchisement, after 890 when they failed to pass the Lodge Force Bill. The Republicans never tried again and disenfranchisement proceeded.

39

John Emerson 11.01.09 at 7:02 pm

“I’m a populist, I believe in articulating policy around the short-term perceived interests of as large a constituency as possible, without regard to the long-term consequences for their well-being”

I’m not willing to use a slogan pulled out of your butt. Sorry, dude.

Neither here nor in Europe does “Social Democrat” have any forward motion.

40

Martin Bento 11.01.09 at 7:08 pm

Alex, major fundamental reform of the financial sector, including drastic shrinkage of its overall size relative to the economy as a whole, is very arguably in the interest of a constituency constituting the bulk of the population. Such a program has no established party advocates, and any proposals along those lines are immediately attacked as populist.

41

Martin Bento 11.01.09 at 7:13 pm

Henri, do you believe, then, that there is no such thing as an authentic popular movement? It also seems quite strange to regard a movement openly advocated by the head of state as populist. It used populist rhetoric as all communist movements did, but are we really to accept such rhetoric at face value?

42

John Emerson 11.01.09 at 7:28 pm

As I’ve said here and elsewhere, my immediate motive for taking an interest in populism was the principled and dogmatic anti-populism (that’s their word) of the Democratic leadership, which assumes that there is no conflict between big business and the ordinary folk. I ended up taking a side trip through American political history to see where this nti-populism came from, and ended up concluding that it’s based on a tendentious misrepresentation of historical populism, that it leads to bad policy, that it’s motivated by venality (big business pays the Democratic bills), and that the misrepresentation of populism has been accepted by most educated people.

I could have done the same with “socialism” — there’s actually an overlap there, since many populist were, or later became socialists (e.g. Debs). If there’s someone out there trying to move the Democrats in a socialist direction, I’m sure I’ll get along with them fine. “Populism” actually has fewer negatives among Americans than “socialism”, except for educated people who are already Democrats. And populist has played a much more important positive roile in American political history than socialism has.

I don’t affirm anything any populist ever did anywhere, any more than a socialist or Democrat affirms anything that any other socialist or Democrat ever did.

43

John Emerson 11.01.09 at 7:32 pm

As I’ve said here and elsewhere, my immediate motive for taking an interest in populism was the principled and dogmatic anti-populism (that’s their word) of the Democratic leadership, which assumes that there is no conflict between big business and the ordinary folk. I ended up taking a side trip through American political history to see where this nti-populism came from, and ended up concluding that it’s based on a tendentious misrepresentation of historical populism, that it leads to bad policy, that it’s motivated by venality (big business pays the Democratic bills), and that the misrepresentation of populism has been accepted by most educated people.

I could have done the same with “soc*alism”—there’s actually an overlap there, since many populists were, or later became soc*alists (e.g. Debs). If there’s someone out there trying to move the Democrats in a soc*alist direction, I’m sure I’ll get along with them fine. “Populism” actually has fewer negatives among Americans than “soc*alism”, except for educated people who are already Democrats. And populist has played a much more important positive role in American political history than soc*alism has.

I don’t affirm anything any populist ever did anywhere, any more than a soc*alist or Democrat affirms anything that any other soc*alist or Democrat ever did.

44

Martin Bento 11.01.09 at 7:36 pm

Henri, also Bush is not a populist; he is a lowbrow. His claims to represent the “common people” are based almost entirely on cultural signifiers rather than political substance, even claimed political substance. It is a matter of “taste”. To bring in a thread that I did not have time to contribute to, since highbrow as defined by Woolf is limited to people of exceptional ability, it will always be unavailable to most by definition. If you exclude the middlebrow, then, you are left with valorization of the lowbrow: the glorification of ignorance. You notice Bush himself was a blue blood and the son of a former President. He did not represent the common people and his political claims were not to their interest to any greater extent than all politicians in a democracy have to legitimize themselves in terms of the popular interest. He even called the elite “his base”. He spoke to popular taste, and even many of those who may not have shared the specific content of the taste could respond to it as a lowbrow message.

Currently, the Republicans are trying to pull this off with Michael Steele, a black man who can’t actually manage to be “black”, though he tries. All his clumsy aping of hip-hop culture and such is an attempt to appeal to a black version of lowbrow, not so much to appeal to blacks, a lost cause for Republicans for the foreseeable, as to appeal to those who embrace that particular cultural impression of lowbrow. It is failing miserably, of course, because Republicans have no understanding of what they are aping. But it does not even pretend to express the interest of the common people; it has no political content at all.

45

shah8 11.01.09 at 7:43 pm

John Emerson, you’re being an idiot. I know who Tom Watson and Hoke Smith are and what they did and I suspect that I know them better than you. Moreover, when I said that there was no viable Southern Populist party until the time of Long, I was precisely correct. You, however, are entirely welcome to omit the term “viable”, but please do make a note of it, hmmm? I mean, hey, the South was a police state for all intents and purposes –the populists had roughly the same chance as the Muslim Brotherhood Party did in Egypt, only the leadership cared more about the appearance of democracy.

And of course, the remnants, either in the dead party or as Democrats, the populists eventually wound up running on the “We Hate Black People More Than Real Democrats Do” plank. Just like the ultimate outcome of the Progressive Party was the rampant Anti-Catholicism of Prohibition.

And lastly, assuming that I can only relate to black history is a studied insult. Yes, I introduced myself as black, to put across a personal feel for how scary many populist movements can be. However, I also placed my blackness in an overall context of being a minority and I applied it to a theory of the structure of populism’s decay. The Southern Populists didn’t wind up hating black just because. The Soviets didn’t wind up killing lots of jews just because. These thing happen despite both groups desperate need for minority group alliances (lenin sure tried hard, and we got Stalin for our troubles). It’s just what populist movements do when they are sustained beyond the initial exitement.

46

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.01.09 at 7:49 pm

Of course there are authentic popular movements. But we are talking about a political tactic here, in the context of John’s comments. Mobilizing the masses against your political enemies. Why can’t a head of state do it?

BTW, I don’t think that populism (as defining yourself in opposition to an evil enemy) is necessarily a bad idea – especially when “existential struggle” is a close enough approximation of reality.

47

Chris Bertram 11.01.09 at 7:50 pm

Well, all I meant by “populism” was Gordon Brown’s pathetic attempt to appease the average reader of the Daily Mail … I wasn’t intending to start a discussion about the proper use of this -ism and how it might vary amound political cultures.

Anyone got anything to say about the Nutt affair?

48

belle le triste 11.01.09 at 7:55 pm

Was the Know-Nothing party a proto-Populist party?

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John Emerson 11.01.09 at 8:17 pm

Shah8, you’re sort of a jerk yourself. You introduced yourself as a black guy and I responded. I was starting from scratch with no knowledge of who you are or what you know other than#31. The Populisst were racists and so was everyone else in the South and most of the North.

Yeah, sure, populists are Stalin and Hitler and Genghis Khan and you don’t like them. Bug fucking deal.

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John Emerson 11.01.09 at 8:18 pm

Bertram: probably not. I object to your use of the word “populist” to mean simply “demagogic”, but you knwo that.

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Martin Bento 11.01.09 at 8:22 pm

Chris, I’m sure you know much more about Gordon Brown than I do, but do we really know that that is his motivation. “Marijuana is evil” is the view of every respectable politician but Jesse Ventura in the US (if he is considered respectable). There is a whole complex discussion of why this is so, but I don’t think catering to right-wing newspaper readers covers it.

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belle le triste 11.01.09 at 8:40 pm

Genghis Khan: probably not a populist even by Adorno’s standards…

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Liam 11.01.09 at 8:41 pm

It seems that Nutt was appointed to make recommendations re. the classification of drugs. Most of the controversy seems to come about due to a confusion over what the classification of drugs is for.

Nutt et. al. seem to think it is about ranking drugs in terms of harm which he assumes, as the scientist who said ecstasy was less dangerous than riding a horse does, means statistical chance of dying due to use or, in the case of cannabis acquiring psycological illness. I’m not sure what I think about this definition of harm or hamrfulness but I don’t want to open that can of worms. Suffice to say this is not what the government think the classification system is.

Presumably the politicians think that the point of the classification system, as part of the publicly recognizable basic structure of society (see M. Ronzoni “what makes the basic structure just” for a pretty good explanation), is to bring about certain social conditions, such as the reduction in the use of that drug either to reduce harm to the user or to reduce other social harms or perhaps just to gain popularity. So the classification system for the politicians is a strategic device either for the pursuit of justice or popularity or whatever.

Nutt’s comments must have been counter-productive given government’s aims, admirable or not. One way this could have happened is if the government was aiming for the realization of some social condition to nudge us closer to a just society, for example reducing the social harms from drugs. This might require communicating a message to citizens that cannabis is really bad, almost definitely with some exageration, but in the name of justice. Nutt’s comments are likely to frustrate the achievement of this aim. Like my Mum said “people will think that its alright to take drugs now that he has said that” because people are, of course, stupid.

If Nutt’s comments did frustrate a genuine attempt at realizing a more just society then they are right to sack him I think. Though they should have been very clear about the purpose of the and, it seems to me, that they should not have employed a scientist if they just wants to reduce user or something. Surely a sociologist would be better situated to achieve this aim.

Finally, Nutt’s intention was to have an honest public debate about the (reletive)harmfulness of drugs. Having a public debate, however, may not be in the public’s interest and may frustrate the achievement of the social conditions neccesary for justice. So, is the truth safe for democracy? I think no. Not if it frustrates the social conditions neccesary for justice.

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belle le triste 11.01.09 at 8:46 pm

Also not a populist even by Adorno’s standards: Liam…

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Substance McGravitas 11.01.09 at 8:58 pm

“Marijuana is evil” is the view of every respectable politician but Jesse Ventura in the US

That’s why 13 states have legalized it for medical use.

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Ceri B. 11.01.09 at 9:09 pm

Substance McGravitas (I love that handle so much): Isn’t the legalization almost entirely driven by referendum and other popular effort, though? I only know much about a few of the efforts, but I know that the West Coast ones have gotten results in the face of pretty much universal opposition from the official legislatures and executive branches. (Less than from the judiciary, with several rulings that have an undercurrent of “thank goodness we get a chance to point out the obvious wrongnesses of these prohibitions”.)

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shah8 11.01.09 at 9:11 pm

Man, those black people are always being so unfair, bringing up the race card…

But still, you know, you still have to kind of respond with logic and examples. Saying that I don’t know populist history is a gambit that might fail if I respond with real examples. Saying that everyone was racist is not a counter. Republicans were just as racist during Reconstruction, yet life was *much* better for black people then compared to 30 years later during the “populist” era by political metrics.

Lastly, you keep implying that I should stick to the “black history” ghetto, and it doesn’t help matters when you suggest I thought Temujin was a populist. Oddly enough, in their way, the Mongols were pretty key to advancing the maturation of a civil society despite the lack of respect for the masses. More pertinently, I never said Stalin or Hitler were populists and suggesting that I thought they were is inappropriate.

Yeah, sure, populist is a perjorative term that’s often applied unfairly to socially just attitudes and rule. However, I consider that populism is a justly perjorative term and I gave quite a bit of evidence which you never truly address. Moreover, in today’s technocratic democracy, populism is only given voice when it allows the nominally subservient governing body greater flexibility to pursue non-populist aims. Oftentimes, it’s plain divide and conquer.

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John Emerson 11.01.09 at 9:14 pm

Catering to bullet-vote minorities can be demagogic, but it isn’t really populist in the sense of majoritarian even of the minority is all common people.

Oddly, no one ever calls catering to rich bullet-vote minorities either demagogic or populist.

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John Emerson 11.01.09 at 9:27 pm

Racism is one of the biggest accusations against the Populists and the hardest one to respond to. You will excuse me for continuing to talk about it. I do not advocate imitating the Populist model on minority questions. Nonetheless I think that they’ve been unfairly maligned. One of the things Democrats hated about the Populist was that they risked breaking up the solid Democratic South by prioritizing other issues over race.

The populist era in the South was over with by 1896, and as you said, they never were very successful. The disenfranchisement took places after the populists had been destroyed:

Republican – Populist fusion:

One of the most interesting aspects of Populist-Republican Fusion rule was the service of African American office holders. There were approximately 1,000 elected or appointed black officials, including Congressman George H. White (1852-1918). Although black Tar Heels were still underrepresented, the presence of black officials troubled Democratic white supremacists.

In the 1898 “White Supremacy Campaign,” led by future U.S. Senator Furnifold M. Simmons (1854-1940), chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee, the Democratic Party used identity politics to regain power. “Negro rule” and “Negro domination” became the catchphrases of the campaign. Josephus Daniels (1862-1948), editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, was the unabashed press spokesman for white supremacy. Red Shirts, reminiscent of the Klan, intimidated blacks and thereby limited the number of Republican votes.

Shortly after a resounding victory, Democrats disfranchised African Americans and thereby ended a possible Republican resurgence. Democrats, however, realized they must maintain some of the Fusionist education and business policies and thus acquiesced to school funding demands and business regulation; in 1900, emulating Republican-Populist interest in education, Democrat Charles B. Aycock (1859-1912) became the party’s first “Education Governor.”

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Substance McGravitas 11.01.09 at 9:32 pm

Substance McGravitas (I love that handle so much): Isn’t the legalization almost entirely driven by referendum and other popular effort, though?

That seems like the largest part to me, but some states have done it via legislation. Such referenda seem to eventually require legislative efforts to clarify them, so you wind up getting politicians on side in any case.My incredible research skillz lead me here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medical_cannabis_in_the_United_States#Medical_cannabis_by_state Silly names here: http://www.sadlyno.com/archives/4849.html

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Substance McGravitas 11.01.09 at 9:33 pm

Line break tags don’t work I see.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.01.09 at 9:33 pm

Balls. ‘Superfic1ality’ and ‘spec1alised’, as well as the traditional ‘Soc1alist’.

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Ceri B. 11.01.09 at 9:41 pm

Thanks, Substance! Busy day so I’m lazy about checking facts today. Much appreciated, seriously.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.01.09 at 9:44 pm

I’ll re-post as it’s so very urgent that my words of wisdom be disseminated:
——————————

(Typed this before Chris’s hapless attempt to repel the Septic hijack, hesitated before submitting due to length, and then got distracted by watching a particularly poor episode of HIGNFY, featuring Hislop in his new incarnation as right-wing bully boy. I see Liam has weighed in with an interesting government-house take on ‘Drugs are bad, m’kay’ in the meantime. I would note that criminal statutes are a rather blunt and indiscriminate medium for ‘sending messages’, and has some rather unfortunate side-effects on those who have done their research and chosen to have a little smoke. And I hope I can be excused my bad temper in adding: social effects, my arse.)

‘Populism’ as used here means pusillanimous pandering to perceived popular prejudice. Brown’s particular brand of piecemeal populism doesn’t do him much electoral good partly I suspect because it’s so transparent. It’s part of the NuLab ‘we are good -> we must stay in power by all means necessary’ conceit. Since the exchange rate is now running at around one new actual illiberal measure on the statute books for one day’s positive headlines, it might seem to some (like those on the receiving end) rather excessive.

That popular prejudice in this case, insofar as it does prevail, is in large part due to one of the ‘War on…’ franchises is a separable issue (Brown, unlike Blair or Cameron, is confronted by the press as an alien and largely hostile force), but an interesting one.

Cannabis: the brewers and others like the police who benefit from alcohol consumption have a clear interest in suppressing it, the cokeheads in the media and the City despise it, and ignorant and panicky parents fear it. The last of those is mostly due to the MSM scare campaign which has recently been riffing on the theme of Skunk and other new strains, and how very different from and more sinister than old-fashioned hash they are. The superfic1ality and insincerity of that line is clear from the fact that it is never, ever suggested that the new (and very distinctive) types should be classified separately from ordinary ganja. That and the use of parental anecdotes about boys who smoked some weed at 18 (as I imagine most boys do) and were diagnosed with schizophrenia at 20 (as most schizophrenia diagnostees are), in preference to anything resembling science.

MDMA: same considerations apply, brewers’ hostility especially so. That particular moral panic campaign is still feeding off the single case – Leah Betts – of someone dying after (ergo because of) taking it. It’s also a much less spec1alised proposition when it comes to smuggling, because bulk and odour are not really issues, so some really nasty general-purpose bastards profit from that particular prohibition.

