Saturday, December 24, 2016

What is Populism?

We are hearing a great deal about "populism" these days.  Invariably the term is used as a pejorative -- a movement that claims to be the voice of the people, but is really a threat -- some would say THE threat -- to democracy.  Indeed, virtually every illiberal and anti-democratic movement competing in elections in both Europe and the U.S. is invariably referred to as "populist," and "populism" is treated essentially as synonymous with illiberalism.  So what is this "populism" we keep hearing about?

I was inspired to write this post by an Amazon page on the subject, a book by German author Jan Warner Muller entitled (in English), What is Populism? The author defines populism as "the conjunction of anti-elitism with an exclusionary notion of who 'we the people' are."  In other words, "the people" are not only the common people as opposed to the elite, but also a specific sub-category of the population, the "real people," meaning the ones who agree with the populist leader.  Anyone who disagrees is, by definition, not truly part of "the people."  Clearly anyone who would read large portions of the population, and particularly all dissent, out of "the people" is a serious threat to democratic pluralism.

Populism in the American context:

Maybe so, but I have some misgivings.  For one thing, "populism" is an English word.*  In fact, the original the original German title  is Was ist Populismus.  Clearly, then, the author was using an English word for which German had no exact equivalent.  (We will get into possible German equivalents later).  Furthermore, the word "populism" may specifically be American in origin.  At least, my Webster's New World Dictionary  identifies "Populism" with a capital-P as an American coinage, although it does not specify for small-p populism.  The Populist Party or People's Party was a farmer's party in the late 19th Century U.S., opposed to banks, railroads, and the gold standard, all of which they saw as exploiting regular folks.  The best known of the Populist leaders was William Jennings Bryan.

Nor am I alone in these misgivings.  One irate viewer complained:
It seems to me that it is now simply convenient to redefine >populism<, which has always been identified with the left. The original populists were the People's party, established in 1891 to advocate government ownership of the railroads, limitation of private land ownership and an increase of the money supply. . . . Movements of the right which condemn socialism (and of course communism) and which emphasize nationalism, suspicion against minorities and foreigners, and which advocate law-and-order have traditionally been called >fascist<. . . . Without exception, the points you raise about the "real people" and the "real voice of the people" are typical of fascism.
This was, of course, also the point Jonah Goldberg tries to make from the opposite side of the aisle, arguing that fascism was left-wing because it was populist and populism is always left-wing.**  Muller acknowledges as much (in the part of the book made available online), "In the United States, the word populism remains mostly associated with the idea of a genuine egalitarian left-wing politics."

Defining populism is a bit like defining fascism.  Any definition of fascism that begins with Hitler starts out wrong.  Fascism, with a capital F was a movement that originated with Mussolini.  Fascism with a small f refers to the various imitators it spawned, including Hitler and the Nazis.  Any reasonable definition of fascism has to be broad enough to include Fascism.  Likewise, and reasonable definition of populism has to be broad enough to encompass Populism.  The Populists celebrated the virtues of the common man and fulminated against elites.  Did they also read dissenters out of the "real people"?  Their record appears to be mixed.  Some populists believed that only farmers could be "real Americans," while others sought alliance with the urban working class.  Some Southern Populists attempted a class-based alliance between poor black and white people, while others were rabid racists.  My conclusion from this would be that celebration of the virtues of the common people and fulmination against oppressive elites is inherent to Populism (and thus populism) while writing anyone outside of the movement out of the "real people" is optional.

Selective Populism:

I prefer Umberto Eco's comments on "Ur-Fascism":
Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say.
In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view -- one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction.  
Bingo!  We can reserve for a later day whether this is "Ur-Fascism."  Excluding dissenters from the "real people" is not inherent to populism.  Rather, it is the defining trait of the sub-category of "selective populism."  Muller and his reviewers appear to view Bernie Sanders as an anti-elitist but not a populist because he admits room for dissent, and Donald Trump as a true populist because he excludes both elites and dissenters from "real Americans."  Alternately, one might see Sanders a pluralist populist and Trump as a selective populist.

Populism and Politiphobia:

At the same time, I don't think that the danger of populism lies only in defining dissenters out of the "real people."  Consider the danger raised by Jonathan Chait:
Populism can also 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). They express contempt for elites in business, government, and academia. 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.  
Then consider this definition of politiphobia:
[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.
This sort of attitude is incompatible with democratic politics, and inherently longs for a strongman to overcome squalid democratic politics and impose the "obvious, commonsense solutions" the politicians are blocking.  Of course, it is incompatible with the sort of politics that exist in any society, including the politics of jockeying for a strongman's favor.  But strongmen are usually able to keep he sordid details of politics around them quiet, while democratic politics in all its ugliness takes place in the full view of all.  And it does seem fair to say that pluralist populism, though it may accept contested elections between broad-based popular parties, will necessarily see the sort of political maneuvering that invariably takes place at the top as distasteful.***

Certainly, I believe that politiphobia is is one of the greatest dangers to democracy.  I have theorized  that understanding the need for political parties and a loyal opposition is essential to the success of democracy.  This I based partly on the early part of U.S. history, when the system nearly broke down over the unexpected development of political parties, and partly on Weimar.

