Saturday, October 22, 2016

Populism and authoritarianism

Donald Trump's victory in the Republican primaries against more established figures like JEB! Bush and Marco Rubio, along with the phenomenon of a Jewish socialist giving Hillary Clinton a serious challenge in the Democratic primaries, has set a lot of people to talking about "populism" as more than a throwaway term.

Some of this chatter has been considerably more substantial than others, of course. Before 2016, the operative definition of populists for most pundits seemed to be something along the lines of "a politician saying something that you wouldn't expect an investment banker to say in polite company."

Michael Kazin, who definitely does not take such a simplistic view, wrote in The Populist Persuasion: An American History (1998) of George Wallace's populist style, that Wallace displayed a:

... canny regard for the particulars of wage-earning, small-property-holding white society. No fatuous abstractions about "labor" or "workers" or "the middle class" for him; Wallace, unlike most mainstream politicians, fondly named the specific kinds of (white) Americans for whom he claimed to speak, thereby dignifying their occupations and honoring their anonymous lives: "the bus driver, the truck driver, the beautician, the fireman, the policeman, and the steelworker, the plumber, and the communications worker, and the oil worker and the little businessman .... " It was a tactic [that labor leader] Sam Gompers, who never doubted the link between one's craft and one's politics, might have appreciated.
But the standard pundit attitude that there's something distasteful about seeing politicians have to talk to people in any terms other than those commonly used in Beltway insider gossip doesn't prevent those same pundits for claiming to speak for those salt-of-the-earth white folks. The corporate media figures are forever exhorting themselves to pay more attention to the needs of those people, who the pundits say fell forgotten and ignored and so appreciate someone like Donald Trump paying attention to them.

Because the concerns of white guys just aren't adequately addressed by the media. Or something.

Now it's true that the mainstream media is out of touch with the real conditions of the majority of the American people, white and otherwise. But their recurring hand-wringing over ignoring the Real Americans to whom Sarah Palin and Donald Trump are so appealing never seems to get much further than confidently delivering pronouncements of supposed worldly wisdom like suggesting that enforcement of anti-discrimination laws might not be deferential enough to white men, or complaining that women's-rights advocates should look for common ground with antiabortion fanatics for whom the only common ground is banning all abortions no matter matter what. Pay equity? Thinking white cops shouldn't shoot unarmed black men to death for no good reason? Well, the pundits tell themselves, we must remember the delicate feelings of white guys who think p***y-grabbing is their natural right and that black people should be gunned down just to remind them who the Real Americans are.

This is the media background against which discussions of populism take place.

The political junkie's gossip site Politico offers a piece by Yascha Mounk warning that Yes, American Democracy Could Break Down 10/22/2016.

He sets up the article with this reassuring consideration, "As much as [Trump's] critics wring their hands, however, a consensus has emerged that even if Trump were elected, the American system would survive it. We have the rule of law. We have checks and balances. If Trump overshot the bounds of his authority, the system would constrain his actions in much the way it has on occasion done to past Presidents from John Adams to Barack Obama."

Presumably he expects his readers to wonder just as you're doing right now: Say what? A Republican Congress would exercise checks and balances against a Republican President?! You're joking, right?

Yes, he's kind of joking. He follows up directly with, "But would it? The uncomfortable truth is: We can’t be so sure. For the past three years, I’ve been studying the way in which populists use democratic elections to undermine liberal protections like the rule of law — and what I’ve found is that modern democracies, including America’s, are far more vulnerable to hostile takeover than you might think."

He proceeds to warn, "there’s now no question that a future populist of [Trump's] ilk, with more discipline and less personal baggage, could take an even more serious run at the White House. And what Trump is exposing is just how fragile our system might be if that happens."

Here is the point I start to look for an identification of populism with anti-democratic, rightwing populism. Such an identification is what the supporters of neoliberal economics in the EU employ to discredit any kind of criticism of the neoliberal conventional wisdom that forms a widespread policy consensus among economic and political elites. In that polemical approach, populism=rightwing populism=demagoguery=hostility to democracy.

But Mounk's argument here isn't specifically about populism. It's about the potential for a dictatorial-minded President to abuse the authority of the office to stifle democratic processes and the rule of law. And how with sufficient collusion and indifference across the board, from the various actors in the institutions constituting the balance and separation of powers to the people themselves, it's certainly possible.

As he puts it in his conclusion, "In the end, it therefore seems likely that America’s remarkable stability has depended on both an ingenious institutional set-up and a deep commitment to democratic norms."

This is true. And if we had something like a press corps that practiced journalism as their main profession, it would be widely understood as a banal point.

And speaking of the press, that's a huge omission in Mounk's presentation here. The continuing and worsening tendency of the corporate press to act as cheerleaders of power, and more specifically of power in the form of conducting wars and promoting measures to increase the comfort of the most comfortable, represents a failure of a key non-governmental set of institutions, the press companies themselves. The press has a key role in the functioning of a democracy. And the more that role is twisted to the service of the already wealthy and powerful, the more it magnifies the democratic deficits of American government.

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