Drug prohibition in general: the police and allied constituencies like it because it gives a good reason for searching people and property, provides a guaranteed source of easy convictions and gives them extra leverage since a good proportion of those they come into contact with will have a bit of cannabis on them. That’s in addition to the abovementioned interest in drunkenness – if you have been drinking at all, public order legislation is irrelevant because ‘drunk and disorderly’ is effectively undefendable, providing a rubber-stamp conviction/justification for arrest; and the centralisation of corporate pubs in city centres with the attendant concentration of the national habit of drunkenness is a great source both of moral panic generally and of specific increased demand for Old Bill’s services. It also offers the chance to have fights with drunks – or anyway beat people up with, as Uncle Bill would say, a modicum of challenge and danger. (Yes, folks – there is a significant element in the police who get off on violence.)

MI5 got their hands on the War on Drugs brief when the unfortunate end of the Cold ‘War’ led them to raid Special Branch’s turf – but then the glittering prize of the War on Trrr handily came along, and the drugs stuff was hived off onto SOCA. The CIA like drug wars a lot, both as fighters of the good fight, and from time to time as importers of coke to raise those really, really inscrutable funds (though of course as we know they get caught out in 100% of cases and these responsible are sent to prison, so that’s all in the past). And wholesale confiscation of presumed drug-funded property is a nice cash cow for various authorities too.

All of which is affected only very marginally by the question of class B or C status for weed and ecstasy, but it’s the principle of the thing, the slippery slope, and the need for constant topping-up of manufactured outrage, innit.

Anyway – LIB DEMS! I felt obliged to vote for them due to the GWOT/Iraq business, and it felt OK. (Previous record: Kinnock 92, abstain 97, Soc1alist Alliance (whatever that is) 01.) Though with Torys in a close-ish second place in my neck of the woods last time, I may have to vote Brown since Cameron is clearly so very very much nastier. To make an old but good point: shame you can’t just vote for the party you actually agree with, isn’t it. Still, I’m told there are excellent arguments for the constituency-based single untransferable vote, which are in no way vitiated by the system of party whips.

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mart 11.01.09 at 10:15 pm

Cameron is clearly so very very much nastier
I’m not sure this is true, it’s more like being fed up with 12 years of New Labour bullshit and having it all repackaged again as New Tory bullshit. Proof – like we needed it – came when the Tory spokesman endorsed the move to sack Nutt*.

*If I’m right about this, the same spokesman who said the appointment of Gen Dannet was a “gimmick”, mistakenly believing it to have been a Lab appointment rather than a Tory one…

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Chris 11.01.09 at 10:20 pm

Of course there are authentic popular movements.

And identifying, demonizing, and sometimes committing violence against The Enemy Within is one of the most authentic popular movements ever. It’s a perennial favorite because it works. Whether or not the Enemy’s interests are actually opposed to those of the people is beside the point, because that’s a pointy-headed intellectual argument.

One of the problems with populism is that sometimes the people are just plain wrong about their own interests. People concerned about increasing the deficit during a recession are one example. Vindictiveness against banks is another; while there certainly is a lot that could be done to promote the popular interest at the expense of banks, there’s also a lot that would hurt banks and hurt the public. Distinguishing between the two is, inevitably, a job for professionals and intellectuals. Anti-intellectualism can only get it right by accident, when what feels right actually is right. And that isn’t very often.

That’s the argument for the role of experts in governance and it isn’t going away. The world and the economy are becoming more complex and the ability of the man on the street to understand issues outside his field is increasing far more slowly or not at all.

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John Emerson 11.01.09 at 10:39 pm

There are several problems with expert anti-populism. One is that experts develop professional blind spots, make ideological commitments, and / or become an interest group while continuing to claim to speak for everyone. I’m confident that all three of these things happened within economics and finance during recent decades, and that the results have been a disaster.

Another is that experts wall themselves off from public opinion, with the result that, first, they are blinded to the results of their policies and don’t get feedback, and second that they are unable to muster support for their policies when they need it.

“The ability of the man in the street to understand issues outside his field” increases slowly because no one bothers to talk to him. One of the activities of the actual Populists was public education, which the present Democratic Party doesn’t engage in at all.

Experts love the “we talk — you listen” model of government, but there are objective problems with that approach. They also aren’t too averse to the “baffle them with bullshit” approach, which has even greater problems.

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Martin Bento 11.01.09 at 11:16 pm

Chris, I don’t think anyone is arguing that experts shouldn’t have a role, an important role. The dispute is whether they should have the only role.

The portion of the population that opposes the deficit is doing exactly what you favor: deferring to expert opinion, which has lectured them on the need for fiscal responsibility for 30 years. Even Christina Romer, who theoretically represents “The Left” in the Obama economic brain trust, wrote a paper arguing that the constant (save for briefly under Clinton) deficits of the last 30 years were sure to have catastrophic effects eventually though they hadn’t yet. Her argument? “Most economists agree”. There are still many right-wing economists banging neo-liberal drums, and those are the ones who get the most attention through the elite institution of the media. And you don’t get to advocate for expert opinion based on current proposals while ignoring where the last several decades of expert opinion have gotten us.

While it is possible to imagine actions so harsh on the banks that they would be counterproductive, at least in the short term, those are so far from what is currently on the table that concern over them is hyperbolic – like worrying that Obama’s modest health care proposals will push America towards Social—oops, that word.

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Substance McGravitas 11.02.09 at 1:13 am

Two resignations from the Advisory Council thus far.

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Myles SG 11.02.09 at 2:48 am

“Martin, I don’t think that anyone’s arguing that ALL their policies are populist.

On the subject of financial regulation, Labour have come out with a fair bit of rhetoric but aren’t actually doing a great deal. While the populist thing to do would be to “crush” the banks, it shouldn’t be forgotten that pre-crisis, New Labour essentially went along with the neo-liberal market policies of Thatcherism.”

There is a good reason for that: financial services is the bread-and-butter of the British economy. Britain has not had a competitive industrial in 150 years, and frankly, absent finance, Britain is not likely to have a competitive economy of any sort.

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John Emerson 11.02.09 at 2:52 am

There is a good reason for that: financial services is the bread-and-butter of the British economy.

And Iceland too. Maybe Ireland. A lot of those little island countries.

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mart 11.02.09 at 3:46 am

Britain has not had a competitive industrial in 150 years
What exactly does this mean?

financial services is the bread-and-butter of the British economy.
I believe it makes up about 15% of the UK Economy. Too much, but most of us work elsewhere.

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shah8 11.02.09 at 4:10 am

Chris Bertram just better be glad Gordon’s not like Andrew Jackson! Muscular Populism Revealed By the Smashing of the National Bank! Mervyn thinks HE IS THE KING?! NO!!! Mervyn King Will NOT LORD OVER THE PEOPLE! I have decided to Dismiss Mr. King, and Dissolve the Bank of England!

The Tyranny of Pound Sterling Is Now At An End, And No Longer Will INSIDIOUS BANKERS DIRECT THE FLOW OF MONEY IN OUR COMMUNITIES TO THEIR PRIVATE BENEFIT! No Longer Will They Interfere In Our Elections With Blood Money In Back Rooms!

Huzzah!
Huzzah!

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Ceri B. 11.02.09 at 6:04 am

Out of curiosity, Shah8, what is it you think you’re accomplishing? I mean, there are times when I feel myself to be using others’ blogs as nothing but a human graffitti wall, and I can’t condemn it out of hand, but if you have more of a point than that, it’s pretty obscure to at least this bystander.

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Ceri B. 11.02.09 at 6:08 am

As a historical note, I point out that the great federalization of racist policy happened under Woodrow Wilson, who was and is very much a hero in many ways to the technocratic, managerial tradition in the Democratic Party. And he did it under the auspices of wartime necessity, an example of why I think John’s right to put the issue of war and empire in such a central place. A nation at peace can still get into awful moral messes, but war makes tyranny a whole lot easier.

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Peter Briffa 11.02.09 at 6:57 am

Vote UKIP. You know you want to.

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shah8 11.02.09 at 7:30 am

Well, hopefully my amusement.

And uh, it also amuses me just how much the point elides some of you guys. I’m beyond the whole “you guys are stuck on race while I used it in an attempt to derive a larger point” angst. It’s hard to hold onto that anger as John Emerson does the “No True Scotsman Dance” in reference to the smaller point rather than the larger (and looking around the web, it’s apparent he does this routinely). It’s absurd, Ceri–and I channeled some of that to a modern day possession by the ghost of Andrew Jackson.

Oh, and if you are curious about the larger point? It’s simple. There isn’t such a thing as benign populism. Do you know why? The political economy doesn’t work. Do you know why? Populism is nominally about egalitarianism one way or another. The payoff structure for people who participate in an egalitarian political economy has only a very narrow band of Nash potential equilibria–and most of them require highly altruistic people in concentrations that don’t exist in the wild. The payoffs, once a movement actually has a beaurocracy and a concrete long-term outlook, is usually looted from someone else–hence aboriginal genocide-for-land, periodic pogroms, even the occasional arrival of Madame Gullitine for those too good for traditional dismemberment.

I don’t have to look within my own theories–as John Emerson might think. All I really have to do is look at the various populist movements that took over various governments worldwide as a result of the Third World financial crisis during the latter 70s. All of them (It seems like) turned into governments that effectively destroyed their countries. Oh hell yes the governments they replaced were often corrupt and abusive to the point of evil, but they at least had something like a functional political economy and were capable of governing. The new ones did not, and faced the same sort of crisis that Republican/Napoleonic France did. No neighboring states accepted the new regime, wars, nobody in the government knew how to do the basics of governing like redistribute resources and keeping local elites from killing each other, and half of the people in office didn’t think their shit stank and couldn’t be advised otherwise.

Taking this stuff in account is part and parcel of being a responsible agent of change so that your momma doesn’t die in a common and random terrorist attack. The failure of the Missouri Compromise, for example, is a direct result of no more valuable land to steal. No more other people’s property to satisfy your own elites so that you have a coherent government. That centralization of power process as a part of the Civil War is a response to the greater need for coercion, a need that did not exist during the 1812 war or the war against Mexico–because there was no loot to be had at the end of the war, no Canada, no Mexico. Populism did terrible things to people who weren’t WASP (or were Canadian, English, Spanish, or French– as Walter Nugent might explain), and from the very frickin’ beginning, it were those cold blooded corrupt technocrats in one way or another, freed the slaves, and forced the South to allow their descendents to vote.

PoliSci 101 people do have rational basis for, uh, not liking populism. Slandering something unfairly as populist is entirely a different kettle of fish.

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Martin Bento 11.02.09 at 7:53 am

It is clarifying to have an ardent opponent of populism admit that their bottom-line objection is not to ignorance nor prejudice but to egalitarianism per se: that’s refreshingly candid and moves the discussion onto more honest ground.

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shah8 11.02.09 at 8:28 am

So nominally isn’t a proper adverb?

Duuuuuuude, seriously…

I understand what John Emerson means by populism, and anyone would grow to love the Wobblies had they got to know one. The popular movements in SA which resulted in leaders like Chavez, Morales, Lula de Silva have had at least minimally positive outcomes for many people living in those countries. At the same time, there were real costs taken out. Chavez is autocratic like Omar Torrijos. Morales is facing what is ultimately a mini-race war, Lula has had to compromise away most of his populism. Others like Bechelet ran straight up against the essentially reactionary nature of the little guy. These movements all change, and usually as a result, becomes anti-populist, whether that is a necessity for aquiring compliance or aquiescence from an elite, or they became detatched from their populist roots, or whatnot–it comes to some kind of end. Conflict must come to a settlement, and I’ll shout down any fool that believes in permanent revolution.

It’s getting too late for me to think straight, so I’ll stop here…

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Hidari 11.02.09 at 8:51 am

May I just add something to this discussion that has, like most blog discussions about politics, created much heat but shed little light on the topics being discussed?

Chris Bertram’s use of the word ‘populist’ has nothing in common with the use of the word in the subsequent discussion. Actually its more like the opposite.

When Chris says ‘Nulab’ is ‘populist’ he means ‘it follows the dictates of the right wing press’ or to put it even more plainly the accusation is: ‘Gordon Brown takes his ‘orders’ from media owned by corporations show aim is to promote an extreme right wing social and political agenda’. When Gordon Brown sacked David Nutt he did it not because he was worried that there would be riots on the streets and a vast popular uprising if he did not. He did it because he was frightened of the possibility of a scathing editorial in the Daily Mail (or even worse, the Sun).

Since corporations are ‘private tyrannies’ and anti-democratic to their core, this is not an example of Brown caving into ‘bottom up’ political movements but elitist ‘top down’ political orders. This use of the word is fairly well understood in British political discourse.

As someone above pointed out, therefore, the word ‘populist’ has a different meaning in the UK than the one it has in the US, where people immediately think of specific 19th century political movements (which most British people have never heard of).

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Henri Vieuxtemps 11.02.09 at 8:52 am

Well, may I suggest this, as a compromise: when you’re trying to achieve a radical change, populism is the worst approach, except for all the others that have been tried.

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Hidari 11.02.09 at 8:52 am

Should have said: ‘Gordon Brown takes his ‘orders’ from media owned by corporations whose aim is to promote an extreme right wing social and political agenda’’

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Keir 11.02.09 at 9:13 am

But that’s not right; when we say Brown is populist, we don’t mean he wants to be popular — because, of course, all politicians want to be popular, all political parties want the populace — but rather that he wants to be popular the easy route.

That is generally speaking what people are using populist to mean: to be popular by the low road. Emerson seems to feel that the people are right etc etc and that if only the Democrats would give up on technocracy and follow the dictates of the opinion polls — or something, for I do not in fact think Emerson really does believe in opinion polls, but anyway, if only they find the will of the people and echo back to it the right things — then they will be led into the land of milk and honey, being both substantively and politically correct on the issues.

I dare say that is a damn fool notion, but it is not in anyway different to what Brown is doing. Brown feels that Nutt is an expert who is going against the will of the people, so rather than try and explain that Nutt’s reasons are grounded in science etc, Brown has thrown him into the outer void because that is what he thinks will be popular. (Or maybe not, maybe the dour old Fifer is finally making a principled stand, maybe the man who’d make the North Sea fog look colourful has found a thing he is agin body and soul — fun. But no matter, for it acts like populism, and a distinction without difference etc.)

It is not being popular that is the sin of populism; it is rather being easy.

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belle le triste 11.02.09 at 9:30 am

I think the rather obviously signalled vulnerability in Keir’s argument here is the phrase “Emerson seems to think”, followed by a claim about Emerson even he doesn’t believe — it’s how he torques two rather different modes of political thinking into one

The populace — the undifferentiated body of all the citizenry, high and low, treated as if they can be found to have one interest on one issue, as allegedly discovered via newspapers or polls — is not the same thing as the populus: which is the body of people who by definition do not form any part of the ruling class, whose collective interests can therefore be calculated or imagined by considering them to be in conflict to those of the ruling class, and extrapolating

the first type of politics dissolves class conflict into fake science; the second treats it as a forensic fetish and a substitute for science

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JoB 11.02.09 at 9:32 am

Being populist isn’t easier than being popular; it requires massive planning to take what are real concerns in the population and make them into piggy-back devices of what are the real concerns of the (old or new order) establishment.

The most Brown can be accused of is of trying to be populist; his inability to project an elementary concern of the population’s concern is emblematical.

We all risk to be populist here, by the way, preaching to the own choir based on what it is our belief that the general public thinks or should think. It’s a rather populist type of charge, really, to call somebody a populist.

In the present case it would probably be less entertaining but more to the point to give it the name of “spineless”.

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JoB 11.02.09 at 9:33 am

Ans anyway, the Nutt cases always make a come-back. They always do. They are there to ‘test’ stuff on the public; the risk is that they have to disappear for a while in some or other well paid function.

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John Emerson 11.02.09 at 9:35 am

When Chris says ‘Nulab’ is ‘populist’ he means ‘it follows the dictates of the right wing press’ or to put it even more plainly the accusation is: ‘Gordon Brown takes his ‘orders’ from media owned by corporations show aim is to promote an extreme right wing social and political agenda’.

Am I permitted to object to this use of the word? Or is that just more of my True Scotsman Dance?

One of my points has been that everything progressive that’s been done in the US since the Civil War, with “progressive” meaning something like “protecting the majority of the people against the unrestrained power of capital”, has been a rather reluctant response of the Democratic or the Republican Party to popular movements describable as populist. But then, Shah8 apparently opposes all movements of that kind, and furthermore will presumably use his own negative version of the No True Scotsman dance against any even partially successful and benevolent populist movements that there ever might have been.

And as a white guy, I still think that people who begin comments with “As a black guy’s who’s all too aware of just how fucked up most people are…. ” when attacking a political movement routinely accused of racism shouldn’t get all whiny when the person they’re addressing to starts talking about race.

In general, anyone who wants to affiliate with any movement that has a past is going to want to stress the positive side of that movement, and minimize the negative side. This is true both in rhetoric and in behavior: Wilsonians do not plan to reinstutute segregation in the Post Office and send the police out to jail radicals without trial, Jeffersonians do not want to raise families by slave girls, and admirers of Lincoln do not want to sent the army out to lay waste to Georgia. These dilemmas can be avoided by rejecting the entire past and presenting your politics in a totally ahistorical way, but problems arise from that approach too.

