Sunday, June 26, 2016

Does populism mean letting the rabble run amok?

"We are told we are entering a period of economic nationalism and right wing populism. We see it in the UK with Brexit, in the USA with Trumpism and in other nations and regions with their own unique inflections. From others we hear this is simply a tantrum or irrationality, perhaps a generalized breakdown of trust in elites. These are each true to a degree." - Josh Marshall, The Big Picture on Trumpism and Brexit Isn't What You Think TPM 06/24/2016

In another post the same day on Brexit, Marshall makes this self-revealing comment, "If you've read my editors' blog posts over the years, you likely know that I am at heart a small-c conservative and instinctive institutionalist. There are up and down sides to that way of approaching the world. But it's a posture that colors my reactions to most things." - Feel the Foreboding

And he ends that post:

But as I said, rapid, disintegrative change seldom goes smoothly. Wars destroy wealth and well-being on a scale no recession or economic collapse can hold a candle to. It leads to strife and dislocation, low-trust rather than high-trust international relations which bedevil the economic and physical welcome being of ordinary people. To paraphrase the curse, you don't want to live in interesting times. This sets the stage for interesting times.
This kind of essentially conservative fear of instability heavily colors conventional commentary on populism.

Peter Worsley's brief article on Populism Oxford Reference (2004) observes that,"at its very loosest, the term has been applied to any political leader or movement able to mobilize support on a wide scale, for instance Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan." This is particularly a problem for mainstream American commentators, who may count any folksy election slogan as "populism."

Worsley recalls the original American version this way:

Historically, the term “populism” was used in the United States in the 1890s to describe the People's Party, the most powerful in a series of similar movements, such as the Grangers of the 1870s and 1880s, which sought to represent the interests of small farmers, especially in the West. Between 1860 and 1890, this sector nearly tripled in size. But their lives were governed by the industrialized East, which controlled the commodity markets, the prices that farmers had to pay for agricultural inputs, the banks they depended on for credit, the agencies that stored the grain, the grain exchanges that purchased it, and the railroads that transported it. The protracted depression of the last decades of the century drove farmers into politics: To them, the two major established political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, between them, put the power of the state at the disposal of the dominant economic interest groups. In the 1892 presidential election, the People's Party polled a million votes. Four years later, in order to appeal to nonfarmers, the party platform was widened to include another populist theme pioneered by movements like the Greenbackers—monetary reform. The addition of “free silver” to its program brought the People's Party candidate in the 1896 presidential election, William Jennings Bryan, to within half a million votes of victory.
The Populism entry (2015) by André Munro in the venerable Encyclopædia Britannica takes a conventional view that recalls the radical movement associated with William Jennings Bryan and the Populist Party as a quaint relic of more innocent days:

In its most democratic form, populism seeks to defend the interest and maximize the power of ordinary citizens, through reform rather than revolution. In the United States the term was applied to the program of the Populist Movement, which gave rise to the Populist, or People’s, Party in 1892. Many of the party’s demands were later adopted as laws or constitutional amendments (e.g., a progressive tax system).
But later populism, in the view taken by Munro, is a generally disreputable business:

In its contemporary understanding, however, populism is most often associated with an authoritarian form of politics. Populist politics, following this definition, revolves around a charismatic leader who appeals to and claims to embody the will of the people in order to consolidate his own power. In this personalized form of politics, political parties lose their importance, and elections serve to confirm the leader’s authority rather than to reflect the different allegiances of the people. In the second half of the 20th century, populism came to be identified with the political style and program of Latin American leaders such as Juan Perón, Getúlio Vargas, and Hugo Chávez. Populist is often used pejoratively to criticize a politician for pandering to a people’s fear and enthusiasm. Depending on one’s view of populism, a populist economic program can therefore signify either a platform that promotes the interest of common citizens and the country as a whole or a platform that seeks to redistribute wealth to gain popularity, without regard to the consequences for the country such as inflation or debt.
Yascha Mounk takes a similarly conventional view in "Pitchfork Politics: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy," Foreign Affairs Sept/Oct 2014. He focuses on present-day movements, including those he sees as rightwing populists (Nigel Farage of UKIP in Britain, past, Thilo Sarrazin in Germany, Golden Dawn in Greece, Marine Le Pen in France, Sarah Palin) as well as leftwing ones (Occupy Wall Street, the Five Star Movement in Italy, the now-ruling Syriza Party in Greece). He gives a disclaimer, "Despite the similarities among all populists, the word "populist" is a neutral description: not every populist movement has to be bad for democracy." But, it seems that Both Sides Do It!

Economic populists [which he identifies as the left populists] falsely believe that taking entrenched interests down a peg would be enough to return to the golden days of the recent past. But saving the generous welfare states of North America and western Europe will require a new approach, not a dogged defense of the unsustainable status quo. In denying this messy reality, left-wing populists are just as misguided as their right-wing counterparts.
Mounk raises some appropriate cautions about simplistically identifying the "populist" constituency with those affected by economic troubles.

But he doesn't surmount the challenge facing very much of the discussion about populism: what are the actual common elements of the various movements and groups he identifies as populist? And how meaningful is it to lump a nationalist/xenophobic party like France's National Front and the anarchist-inspired Occupy Wall Street, which created an influential protest that left no direct organizational successor?

