It’s starting to seem like a long time since the term “populism” gave off a welcome vibe. In a recent issue of Time, a columnist looks warily toward “the next wave of Trump/Sanders-style populism,” fuelled by the class of the perennially dislocated and underemployed. Philip Freeman concludes a Huffington Post op-ed on populism’s rise in ancient Rome with the portentous words “. . . and the Roman Republic vanished forever.” Populism has become our great political vampire. Go outside only with cross thrust forward.
Crosses are for the holy, or at least the would-be holy. And when it comes to populism there’s certainly a whiff of sanctimony wafting through our political discourse this election season. Not that this is unusual. From his perch at Columbia University in the mid-twentieth century the historian Richard Hofstadter dispatched book after prize-winning book denigrating (in his words) the “anti-intellectual,” “status-anxious,” “paranoid” underbelly of American life: the people—actual citizens—who dared to imagine themselves to be “the people.” With democrats like Hofstadter, who needs aristocrats?
To be clear: you don’t have to be waving a Trump banner to find loathsome such condescension. In fact, you can be a Trump-despiser and still find the regnant stances toward those he represents at least as troubling as his imperially jesting self. And if I’ve just described you, well, you may be something of a populist yourself.
Consider Connie Schultz, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, staunch Hillary supporter, and child of the working class. Upon spying a headline announcing, “Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump,” she did not, she tells us, obediently roll her eyes at the latest enthusiasms of the masses. Rather, she “bristled”: “These are the people I came from.”
If it’s true that some of “her people” are in fact “racist, sexist and xenophobic,” she grants, it’s also true that every class has its worst element. Besides, it’s actually jobs that motivate the electoral decisions of most Trump supporters—folk who know well that on the other side of this election, after the press turns away, their duly elected representatives will address their economic plight with the same grey logic that has long yielded pain and loss. “They will return to the same stack of bills and low-paying jobs and the stress that is unraveling their lives. They will keep their prayers simple: May the car last another season; may the baby’s cough not turn into a prescription for antibiotics; may love prevail.”
That’s certainly populism, and of a rather classic variety.
So why has populism come into such trouble? Why the bad name?
The Uses and Abuses of “Populism”
For one thing, it’s a name the ambiguity of which makes it easy to abuse. In On Populist Reason the late Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau notes that “a persistent feature of the literature on populism is its reluctance—or difficulty—in giving the concept any precise meaning.” Indeed, Michael Kazin, in his history of American populism, called it a “persuasion.” Christopher Lasch, carefully seeking populism’s rehabilitation, opted in The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics to “reconstruct” populism as “not so much an intellectual tradition as a sensibility.” How does one define a “persuasion,” or a “sensibility,” let alone defend one?
With democrats like Hofstadter, who needs aristocrats?
Shorn of its historical origins, the term “populism” has become empty casing, sufficiently generic to accommodate all manner of presupposition and prejudice, and very susceptible to misuse by those with the power to cast meaning. In this sense, “populism” is a lot like another all-purpose code word, “fundamentalism.” Once upon a time, there was an actual “fundamentalist” movement. But the term has outlived the movement, making meaningful use of “fundamentalism” nearly impossible—though its rhetorical usefulness is, of course, evident every day.
The historical populist movement emerged in the United States in the last third of the nineteenth century, as Americans were turning rapidly from hand-to-hand disunion to high-tech nationalism, casting themselves in unifying hope before the great god of the age, Progress. The populists were among those who shared doubts about this god—magnetic though he certainly was to all. Minimally, these activists and politicos agitated for basic economic justice, as the plutocratic priests of Progress were rapidly rigging the system in their own favour. Maximally, they attacked the new order in more comprehensive fashion, seeking a way, as the historian William Holmes has shown, to conserve a more traditioned, local way of life through the preservation of entrepreneurial capitalism, so manifestly under threat.
Hailing from the peripheral areas of the nation’s population centres and strongest in the South and in the Plains, the populists coalesced in an array of civic and political organizations, ranging from the Farmers’ Alliance to the Grange to the People’s Party. They were “yearning,” Kazin observes, “for a society run by and for ordinary people who lead virtuous lives.” And they had next to no chance of national political triumph—though one of their leaders, William Jennings Bryan, played a signal role in transforming the Democratic Party into the vessel that would carry Wilson and FDR into the waters of a reimagined liberalism, centred on service to “the people.” In poet Vachel Lindsay’s moving 1915 tribute, Bryan was
the fundamental man
Who brings a unifying plan
Not easily misunderstood
Chanting men toward brotherhood.
The nascent political-economic order that so stirred populist wrath has since their day captured not only the nation but also the world, of course. Over this century and a half we as a people have proved unceasingly vulnerable—and in far more than economic ways—to the centralized and privatized economic forces the Populists sought to resist. The global economy constructed by the vast network of capital has rendered impermanent our connections and formless our minds. Meanwhile, inequality rises, and with great consequence. The historian Lawrence Goodwyn’s judgment echoes that of many: “Democracy as we know it cannot survive this maldistribution of the fruits of the labor of the toiling millions whose belief in the country make America what it is.”