Shah8’s version of the No True Populist is official Democratic Party doctrine, more or less, and I oppose it because it’s unfair, leads to bad policy and weak politics, and is conducive to venality.

88

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 9:49 am

Some or most of the CT people, like some of the Democratic Party, thinks that it’s possible to bring about egalitarianism and social justice by administrative means while eschewing “populist appeals” in politics and keeping the ignorant general public at arms length. In actuality what they’r doing, as I said, is fighting a slowly retreating holding action against the ignorant public that they refuse to talk or listen to. Someone’s going to talk to the ignorant mob, and if it isn’t us it will be them.

Populists don’t rule by opinion schools, they recruit support from among ordinary people.

89

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.02.09 at 9:50 am

Populism is not about following the polls, issue by issue. Populism is about identifying a group of evildoers who are responsible for all calamities. It could be Yankee Imperialism, for example. Or Wall Street. Or The Federal Government. Or The Russkies. What, Russkies? Oops, already slipping into ethnic categories…

90

ajay 11.02.09 at 10:28 am

Britain has not had a competitive industrial in 150 years
What exactly does this mean?

I think it means that Rolls-Royce, ICI, Vickers, de Havilland and Glaxo Wellcome were French all along.

91

magistra 11.02.09 at 11:51 am

Someone’s going to talk to the ignorant mob, and if it isn’t us it will be them.

Yes, but frankly, if you’re going to talk to them you don’t want to start with 5000 words about nineteenth/early twentieth century history. There are two problems here. One is how you encourage popular anti-capitalism without it being taken as meaning that someone should attack the immigrants running the local corner shop.

The second is, if you’re going to use the language of class warfare (which seems to be what you want in dealing with the bankers), you’re likely to come across as a communist, unless you can put some clear fire-break between yourself and communist ideas. And what everybody knows about communism (even the ignorant mob) is that it produced really horrible societies.

The British Labour party (before its mutation into New Labour) relied on a kind of Christian socialism/Trade Union Methodism by its leaders, in which equality and justice for all was implicitly based on the Christian values of caring for all; thus it could separate itself from godless Communism. The current green/anti-capitalist movement tends to distinguish itself not only by its ecological credentials (very un-Marxist), but also its vague New Ageiness. How does the kind of populism you want prove that its core values are something different from communism? What are its core values, anyhow?

92

Keir 11.02.09 at 12:36 pm

I dunno, I am deeply deeply unimpressed by Emerson’s main line of attack, which appears to be a rather crap rant about Intellectuals that would be more impressive were it not for the fact that most of his targets tend to be blurry strawmen that no one can be bothered to try and defend; I mean, there are no prizes for pointing out Adorno was a bit dippy about jazz.

There may, however, be prizes for explaining why Adorno gets talked about Simon Reynolds and turns up in issues of the Wire reasonably regularly, which is something Emerson really doesn’t do. Down with Galbraith? What the hell? Galbraith said all sorts of useful things and maybe he was insufficiently — and here I don’t know, the answer seems to be a general anger of Emerson’s on discovering that he hasn’t inherited a lovely perfect political tradition — but to write a version of history where a great mistake the Democrats made was listen to Galbraith is mad.

(Also the dumb glibness of things like `small island economies’ makes it really rather hard to work out what is sensible stuff he’ll actually defend and what is just hahaha funny lines.)

93

Stuart 11.02.09 at 1:26 pm

Ans anyway, the Nutt cases always make a come-back. They always do. They are there to ‘test’ stuff on the public; the risk is that they have to disappear for a while in some or other well paid function.

Nutt’s position as an advisor to the government was unpaid, it seems unlikely they will reward him in the interim with a well paid function if they didn’t pay anything for the original position.

94

Billikin 11.02.09 at 1:54 pm

John Emerson (#38): “On the timeline, the Republicans conceded the South to the Democrats, and to segregation and disenfranchisement, after 890 when they failed to pass the Lodge Force Bill. The Republicans never tried again and disenfranchisement proceeded.”

As a practical matter that happened with the end of Reconstruction in 1877. Voting by oral declaration meant that a Black who did not vote Democratic in the Deep South was essentially signing his death warrant.

95

Billikin 11.02.09 at 1:55 pm

On a lighter note,

Vox populi, vox dei. :)

96

belle le triste 11.02.09 at 2:04 pm

I’m pretty much on Emerson’s side in the war on the self-regarding intellectual classes and their rent-seeking ways, though I have a higher opinion of Adorno than he seems to (TWA was rather better aware of this problem than most). In another life I have close personal involvement with the Wire, and ticklish (though not irrelevant) beef with S.Reynolds, so I’m not actually going to pursue that while under pseudonym…

Anyway, as I said, it’s not that you disagree with Emerson, it’s that you conflate two very different modes of politics.

97

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 2:07 pm

Small island peoples have that defensiveness.

Hofstadter, Schlesinger, Galbraith, and Bell were a recognized group of “consensus theorists” who formulated the anti-populist, big-business-friendly line of the Democratic Party during the post WWII period. I mentioned the bunch of them because I got flak for mentioning only Hofstadter. Of the bunch, Galbraith was the best, but his pluralist theory of countervailing powers is a bit weak in that labor only countervails business if it has government support, so government really couldn’t mediate between business and labor, they either support labor or they don’t.

My anger is mostly because the Democrats, in some formal sense the American left party, have been either not left or unsuccessful or both during the last 40 years, and at the present moment, when they are successful, they’re showing a vigorous determination to be not even a little left. I’ve been trying to figure out the reasons for this, and five decades or more of principled anti-populism is the one I’m working on. The abusive and historically skewed use of the word “Populism” is part of the problem.

I’ll scratch Keir of my list of potential recruits, though.

98

JoB 11.02.09 at 2:15 pm

Cheap shot, I admit – but better at populism than Brown is accused of in this thread.

(and ‘drugs policy guided by science’, isn’t that populistic, as if somehow it isn’t politics that finally has to make the call?)

99

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 2:16 pm

There were still black voters in the South in the 1890a. In 1896 North Carolina the Republicans and Populists were in cooperation and elected three Republican Congressmen, five Populists, and only one Democrat. This was done with the help of black votes. The Populist threat to white supremacy was one of the accusations against them, not because they weren’t white supremacists, because the fact of having real party competition in the South meant that black votes still could swing and election. Essentially the Populists were trying to push other issues ahead of white Supremacy.

lonk

The defeat of the Force Bill marked the end of any attempt by the North and the Republican Party to do anything about disenfranchisement, which soon did become almost total.

100

harry b 11.02.09 at 2:39 pm

I agree with most of what emerson says, all of which is completely beside the point of Chris’s post.

But:

“Some or most of the CT people, like some of the Democratic Party, thinks that it’s possible to bring about egalitarianism and social justice by administrative means while eschewing “populist appeals” in politics and keeping the ignorant general public at arms length.”

Really? It never once occurred to me that any of the contributors thought or think this, whatever some commenters might think. To bring about egaliatarian social justice, or even just to make substantial steps toward it, would require a political mass movement of a kind we have not seen for many decades in this country. In the absence of such a mass movement (which cannot be conjured by political action, or at least if it can I’ve no idea how to contribute to conjuring it), sure, I spend time arguing about administrative detail, because I believe that some small improvements can be made that way, and some bad things can be averted (or at least, the probability of them getting worse can be slightly diminished).

101

bianca steele 11.02.09 at 2:40 pm

Karl Lüger is considered by some IIRC to be a prime example of the consequences of populism.

102

belle le triste 11.02.09 at 3:06 pm

Just to sharpen that distinction, the war I’m pro isn’t on people who read books or know arcane things — I rather like them — it’s on technocrats and technicians of the kinds of knowledge and pseudo-knowledge that can have significant social consequences as these people allow themselves to be organised into a managerial or administrative or bureaucratic class that is biddable from above but not below; which class would entirely include the mid to high decision-makers at newspapers like the mail or the guardian, as well as the people who operate opinion polls…

103

Walt 11.02.09 at 3:09 pm

It’s interesting that the meaning of populism is so different in the UK than in the US. I read Chris’ original post as meaning populist in the Hofstadter sense, as most USians would. I’m curious what the history of the term in the UK is.

104

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 3:17 pm

Gellner’s 1969 book “Populism”, to which Hofstadter contributed, may have been the introduction of the term into European discourse. By that time Hofstadter had gotten a lot of flak (both from historians and from political people) for the bias of his earlier view, and his view of populism there is more benign than it had been. But Hofstadter died soon after, and his earlier stuff has been most influential.

Gellner was resolutely anti-populist, though not in a polemical or unfair way. Not surprising for a German Jewish Czech Englishman. His family had been willing to be Czechs after WWI, but had found that they were not welcome.

105

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 3:20 pm

I forgot the important point: Gellner’s introduction begins something like “Everyone is talking about populism, but no one is quite sure what it is.” The conclusion of the book is by an ordinary-language philosopher who basically say “The meaning of the word “populism” is mushy, but that’s no big deal because the meanings of lots of political words are mushy”. How very ordinary-language!

106

Stuart 11.02.09 at 3:25 pm

I guess it is kind of like how “liberal” in the US is a slur. From wikipedia one possible definition of populism (outside the US) as “an ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice”. Of course in this sense the government are being anti-populist by this action, if anything, unless as has been mentioned we treat the Daily Mail as the ultimate representation of the “populus”.

107

belle le triste 11.02.09 at 3:34 pm

Off the top of my head I can’t of a historically successful British political party or movement that was describable as Populist, as opposed to tactics that were adopted by parties that weren’t at all Populist. The first thing that popped into my mind when Walt asked that question were the Church and King mobs, as turned on dissenters and agitators in the 17th and 18th centuries (also Joseph Priestley, but for his religous views, not for discovering oxygen); they seem to diminish in force and presence round about the start of the 19th century.

Actually the word “mob” isn’t so very far from populus as I defined it above: short for “the mobility” coined as a counter to the nobility… But the assumption in Brit politics is that the mob when active politically is always only ever manipulated and exploited by some invisible nob, to good or evil end…

(Agatha Christie’s very first novel features a villain who turns out to be the “man behind the man behind the Bolsheviks”: naturally he is in the House of Lords…)

108

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 3:40 pm

I’m not sure that this is a European – American split. One large slice of American liberals shares the European view.

On another thread I was accused of trying to redefine the word in a way contrary to its established meaning. There’s some truth in this, but per the Gellner book (and the 1986 Websters dictionary) the pejorative meaning (=”demagogic”) hasn’t been established for very long, and I think that it’s misleading and harmful. (I put “populism” in the class of contested political words whose meanings can’t be determined just by looking in a dictionary).

One of my hypotheses is that most of Europe was so elitist that whatever populism, broad sense, ever appeared might tend toward the malign forms, especially when the context is the forming of national identities after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire. To an extent the various European lefts just stepped into the authority positions vacated by hereditary aristocrats, church dignitaries, university elites, and high public officials. Whereas populism in America, for better and worse, was more continuous with the rest of the political culture.

109

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 3:42 pm

Belle, I think that the Chartists of “People’s Charter” come close. But I don’t know a lot about them.

110

belle le triste 11.02.09 at 4:00 pm

OK maybe, but if so isn’t this a hit against your line: the achievement of chartist aims — universal male suffrage, parliamentary reform — resulted pretty much in the British working classes being shut out of UK politics, as a distinctly articulated voice, for another half-century?

111

JoB 11.02.09 at 4:19 pm

100 – like Professor Nutt for instance?

112

engels 11.02.09 at 4:20 pm

I do resent people using the word ‘demagogic’ as a pejorative. Are people really so ignorant of the positive achievements of the famous demaogogues in history? What about Creon, who led the victorious Athenian armies at Sphacteria? Why do people fixate on the more regrettable incidents in his life, like his unfortunate decision to put to death all the male inhabitants of Mytilene? What America needs today, I say, is a new politics of demagogy…

113

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 4:26 pm

Belle: as I said, I don’t know much about the Chartists.

Engels, I’ll let that be your own project.

114

belle le triste 11.02.09 at 4:27 pm

Professor Nutt seems to have proved himself admirably unbiddable from above, JoB!

115

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 4:28 pm

In the context of a more successful, less corrupt democratic socialism / left-liberalism the anti-populist dogma would be a lot harder to argue against.

116

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 4:32 pm

In the context of a more successful, less corrupt democratic soc*alism / left-liberalism the anti-populist dogma would be a lot harder to argue against.

117

Chris 11.02.09 at 4:37 pm

the body of people who by definition do not form any part of the ruling class, whose collective interests can therefore be calculated or imagined by considering them to be in conflict to those of the ruling class, and extrapolating

If I might be indulged in a little egg-headed intellectual complexity: that doesn’t work because not all interactions are zero-sum. (And because the ruling and non-ruling classes can collude against minorities, foreigners, and other groups not identified solely by their place in the class divide.) The idea that all interactions actually *are* zero-sum and every appearance of mutual benefit is just a smokescreen to hide who is getting screwed has strong emotional appeal and is the basis for a lot of populist appeals (including, e.g., a current US political ad that states “If the insurance companies win, you lose”, which sure as hell sounds populist to me and I doubt it’s coming from the Republicans), but it turns out to be, in fact, false.

Populism is about identifying a group of evildoers who are responsible for all calamities.

But that’s exactly the kind of issue where truth tends to part company with mass appeal, and throwing nuance out the window leads to very bad results.

I suppose Emerson wants to wash populism’s hands of that too. On the one hand it seems reasonable to try to improve a political movement by refusing to repeat its mistakes, and claiming Populism 2.0 isn’t going to produce another Reign of Terror or whatever is understandable, but I do sort of wonder what is left of populism to which the name can sensibly be applied, if you’re going to steer clear of anti-intellectual appeal to gut checks and paranoid-style conspiracy theories about the inherent perfidy of elites.

P.S. @67: Casting economic pseudoscience out of the temple is definitely an important task, and pointing out that it is maintained by the patronage of those who benefit from jokes like Lafferism might help, but ISTM that it can be better done by pointing out that it *is* pseudoscience than by attacking the idea of science or expert opinion per se.

118

ajay 11.02.09 at 4:56 pm

Small island peoples have that defensiveness.

O Emerson, we thee implore
To go away and troll no more,
Or, if the effort be too great,
To go away at any rate.

119

belle le triste 11.02.09 at 4:57 pm

Shorter Chris: any discussion of my class interests is an attack on science.

120

belle le triste 11.02.09 at 5:03 pm

Shorter me: Chris, you’re welcome to carry on trying to convince the technocracy that pseudoscience — by being wrong — should be dispensed with. This will not happen as long as the cult of professional expertise has good reason to carry on much as it is, as a significant self-replicating bloc; the cleavage you seek, to drive bad away and keep the good, does not fall where you think it falls.

121

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 5:10 pm

My discussion of populism keys on the American Populist Party and their ancestral and descendant groups: Greenbackers, Grange, Knights of Labor, the Debs Socialists, the LaFollette and prairie Progressives, The Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, and the non-Partisan League in Minnesota. I am willing to acknowledge their actual flaws and am also willing to acknowledge that some populist-descended individuals were pretty generally bad: the later Tom Watson, Huey Long and his Gerald L K Smith , and Father Coughlin.

I am not willing to let people discuss populism in terms of a tendentious generalized definition derived mostly from Watson, Long, Smith, and Coughlin at their worst. (At their best all of these supported the New Deal, which according to Jonah G. makes FDR and Hillary Cli8nton fascists).

Except by Abb1, someone who declares themself a Democrat or who supports the Democratic Party isn’t immediately accused of supporting the Indian Expulsion Act, Cleveland’s assault on the Pullman strikers, the Palmer Raids, the internment of the Japanese-Americans, and a century of segregation and lynching. But advocates of populism have to expect comparable challenges on a regular basis.

Repeating an error over and over again doesn’t make it true, guys.

122

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 5:13 pm

My discussion of populism keys on the American Populist Party and their ancestral and descendant groups: Greenbackers, Grange, Knights of Labor, the Debs Soc*alists, the LaFollette and prairie Progressives, The Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, the non-Partisan League in North Dakota, and various independent politicians of that type. I am willing to acknowledge their actual flaws and am also willing to acknowledge that some populist-descended individuals were pretty generally bad: the later Tom Watson, Huey Long and his Gerald L K Smith , and Father Coughlin.

I am not willing to let people discuss populism in terms of a tendentious generalized definition derived mostly from Watson, Long, Smith, and Coughlin at their worst. (At their best all of these supported the New Deal, which according to Jonah G. makes FDR and Hillary Clinton fascists).

