Monday, July 25, 2016

The Perils of Populism

Bernie Sanders fans may just have handed the general election to Trump.  Granted, it is a bit early to tell.  I say and maintain that there is nothing quite like the sight of a political party committing ceremonial self-disembowelment on the national stage to convince most people not to vote for it. The question is whether this week's Democratic Convention count.  After reading articles and watching video clips, I personally thought expressions like "massive internal strife," "chaos," and "tensions . . . hit a fever pitch" somewhat exaggerated compared to the video clips.  The clips showed booing in parts of speeches -- and cheers in other parts by the same speaker.  It will depend, I suppose, how persistent they are, and how rowdy the demonstrators outside get.  And how it is spun in media reports.  And how shocking it seems by the very stayed standards of nominating conventions for the last 30-plus years.

All of which leads me to the Atlantic article I have been wanting to comment on for some time, How American Politics Went Insane.  The author is tiresomely even-handed, blaming it all on the process and the breakdown of the procedural mechanisms for negotiation, compromise, and getting things done.  He tries not to place the blame on one side or the other, yet somehow all his actual, real-world examples of extremism getting out of hand were on the Republican side.  Well, Sanders followers are working to catch up.

The account of procedural problems is dull and ultimately not very helpful because it ignores the real problems in outlook that underlie the procedural problems.  The most valuable part is the one that actually gets to the real underlying problem:
[B]etween 25 and 40 percent of Americans (depending on how one measures) have a severely distorted view of how government and politics are supposed to work. I think of these people as “politiphobes,” because they see the contentious give-and-take of politics as unnecessary and distasteful. Specifically, they believe that obvious, commonsense solutions to the country’s problems are out there for the plucking. The reason these obvious solutions are not enacted is that politicians are corrupt, or self-interested, or addicted to unnecessary partisan feuding. Not surprisingly, politiphobes think the obvious, commonsense solutions are the sorts of solutions that they themselves prefer. But the more important point is that they do not acknowledge that meaningful policy disagreement even exists. From that premise, they conclude that all the arguing and partisanship and horse-trading that go on in American politics are entirely unnecessary. Politicians could easily solve all our problems if they would only set aside their craven personal agendas.
Clearly, Donald Trump is the classic politiphobe candidate.  But Bernie Sanders has been stirring the same pot, insisting that he will launch a political "revolution" that will sweep away resistance to his agenda.  Sanders, it should be added, is no Trump.  But comparisons to Ted Cruz are not altogether unreasonable.

Cruz's game has been to stake out a position that he knows is not politically possible to pass, make a highly conspicuous show of standing up for it, do everything in his power to prevent any sort of constructive deal and then, when Republicans are forced to cave and seek an alliance with Democrats, proclaim his ideological purity and denounce his colleagues for not joining him.  Cruz differs from Trump in having actual principles and genuinely believing in what he stands up for.  But it is also clear that his goal is not to win the legislative battle, but to be defeated and gain applause from the base.

If Donald Trump wins in November, and especially if revulsion against Trump leads to Democrats taking at least one house of Congress in 2018, would Sanders play a similar game?  Certainly it was the game he played when pitching to his followers in the primaries. But, as he is making clear now, he never actually meant to carry it all the way into the general election.  But now Sanders is  learning, as have so many Republican leaders, that he who rides the tiger fears to dismount.  Once you stir up people's ugly passions, they are not so easy to un-stir.  

All of which makes the point as to why populism, despite its exaltation of the common people and claim to champion popular interests, is profoundly dangerous to democracy.  I outsource to Jonathan Chait:
Populism can . . . be defined as a certain kind of political style. Populists believe the government has been captured by evil and/or corrupt interests, and that it can be recaptured by a unified effort by the people (or, at least, their people).  . . . . Populists make their case in plain terms, and often argue that the problems themselves are simple, which explains why only corruption has prevented their easy resolution. . . . When you are arguing that there are no simple solutions, and that the non-simple solutions you favor will take a long time to work, you’re proving that you’re the opposite of a populist. 
In other words, populism is the ideology of "politiphobes."  It denies that meaningful policy disagreement exists and sees the only obstacle to implementing simple, common sense solutions (i.e., their personal preferences) is the corruption of underhanded politicians.  It rejects the difficult decisions and complex tradeoffs that are part of the ugly reality of policy making.  It demands what is not doable and then rages at politicians when they inevitably fall short.  And it rejects the essential skills needed to make democracy work, "accepting disagreement and dissent as normal, and learning to be a gracious loser (or winner)."*

And, in the final paradox, both Trump and Sanders demonstrate the dangers of corrosive cynicism and how close extreme cynicism can be to dangerous naivity.  Republicans who believe our current system is so corrupt that Trump would be an improvement over what we have now have reached well past a healthy skepticism of our current leadership to a mindless cynicism, coupled with an extraordinary willful blindness as to just how bad Trump can be.  And Sanders supporters  who really can't tell the difference between Clinton and Trump may give us the opportunity to find out.

*I should add that I believe this is a lot of the appeal of conspiracy theories as well.  Conspiracy theories allow believers to avoid having to deal with the difficult choices and complex trade-offs that are necessary to real world policy and instead believe that if only those evil conspirators would stop what they were doing, all our problems would disappear.

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