Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Note on Terminology

So, in my last post, I made extensive use of the terms "right wing," "left wing," and "populist."  These terms get used a lot, but they are sufficiently vague and abstract that they need definition.  So here goes.

On economic issues, right wing can roughly be defined as meaning upholding the status quo of power, while left wing would mean opposing the status quo of power.  Obviously, opposition to the status quo of power can cover a wide range, from moderate reform to all-out revolution.  In one way, these are very important distinctions -- they are the distinction between the reformist left and the revolutionary left, the loyal left and the disloyal left.  But if my hypothesis is correct, in another way the distinction may not be so important. One sign that the right wing has become dangerous is that it loses its ability to distinguish between the radical and the moderate left and starts panicking over even moderate reformers.  On social issues, the right upholds traditional values while the left is critical of them (again, to varying degrees).  The right is often driven by fear of change; the left by ambition for something better.

But above all else, and central to the definition I expect to use here, the left wing punches up; the right wing kicks down.  I don't mean that either does so exclusively.  Any John Birch Society, Austrian School, or Mises Institute site is rife with punching up against evil banks (and government, of course).  And the history of the labor movement has plenty of kicking down against immigrants and minorities who threaten to undercut unions.  But right wing fulmination against evil bankers is balanced by anger at anyone who would infringe on the freedom of non-financial capitalists to pursue profit as they wish.  And militant unions never forget that the boss is their primary enemy.

I should add here that I think we liberals are a little to quick to romanticize punching up.  Inciting anger against the powerful appeals to the same base instincts as inciting anger against the powerless.  There can be no doubt that powerful are often corrupt and abuse their power, that reforms are sometimes needed, or that punching up can be appropriate.  But some reforms are ill-advised or dangerous, and punching up can bring on a terrible confrontation.  We liberals should be cautious with it.  But we are absolutely right to condemn kicking down.

Populists movements are ones that claim to be the voice of the people.  The term is often used as a pejorative to suggest that populist movements appeal to the people's resentments rather than their hopes, or that they appeal to base instincts.  I hope to look at the degree to which that is true.  But for right now, I would say that populism does not fit easily of a right-left spectrum.  On economic issues, it opposes the status quo of power.  On social issues, it upholds traditional values.  It both punches up and kicks down.  Whether a populist movement gets classified as right or left is a matter of emphasis.  What does it emphasize more, criticism of the economic status quo of power, or calls up uphold traditional values?  Does emphasize punching up or kicking down?

My next post will be on fascism, the most slippery concept of all.

PS:  And then there is the nebulous matter of scapegoating a wealthy but politically powerless minority.  Is this punching up or kicking down?  It has elements of both.

PPS:  I should add two more thoughts.  First, one of the great evils of punching up is not just that it can bring on a terrible confrontation, but that it can unleash a mad frenzy of nihilistic destruction -- think peasant revolts, slave revolts, Communism, etc.  It is too often driven, not by people's aspirations for something better, but by people's hatred and desire to tear down the people above them, not a desire to raise themselves up.  So punching up is a thing that can be necessary and useful, but must be very carefully controlled, and not romanticized.

The other is a note on terminology.  I have already said that I define left wing populism as one that primarily punches up, even if it also kicks down, and right wing populism as one that primarily kicks down, even if it also punches up.  I will speak of "pure" left wing populism as one that punches up only and does not kick down.  Thus by my definition a "pure" left wing populism may be socially conservative.  It may have its primary base among people who are not at the very bottom of the social ladder, and it may do little or nothing for people below its primary constituency.  But it does not kick down, that is it does not treat people below its primary constituency as scapegoats, or incite hostility toward them, or seek to lower their status even further.  "Pure" left wing populism exists, or at least has existed, but it generally has limited appeal because the seductive allure of kicking down is just too great.  A "pure" right wing populist is one who kicks down only and does not punch up.  They may exist, but if so, they can't be very common.  The basic desire to be a scrappy underdog fighting the mighty powers arraigned against one is simply too important a part of populist psychology for a "pure" right wing populism to work very well.  So most populist movements will both punch up and kick down, and the important distinction will be on the emphasis.

PPPS:  This is perhaps the ultimate description of the psychology of right wing populism:
The salient fact of American politics is that there are fifty to seventy million voters each of who will volunteer to live, with his family, in a cardboard box under an overpass, and cook sparrows on an old curtain rod, if someone would only guarantee that the black, gay, Hispanic, liberal, whatever, in the next box over doesn’t even have a curtain rod, or a sparrow to put on it.
Just fill in any other nationality and whatever groups they prefer to kick down on, and it will fit just as well.

PPPPS:  And punching up at its worst means living in a cardboard box under an overpass without sparrows or a curtain rod and wanting only to destroy your neighbors sparrows and curtain rod instead of to have one's own.

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