Except by Abb1, someone who declares themself a Democrat or who supports the Democratic Party isn’t immediately accused of supporting the Indian Expulsion Act, Cleveland’s assault on the Pullman strikers, the Palmer Raids, the internment of the Japanese-Americans, and a century of segregation and lynching. But advocates of populism have to expect comparable challenges on a regular basis.

When someone is arguing against an idea, guys, reiterating the ideas isn’t an effective counterargument.

123

shah8 11.02.09 at 5:16 pm

Well, technically, I’m not a fan of democracy–in something like the spirit of the comment at 109.

Anyways, I understand that Emerson is just going to talk over his opponents and mislead with selective slices of history. Nothing he’s saying about black history around the turn of the century is wrong, for example, but it’s presented in an incoherent and inappropriate light. Same thing when he dances among Populism, Populist Party, In the Vein of Populist Party, etc, etc. However, I don’t think engaging him will get anything other than what he does to his opposition at OpenLeft.

There is no golden age of American Politics to bring back, and there never was. Populism sucks because it always winds up being about in the name of the people and not truly the voice of the people–and preferably so because, well, how about looking at a sophisticated football or finance blog/forum with open comments? Unless the site is small, the vast majority of comments are utterly crap, with a significant majority of commenters thinking that their crap is gold. A popular movement based on being sensitive to how the public views a wide variety of topic is going to have problems forming coherent and responsive answers to public problems.

The issues with technocratic rent-seeking is that it’s a feature of democracy, not some woolly haired mountain cousin. Oh, thee of little brains, take it from a non polisci geek Democracy is a way to subvert popular participation. It’s redeeming value, and what assists Western political dominance in my mind, is how much it drives the creation of para-governmental bodies such as urban political machines, lobbying groups like the AARP, various NGOs, etc, etc, etc. The enhancement of a civil society with organs that digest public opinion, both nutritious and fibrous, into outcomes that nourish most people much of the time. Populism, on the other hand, ultimately does mean anti-intellectualism in the bad sense. It’s basis is nonintermediated control of the government’s apparatus by the undifferentiated lot of people, whether they are interested in or competent for the task. It’s a good thing on a specific issue and helps beats back corruption by specialists a bit. It’s a bad thing when it’s driving policy on a wide range of issues.

124

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 5:19 pm

How many times do I have to apologize for peeing on your cornflakes, Ajay?

Casting economic pseudoscience out of the temple….’

The self-described populists of today are goldbugs, ironically, whereas most Populists were the exact opposite, greenbackers advocating the “fiat currency” we have today. (The party was captured and almost destroyed by silver Democrats in 1896.) Based on what I’ve read, the economic ideas of the original Populists, based on the quantity theory of money, were proto-monetarist, whereas the ideas of the “sound currency” goldbogs of the time was fetishistic and retrograde. Documentation at my link.

125

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 5:24 pm

As I understand, per Brad DeLong and other, economic science is inreal turmoil today. It now seems more like a collection of mathematized proverbs whose applications to actuality can never be positively known. Don’t ever go to economi8cs hoping for a definite answer to anything unless you’re willing to be skinned.

126

Ceri B. 11.02.09 at 5:28 pm

Chris: If I might be indulged in a little egg-headed intellectual complexity: that doesn’t work because not all interactions are zero-sum. True, and in fact I’d say that one of the basic tasks for any morality of society is to find out how to make as many interactions positive-sum as possible. But in practice, governing classes can and do make their interactions with the rest of us zero-sum or worse. In such a situation, the rest of us need to respond as best we may, and it doesn’t seem foolish to me to point out just how much of the prevailing order only actually works for the benefit of a small fraction of the whole.

Not to be too tedious about this, but to take two easy examples, it’s not the meanness of the masses that makes it impossible for anyone with mass media access to express support for the US public’s preferences on the war in Iraq and health care without coming under immediate sustained attack and marginalization.

127

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 5:38 pm

If I were trying to devise an anti-democratic politics that rejects the entire American tradition, certainly I would pay attention to the ideas of shah8. His assertions about the essence of populism are just reiterations of the received opinion I’m arguing against, however.

128

shah8 11.02.09 at 6:02 pm

I mostly just interested in good government, because I’m intensly familiar with what bad government can do to people.

One of the reasons why I have such a distaste for populism is that despite appearances, it’s fairly anti-respect for consensus. The people want what they want and most assumes that they are a majority opinion. Negotiation between antagonists parties is not what the people want, those that can be bothered to pay attention/empathy to that dispute. John Emerson shares the same vituperative mentality to give and take discussion as the populists he adores.

129

Tim Wilkinson 11.02.09 at 6:03 pm

Myles SG @69: There is a good reason for that: financial services is the bread-and-butter of the British economy.

Not clear if you mean that’s a good reason for not ‘crushing’ the banks, or for the neo-liberal market policies (ignore subsidies to the weapons industry, etc) of Thatcherism. Those policies did of course include shifting the economy into financial services. So it may be the case that the financiers have us by the short and curlies now and in the medium term, but that outcome is not (was not) a reason for following the Thatcherite policies in the first place.

Britain has not had a competitive industrial in 150 years

Bafflement or counterexamples (as above) aside, we wouldn’t of course forget that what we actually want is a productive economy, and having a ‘competitive’ one is only of interest insofar as it subserves that end. (In fact, to go the whole hog, what we really want is consumption, and everything else subserves that. I won’t go into the hidden-because-unmonetised items in the national accounts just now, but a proper account would include for example consumption of political freedom and quality of life more generally. Welfare economics is supposed to be at the foundation, and neoclassical theory might well be considerably less offensive – and would probably be unrecognisable – if that fact were observed. I do not, obviously, suggest that’s the only thing seriously wrong with NC economics, of course. That would be insane. But many of the issues like the glaring ‘revealed preference’ fudge are quite intimately related to it.

and frankly, absent finance, Britain is not likely to have a competitive economy of any sort.

It’s good that your surmise is at least made frankly – do you have expertise? If so, is it the unpaid, independent, ‘loose cannon’ type, or the compliant ‘safe pair of hands’ type, displayed by those I’ll call (big-E) Experts? In any case, not quite sure how competitive the domestic banking industry is. Doing a bit of browsing on the general topic, I discovered a rather baffling fact: the 2007 blue book shows (for 2004) 81bn net ‘value added’ for financial corporations, of which 50bn is something called FISIM . A non-Expert like me would never have spotted just how much FISIM is being produced and consumed, and would thus have been unable to resolve the “paradox of a prosperous industry showing a negligible positive, or even negative, contribution to the national product”! What a paradox!

From 2008, FISIM has been removed from the main accounts, and buried in a separate section which purports to apportion the ‘indirectly measured’ (no longer referred to as ‘imputed’) benefits of FISIM to various industries, and gives total ‘contribution’ to national income, though well away from any aggregate figures for same that could give perspective. As the Experts learn to stop worrying and love it, I suppose it will disappear as a separate item altogether. After all, we know the butter is on the bread, because the butter dish is empty. In any case the 37bn ‘compensation for employees’ will no doubt trickle down in lovely buttery rivulets.

130

Tim Wilkinson 11.02.09 at 6:06 pm

(By the way, this discussion has at least had the benefit of giving some old Blockheads LPs an airing, reminded as I was of the (cod-)’Populist’ lyric:

_Bankrupt the banks_
_Withhold the rent_
_Shitters are a wank_
_And the landlord’s bent_
_It’s time that the babies kept quiet_
_No it ain’t_

Ian Dury and the Blockheads – Uneasy Sunny Day Hotsy Totsy on YouTube (with irrelevant UFO video + bonus track This is What We Find, featuring the immortal line: “They used to call him Robin Hood. Now, it’s Robin…Fuck Wit Shit Head”)

Good old Ian – no administrative leftist he.)

131

Tim Wilkinson 11.02.09 at 6:12 pm

Chris @117: paranoid-style conspiracy theories about the inherent perfidy of elites.

Wondered when that one would be wheeled out. An excellent addition to any serious conversation. Thanks, Hoff.

(I think I’ve I’ve actually been modded for ‘foul language’, I think! It should go through on artistic merit, though…)

132

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 6:15 pm

Neither I nor the populists are unique in our vituperative ways, and the consensus approach has certainly failed the Democrats during the last several decades, notably just now in the health care debate.

133

JoB 11.02.09 at 6:18 pm

114 – so you think he was bid from below?

134

belle le triste 11.02.09 at 7:18 pm

What a strange alogical panic falls on us when we are asked to declare and take account of our own desires as we engage in debate! JoB, I have no idea what motivated Nutt: perhaps he dislikes being asked to be a party to a lie; perhaps he’s cross that his proposal was overlooked; perhaps yes he is in the secret pay of hippie terrorist druglords. There are any number of possible reasons he took this decision, some creditable, some doubtless otherwise. To be honest, few things in modern politics fascinate me more than the intense interplay and tussle between different layers and blocs of professional specialisation and the deformations of knowledge that come with this. I especially like it when the tussle all spills out into the open, where it should be, so I am currently pro-Nutt and don’t much care why he did this.

135

bianca steele 11.02.09 at 7:29 pm

John E.@21: not based on primary research

WTF? Can we pick some nits here for a change?

(Working my way back through the thread.)

136

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 7:33 pm

Hofstadter didn’t do archival or documentary research. C. Vann Woodward and other historians of the era criticized him for that, their disagreements on substance aside. Hofstadter ended up saying that he was a writer, not a historian. That’s in one of the two Hofstadter biographies at my link.

137

bianca steele 11.02.09 at 7:46 pm

Sure, let C. Vann Woodward make those arguments against Hofstadter if in his judgment they’re necessary. For you and me, who really cares? Even speaking as a former grad student in history, I don’t see what it matters that a middlebrow historical synthesis is based on research drawn from secondary sources or on the completed research of others.

Maybe, in fifty years, one of the two will have been proven right at the expense of the others, and then we laypersons can start to ignore the loser.

138

Keir 11.02.09 at 7:52 pm

Just to sharpen that distinction, the war I’m pro isn’t on people who read books or know arcane things—I rather like them—it’s on technocrats and technicians of the kinds of knowledge and pseudo-knowledge that can have significant social consequences as these people allow themselves to be organised into a managerial or administrative or bureaucratic class that is biddable from above but not below; which class would entirely include the mid to high decision-makers at newspapers like the mail or the guardian, as well as the people who operate opinion polls…

But that isn’t the war Emerson wants to get you in; Emerson dismissed every early 20th c German speaking intellectual the other day, because, I think, of Hitler. Or maybe Bismarck.

Ooh, and apparently New York in the ’50s was a waste of time, as well. Because — I don’t actually know; as far as I can tell for being politically ineffectual. Which makes me think that Emerson is going to get the hard judgement in a decade or so.

I dunno, as far as I can tell Emerson has a rather dull idea that most people agree with (certainly here) — back the masses against the classes — and then goes on to derive all sorts of strange results from it, like the utter worthlessness of Clement Greenberg. And when people challenge him on the odd results he gets, he falls back to glibness and broad accusations of horribleness.

It just seems terribly boring to me.

139

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 8:12 pm

But not boring enough to make the ever-so-easy easy “ignore” option tempting.

Doesn’t it seem to anyone else that after WWII, and after the German disaster, German scholars should take over the American university. They seem to have been welcomed because they brought the deep European wisdom, but what evidence was there in 1945 that ther was a deep European wisdom? Leo Strauss declared himself a fascist in 1932. Adorno came from the wreckage of the German left and retained his sublime assurance that he was right after all evidence for that had been destroyed.

As for the New York Intellectuals, I know nothing specifically about Clement Greenberg, but as a group they seem to have greatly overestimated themselves, and their permanent contribution seems to have been slight.

I don’t see how these ideas are unthinkable or even very contrarian. We have a bit of historical depth now, and maybe it’s time to reevaluate Strauss, Hayek, Adorno, and the rest of them.

140

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 8:15 pm

“Doesn’t it seem ODD to anyone else….”

And the German scientists are perfectly OK with me. It just seems to me that by 1945 the German-speaking world should have been scratched off the list of places to go to in search of polticical wisdom.

141

Walt 11.02.09 at 8:16 pm

Keir, you want to know an excellent way to make a thread not be about John Emerson? Don’t bring up things he said that annoyed you in other threads. It is touching that you weep for the dishonor to pre-WW2 German intellectuals, though.

142

Martin Bento 11.02.09 at 8:29 pm

shah8 wrote:

” It’s simple. There isn’t such a thing as benign populism. Do you know why? The political economy doesn’t work. Do you know why? Populism is nominally about egalitarianism one way or another. The payoff structure for people who participate in an egalitarian political economy has only a very narrow band of Nash potential equilibria—and most of them require highly altruistic people in concentrations that don’t exist in the wild.”

When I characterised this as an attack on egalitarianism, he responded:

“So nominally isn’t a proper adverb?

Duuuuuuude, seriously…”

So “nominally” was meant to qualify the entire set of assertions? Seriously? The payoffs in a political economy in a society are based, not on its actual nature, but solely on its claims? Nash equilibria are determined entirely by rhetoric? I look forward to seeing Shah8 prove this quite novel political insights. Alternatively, he could admit that he’s trying to have it both ways: making a bunch of assertions that only make sense if they refer to an actual state of affairs, and when called on the clear implications of them, running and hiding behind “I said ‘nominally’! I said ‘nominally’?

Duuuuuuude, seriously…

143

Martin Bento 11.02.09 at 8:41 pm

We are currently in a situation we it is absolutely necessary on the merits to punish the financiers who created this mess and to do so severely. They have profitted immensely, and if they do not experience a pain that far exceeds their gain they will, as the rational utility maximizers that their own economic theories say they are, take such risks again. They would be crazy not to.

Nonetheless, the Democratic, Labour, and most similar parties are extremely loathe to do this. Many well-meaning liberals outside the party structure are hesistant or want to find a way to split the difference or consider the cure worse than the disease. Why? Because rage against the banks is populist. Opposition to populism is so strong that objectively necessary policies are opposed simply because they are populist. Is the problem the rage? How do you expect to achieve anything this difficult without rage? We evolved emotions for a reason and part of it seems to be to force decisions and motivate action. You can analyse problems forever, and people with the emotional centers of their brains cut off find it almost impossible to make even trivial decisions. Asking us to address moral hazard at the banks coldly and technocratically, amounts to wanting something but not wanting the necessary condition of achieving it. Not that cold, technocracy will not be involved. There is no other way such a thing can be designed and implemented. But the driving force will be populist rage and, since liberals are horrified by that, there is no impetus for the necessary action.

144

Keir 11.02.09 at 9:12 pm

139 seems to be utterly a non-sequitur to me; if Walt could expand on what he means it would be good, but I really don’t see where I have expressed any annoyance about `everything being about Emerson’ or any such.

Doesn’t it seem [odd] to anyone else that after WWII, and after the German disaster, German scholars should take over the American university

Is, of course, straight out of Tom Wolfe; it was pretty iffy then and it still is now. I really don’t know why people might have respected the Faculty at Gottingen. I also think `take over the American university’ is very very tendentious. I also think when you start to blame stuff on the foreigners and the big city people, you really ought be looking quite carefully at yourself.

145

shah8 11.02.09 at 9:15 pm

Nobody sane is arguing that the government shouldn’t be responsive to the needs of the citizenry so long as it doesn’t violate the central ideology, like the Bill of Rights. Just because there is a justified populist rage over unaddressed issues that affect every American doesn’t mean that populism as a mode of political interaction is a good thing. It just means that people should vote on these issues (my personal feeling is that some kind of national strike is in order) or otherwise make these issues as part of a national conversation. Rustling up a crowd and sending a spokesperson isn’t my idea of a productive path to change.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say this again–Populism, in the actual, genuine meaning of the term, and not the spliced together Frankennarrative that Emerson enspouses, has a well deserved bad name, especially looking at it from non-white perspectives. Democratic Party insiders that use that bad name to slander good and popular policies should be coerced, in the way all of the empowered factions of our political system accepts, to repudiate that mentality and push through better policies that benefit most or all of us. If my mentality doesn’t meet certain people’s requirements for ideological purity, I’m sorry, but I really don’t care.

146

bianca steele 11.02.09 at 9:19 pm

It is at least as odd that some self-proclaimed northern liberals should have been so solicitous of conservative Southern Agrarians at around the same time (though this might have been a part result of Anglophilia combined with traditional English nostalgia for the Confederacy, along with an idea that all elites must be above politics, I guess–and this makes an absolute hash out of current rightwing soi disant anti-elitism BTW).

147

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 9:38 pm

Keir thinks that I really am a farmer. I’m of half a mind to feed him to my hogs.

