What do terrific writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Bill Simmons, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Adam Gopnik, Fareed Zakaria, Jared Diamond, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Slavoj Zizek, and Judith Butler have in common? I mean, besides putting on their pants one leg at a time. Or having hair. Or…okay, for the sake of this piece:
1) They’re role models of applied erudition (to me).
2) They’ve published books and contemporary articles (like me).
3) Though they often discuss the news, they rarely do so at a level of shrill partisan advocacy or as clever insiders discussing how the latest news will affect other insiders. If reporters are at the first level of news analysis, and other journalists are at a second level of contextual news analysis (e.g. Adam Nagourney at the New York Times, most writers for Time and The Economist), the Gladwells and Gopniks are at a third level, providing more perspicacious analysis and context and often more subtle, nuanced arguments. That’s where I’m aiming the “Populism” part of this blog.
4) The words “populist” and “populism” seem to be creeping more into their discourse. I find this odd because we may not all agree on what these terms mean.
For example, recently, Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman used the term as though it’s something one might easily look up and define and subscribe to. (Note the last two paragraphs here.) It isn’t.
In the United States of America today, very few well-known people describe themselves as populists. If anything, the term is more often used disparagingly, against one’s enemies. Compared to “capitalist” or “pacifist” or “assimilationist,” the term is an orphan, at least in the USofA. University courses/textbooks on populism are about movements outside America.
Despite this, we may be experiencing a national rise in populism. Occupy Wall Street and its unforgettable slogan, “We are the 99%,” was one piece of evidence (despite OWS’ apparent residuality). The internet seems to provide a lot more evidence, with every twitter-storm that seems to move a weathervane – for example, getting Betty White – or a woman less white – on Saturday Night Live. The swift (unprecedented?) change in attitudes and policies regarding marriage equality may have something to do with people being reluctant to say or write things that may remind future online generations what bigots they were.
The internet, or as we might call it, “The People,” have revealed themselves to be a sword of Damocles, ready to weigh in against not just the 1%, but also fools, tyrants, and hypocrites. And people hear The People. You can tell by the way they tweet.
I’d like to explore this. I think this is worth one-third of a blog. And you know what? I’m not afraid of the label, either. I’d like to consider myself a populist. But before I commit too hard (e.g. Ayn Rand committing to “objectivist”), perhaps it would be good to try to clarify what the heck populism is.
We may start, as the college students I teach often do, with Wikipedia. As of this writing, New Year’s 2014, the “populism” page begins with this sentence: “Populism is a political doctrine where one sides with ‘the people’ against ‘the elite.’” That’s a little strong. I prefer a less hostile populism, one where the elite at least indicates why any given policy or condition should be desirable for the majority, or in some cases a plurality, of people. I think it’s a little too easy to just genuflect to the latest online kerfuffle; populism needs to be about more than kickstartering. No, eventually the armchair online populists are going to have get serious about the post-Romney-47%, post-Nate Silver world of percentages. And then where will we be?
RESOLVED: If 51% of people have consistently expressed sympathy for a certain policy (beyond basic rights), the onus should be on the elite to explain why this policy is not workable – not on the 51%.
Some will say that polls are not reliable, and of course this is so. On matters like abortion and Obamacare, the 51% shifts depending on how the issue is presented. Let us not pretend, then, that calling oneself a populist implies fealty to some schematic doctrine that can be shoved like square pegs into all the round holes of the world. No, populism should be more of an outlook, a perspective, an orientation which suggests that before we commit ourselves to policy X (again, beyond rights), we might see if (and if, then why) 51% of people oppose policy X. Sometimes we will not know how 51% of people feel. Yet, often, we will.
