Populism means policies by and for a majority, somewhat like utilitarianism. The most common objection to populism is that it will trample on minority rights; that the 51%, once in power, will take everything away from the 49%. Of course, that objection has nothing to do with the real world, and we’ve just seen two prominent examples of what I mean in two places where I’ve lived most of my life – California and Britain.
Before talking about the Scottish Independence and Six Californias campaigns, let me get a few things out of the way. First, being “populist” doesn’t imply subscribing to some unflinching dogma, just as being a “liberal” doesn’t mean you believe the state should control everything down to names for your kids, and just as being a “conservative” – as my self-labeled conservative friends remind me in argument after argument – doesn’t mean the absolute absence of government right down to getting rid of the army. “Socialist” and “libertarian” are two other labels that do not generally imply the level of doctrinaire approach to the state as “Communist” and “anarchist” – and even people who ascribe to those two latter terms tend to disagree with many of their fellow ascribers. So don’t group “populism” on the same chart with terms (like “fascism”) that imply an absolutist agenda. In fact, if any group is accommodating of the real world and its changes, it’s the ones who seek the middle ground for the middle class – the populists.
It’s a great trick of the 1% and their allies to characterize populists as 51% taking away from the 49%, because that’s so unlike the actual world. What really happened since 2008 is that the 1% got 93% of income growth in the United States. If we had instituted reforms whereby the 1% got, say, 82% of those gains, those would have been populist reforms, and those would not have trampled anyone’s minority rights. Today’s populism includes union liberals and Tea Party conservatives – because the biggest task in our current world is to try to move some iota of power from the 1% to the 99%. No one’s going to come and take all of the 49%’s money, mostly because the 1% has plenty to go around…enough for the 1% to live very well, and for the rest of us, their customers and workers, to live without desperation. Radical wealth redistribution doesn’t need to, and won’t, happen (and the 51% doesn’t want that anyway), because moving things a little is all we need. The value of money can’t be considered a right, because if it were, then every time you invested in a stock that lost half its value, you could say the stock had taken away your rights…and that’s just silly.
The right to self-determination – and yes, people do have the right to decide what sort of government will represent them – may present itself as the stickiest of rights, the most vulnerable to some kind of tyranny of the majority. And it’s true that groups like the Kurds in Iraq and the Tibetans in China and the Palestinians in Israel have indeed had their rights trampled on. Yet these groups were never enfranchised in the manner that every citizen in a Western democracy is; they have been denied all sorts of basic citizenship rights, from voting to jury trials to free travel to education to the right not to be killed. Populism is about policy we vote on after all rights have been secured – you know, like policies regarding health care, the environment, internet policy, taxes.
Recent events in the United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Greater California have shown that majority “tyranny”…isn’t tyranny. In fact, the very language of “rights” was absolutely absent from both sides in both places – the pro-independence movement in minority-status Scotland did not claim that England was removing anyone’s rights. Don’t believe me, go to their site and search for the word “right.” Nor did England make the case that Scots did not have the “right” to secede. Same thing happened in California with the “Six Californias” movement. Here in the civilized world, if we break up like Czechoslovakia or if we don’t, if we merge like Germany or if we don’t, we’re not taking away anyone’s rights, as the anti-populists would have you believe.
Results in both Britain and California, actually, show that anti-elitist populism is thriving in the world’s two largest English-speaking countries. It’s true that Scotland didn’t win independence yesterday, but the mere fact that if 50%+1 of Scottish people had voted to leave, the U.K. was (probably) ready to let them go, represents an incredible triumph of populist principles. And though the English elites may have won yesterday, the closeness of the result prompted a lot of scrambling and new promises from those same elites, as this suggests. Populism means shifting power from the 1% downward, and Scottish leader Alex Salmond (pictured) can be proud that that seems to have happened in Britain (probably) despite the final tally. (Who knows how different this referendum would have gone if David Cameron had been at the helm during the 2008 financial crisis; having already thrown out the 2008 bum, the Scots had a bit less incentive to break away.) There’s an important freedom in being able to sing along to that Clash (British) song, “Should I stay or should I go?” Despite the result, “Scot Free” now has a new meaning. Perhaps fear did win out over hope; perhaps pocketbooks beat pride. But if that’s true, we have no better way to express that than through the ballot box. It’s not hard to imagine the result in the U.K. being applied to other problems in other places; when anti-populists say, well, we can’t just let go of Catalan or whatever, we’ll say what about Britain? Why are you so afraid of a region voting amongst themselves?
Others have already written about the spectacular failure of the Six Californias campaign (last week it failed to garner sufficient signatures for this November’s ballot, though even a Yes vote would have been only symbolic), but not everyone cited the main reason for that failure: the campaign looked like an absolute power grab by the 1%, and specifically the venture capitalist who funded it, Tim Draper. Prior to his existence, no one had ever thought to divide California like a group of friends dividing a restaurant tab. At least Northern California and Southern California, a.k.a. NorCal and SoCal, have an organic separation in terms of weather, lifestyle, and hostility to each other that goes back at least 100 years. If Draper had offered a division in half – or maybe even three parts, since his Jefferson idea has some history, though I doubt the Eureka-Redding area really wants to sever ties with the Bay Area – perhaps he would have received a few more signatures. Perhaps six was just his opening offer, and he was ready to compromise to three or two – if so, what a dick one-percenter move.
More importantly, Draper was clearly trying to section off the richer and more conservative parts of the state into voting blocs that would help the 1% more long-term. Sectioning off Central California (and not even giving them Tahoe!) was just trying to create a ghetto. You have to at least try to respect history. I mean, who separates the historically bound, same-radio-station-listening Los Angeles and Orange Counties? You only put Orange County with San Diego to try to make a red state. Same issue with the historical Bay Area splitting into so-called North California and Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley! What state is named after an industry? Idaho isn’t named “Potato.” Michigan isn’t named “Auto.” That’s when you knew you were dealing with a short-term-thinking, get-rich-quick-talking 1% douchebag. (I know Draper said that the borders and names were flexible, but why begin with something so objectionable?) Tim’s presumed brother Don Draper would have been at least been smarter about the optics.
There are many in the 1% who vocally and financially support populism, including Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Howard Schultz, and many Hollywood stars. I’m sure some people see these 1%ers as naïve, but events of the last two weeks suggest they may be ahead of the curve. As the internet blurs certain lines, Americans are taking more and more cues from our British brethren, and pretty soon we may behave as the Brits have done…putting real policies to real votes. If we can ever break away from the money that controls our two-party kleptocracy, if we can actually vote on how to improve our lives, if we begin to spend our dollars more on populist corporations and less on authoritarian ones…look out. To quote another Clash song, this one about how “you didn’t stand by me,” the Scots won’t have Trained in Vain.