Keir, what if I say all Americans Nazis? Will it be OK for me to to question the German influx then? I certainly am hostile enough to the American Straussians and Austrians, but can’t I also say something about the Germans and Austrians themselves?

I have a very delicate relationship to the Adornists, so I’ll have to leave them out of this.

148

Martin Bento 11.02.09 at 9:49 pm

Who said anything about ideological purity? Are you seriously going to try to call us a bunch of ideologues not by making an argument but by rolling on the floor screaming: “Mommy! The ideologues are hitting me! The ideologues are hitting me!”

149

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.02.09 at 9:52 pm

Martin: We are currently in a situation we it is absolutely necessary on the merits to punish the financiers who created this mess and to do so severely.

See, punishing financiers is a typical populist appeal. The problem is that punishing financiers is not going to achieve much (if anything) on the grand scale of things, because the problem is structural; financiers are just a bunch of people who will soon be replaced by another bunch of people.

Hopefully the (hypothetical) crew that launches this campaign understands it and intends to use the movement they create to make structural changes, but unfortunately it’s not guaranteed, and not even very likely.

150

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 9:56 pm

Not mutually exclusive, Henri. Obama didn’t trouble his pretty head about this problem, though — his rule was no punishment, no structural reform, and give away the store to Goldman Sachs.

Shah08, if you really want a national strike I’m completely cool with that. I won’t say the word p******t while you’re in the room.

151

Martin Bento 11.02.09 at 9:58 pm

My last comment was addressed to shah8. Others slipped in between.

152

Martin Bento 11.02.09 at 10:00 pm

Henri, that’s exactly like saying there’s no point in punishing murderers because in the future we will just have a different group of murderers. Punishment in primarily there to serve as example and threat to future perpetrators. As penalty to the past perpetrators, it is much less important, as I have argued in other threads.

153

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 10:08 pm

No, not “pissant”.

154

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.02.09 at 10:13 pm

No, it’s not exactly like saying there’s no point in punishing murderers. What you’re saying is an equivalent of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. As long as the economic system offers huge rewards for whatever it is those financiers did, someone will keep doing it.

155

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 10:15 pm

We just need one team to restructure, and a different team to immolate and impale. We’ll have to pay money to the first team, whereas we can charge fees of the second.

156

Substance McGravitas 11.02.09 at 10:16 pm

Raising taxes on the rich seems smarter and smarter with each disastrous week.

157

Walt 11.02.09 at 10:17 pm

Keir, you’re dragging unrelated other opinions of John’s to use as a stick to beat him with.

158

Harold 11.02.09 at 10:22 pm

There’s populism — seeing that the people who are affected by policy have a voice in making those policies — and there’s demogogery, no?

159

John Emerson 11.02.09 at 10:32 pm

Check with engels on that one.

160

shah8 11.02.09 at 10:33 pm

Substance McGravitas…

At a fundamental level–raising taxes, especially on dead wealth is the core necessity that could ameliorate many of our malignant problems in the US. In the end, the practice and acceptance of usury (the debt for control kind, not the debt for profit kind) is destroying us as a viable polity. Raise taxes, make no-fault bankruptcy easy and socially acceptable, etc, etc, etc…then we go right smack into elites that don’t give a damn and values their control more than they do sustainability of their eliteness…

so um…Hell yeah!

161

Chris 11.02.09 at 10:39 pm

@131: Uh, did you perhaps miss the qualifier “inherent”? I thought it was pretty important. Some particular elites are perfidious, but they should be opposed on the basis of their actual deeds, not merely their elite status. Otherwise you end up with populist (or pseudo-populist?) rage against people *who are trying to help*. Populists are quite capable of attacking people that are working *for* their interests if they display the wrong class signals.

#126: Not to be too tedious about this, but to take two easy examples, it’s not the meanness of the masses that makes it impossible for anyone with mass media access to express support for the US public’s preferences on the war in Iraq and health care without coming under immediate sustained attack and marginalization.

No, it’s not the masses — it’s a specific movement which is largely top-down controlled, but populist in its messaging. Populism under the secret control of elites, yes, but as long as the foot soldiers don’t know that, it still works. The whole point of trying to expose astroturfing is the assumption that the people following that message will actually care who it came from (and who is hiding their own involvement in it). Do you think that’s all wasted effort because the average teabagger on the street already knows who is backing their movement and doesn’t care?

And in regard to the US’s current debate over health care in particular, any government attempt to help poor and working-class people, particularly the sick ones, afford better health care is specifically painted as a sinister conspiracy of government elites. That’s a very populist attack, and the emotional impact on the followers of believing that they are the targets of such a conspiracy allows the movement leaders (or, if you prefer, puppetmasters) to paper over the factual shortcomings of their argument in a way that they just couldn’t do if they were relying on cool rationality.

It’s precisely the fact that rationality is harder to use to support a lie that is the reason for my preference for it. Rational discourse based on evidence has a far better track record at uncovering actual truths about the way the world works than any other method known to human beings.

162

Martin Bento 11.02.09 at 10:44 pm

Henri, people do kill people, which is why we punish people not guns. There may also be efficacy in restricting guns, but ultimately the government cannot prevent murder or most other forms of bad behavior, it can only punish them. This doesn’t mean we don’t need structural reforms as well, but punishment is a structural reform – it reforms the incentive structure, which, as you point out, is at the core of the problem. Other reforms are good too, but it is highly unlikely the problem can be addressed solely with regulation: new situations emerge to which the old regulations are inadequate. Unless you’re talking change to a fundamentally different system, in which case you’re tallking revolution. Good luck pulling that off with bloodless technocracy.

163

Chris 11.02.09 at 10:44 pm

There’s populism—seeing that the people who are affected by policy have a voice in making those policies—and there’s demogogery, no?

I thought the former was called “democracy”. If there’s no consensus on what (if anything) distinguishes democracy, populism, and demagoguery, well, it’s no wonder this thread has a whole lot of disagreement.

164

Chris 11.02.09 at 10:50 pm

The problem is that punishing financiers is not going to achieve much (if anything) on the grand scale of things, because the problem is structural; financiers are just a bunch of people who will soon be replaced by another bunch of people.

The other problem is that people tend to attribute phenomena to the intentional actions of beings with minds and plans, rather than to structural factors. It takes a lot of time and careful study and rational argument to prove that some things really aren’t caused by individual good or bad will. Most people today don’t blame witches for bad weather or disease (because a lot of time and careful study revealed the real causes behind them), but the same psychological flaw that created those errors still affects the way human beings, and especially ones without expertise and training, look at phenomena whose causes are not obvious, like the financial crisis.

Bernard Madoff’s personal vice, while it does exist, is less important than the conditions that allowed him to succeed. No amount of exemplary punishment can create a world where nobody is willing to follow in Madoff’s footsteps. But you might be able to create a world where nobody is able to because they actually *do* get caught before they can do that much damage.

165

engels 11.03.09 at 12:03 am

Harold, you need to look up the word ‘populist’ in a dictionary.

166

John Emerson 11.03.09 at 12:08 am

Yes, no one ever does anything. It’s all forces. Society’s to blame.

167

engels 11.03.09 at 12:17 am

‘Populism’ does not mean ‘democracy’, Harold. It also does not mean the same thing as ‘demagogy’ but it is usually used as a pejorative, to distinguish polices which draw mass support but are not genuinely leftwing, perhaps because they appeal to people’s passions or prejudices, from genuinely leftwing polices. The Republican party currently has a lot of ‘populist’ polices, eg. on issues on like gay marriage. As Shah8 says ‘populism’ has a well-deserved bad reputation, especially among minorities but also among the Left, who are interested in transforming sociial conditions for the better, not just in giving vent to our rage.

168

John Emerson 11.03.09 at 12:20 am

If the goddamn left existed I wouldn’t be talking about populism.

Exist, you stupid motherfuckers! Exist! I’m tired of your continual nullity!

169

Substance McGravitas 11.03.09 at 12:24 am

If the goddamn left existed I wouldn’t be talking about populism.

Dede Scozzafava doesn’t count?

170

John Emerson 11.03.09 at 12:31 am

1892 Populist platform

Note the pure giving vent to rage by asking for a secret ballot, 40-hour-week, unionization, graduated income tax, the abolition of the Pinkerton goon squads, the nationalization of monopolies, etc.

Homework: find one obnoxious plank in this platform.

171

Substance McGravitas 11.03.09 at 12:46 am

Homework: find one obnoxious plank in this platform.

Done: 4. Resolved, That we condemn the fallacy of protecting American labor under the present system, which opens our ports to the pauper and criminal classes of the world, and crowds out our wage-earners; and we denounce the present ineffective laws against contract labor, and demand the further restriction of undesirable emigration.

172

John Emerson 11.03.09 at 12:48 am

Good work! Same one I would have named.

173

Substance McGravitas 11.03.09 at 12:50 am

Second – Wealth belongs to him who creates it, and every dollar taken from industry without an equivalent is robbery. “If any will not work, neither shall he eat.” The interests of rural and civic labor are the same; their enemies are identical.

What should I construe this to mean?

174

John Emerson 11.03.09 at 12:53 am

I don’t know, sounds Communist to me. But we know that Populism was merely an inarticulate, non-ideological bleat of rage.

175

Martin Bento 11.03.09 at 1:38 am

Perhaps a better exercize would be to compare the Populist platform to the Democratic and Republican ones of the same time and see which seems least objectionable overall. Finding things to dislike in any 19th century platform is absurdly easy.

176

engels 11.03.09 at 1:47 am

Perhaps the most sensible thing would be to accept that the word ‘populism’ has a well-understood (although not terribly precise) meaning in English today and forensically examining programmes that called themselves ‘populist’ a hundred years ago doesn’t have a lot of relevance to that, or to anything else really, especially for those of us who don’t live in North Dakota or wherever. Btw does anybody want to defend nihilism?

177

John Emerson 11.03.09 at 2:03 am

Certainly it would be irrational for me to object to a well-understood meaning just because it was pejorative, imprecise, and inaccurate (whatever “well-understood” might mean in that context). Because we certainly do need to have perjoratives to slap on things, and the more undefined they are, the more fun.

I hadn’t heard of the hundred-year obscure location rule before, but certainly it will free up a lot of musty old words for reapplication to targets of opportunity. All we need to do is find a new word to designate the people formerly known as Populists.

178

Martin Bento 11.03.09 at 2:13 am

Engels, first of all, you hold that the current definition holds that populism is necessarily of the Right. I don’t think that is even true. The only figure AFAIK who is now regarded as a populist who ever held significant political office in the US was Huey Long, and his central plank was redistribution of wealth (downwards). Autocratic and corrupt, sure, but I don’t see any way to deny he was a man of the Left.

Secondly, I for one am arguing the need for punitive measures against the financial elite, which is populist and condemned as such under current definitions.

Thirdly, you cannot simultaneously declare the reputation of populism deserved and declare examine of the track record out of bounds. History is the basis on which it could be deserved in which case how could the historical record not be fair game?

179

Substance McGravitas 11.03.09 at 2:54 am

Division?

The Government was bitterly divided last night over the sacking of the Home Office’s chief drugs adviser after its Science Minister said that he was appalled by Alan Johnson’s decision.

180

Keir 11.03.09 at 2:55 am


Keir, you’re dragging unrelated other opinions of John’s to use as a stick to beat him with.

Hrm? Emerson is espousing a programme; you can’t pretend that what he says one day about Adorno and the intellectuals is anything but related to what he says the next day about intellectuals and populism.

(In general I think Emerson is pig headed and wrong on his intellectual history; still, I should rather as a practical matter live in Emerson-land than Democrat-land. But I’d even more rather live somewhere with a proper Labour Party.)

181

engels 11.03.09 at 3:00 am

What America needs today is a Draconian approach to criminal justice…

182

John Emerson 11.03.09 at 3:04 am

I am perfectly happy for Keir to dig up old stuff. Screw Adorno.

183

John Emerson 11.03.09 at 3:05 am

100 years, 2500 years, same difference.

184

Ceri B. 11.03.09 at 3:38 am

Chris: No amount of exemplary punishment can create a world where nobody is willing to follow in Madoff’s footsteps. But you might be able to create a world where nobody is able to because they actually do get caught before they can do that much damage. But surely part of building a better system is precisely to include it in strong incentives not to loot it blind, including that “you won’t be allowed to profit by it in the long run”. If perpetrators of institutionalized loot can expect that when caught, they will lose more than they looted, that right there would help tip the balance toward people being unwilling to try it. I don’t understand, seriously, what objection there can be to the idea of punitive treatment for such people unless perhaps you think that one must only ever get either that punitive treatment or any other institutional change.

185

Tom Bach 11.03.09 at 3:45 am

German academics and the American university: Hans Rosenberg, at Berkeley, and George Mosse, at UW Madison. Either one, on his worst day, did more to advance the understanding and practice of history than Emerson could do on steroids.

186

Tom Bach 11.03.09 at 3:50 am

Another point, which bear thinking about, Mommesen, the son of the Greek scholar and father of Hans and Wolfgang, was a Nazi but his kiddies weren’t. Mommsen didn’t cause the Nazi’s; Hindenburg did. Anyone who wants to argue that the Nazi seizure of power was the result of intellectuals’ failures knows less than nothing about the backroom deals and violence that the Nazis used to seize power.

187

John Emerson 11.03.09 at 3:54 am

Tom, I’ve absolved these individuals of guilt. Go in peace. All future applications for absolution will be treated equally fairly.

188

Tom Bach 11.03.09 at 4:00 am

John, what on earth do you mean?

189

John Emerson 11.03.09 at 4:08 am

Tom, in response to your petition I have proclaimed Rothenberg, Mosse, and the two Momsens to be perfectly OK. They are neither Nazis nor in any way implicated in the rise of Hitler by their misfeasance or nonfeasance.

190

Tom Bach 11.03.09 at 4:35 am

John,
Your claim, as I understand it, is that in 1914 Europe was greater than great and in 1945 it was a ruin. Therefore we ought ignore or vilify European intellectuals and, most importantly, decry the influx of German intellectuals because, as you put, who would ask the engineers of the Hindenburg blimp how to make a lighter than air ship. Re Europe 1914 it wasn’t that great. Re European and German intellectuals they had considerably less power than you think and, as the the historical facts of the matter show, nothing to do with the rise of Fascists and Nazis. Re the Hindenburg: any engineer or maker of anything who failed is worth speaking with if and when they can explain why they failed.

In terms of your own hobbyhorse, did any of the Populists explain where, why, and when they went wrong? Because many, if not all, of the European intellectuals you decry and despise did and, in so doing, tried to leave behind a pattern on how to proceed.

One, Kantorowicz — a conservative who also didn’t stop the Nazis (as an aside no political movement or predilection and no religious conviction protected its adherents from Nazism even though all political movements and predilections as well as religious convictions effectively resisted the Nazis, went on to protest the politically popular red baiting associated with the Wisconsin populist McCarthy.

You might want to argue that McCarthy isn’t your version of populism. Yet, as others have pointed out, you version lacks the important fact that you cannot ground it in an actual existing populist movement.

191

Martin Bento 11.03.09 at 5:24 am

Chris, you keep opposing the populist approaches to the elitist ones, but the two can be complementary. So there is no reason punishment has to exclude regulation. But to blandly assert that no punishment can be effective is wrong; it is regulation whose effectiveness is in doubt. Punishment is how we convetionally deal with wrongdoing, and it is not perfectly effective, but we rely on it because we have found nothing better; in fact, regulation is only going to be effective if it is backed up with punishment in any case. Whether it is possible to design regulations to prevent not just the current problems but others that may emerge is not at all clear. And, no, it was not all Glass-Steigal. AIG would not have been touched by that at all, for example, because insurance companies were not part of the previous crisis, so they were not designed into the regulation. Now we will include them, but if we think we can foresee all posibilities we are kidding ourselves, an occupational hazard of pointy-headedness. I’m all for both, but punishment does not have the tractability problems of regulation. Unless you want fundamental change, in which case: revolution – but you’ll never get that without an angry mob.

192

Martin Bento 11.03.09 at 5:27 am

harry b, has there ever been a successful mass political movement in the United States that was not populist?

193

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.03.09 at 8:14 am

@184 (and the like): If perpetrators of institutionalized loot can expect that when caught, they will lose more than they looted, that right there would help tip the balance toward people being unwilling to try it.

But here you already have some rudimentary structural change, some sort of plan. Populist impulse, as I understand it, is to blame Madoff personally; it’s like this: let’s grab pitchforks, storm the castle, break the gate, tear the bastard into pieces, kill his staff, his family, his dog, his cat, – and then back to the tavern; hopefully the next Count will be a nice man. If I am the next Count, my reaction is: “hmm, need a stronger gate, definitely.”