Does that sound a lot like majority-rules, the philosophy we all learned in kindergarten? Call it majoritarianism if you like, or even a form of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, namely that which does the most good for the most people. But then, what about the minority? The United States of America has a long and honorable tradition of protecting the rights of the minority. I have been careful to exclude rights from consideration. I agree with Thomas Jefferson that we all have the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And with these come other rights: to live unmolested, to live in peace, to love and live with who we choose. We have this term – “rights” – specifically to distinguish certain allowances and codes from others; the non-rights are generally called “policies.” So when I ask for consideration of the opinion and well-being of the majority, I don’t mean in terms of rights, but policies.
In an effort to make populism defensible, not least to myself, have I made it unobjectionable? Well, it isn’t. Let me quote David Brooks, author of best-selling books and “conservative” columnist at the New York Times, from December 24, 2013:
“This is not the America of 1932 or of 1964. This is an America steeped in distrust of government. It’s an America that is, on both left and right, steeped in the ethos of individual choice. It’s an America steeped in a morality of authenticity, which says that it is right to listen to the individual voice within and immoral to be forced to conform to the external commands from without.”
(Brooks-knowers know that he has probably spent more time discussing the “elite” (of varying stripes) than anyone else with a regular TV job. Whatever you may think of Brooks, he hardly licks and then raises his finger to see which way the wind blows. Let’s be nice: Brooks would probably describe his job as doing all of the relevant reading and synthesizing it so that we don’t have to. He may be misreading the tea leaves, but it’s not like he just made them up.)
Brooks suggests that left-wingers and right-wingers both have good reason not to trust anything that claims to speak for a majority or for anyone to agree on any courses of action or policies. Perhaps he’s not as interested in invisible majorities, like the one that supports 24-hour internet access. (Or perhaps he’d see that as a right.) If you believe Brooks, and others like Chris Anderson of Wired, this is a terrible time for majority-rules. As a population, we’re atomized, post-modern, fragmented into a hundred mini-demographics. Consensus has thus become ever more elusive.
Sure, we’re disassociated; be that as it may, some things require binary choices. Here’s an example that won’t even sound binary: marijuana is either decriminalized or it isn’t. We can argue degree of legalization, but the choice has historically been reduced to binaries: either it remains as illegal as cocaine, or it doesn’t.
Remember a few years back when whitehouse.org decided to open up to internet-pinged questions from, well, anyone? The White House confessed to being rather taken aback when the people overwhelmed the site with questions about marijuana. Again, this sort of internet surge is often construed as a populist moment. Pretty soon, pundits were saying, as they like to, “this isn’t a partisan issue.” By which they mean logical and traditional “liberal” and “conservative” arguments can come together for a solution. I notice that recourse to populism often produces such results. And now, as Colorado blazes – uh, a trail, the mighty 51% seem to be moving marijuana decriminalization their way. Populism may be winning the war on weed.
I’m proud to say that populism isn’t just my way of saying “liberalism.” If you don’t know that right-wingers disdain the elite, then you haven’t actually been watching Fox News. You, they, anyone gets my sympathy when starting with an appeal to populism. I can give a good right-wing populist example. If you ask Americans what budgetary programs to cut, the most popular answer is “foreign aid.” As a populist, I aver that the onus is on the foreign-aid supporters to explain themselves.
Populism isn’t only about policies or politics. It’s about seeking amicable ways to live together. You’re not reading a college lecture here; you’re reading a blog. Like Coates or Zizek, I don’t write simply to react to national news. I plan to write this third of this blog with equal gusto about dog-walking and Democrats, about driving cars and driving deficits. My keynote might be summarized by something Jerry Seinfeld once said on his show: “We’re trying to have a society here, George.”
Seinfeld was the #1 show for much of its run, a nice example of a marriage of populism and merit. Right now I’ll confess to a lifelong interest in the popular. Like everyone else, I’ve certainly scratched my head to learn that this song is popular or that movie has been #1 for two weeks in a row. But on some level, like the brilliant James Suroweicki, I’ve maintained a fondness for what he calls The Wisdom of Crowds. Or as Bill Clinton once said, give the people enough information and time, and they will usually get it right.
Come take a safari with me on this continent I call populism. Perhaps we’ll even get to name some of the landmarks.