He wisely steers clear of a detailed lists of identifying characteristics of populism in favor of some broad themes, like this from the first paragraph:

[Populism is an] attempt by ambitious politicians to mobilize the masses in opposition to an establishment they depict as corrupt or self-serving. From Tiberius Gracchus and the populares of the Roman Senate, to the champions of the popolo in Machiavelli's sixteenth-century Florence, to the Jacobins in Paris in the late eighteenth century, to the Jacksonian Democrats who stormed nineteenth-century Washington-all based their attempts at mass mobilization on appeals to the simplicity and goodness of ordinary people. By the mid-twentieth century, populism had become a common feature of democracy.
There's an important "tell" in that definition anticipating the conclusion which is the actual point of the article, reflected in the title phrase, "threat to liberal democracy." The word Populist does come from Latin. But it was first applied to the American Populist movement of the late 19th century. Lumping those various movements from a couple of millennia together frames the essay to make a broad, essentially conservative point about the danger of the rabble. I do like his lumping Jacksonian democracy in with the Jacobins and the rest. But I'm sure he didn't mean it as a compliment!

Mounk is not so much arguing that populism represents a threat to liberal democracy as a threat to liberalism in a democracy, liberalism as in Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham. He elaborates his working definition a bit more later in the essay:

... the rising populist parties on both sides of the Atlantic and within Europe are linked not by a set of specific policy proposals but rather by a shared set of core concerns, expressed in a language of outrage against the status quo and the political elites who maintain it.

Populists give voice to such resentment with a repertoire of strikingly similar slogans and tropes. ...

Although the specifics vary, the populists all argue that current policies favor a minority at the cost of the majority. They all claim that elites, through formal mechanisms or social pressure, censor certain kinds of political speech. The reason for this censorship, they all insinuate, is that the political establishment wants to stop the majority from finding out what the minority is really like and to what extent that minority is being favored by current policies. Now, at long last, the populists proclaim, somebody willing to stand up for the people has arrived on the political scene and will fight for the silent majority by enacting policies that favor them. [my emphasis]
But even here in such a general context, one can detect the strain involved in lumping far-right xenophobia with protesters against the power of the One Percent and their banks and corporations.

But Worsley in the article cited above notes, "Those disillusioned with populism have often shifted to a more class-based radicalism or, more commonly, to an ethnic-based opposition. Yet the populist ideal of a society run in the interests of the common people retains its appeal to a wide range of people." Worsley seems that to take the core theme of populism as defending the common people against the elites, and distinguishes them from class-based movements and parties like traditional socialists or traditional conservative parties who present themselves as defenders of Big Capital or small business. He also seems to exclude more frankly ethnic-based politics from his concept of populism. Worsley gives these examples relating to such distinctions:

The dual hostility of populists to both capitalist “Big Business” and to “scientific” socialism also emerged in two movements in adjoining farming provinces of Canada between the two world wars. Both were responses to the depression of the 1930s, but the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which controlled the province of Saskatchewan until the post–World War II epoch, and Social Credit, in Alberta, were very different in orientation. The CCF not only brought grain-storage and agricultural supplies under provincial parastatal agencies, but also organized insurance, transport, and much of general retail trade on a cooperative basis. Social Credit, by contrast, saw the solution to the province's problems in the monetary nostrums of Major Douglas. Again, whereas Getúlio Vargas of Brazil developed themes borrowed from Italian fascist corporatism, in Argentina the much more radical Peronist movement — which still persists to this day — was based on organizing the mass of the poor urban workers into powerful trade unons. Their claim to represent the common people was expressed in Evita Perón's idealization of the descamisados, the “shirtless ones.” [emphasis in original]
Mounk in his conclusion frames his rejection of populism as essentially a defense not so much of democracy as of political and economic neoliberalism:

But the reality is that many of the problems left-wing populists point out have arisen out of large-scale forces, such as technological innovation, demographic changes, and economic globalization. The rise of digital technologies and increasingly well-educated work forces in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, for example, has reduced global demand for North American and western European labor. Similarly, public pension systems are under pressure not solely because politicians lack the will to finance them properly but also because Western societies are rapidly aging: in 1960, Italy's population had a median age of 31.2; by 2020, it is projected to be 46.2.
This is stock neoliberal cant. High unemployment and under-performing economies are due to the impersonal and nonpolitical forces of Technology and the Global Market, both understood as something like Fate, something beyond the reach of any legitimate democratic governmental policies. Also, the aging society stuff is part of the usual sales pitch for privatizing pensions systems like Social Security in the United States.

For those who wish to usher in a new period of relative democratic stability, the challenge will be to harness the passion of the populists to the cause of reinvigorating governance, but without helping them kindle the flames of an antidemocratic revolt. In the realm of economic policy, this means addressing the generational decline in living standards that has provided populists with such fertile ground. The leaders of affluent democracies must commit themselves to two goals that are often assumed to conflict: wealth redistribution and economic modernization.
Addressing "wealth redistribution" in the neoliberal lexicon means promoting trickle-down economic theories. Because a rising tide lifts all boats, doncha know? Economic modernization for neoliberalism means lower wages and benefits, hostility to labor unions, fewer job protections, and deregulation of banks and corporations. We can't letting the (sniff!) common people interfere with any of that, now can we? Mounk makes that clear. He says, oh, we should think about taxing wealth more. "But first, governments have to create the conditions for growth. Especially in southern and western Europe, politicians will have to take deeply unpopular steps, including raising the retirement age and loosening labor regulations." And after we get that shoved down the throats of the "common people," we'll raise taxes on wealthy. Honest to gosh we will! We pinky-swear!

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