11 October 2013
The populist mirage
No sooner do I finish another rant on the subject of populism than I get the latest Nation magazine in the mail with a headline touting "The New Populist Insurgency." The headline refers to an article by Robert L. Borosage entitled simply "The New Insurgents." In the article, Borosage uses the word "populist" or "populists" a grand total of two times. For him, most likely, "populist" is just an adjective, but to his editors it's a selling point. I can understand the feeling. "Populist" sounds like such a good word. Doesn't it mean "party of the people?" If so, why can't "populist" describe the sort of progressive, egalitarian movement Borosage is really touting? It's not as if I own the term. I use it a certain way to identify a certain kind of democratic politics, but if someone else can define the word another way and make it stick -- if a movement can make "populism" a meaningful brand name -- more power to them. But my gut feeling is that the sort of Occupy-inspired "99%" movement Borosage roots for is too inclusive to fit in the historical category of populism. No matter what Borosage feels about the "1%," I don't think he, as a progressive liberal, has it in him to say that they are somehow less authentically American than the 99% Even if he dared, would he be justified? My hunch has always been that there's a greater concentration of sympathy with much of the progressive agenda among the 1% than there would be in, let's say, the 10%. The liberal obsession with the Koch brothers notwithstanding, I doubt anyone can prove that the richest Americans are the greatest enemies of the rest of us, unless you really believe that our country's problems are caused by these people hoarding money. Another of my hunches is that, in this country, the self-styled self-made man is more likely to despise the poor, to think of them as expendable losers, than the heirs to great fortunes are, if only because the heirs can't make the "I worked my butt off eighteen hours a day" argument the self-mades are so fond of. Those who aspire to join the 1% and are willing to do anything toward that end probably are a greater threat to the social order than those already in the elite. From the liberal or progressive perspective, the enemy should be defined not by what he's worth but by what he believes. Understanding the antagonist requires more critical analysis than you'll get taking a "We are the 99%" shortcut. If taking that route is "populist," we can do without populism.