26 January 2010

A Critique of Populism

David Brooks and I must have been on the same wavelength this week. The moderate conservative New York Times columnist has published a piece on populism. He takes a paradoxical position, arguing that populism and elitism are two sides of the same coin, both having in common an intent to divide the public along class lines. I might agree if I was sure of what he meant by elitism. He doesn't seem to define the word in economic terms, but more along the Republican line according to which an elitist is someone who presumes on the basis of his education a right to tell everyone else how to live. What Brooks is smart and honest enough to note, however, is that Republicans are just as elitist, only with a different emphasis. He also notes, with some accuracy, that much of the supposed populism we see today doesn't come from the grass roots, but from the top down.

[P]opulism is popular with the ruling class. Ever since I started covering politics, the Democratic ruling class has been driven by one fantasy: that voters will get so furious at people with M.B.A.’s that they will hand power to people with Ph.D.’s. The Republican ruling class has been driven by the fantasy that voters will get so furious at people with Ph.D.’s that they will hand power to people with M.B.A.’s. Members of the ruling class love populism because they think it will help their section of the elite gain power.

Because populism is espoused by different factions of the ruling class, it loses much of the economic class consciousness we should expect to see in authentic populism. Especially in its Republican form, it becomes a matter of cultural style. As Brooks puts it: populists (or pseudo-populists) of both major parties "describe politics as a class struggle between the enlightened and the corrupt, the pure and the betrayers."

Brooks is trying to warn both parties off the populist approach. Populism as a political strategy "is generally a history of defeat," he writes, because "voters aren't as stupid as the populists imagine." Never mind that the original Populists of the 1890s would not have claimed that voters were stupid; Brooks is referring to today's partisan pseudo-populists. When he describes the stupidity of 21st century populism, however, Brooks seems to be referring only to the anti-wealthy populism of liberals, progressives or Democrats, not the anti-"elitist" populism of Republicans, Tea Partiers and most conservatives. He does take a swipe at Sarah Palin's divisive populism, but his main beef against populism is over its fundamental hostility to concentrated wealth. Brooks is one Republican who embraces his party's Federalist and Whig heritage, citing Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln as two great "anti-populists." They resisted the populist (or proto-populist) temptations of their times and "were willing to tolerate the excesses of traders because they understood that no institution is more likely to channel opportunity to new groups and new people than vigorous financial markets." Neither man can be called a laissez-faire capitalist, but neither, according to Brooks, did they advocate class conflict.
In their view, government’s role was not to side with one faction or to wage class war. It was to rouse the energy and industry of people at all levels. It was to enhance competition and make it fair — to make sure that no group, high or low, is able to erect barriers that would deprive Americans of an open field and a fair chance. Theirs was a philosophy that celebrated development, mobility and work, wherever those things might be generated.

That paragraph is hard to argue against, except that while it's never been government's business to incite class war, class war has a way of coming about whether governments will it or not, and while government should never side with any single faction on an unconditionally consistent basis, it does have an obligation to decide where justice lies in any conflict among American interests and to judge accordingly. Sometimes something that looks like populism, and offends some observers for that reason, may just be simple justice. If that be "populism," make the most of it.

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