Populism in English versus German Volk

It was a most inauspicious opening for the Weimar Republic almost all parties of the right were Volksparteien.  This term is often translated as People's Party, but the translation is misleading.  People's Party in English implies a party of the people against elites, i.e., perhaps populist party, or more like, a radical left or Communist party.  But the German concept of a Volkspartei is quite different from an English People's Party.  It means that the people form a single Volk with a single will, and with unity, rather than conflict, among the classes.****  Clearly, then, the Volkspartei is a politiphobic concept.  One might almost think that when Muller writes about a populist party, he actually means a Volkspartei, except for one thing.  Although politiphobic, the Volksparteien of the German Right were not populist.  They did not see themselves as champions of the "real people" against an oppressive elite, Nor did they like the rough-and-rowdy style of the left-wing, working class parties with their outdoor rallies and other forms of (dare I say it?) populist expression.  Unity of the Volk meant the common people knowing their place and showing proper deference to elites, and it meant the maintenance of traditional notions of decorum.

Interestingly enough, one right-wing political party in Weimar that did not call itself a Volkspartei  was the Nazi Party, which instead called itself and Arbeiterpartei, or Worker's Party, traditionally a left-wing name.  But although the Nazi Party was not a Volkspartei, it was a volkisch party.  The volkisch movement originated in the 19th Century as a sort of romantic nationalism, based on romanticizing the nation and its Volk, with its unique and traditional folk-culture.  Over time, it evolved more into a blood-and-soil nationalism and, in the 1920's, coalesced in a group of extreme and violent nationalist parties in Bavaria, of which the Nazis were originally just one.  The Nazis went on to swallow up, first the volkisch parties, then the German Right in general, and finally the German State.  The shared the nationalism and politiphobia of the Volksparteien, but none of their sense of social order or decorum.  Instead, the Nazis fulminated against oppressive elites, especially Jewish bankers and the traitors who signed the Treaty of Versailles, they staged massive outdoor rallies, and they went far beyond rough and rowdy.

So I have to wonder whether Muller, himself a German, uses the English term "populist" to mean something closer to the German concept of "volkisch."  Certainly the Wikipedia article on the volkisch movement translates the term roughly as "populist."

So, what is populism:

In short, as an American, I am not prepared to give up on the positive side of populism.  Yet at the same time, it has disturbing traits even at its best.  There is much talk on my side these days about the Founding Fathers wanting to curb the will of the people out of fear of demagogues.  I would prefer to say, they believed that just as absolute monarchs were often misled by flatterers, so to the people, if given unrestrained power, were also vulnerable to flatterers.  Populism can be right-wing or left-wing, punch up or kick down; it can appeal to fears or aspirations or resentment; it can be selective or pluralist, more or less politiphobic; it can spring up from below (at the original Populist Party did), or center around a charismatic leader above.  But in all cases, populism flatters the common people and proclaims their superior virtue (including when it consists of the common people flattering themselves).  In that sense, perhaps, all democratic politics is populist to some degree.  But it also shows why greater degrees of populism, even in its more benign form, carry a danger -- the danger that goes with flattery of all kinds.

*In fact, in a fascinating digress, the English word "people," the word comes from the Latin "populus," which is apparently an Etruscan borrowing of non-Indo-European origin.  Thus of all Indo-European languages, only the Romance languages (including, in this case, English) would use any variety of "populus," at least in ordinary speech.  The German equivalent is "Volk," which, of course, is the same as the English word "folk."
**Not clear: How Goldberg accounts for Rush Limbaugh, Bill Reilly, Sean Hannity, and the countless other right-wing populist pundits of his own day.
***Note, for instance, Bernie Sanders, who kept insisting that he would implement a program vastly more ambitious than the one that led Republicans to declare all-out war when Obama attempted it.
****By contrast, the two parties that were the staunchest defenders of German democracy, the Social Democrats and the Catholic Center, were parties that had no illusions that they represented all Germans.  Rather, they represent a sub-category of Germans (the unionized working class, and political Catholics, respectively) and sought only to contest their interests in the arena of democratic politics, not to compel anyone to agree with them.  The third member of the Weimar Coalition, the German Democratic Party quickly faded and proved useless because it was, in the end, a Volkspartei at heart, favoring democracy as the best way of achieving national unity, and turning against democracy when it turned out not to be so.

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