If the indeed dislocated and underemployed yet long for Lindsay’s “fundamental man,” it should come as no surprise that in each of the United States’ main parties one has emerged, to a kind of revelatory fanfare, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist on the one side and an entrepreneur-cum-entertainer on the other. Indeed, the chanting toward brotherhood over this past year has at times been deafening, and to many, repulsive. Clearly at some level the longing for union, the hope for something that feels like democracy—not simply procedural liberalism—remains, in recognizably left and right forms.
What Kind of a “People”?
But however “fundamental” these men may (or may not) be, however representative they are of both “the people” and people, there still exists, quite inescapably, the matter of the character of the people behind them. Because as Jefferson himself knew, the fact that all are created equal does not mean that all merit equal commendation. If the enlightened statesmen of the eighteenth century varied widely in theological affirmation, they almost uniformly shared a set of ethical convictions, above all the insistence that liberal democracies would only be as free as the citizens were virtuous, a people habitually disposed to self-sacrifice for the sake of the common good. The slogan of these early modern democrats was not “The People, Right or Wrong,” or “The People, Always Right.” It was more like “A Free People Is a Virtuous People.”
If it’s not very catchy, it’s definitely profound. Not to say true.
There’s nothing magical about “we the people,” after all; this these political architects knew. If the republic was to last, the citizenry would need to become a citizenry, would in fact need always to be becoming a citizenry. The framers understood the form of the republic to be a kind of structural middle ground between the malevolent pull toward either small-scale anarchy or large-scale oligarchy (or both at once). The nation’s challenge was to foster ways of life that elevate citizenship as an ideal capable of defeating graft, manipulation, solipsism: inclinations many were yet Augustinian enough to see and fear.
A republic would need, in short, institutions of formation. Calvinists in the line of John Witherspoon saw ecclesiastical networks as crucial for this national purpose. Rationalists like Jefferson put more faith in public education. Republicans of all stripes believed that the nation’s political economy would be decisive. The vocations should also be schools of virtue, they held, since the form of labour shapes the soul. The philosophic basis for these judgments Lasch would call simply “moral realism.” Those in the lineage of what would become “populism,” Lasch contended, lived lives grounded in “a sense of limits,” even as they honoured the reality of cosmic goodness. The spiritual yield of this difficult stance was the gratitude that comes only when we sense that our very limits—ecological, social, ontological—are what make possible the deepest goods we know—indeed, our very lives.
And so the angst of the critics of Progress becomes clear. For the emergent corporate order required the destruction of limits of all kinds. Virtuous people, after all, don’t rush rapaciously after Mammon, whether as producers or as consumers; they fix their sights on other ends. The political economy of the modern American republic, these critics warned, threatens the republic. Lasch’s judgment, twenty-five years ago, bears rereading: “The danger of democracy comes less from totalitarian or collectivist movements abroad than from the erosion of its psychological, cultural, and spiritual foundations from within.”
If in the end populism has developed a bad name—whether justly or not—it is above all a sign of such erosion. Because surely democracy cannot be well if “the people” are either (justly) contemptible or (unjustly) held in contempt. Crucially, either case reflects an erosion in which anti-populist elites, as avatars of the new order, have had a hand, engineering as they have, profession by profession, a public sphere sailing without metaphysical ballast in very stormy seas. Shipwreck, have no doubt, must come.
Amid the storm leaders step forth. But if “we the people” have lost touch with the very idea of virtue, if “we the people” have satisfied ourselves with degrading aspirations, if “we the people” have given up on high intellectual adventure: well, we’ll find for ourselves leaders who suit our varying (yet predictable) tastes, sensibilities, and persuasions. Who can deny that this describes at least part of our present predicament?
Hope Beyond the Fear and Anger
Is the solution, then, to turn away in high-minded dismay from “the people”? Only if elitist, oligarchic rule is suddenly our best hope. Laclau, writing from within Latin America’s volatile political cauldron, confesses his “suspicion” that beneath the “disdainful rejection” of populism lies a “dismissal of politics tout court,” replaced by a dubious confidence “that the management of community is the concern of an administrative power whose source of legitimacy is a proper knowledge of what a ‘good’ community is.”
It was this deluded conceit that gave rise to democratic aspiration in the first place. There can be no evasion of politics. There is only bad politics or good politics. And good politics—and this is America’s founding claim—requires equality as an incarnate ideal.
Our governing political impulse must not be to despise the people but rather to understand ourselves as the people. The institutions of formation, the networks of care, and the broader political economy itself we must, as equals, seek to reform with the enlivening virtue that life itself requires. James Baldwin’s observation in 1963 was, after all, simply the summation of ancient wisdom: “The political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation.” It’s our spiritual state that most requires our constructive attention, in the hope that from civic renewal a politics will emerge befitting our heritage and fit for this age.
If the odds are against such reformation, it’s for precisely such reasons that hope exists. Hope, alongside faith and love, reminds us that we don’t need a perfect union. Just a more perfect union.