As Pushkin said somewhere: God save us from a Russian revolt, senseless and merciless. Senseless, you see.

194

Martin Bento 11.03.09 at 8:42 am

No, it isn’t Henri. Look at what Emerson has shown: the populists were the people demanding 40 hour workweeks. The mob with pitchforks is a cartoon drawn by their opponents, and no political entity looks good in that light. It’s funny that the populists are being attacked for demonization, while also being demonized – derogatory accounts by their adversaries being taken as definitive.

195

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.03.09 at 8:50 am

Well, then it’s just a matter of definition. If populism is defined as “building mass-support for meaningful policies”, then why would anyone be against it?

196

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.03.09 at 8:54 am

…but I think that, rather than defending the word, it would be much more interesting to defend “bad” populism, a-la engels 112…

197

Martin Bento 11.03.09 at 8:59 am

Chris, the prevailing problem, though, is not positive-sum situations interpreted as zero-sum by the populace – do you even have a recent example of that? – it is substantially zero sum situations being presented as positive sum by elites. The entire series of economic reforms of the last several decades, which obviously benefited the rich directly, gained popular support largely because the credentialed experts said they would benefit the general public as well – rising tide lifts all boats, and all that. Overall, this has turned out to be quite false. Had the public just taken the attitude you deride – if it’s good for the rich, it must be bad for us – they might not have captured the entire truth either, but they would have been much closer than expert opinion was, and the likely consequence for public policy would have been much better.

And we’re seeing this with Health Care too. Obama is going to make everyone a winner! The Health Insurance companies suport it – they must benefit. Big Pharma supports it – they must benefit. The doctors support it – they must benefit. The deficit won’t go up – so the government isn’t paying a price either. And the consumer is going to benefit immensely, in accordance with big promises. Why do people have trouble understanding or believing this? Because it is transparently horsesh*t! If Health Care Reform passes, someone will get hurt. There may be some efficiencies at the margin, but the situation is substantially zero sum: there is no way all players can benefit (after all, positive sum does not necessarily mean win-win because that depends on distribution, and the amount of good that has been promised to the population exceeds any pure gains available. Someone is going to pay). If people look at this poker hand and do not see who the mark is, they will naturally suspect that they are the mark. And it may end up so, but if it does not it will only be because the insurance industry was the mark instead, and maybe providers too.

The Democratic Party even believed supporting the Iraq War was good for them. Of course, the Republican Party also thought Democratic support was good for them. That was hilarious because electoral contests are intrinsically zero sum: a win for one must be a loss for another. Someone had to be simply wrong, and it was the Democrats. Indeed, to the degree politics amounts to struggles for power it is always zero sum, as power is measured relative to others, and therefore someone can only rise if someone else falls.

198

JoB 11.03.09 at 9:05 am

134, I can dig that, I’m just presently anti-Nutt because I am presently a bit fed up with scientists that invade the public discourse pretending there are suddenly simple issues. Maybe I’m just transforming into an old yuppie overprotective parenting type ;-)

199

JoB 11.03.09 at 9:07 am

And anyway, whatever else may be the case, this isn’t a case of populism and the way it is being portrayed here is populist – although probably for a different populum ;-)

I do dislike my British socialists as well but we really don’t need to be unfair to them to be well-founded in our dislike.

200

JoB 11.03.09 at 9:08 am

And anyway, whatever else may be the case, this isn’t a case of populism and the way it is being portrayed here is populist – although probably for a different populum ;-)

I do dislike my British soci1lists as well but we really don’t need to be unfair to them to be well-founded in our dislike.

201

Walt 11.03.09 at 10:02 am

I’m going to defend John’s positions, since he’s too busy wandering the streets selling indulgences for Nazi guilt.

By the preferred definitions of this thread, the actual historical Populist Party was not populist. They used anti-elite, “people versus the powerful” rhetoric, but that doesn’t distinguish them from other left-wing movements. They were not anti-intellectual, and had a well-developed intellectual program of their own. In many ways, they were a prototype pre-WWI social democratic party, favoring reforms such as the 40-hour work week. They did not have a terrific record on race, but it was not any worse than other American parties of the time.

The fact that “populist” is now a smear in the United States is not an accident, but part of a deliberate political program to disempower average citizens in favor of a technocratic elite, even though American history is full of popular movements that led to positive change. The Democratic party has completely adopted this technocratic-elite-centric view of the proper role of government, and abandoned the use of moralistic, “people versus the powerful” attacks. The result is that the rhetoric, which naturally resonates, is free to be used by the Republicans as a tool to re-enforce elite power.

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John Emerson 11.03.09 at 12:58 pm

If populism is defined as “building mass-support for meaningful policies”, then why would anyone be against it?

I don’t think that anyone has defined it that way. I think the populist idea is that good political ideas can come from the below, from unsanctioned, unofficial, uncredentialed oppositional groups. The Democratic Party leadership does not believe this.

Another aspect of populism is some degree of breaking down the barriers between citizens and government. The Constitution was designed to suppress direct democracy in favor of representataive democracy and various checks and balances, separations of powers, and other stuff learned in eighth grade civics. The two-party system puts another intermediary in there, and usually the parties and candidates deal with voter groups via another layer of intermediaries — interest groups such as unions. Populists generally wanted to get rid of some of those deliberate layers.

Incidentally, when elitist liberal or socialists find that their governments are completely unresponsive and are lying to them,and get angry, they’re in the populist place. The definition of elitism is institutional, not intellectual. To a poltiical leader, a Nobelist is one vote, just like a HS dropout. A famous Nobelist is the equivalent of an comparably famous movie star — one more opinion leader. The difference is that populists understand what’s happening, whereas left intellectuals are baffled.

So you see, my mission (besides absolving Nazis) is to convince liberal intellectuals that they’re People too, salt-of-the-earth folk who are ignored by the powers that be. But few intellectuals think that — they think that they’re unappreciated elitists, like princes switched in the cradle and raised by peasants. They’re sure that some day they will be recognized some day and restored to their rightful status.

The Democratic party’s scrupulous renunciation of populism, demagoguery, and ideology was accompanied by a rehabilitation of graft and corruption. (This was fairly explicit among some of the tough-minded post-WWII “consensus theorists”). What we have now is a spiffy, modern, Ivy-educated Tweed Ring. And the urban bosses, when the chips were down, were reactionary servants of big money. They used some of their graft to help their voters, but supported policies which hurt their voters, and they needed to make sure that whatever help the voters got was distributed by the vote-contractors.

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John Emerson 11.03.09 at 1:17 pm

If populism is defined as “building mass-support for meaningful policies”, then why would anyone be against it?

I don’t think that anyone has defined it that way. I think the populist idea is that good political ideas can come from the below, from unsanctioned, unofficial, uncredentialed oppositional groups. The Democratic Party leadership does not believe this.

Another aspect of populism is some degree of breaking down the barriers between citizens and government. The Constitution was designed to suppress direct democracy in favor of representataive democracy and various checks and balances, separations of powers, and other stuff learned in eighth grade civics. The two-party system puts another intermediary in there, and usually the parties and candidates deal with voter groups via another layer of intermediaries—interest groups such as unions. Populists generally wanted to get rid of some of those deliberate layers.

Incidentally, when elitist liberal or soc*alists find that their governments are completely unresponsive and are lying to them,and get angry, they’re in the populist place. The definition of elitism is institutional, not intellectual. To a poltiical leader, a Nobelist is one vote, just like a HS dropout. A famous Nobelist is the equivalent of an comparably famous movie star —one more opinion leader. The difference is that populists understand what’s happening, whereas left intellectuals are baffled.

So you see, my mission (besides absolving Nazis) is to convince liberal intellectuals that they’re People too, salt-of-the-earth folk who are ignored by the powers that be. But few intellectuals think that— they think that they’re unappreciated elitists, like princes switched in the cradle and raised by peasants. They’re sure that some day they will be recognized some day and restored to their rightful status.

The Democratic party’s scrupulous renunciation of populism, demagoguery, and ideology was accompanied by a rehabilitation of graft and corruption. (This was fairly explicit among some of the tough-minded post-WWII “consensus theorists”). What we have now is a spiffy, modern, Ivy-educated Tweed Ring. And the urban bosses, when the chips were down, were reactionary servants of big money. They used some of their graft to help their voters, but supported policies which hurt their voters, and they needed to make sure that whatever help the voters got was distributed by the vote-contractors.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 11.03.09 at 2:31 pm

I think the populist idea is that good political ideas can come from the below, from unsanctioned, unofficial, uncredentialed oppositional groups.

Participatory democracy is not a populist idea; it seems to be pretty much the opposite of the populist idea. Populist idea is that we all should go kill all the lawyer and everything will be alright again. And if you refuse to kill lawyers, then we should kill you too.

Why do you want to convince liberal intellectuals that they are peasants? They are not peasants. And it’s difficult to convince liberal intellectuals of anything.

Let’s convince peasants that they are liberal intellectuals, it’ll be funnier.

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John Emerson 11.03.09 at 2:42 pm

Henri, where do you get your definition of populism? It’s a figment of bad, tendentious social science done by social scientists who have a vested interest in administrative liberalism (in the US) or social democracy (in Europe).

I am not willing for the word “populist” to be misleadingly used in such a way that no sane human being would ever call himself a populist. There actually have been people who called themselves populists, and some of them were good guys.

Suppose “Catholic” were defined to mean “any idol-worshipper who persecutes Jews”. By the standards of Muslims, Jews, and many Protestants, Catholics are idol-worshippers, and during certain periods many of them persecuted Jews. But that wouldn’t be a valid definition of the word.

Intellectuals are peasants because they’re powerless and whine about it all the time without doing anything about it.

Actually, intellectuals within the system are more like lackeys. My bad, I guess.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 11.03.09 at 2:59 pm

Sometimes I exaggerate slightly, to make a point.

Nevertheless, look at various visual aids of various populist campaigns, even those we don’t particularly disagree with (forget the Nazis): happy laughing landowners riding on the backs of worn-out peasants, fat capitalists in tuxedos on top of sacks of gold coins – that’s what populism is, isn’t it? You’d think they are just cute, but I believe they were designed to be taken quite seriously. Not that anything’s wrong with that necessarily, but that’s a far cry from “good political ideas from the below”.

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John Emerson 11.03.09 at 3:15 pm

Henri, the political cartoons of any political group tend to use a bit of hyperbole. The Populists (properly speaking) did publish some overdone stuff, but their goldbug opponents were equally paranoid and more deluded on the issue.

You are right, however, that I think that populists of today should be outraged at the behavior of finance and of the enablers of finance (including the Obama administration, alas.) This includes anger, exposure, blaming, denunciation, the destruction of reputations, prosecution to the extent possible, the ending of political and business careers, and so on. In addition to that, it should also include structural and legal reforms. There is actually no paradox here. It really is possible for people to walk and chew gum at the same time! That’s not a pomo New Age idea, it’s really true. The choice does not have to be made.

I often find administrative liberal ideas unintelligible, but there does seem to be an idea that no one ever does anything, that no one ever should be blamed, that all events are the result of complex unknowable forces, and so on. That kind of thinking strikes me as silly, pseudo-profound to the point of mysticism and delusion, mad dog positivism, and it also is presumably the result of a nearly- medieval elite solidarity.

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Chris 11.03.09 at 3:21 pm

#196: And we’re seeing this with Health Care too. Obama is going to make everyone a winner! The Health Insurance companies suport it – they must benefit. Big Pharma supports it – they must benefit. The doctors support it – they must benefit. The deficit won’t go up – so the government isn’t paying a price either. And the consumer is going to benefit immensely, in accordance with big promises. Why do people have trouble understanding or believing this? Because it is transparently horsesh*t! If Health Care Reform passes, someone will get hurt. There may be some efficiencies at the margin, but the situation is substantially zero sum: there is no way all players can benefit (after all, positive sum does not necessarily mean win-win because that depends on distribution, and the amount of good that has been promised to the population exceeds any pure gains available. Someone is going to pay).

First of all, the health insurance companies are in fact opposing it tooth and nail, with every weapon at their disposal, by fair means or foul. This has been pretty well reported so I’m surprised you would assert the contrary. Big Pharma would rather be on the bus than under it (and in fact they are giving up a specified slice of price reduction in exchange for being spared any harsher measures for the time being: in other words they *are* losing relative to the status quo and know it, but prefer it to the uncertainty of what they could lose if they hadn’t made a deal). And I think the doctors either haven’t made the connection between unnecessary procedures and the effect of preventive care and their own personal paychecks, or aren’t completely in medicine for the money anyway. (Individual doctors won’t necessarily lose from reducing the total amount of medical procedures performed anyway; there might just be fewer doctors per capita. And they also get a chance to get paid to treat people who are now on the die-in-the-gutter plan, which appeals to both their financial and humanitarian motives.)

Both current bills have substantial tax funding, and the people who will be most affected by those taxes are going to lose and know it. The tax plans are designed for a large majority to be net gainers, which is not impossible or even particularly hard.

More importantly, you are drastically underestimating the efficiency gains that the current system leaves sitting on the table. Compare US health care to practically any other country of similar technological advancement and we spend drastically more money for no better or even worse outcomes. Lack of preventive care and monitoring (and in some cases, any non-emergency-room treatment whatsoever) because it’s too costly to the patient is one of the big problems; another is the sheer paperwork burden of the fragmented funding system; another is the constant attempts to deny care after the fact, shift costly patients onto someone else, shift costs to the participants with the least bargaining power, etc. The current plans aren’t ambitious enough to fully fix these problems but they’re so big that even small forward steps save a lot — mainly in procedures that never need to be done at all because the underlying health problems are less severe if found and fixed earlier (or prevented from developing at all).

I know all this not because I just intuitively feel its rightness, but because I read health care policy wonk blogs. The current system is terrible, but it’s not only and not even mainly because of people looting it (although there are some).

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John Emerson 11.03.09 at 3:28 pm

First of all, the health insurance companies are in fact opposing it tooth and nail, with every weapon at their disposal, by fair means or foul.

They’re hammering it into shape. They’d probably prefer nothing at all, but if there’s going to be something, they’ll work to optimize it. They’ve had a lot of success too.

I agree with whoever you cited. Obama really tied his hands at the beginning by bringing the insurance companies into the game. They’re really going to have to lose; that should be one of the goals.

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Cryptic ned 11.03.09 at 3:47 pm

I often find administrative liberal ideas unintelligible, but there does seem to be an idea that no one ever does anything, that no one ever should be blamed, that all events are the result of complex unknowable forces, and so on. That kind of thinking strikes me as silly, pseudo-profound to the point of mysticism and delusion, mad dog positivism, and it also is presumably the result of a nearly- medieval elite solidarity.

I think it just comes from “economics” becoming synonymous with “logic” in our society. Rortybomb is fond of characterizing economists as people who would respond to feminists by saying “Actually, every advance you’ve made was the result of either The Pill, or the shift from a manufacturing to a service workforce.”

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bianca steele 11.03.09 at 3:56 pm

Tom Bach@165: George Mosse

I know he was very influential, but I found a lot of his work unconvincing, especially when he approached very closely to the bounds of Godwin’s Law, arguing that such and such a writer was in essence a proto-Hitler (which happens to have been where my master’s thesis took me). I think it is telling that his earliest research before moving on to the study of fascism and “the German ideology” was on the Tudors; there is an antimodern, promedievalish strain in some research on the period that I find antiliberal and unappealing despite the effort with which it strains to be liberal in the face of all temptations otherwise. For example, it really should be possible to dislike Wagner, Ibsen, and Nietzsche for political reasons without being accused of Nazi-style censorship, especially in the late nineteenth century–but this gets into questions of political correctness again.

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bianca steele 11.03.09 at 4:00 pm

That should be @185. Also, Mosse left Germany when he was only about fourteen. Maybe he should count as English.

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Alex 11.03.09 at 4:39 pm

John, I think you’ll just have to accept that not everyone uses the word “populism” to denote the same thing you use it to denote. Specifically, it is extremely unlikely you’re going to persuade essentially everyone in Europe to think warm things about the LaFollettes – who nobody in Europe has heard of – when they say it rather than cold things about Jörg Haider. You can’t order people to use your language, and especially not when they don’t necessarily speak the same damn language.

This is a case of the well-known phenomenon that even radical opposition people who are used to being part of a great power tend to think like one.

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Chris 11.03.09 at 10:22 pm

I often find administrative liberal ideas unintelligible, but there does seem to be an idea that no one ever does anything, that no one ever should be blamed, that all events are the result of complex unknowable forces, and so on.

I doubt that there is such an idea. I seem to be the standard bearer for technocracy in this thread (or at least one of several) and I don’t agree with that.

I do, however, believe that human failure and selfishness spring eternal and are responsive to incentives only to a limited degree, and therefore whatever structural changes can limit the damage they can cause are well worth adopting. Crucifying thieves pour encourager les autres can’t compare to the effectiveness of locking the door.

