24 August 2010

Populism: the Art of Flattery and the Rejection of Shared Responsibility

In the current New Republic John B. Judis blames the declining popularity of the Obama administration on the President's failure to take a "populist" stance on the issues. In the course of explaining himself, Judis offers, perhaps without realizing it, as cynical an understanding of what populism means and how it works as I've ever seen.

In the United States, politics pivots around the allegiance of the middle class, even as its identity has changed from yeoman farmers and mechanics to store clerks, office workers, x-ray technicians, and small business owners. They are, in Bill Clinton's words, 'those who work hard and play by the rules.' They are the central characters in a populist rhetoric that goes back to the early republic. It depicts the middle class as embattled and threatened either from forces below (impoverished immigrants, welfare cheaters, ghetto rioters) or above (Wall Street speculators, state bureaucrats, K Street lobbyists). Populism can be embraced by Glenn Beck or Tom Harkin. It is intrinsically neither left-wing nor right-wing. Politicians, such as Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, who found a way of using populism's appeal during downturns have enjoyed success, while those who have spurned it have suffered accordingly. If, in circumstances like the present one, you don't develop a populist politics, your adversaries will use populism to define you as an enemy of the people.

Barack Obama reminds Judis of Jimmy Carter because both have eschewed populist rhetoric. Without intending to, Judis clarifies one of the flaws of populist reasoning. He argues that Obama should have been "rallying the public against the 'money changers' as Roosevelt had done" instead of appearing to accommodate them too often. In effect, Judis thinks that Obama should have scapegoated Wall Street. What Obama actually did was unacceptable; like Carter, he dared to "put the blame on the public as a whole." Judis quotes the President's inaugural address, in which Obama criticized "our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age" as well as "greed and irresponsibility on the part of some," as a prime example of the wrong rhetorical approach. To be a proper populist, then, it isn't enough to defend the middle class against those Others who caused all the trouble. You must also affirm that the middle class is innocent. You must confirm its virtuous self-image in the flattering language of Clinton. If you doubt their innocence -- even if you believe that they, too, must change their ways, you had better suppress that thought if you want to get re-elected.

Judis is not an unconditional populist. He admits that "Populism has profound shortcomings as a worldview," but he insists that "populism has been an indelible part of the American political psyche, and those who are uncomfortable making populist appeals ... suffer the consequences at the polls." That's not an encouraging diagnosis for democracy. It forces one to wonder whether populism is a pathology common to all democratic experiments or a peculiar defect of our own political culture. Judis himself realizes that populism has taken an especially expansive form in our time. It's not a matter now of the middle class feeling threatened by forces below or above. Today's reactionary populists feel threatened in both directions, by "moochers" high and low, by Wall Street and the ghetto. They were allegedly "sparked [into] a right-wing populist revolt" by "Obama's apparent tilt to Wall Street," not by any solicitude of his toward the poor. They are armored against persuasion by their impenetrable presumption of their own innocence and virtue, their conviction that they've done nothing wrong.

I don't mean to dispute Judis's contention, from a pure policy standpoint, that Obama could have been tougher on Wall Street. Judis makes a plausible case that the President has handled the bankers and brokers too gingerly out of fear of provoking further economic instability. But to say that Obama is wrong to talk about "collective failures" or for refusing to flatter the middle class is just a little contemptible from a nonpartisan perspective. If the core message of populism is "we don't have to change," anyone with a sense of the national interest that extends beyond the next election has to resist the populist temptation.

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