All times and places have some unscrupulous people who practice fraud, but not all of them have Bernard Madoff. The difference between Madoff and a two-bit grifter is not that Madoff is some kind of supergenius of fraud, but the institutions that allowed him to practice on such a scale, for so long, with so little investigation.

I also think that malefactors shouldn’t be tried in the court of public opinion but in the actual courts, which are better suited to the task. The political sphere operates in ways defined by alliances and coalition-building and therefore should be kept as far as possible from determinations of guilt or innocence, which have very little to do with whether or not someone is on your side on any particular issue or in general.

When you put those two together, you get the conclusion that the political sphere should be mainly about rulemaking and structure and leave the particulars of pursuing malefactors to the justice system.

And I believe recent events have proven the folly of allowing politics to control the mechanism of law enforcement. The solution to this problem, in my view, is not merely to hang the individuals responsible from the highest trees available (it might not hurt but that probably shouldn’t be a political decision for reasons already discussed), but to remove from political offices the *power* to influence hiring and firing decisions for particular law enforcement officials. Stronger civil service protection, or possibly moving the Justice Department out of the Executive Branch altogether, could have prevented Bush from doing what he did to the Justice Department no matter how much he wanted to do it.

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harold 11.04.09 at 5:51 am

I believe that John Emerson is correct here in his definition of populism. As I remember it is not a Southern phenomenon but arose in the West as a reaction to the alliance between Southern big agriculture with its ruinous tenant farming and the Wall Street Banks which was immiserating farmers and had driven them westward.

Use of hate rhetoric and government through referendum rather than due process is how I would define demagoguery, not populism.

That grass roots movements can be derailed by demagoguery is a danger, but in fact it is the moneyed interests who typically combin to derail populism (union organizing) in the South and elsewhere by resorting to appeals “to the prejudices, emotions, fears and expectations of the public — typically via impassioned rhetoric and propaganda, and often using nationalist, populist or religious themes.” We see the same at work in the fight against health care with people like Sarah Palin, who did not arise from the grass roots, but was plucked from thence by groups with deep pockets.

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Martin Bento 11.04.09 at 9:26 am

Chris:

“First of all, the health insurance companies are in fact opposing it tooth and nail, with every weapon at their disposal, by fair means or foul. This has been pretty well reported so I’m surprised you would assert the contrary. “

You’re missing the irony. I’m not saying the health companies actually support it, but officially they do. They supported it generically till the Baucus bill didn’t give them everything they wanted, and now they support “bipartisan” – code for triggers – reform. It’s right there on the AHIP website. And that’s the point. Of course, there are losers in health reform, but it’s been presented by the Administration as win-win — an example of the excessive faith in and dishonest promotion of positive sum outcomes, which makes it hard to have the political battles you need to have, because you are pretending the underlying conflicts are not there. And even most of the efficiencies you point to still have losers: paperwork creates jobs for papers pushers which will be lost. It’s still a good thing, but it still has losers.

The overall point which you seemed to have missed is this: you cited as a problem with populism that its view of the world is too zero sum. I counter that the tecnocratic view is unrealistically or dishonestly positive sum, and I’m willing to go to the actual record. The experts told us at each point of the deregulation that, though the direct beneficiaries would be the rich, we would all benefit. They said the same at each tax cut. The said the same at each liberalization of the labor market. Were any of the situations positive sum? It is highly debatable, and all were far more zero sum than presented and arguably negative sum, but with distribution sufficienty skewed so that the elite still benefitted. Had the populace just taken the position you attack: assume zero sum, that what benefits the rich will be to our detriment – they would have still had a highly flawed view of the world, but it would have been more accurate than the one presented them by experts. I don’t advocate such a simplistic approach – positive sum games do exist – but even it would have been preferable to listening to the prevailing economic experts of the past 3 decades or so. Largely because said experts were selling positive sum snake oil.

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Martin Bento 11.04.09 at 9:50 am

Chris, you don’t want any simplification of your position, but your entire attack on populist attributes to them absolute positions not evidently grounded in anything anyone has actually said. Populist resist structural solutions – so how did they have party platforms full of structural proposals. Populists react with emotion not thought.

And I’m all for a more independent judiciary, but we don’t have that. What we have is a judicial system the most elite body of which imposed Bush over Gore despite the will of the ignorant masses as expressed in the popular vote. If you think the reason we have not seen criminal investigations of the ratings agencies for uprating junk, of Goldman for selling overrated bonds and having insurance against them through another subsidiary, of Goldman for frontrunning for that matter, has nothing to do with politics, you are frankly naive. Politics is blocking this, and only politics will move it forward.

Let’s get down to this: what is populism? I would say that populism is the conviction that the interests of the elite and the general population are in conflict to a degree that matters seriously. “Elite” here means primarily the elite that counts – the political and monetary elite, those with actual power. The intellectual elite is a minor adjunct, but usually serves the elite that counts,or some faction of it.

Is it true that there is this conflict? Not always, but it is not necessarily false either. The interest of the elite and the populace coincide when grave threats to the society are present: conquest, evironmental disaster. Both will generally have an interest in technological development, though there are caveats there. But in many cases, the interests are not aligned. In the current situation, the interests of the elite financial class and of the population diverge sharply. For a moment they were probably shared in averting catastrophe, but given how that was achieved and what has happened since, they are not aligned now. But the necessary structural changes will require dramatically disempowering the financial sector and reducing the share of global wealth that it controls. This will not be achieved by tinkering around the edges.

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Martin Wisse 11.04.09 at 11:38 am


The difference between Madoff and a two-bit grifter is not that Madoff is some kind of supergenius of fraud, but the institutions that allowed him to practice on such a scale, for so long, with so little investigation.

Those institutions are people, few of whom had anything to gain by exposing Madoff, as they were busy themselves making money from the lax moral climate that made his fraud possible.

(Madoff is the argument against technocracy, as all those supposedly ubersmart rich people turned out not to recognise a simple pyramid scam…)

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Hidari 11.04.09 at 12:28 pm

There’s a good article here that indicates what the meaning of the word ‘populist’ in the original post was, whatever John Emerson might think.

‘I served on the 2000 police foundation committee on the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, the only exhaustive study of the act ever undertaken. It was set up with the government’s blessing and members included David Nutt, distinguished pharmacologists and two chief police officers. Our conclusions were mild, embracing a redirection of drugs policy towards harm reduction and a partial decriminalisation of cannabis use.

Polling evidence showed a wide gulf between a public desire for toughness on hard drugs on the one hand; and on the other, two-thirds of opinion that regarded cannabis as “least harmful”. An overwhelming majority thought chasing cannabis users was “not a police priority”, and a significant majority, from all ages and social groups, favoured cannabis decriminalisation. That was confirmed in other similar polls.

What happened next was a textbook case of Tony Blair’s governing style. The home secretary, Jack Straw, went ape, reputedly on the instructions of Alastair Campbell, then at the height of his Downing Street ascendancy. They feared that the slightest welcome for the report’s findings might have the government castigated by the rightwing press, of which Campbell lived in perpetual fear. The committee’s chairman, Ruth Runciman, was summoned in advance of publication and castigated by Straw in front of his team, until Mo Mowlam had to suggest it might be better if they all read the document first.

When the report appeared it was well received. The Daily Mail, in a front-page editorial, welcomed it and said it had delivered “a mature and serious national debate”. The Telegraph was even more favourable and criticised Straw for “misjudging the public mood”. The head of the Metropolitan police was supportive.

In other words it was quite untrue that the public and press were opposed to drugs law reform. Realising this, Straw performed a U-turn and was induced, apparently by Campbell, to write an article full of wishy-washy assertions for the News of the World. It warmly welcomed the report and further debate. There was none. The subject was buried.

The incident was a classic example of public policy determined by ministers trying to second-guess Fleet Street.’

This makes it absolutely clear that David Nutt was not sacked because he was ‘populist’ in the American sense. He was, instead, being ‘populist’ in the European sense, which means trying to ‘second guess Fleet Street’ or the extreme right wing press generally (and, in the UK, with the exception of the Mirror, the Guardian and the Independent, all British newspapers are on the hard right). David Nutt does not oppose ‘ordinary people’s’ views on soft drugs. He supports those views.

It’s often been pointed out that the fashionable opinion that Tony Blair was a ‘post-ideological’ PM or ‘wish washy’ or ‘apolitical’ or whatever is about as false a view as you can get. On the contrary, he was an aggressively ideological PM, tirelessly supporting the views of the rich and powerful as opposed to those without power or money, who he openly despised. And Brown follows him in this.

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engels 11.04.09 at 1:01 pm

‘Populist’ refers to the obscure, defunct USian political party; ‘populist’ means a policy which appeals to large numbers of peoples interests or prejudices but is not (necessarily) genuinely leftwing. Does that clear things up?

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JoB 11.04.09 at 1:01 pm

Do you really think the rich & powerful care one way or the other on this issue? Polling is as scientific as it gets in this matter, I guess, even if science would suggest not to rely on polling results from before something hit the new (and consequently the reflections of the people being polled).

I can agree on Blair. As far as Brown goes – wait until he is ousted and Boris can remind David C. who is one of the most popular opinionators.

This is about drugs, not health care reform. Even Marx was quite certain that drugs are popularly understood to be a pejorative term to associate with.

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Walt 11.04.09 at 1:01 pm

Is that really the European definition of “populist”. I’d be curious to hear the history of that usage, if anyone knows anything about it.

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Freshly Squeezed Cynic 11.04.09 at 3:07 pm

All John is trying to do is reclaim a term that he thinks has been unfairly maligned. I think that’s fair enough; on the other hand, I’ll just note that “liberal” was a term that the modern US “left blogosphere” tried to reclaim proudly as a label rather than epithet, but swiftly gave up for “progressive” (and in the process harking back to another late 19th/early 20th century US political movement. Next up, Greenbackers.)

It’s interesting how that use of “progressive” has leaked over to some New Labour politicians and thinktanks in the past year or so; David Miliband seems to be the worst offender. Is there a particular reason for this?

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JoB 11.04.09 at 3:25 pm

Maybe because it is in fact progressive not to hark back to old ideologies and to at least try to find new ones?

Is Milliband banned as well already based on association?

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Chris 11.04.09 at 5:00 pm

I would say that populism is the conviction that the interests of the elite and the general population are in conflict to a degree that matters seriously.

Doesn’t this cover everything other than pure Reaganite trickle-down and maybe the divine right of kings? (That is, if you don’t impose a zero-sum-all-the-time requirement on the conflict.) I find it hard to imagine someone believing that the interests of different classes don’t conflict *at all*, or to only a trivial degree, and only a few people are brazen enough to try to sell that.

The interests of different classes are in conflict in some ways, and in other ways, they’re all in the same boat. The Great Recession is not good for the common man simply because it is bad for elites (and, in fact, the postwar boom was not bad for elites simply because it was good for the common man, either).

If you’re going to define populism that broadly, maybe populism and technocracy aren’t usefully thought of as distinct camps anyway, but as some sort of political Venn diagram, or vaguely defined clouds in a hypothetical space of political positions and/or tactics. After all, there’s nothing in your definition about anti-intellectualism; even though it’s very common in populism, you apparently don’t consider it a requirement.

That suggests that there may be room for some kind of synthesis, but really, I’m not sure what populism brings to the table. When elites really are the problem, examining the facts is sufficient to discover that, and when they’re not, populist convictions can operate as a prejudice and hinder the need to pull together against a threat that isn’t the result of class conflict.

The experts told us at each point of the deregulation that, though the direct beneficiaries would be the rich, we would all benefit. They said the same at each tax cut. The said the same at each liberalization of the labor market.

This is a serious mischaracterization (specifically, the way the use of the phrase “the experts” implies homogeneity). All of those promises were denounced as snake oil, at the time, *by other experts*.

In fact, one of the ways the actual Reaganite movement attempted to discredit experts who refuted their claims was to make populist attacks on them as out-of-touch ivory-tower intellectuals, limousine liberals, nattering nabobs of negativism, etc.

Not all experts are pro-Reagan/Thatcher any more than all populists are Jacobins.

Populism as you have defined it has no means of resolving competing claims. Which problems are being caused by elites and not by external/common threats? Which elites are the problem, and in what way? What should be done about it? Answering those questions calls for knowledge specific to the subject matter of the problem, or in other words, expertise. A conviction that some elite, somewhere, must be causing the problem is too vague to help, and might lead to elites being falsely blamed for problems they aren’t even causing (which, in addition to being unjust, also leaves the real problem unsolved as long as attention remains focused on the scapegoat).

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engels 11.04.09 at 9:41 pm

AN Wilson in the Mail:

The trouble with a ‘scientific’ argument, of course, is that it is not made in the real world, but in a laboratory by an unimaginative academic relying solely on empirical facts.

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harold 11.05.09 at 12:13 am

The Reagan Republcans made made appeals to identity, not interest. That is classic demoguogery.

Henry Wallace is usually referred to as populist and it is his memory that the Democrats are allergic to. Wallace did not specialize in attacks on expert opinion and ivory tower intellectual, as I recall, and neither did Eugene McCarthy, Ralph Nader, of Howard Dean. Au contraire.

Ross Perot was a sort of populist, too, I believe. He appealed to people’s common sense. Whether he really represented common sense is another story, but the point is the sin of these genuine (IMO) populist figures was to attempt to make runs around established political power brokers, not expert opinion.

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Martin Bento 11.05.09 at 1:32 am

But expressing the interest of the population as opposed to those of the elite is exactly how the term is used in American political discourse by the Democratic Party elite and by the press. For example, John Edwards engaged in a modest amount of expressing popular interest that way and, indeed, he was characterized as a “populist” for his troubles (see here, here, and here – or just Google it; there are over a quarter million hits). Obama and Clinton stuck more to “shared prosperity”, but when they did wander softly into stepping slightly on elite toes – e.g., in their mild and forced attacks on NAFTA – those particular statements were characterized as “populist appeals” by the press.

What did they mean by calling Edwards a populist? That Edwards was racist? That Edwards disdained the use of experts? That Edwards wanted to start riots? Of course not. So why should those things be regarded as part of the definition of populism if they do not reflect how the term is actually used (and I do not think you will find any other event of recent years that brought it into anywhere near as wide a use as the Edwards campaign did). They are using the term as I defined it. And if you agree that such a definition has wide applicability, why would you defend the pejorative implications unless you actually think conflicts between elite and popular interests should be obscured?

It may be that John conceded too much by opposing populism to technocracy. The technocracy is largely apologia. For example, most primaries in the US are uncontested, and therefore the candidates are chosen by the local party hacks. These people are not an “intellectual elite” in any serious sense, but technocracy is the justification they use for their power. Likewise, the justification for the “superdelegates” in Democratic primaries is for “wiser heads” to be able to veto the will of the hoi polloi, specifically, in that case, women, gays, hippies, blacks and other groups within the Democratic coalition whose power the Party wished to limit. This is what technocracy actually means in practice.

Populism as I have defined it has no resolution of competing claims built into the definition. It is rather ridiculous to expect it to. But you seem to think it is a clever rhetoric move to find some point at which expert opinion would be useful and treat that as a trump card against populism. But I never said expert opinion should not be consulted, neither did Edwards, neither did the Populist Party. You just keep reassembling the same straw man.

What the populists bring to the table is a counterbalance to the interest of the elite. The problem with saying that the intellectual elite will independently assess where various interests lie is 1) that the intellectual elite does not live on an asteroid where they have no vested interests in what goes on, and 2) even if the intellectual elite comes to the conclusion that some policy favors the monetary elite at the expense of the public, the intellectual elite lacks the political power to counter monetary or political elite interest. The intellectual elite pretty much only has power when the political elite is behind it, and even then the power is limited. One of the key tasks of populism is to develop an intelligentsia that is not so beholden to elite interests. This is what we seem to have seen particularly in economics. Yes, universities create some degree of intellectual independence, but experts who want to be heard beyond the walls of ivy have to learn to play in other kinds of venues.

From the early 80’s until last year, economic liberalism was the broad consensus of the profession. Yes, there were dissenters, but if the expert views that count are only those with no dissent whatsoever among experts, then they will be restricted to very non-controversial areas and of little use to resolving controversies. Even now there are almost no liberal economists willing to challenge the conclusions drawn from the Volcker era. And as Krugman lays out the landscape, both the fresh and salt water economists favored liberalization, but the salts had more caveats. This is consistent with the expressed views of people like Romer and Delong, who praise Volcker and who mostly praised Greenspan at the time. Economists who now object strongly to the liberalization, like Stiglitz, did so slightly if at all at the time, and that is by Stiglitz’ own account. The economic profession had achieved general agreement on market liberalism, and dissenting voices were treated as fringe.

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harold 11.05.09 at 2:30 pm

The only slight point of disagreement I have with Martin Bento is the use of the word “elite”, which I think has become a demogoguic word, if there can be such a thing, since it seems excessively value laden.

He is quite right that Edwards is the perfect example of a populist — who can spring up from everywhere.

I do think it is entrenched power groups rather than elites that populists should be described as opposing. Look, everyone really loves elites (sort of by definition). They are the society’s prize winners. The best. Let’s not dignify entrenched interest groups , whoever they may be, with that appellation. And it’s really sad that we have invidiously taken to using that term for college professors, whose “power,” such as it is, (in hiring and firing each other, giving marks, etc.) has a rather limited social reach.

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Chris 11.05.09 at 7:16 pm

I think that Martin sweeps a lot of expert dissent against Reagan/Thatcher policies under the rug in order to paint them as a consensus of experts rather than a facade of hacks (or possibly equivocates between a relatively bland, minimal form of “market liberalism” and the extreme forms advocated by those two politicians), but other than that, our differences may be largely semantic and we may have to agree to disagree on what to characterize as “populist”, “technocractic”, “expert”, and/or “elite”.

In particular, “One of the key tasks of populism is to develop an intelligentsia that is not so beholden to elite interests.” is incomprehensible (as self-contradictory, because the intelligentsia *is* an elite interest and frequently attacked by what-I-understand-to-be-populism as such) unless at least one of those words is being used to mean something other than I ordinarily understand it to mean.

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Harold 11.05.09 at 9:31 pm

In what way are the “intelligensia” an elite interest? I mean, who are they exactly, and what is meant by “elite”.

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Martin Bento 11.06.09 at 7:36 pm

Sorry not to get back to this sooner. Since we seem to be coming to an understanding (how often does that happen in blog debates?), let me try to pin this down a bit further. Chris, of course the discussion is semantic because it has become a discussion of what the word” populism” means or should mean and whether it should keep its pejorative implications. Here’s the problem with just “agreeing to disagree” on a definition: so long as those implications are respected, the media can engage in rhetorical slippage. What I’ve seen, for example, on CNBC, an American business network, is for advocates of remedies to the financial crisis that Wall Street will not like – including structural changes, as well as punitive measures against the current malefactors – to be characterized as “populist”, which is fair enough by my definition, the definition by which Edwards fits. The media can claim to be consistent in using this definition because it did use that term for Edwards. Once the term is in place, the implications of your definition are freely borrowed to treat that position as intrinsically irrational and dangerous, no argument needed, because it is true by definition. I wouldn’t be surprised if The Economist also plays this game, probably more subtly, though I haven’t read it in years, so that is just a supposition.

As for “elite”, this too is a term whose multiple meanings can be conflated for dishonest political effect. I tried to thread this needle by referring to the political, monetary and intellectual elites. By my view, the elites to which populism is opposed are the first two, which are in fact usually aligned, though if not I think populism would side with the government against the rich – it did with Long, for example. The intellectual elite is necessary to all sides, but is often institutionally tied to elite interests, which presents some problems. But I don’t see populism as intrinsically opposed to intellectuals. Certainly, that is not true of John Edwards. I think John Emerson has argued well (and no one has really tried to refute this here, though some have simply called it false or misleading) that is was not true of the historical Populists from which the term derived. So why is that considered by some part of the term? Because of Hofstadter and his intellectual allies? But there seems to be a consensus that Hofstader’s treatment of Populism was unfair, so why are we so committed to its implications?

I think it would be best not to refer to intellectuals as an “elite”, but that meaning is well-established, not intrinsically invalid, and rather well-liked by many intellectuals. But the elite that populism opposes – the “elite that counts”, as I put it – is those who actually hold power, counting money as a form of power, usually the prevailing form of power, which it is. If intellectuals call themselves an elite, they still should not hear “to hell with Wall Street” as “let’s burn down the library!” – in that case, they truly have become too identified with the monetary elite.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.06.09 at 8:52 pm

Chris @117: I do sort of wonder what is left of populism to which the name can sensibly be applied, if you’re going to steer clear of anti-intellectual appeal to gut checks and paranoid-style conspiracy theories about the inherent perfidy of elites.

Me @131: Wondered when that one [paranoid-style conspiracy theories about the inherent perfidy of elites] would be wheeled out. An excellent addition to any serious conversation. Thanks, Hoff.

Chris @161: Uh, did you perhaps miss the qualifier “inherent”? I thought it was pretty important. Some particular elites are perfidious, but they should be opposed on the basis of their actual deeds, not merely their elite status. Otherwise you end up with populist (or pseudo-populist?) rage against people who are trying to help.

Recalcitrance, eh? My rebuke was that ‘Paranoid style’ is a crude slur and so, less obviously, is ‘conspiracy theory’, the use of which no longer bears much relation to the plain, compositional meaning of that phrase. Drop the slurs, which you do not mention (thus indirectly acknowledging that their use was attributive rather than referential*), then we can discuss whether ‘Populism’ tends to rely on positing ‘the inherent perfidy of elites’.

Such a discussion should clarify how much weight (and what meaning) you intend to place on the word ‘inherent’, whether you are talking about perfidy of a group and/or the individuals who embody it, and how much (or how many layers of) self-awareness are required for behaviour to count as manifesting perfidy. And of course whether you suggest that populism really adverts to a universal (perhaps what you mean by ‘inherent’) theory of elite perfidy, rather than specific claims about particular elites’ behaviour.

*i.e. a univocal paraphrase might be: ‘theories about the inherent perfidy of elites (which are, by the way, paranoid style conspiracy theories)’, rather than: ‘theories which are not only about the inherent perfidy of elites but are also paranoid style conspiracy theories.’

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Chris 11.06.09 at 10:28 pm

@233: By “inherent perfidy of elites” I meant a theory that *every* member of an elite is, necessarily, perfidious and therefore membership in an elite is, by itself, sufficient proof of perfidy to justify whatever anti-elite activity the populists are advocating. I think that *is* a paranoid-style conspiracy theory, for exactly the reasons I said @161, and that therefore those terms are not unfair slurs the way I used them.

Several people have urged that this is not a necessary characteristic of populism, which is what prompted my question @117 that you quoted.

Under Martin’s definition of “populism”, then certainly there are populists who are neither practitioners of the paranoid style nor trafficking in conspiracy theories, and therefore, if you adopt that definition, Hofstadter looks rather unfair. But then aren’t you interpreting Hofstadter under a definition other than the one he was using? That seems to me like creating a straw-Hofstadter.

IOW, if Hofstadter was talking about a narrow meaning of populism involving more torches and pitchforks, saying “But there are populists that aren’t like that!” using your own broader meaning of populism seems to me to miss the point and be an unfair critique. Such are the perils of semantic disconnect.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.06.09 at 11:12 pm

What conspiracy? What paranoia?

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Harold 11.06.09 at 11:17 pm

I just read an article by a native of Sweden who explained in passing that in Europe “populist” connotes the right, and in America the left.

As I am an American I had no idea that in Europe the word implied right wing.

A third meaning is that inherited from 19th century Russian Marxists, among whom “populism” referred to a movement of idealistic upper-class young people “going to the [agricultural] people”. This the Bolsheviks s considered a form of misguided Romantic idealism, since they believed that Scientific Providence (on whose side they were) had decreed the industrial urban proletariat the vanguard of revolution, not the ignorant and backward peasants.

I still don’t understand who the “elite” are. Do you have to draw a salary to be one?

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Martin Bento 11.07.09 at 11:52 pm

Well, the legitimacy of Hofstadter’s ideas in and of themselves is a whole other complicated discussion. I don’t have a lot of time right now, and I think this thread is petering out (even Emerson is gone, I think) and going to be closed soon anyway. Suffice it to say, it is true that nothing I said in the last few comments necessarily implies a critique of Hofstadter himself, just of how his ideas are applied to the current political discourse, That said, there is a lot wrong with Hofstadter himself.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.08.09 at 2:36 pm

I still don’t understand who the “elite” are. Do you have to draw a salary to be one?

No, you just have to be sufficiently powerful*, really. I’d say ‘Elite’ is more or less a mealy-mouthed way of saying ‘ruling class’ – updated to sound more meritocratic (don’t get me started on ‘meritocratic’) and less Marxian. ‘Intellectual elite’ is kinda metaphorical or analogical, if it means much at all.
————————————————————-

*No smart remarks, please, about power corrupting (fostering perfidy?), nor of the need for ruthlessness (perfidy?) in getting it. That would, according to Pollyanna Chris, be paranoid-conspiracism – which, as the sound of the words tells you, is bad. It has nothing to do with paranoia though, and doesn’t imply any imputation of conspiracy, so feel free to substitute your own wooly folk-sociological sneer term.

Hint: if your sneer comes under scrutiny, you can always make it seem more plausible by narrowing its scope on an ad hoc basis. Never mind that this will probably undermine your wider point – with any luck that won’t be widely noticed or remembered. Suggested method: claim to have used a special meaning of a term, e.g. ‘populism’, or ‘communist’, whereby it covers only that subpopulation which conforms to your generalisation (e.g. pitchfork-wielding morons, well-informed supporters of Stalin). Ideally, you can turn any sentence into a tautology by pretending that the predicate is also part of the subject (‘Islamists are evil’ is tautologous as long as you are willing to assume that no-one non-evil can count as an Islamist).

This is not ideal if anyone is paying attention, not only because you reach the unassailable heights of tautology only insofar as you remove substantial content, but also because the appeal to idiosyncratic usage tends to be rather unconvincing. The latter problem at least can be mitigated if you start with a term having no clear meaning, like ‘inherent perfidy of elites’. Readers will tend to charitably assume a plausible reading, given the intended scope (in this case, candidates for basic tenet of all or most ‘anti-elite’ popular movements). This will leave plenty of room for plausibly finessing the point later. You can just interpret your candidate as a sufficiently implausible tenet (ignoring the fact that this makes it a less plausible candidate too), for sneering to become acceptable. In this case, an interpretation like ‘a theory that every member of an [=any?] elite is, necessarily, perfidious’ might be sufficiently overstated, especially if ‘perfidious’ is read as entailing a strong tendency to self-conscious betrayal of acknowledged loyalties, and ‘necessarily’ is given the syntactically-indicated scope.

“I do sort of wonder what is left of populism to which the name can sensibly be applied, if you’re going to steer clear of anti-intellectual appeal to gut checks and the theory that every member of any elite has, of his nature, a strong tendency to consciously betray acknowledged loyalties.”

And still – what paranioia? What conspiracy?

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Martin Bento 11.08.09 at 5:53 pm

Well, Tim, you are opening the whole can of worms on Hofstadter there, while I’m thinking this thread is going to close any minute. Just to clarify my last comment: I said that nothing in my recent comments was an attack on Hofstadter per se. I see now that Chris was probably referring to my comment that there was a consensus that Hofstadter was unfair to Populism. That was the upshot I got from the discussion between Alpers and Emerson upthread. What I meant is that my own argument in that last few comments, about the rhetorical games made possible by the multiple meanings of “populist”, is independent on any attack on Hofstadter’s ideas as such. Nonetheless, I have many objections to Hofstadter’s ideas as such.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.09.09 at 2:45 am

testing after failed post….

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Tim Wilkinson 11.09.09 at 2:48 am

Martin, I certainly have no argument with your comments, nor a great deal to say about the specifics of Hofstadter’s more serious writings. I’m just on a mission to eliminate the facile use of ‘conspiracy theory’ (and the more spec1alised but basically similar ‘paranoid style’, ‘cultic milieu’ etc), which people often assume they have a good enough handle on to use in serious discussion, but which are actually little more than name-calling – and amazingly effective at closing down debate. Chris – perhaps somewhat unfairly – bore the – eminently bearable – brunt of my irritation at the general phenomenon.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.09.09 at 2:49 am

If illustration is needed, just News-Google ‘conspiracy theory’ and you will get plenty of hits, relating to anything from humdrum allegations of simple sharp practice to full-on domestic covert action theories.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.09.09 at 2:51 am

test…

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Tim Wilkinson 11.09.09 at 2:53 am

hough there is no suggestion (nor general recognition) that a ‘conspiracy theory’ need be anything more than a theory about a conspiracy,

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Tim Wilkinson 11.09.09 at 2:55 am

Clearly a conspiracy to prevent these important remarks from being posted

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Tim Wilkinson 11.09.09 at 2:58 am

…need be anything more than a theory about a conspiracy, they will all presume that a CT must be false or highly questionable – and usually that believing one (partial credence is not recognised as an option) reflects major personal deficiencies, often with the insinuation that they are borderline mental-health issues (cf ‘paranoid style’).

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Tim Wilkinson 11.09.09 at 2:59 am

An example I remember from I trying this a while ago this was the cut internet cables in the middle east in Feb 08. MSM reports mentioned unspecified ‘conspiracy theories’ in passing, end of story. I on the other hand think it eminently reasonable to suppose that these cables were in fact cut in order to disrupt the launch of the Iranian petrodollar-free oil bourse. Why bother? I don’t know, and it’s not very consequential. Maybe just a general harrying policy, maybe a failed attempt at something else, maybe a play for time, who knows. What do know is that undersea cables do not cut themselves and are generally placed so as not to be cut accidentally, that some action against the Iranian outrage by pro-US actors was very likely, and that sending a guy down to cut some cables is an utterly anodyne example of international politics carried on by unexceptional means. But in the MSM, this strong possibility was never even mentioned in any detail, just indirectly dismissed by reference to unspecified CTs.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.09.09 at 2:59 am

Actually, that’s not quite true – I’ve just looked it up again, and the Australian ABC News has a story in which CTs are reported in at least lukewarm tones, even mentioning the US and Israel as mooted culprits, along with Iran as target (though not the specific motive I regard as plausible: the Iranian oil bourse, Saddam’s petro-Euro and the Axis of Anti-hegemonic Currency Choices is never* mentioned). In a way this may even be a derived phenomenon in which a reporter who does give credence to a theory can report it under cover of calling it a ‘conspiracy theory’, and not being too detailed. Call that cake-and-eat-it, but I think it’s kinda plausible (note the wild-eyed fundamentalism there). I haven’t looked into how well the reporter’s career has gone since then, though. He may be in danger of seeming a bit ‘shrill’ or ‘credulous’ or ‘unserious’ or ‘not a safe pair of hands’. To retain yet guzzle more cake, I would add that Aus may be sufficiently remote for such stories to pass as being about Foreigners – in which case, all sorts of theories – poisoned sushi, vote fraud, you name it – can be discussed without embarrassment.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.09.09 at 3:00 am

In any case the attitude I report is a prevalent one, *not entirely exceptionless. The business of keeping things semi-secret (hence ‘plausible deniability’ rather than ‘total indetectability’) is an interesting one in itself – I’m toying with using epidemiology and prevention of infection as an analogy – ‘sterility’ only needs to be below a certain threshhold, not total. (Also esoteric/exoteric, etc – the Iranian oil bourse was of course mentioned – briefly – in semi-insider publications like the Financial Times.)

Of course all this could sound rather ‘conspiracy-minded’, when saner folk are more ‘coincidence-minded’ or ‘cock-up-minded’. I don’t actually regard it as just a matter of master plans – and not at all a matter of master plans of the vast, ancient, all-encompassing, omnipotent, monolithic, occult, extra-terrestrial etc varieties. But for now I’ll leave the models of merely quasi- or partly- conspiratorial media control to the Glasgow Media Group, uncle Noam Chomsky and all.

Well they are about all, actually, as far as I have been able to discover without current Athens credentials. If anyone can recommend any reasonably rigorous readings in sociology, psychology – or whatever – dealing with informal, distributed, unconscious, emergent, or otherwise non-smoky-room-based group action (‘quasi-conspiracy’) in the media or anywhere else, please please speak now. I don’t really include 70s-vintage Marxian a prioricities about class action since these seem to lack microfoundations – and for the most part empirical rigour. I am, though, willing to have my mind changed on that, and indeed – to seat myself more firmly on my high epistemic horse – on anything else.

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Tim Wilkinson 11.09.09 at 3:04 am

In any case the attitude I report is a prevalent one, *not entirely exceptionless. The business of keeping things semi-secret (hence ‘plausible deniability’ rather than ‘total indetectability’) is an interesting one in itself. I’m toying with epidemiology and prevention of infection as an analogy – ‘sterility’ only needs to be below a certain threshhold, not total. (Also esoteric/exoteric, etc – the Iranian oil bourse was of course mentioned – briefly – in semi-insider publications like the Financial Times.)

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Tim Wilkinson 11.09.09 at 3:07 am

some very odd stuff going on with unexplained failed posts and now moderation. What a frightful bore.

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