28 December 2016

Is populism authoritarian?

Even as a consensus definition of populism remains elusive, there seems to be agreement that 2016 in the English-speaking world was defined by "populist" phenomena: the "Brexit" vote in Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. For the moment, then, populism will be defined in terms of these movements, as they are understood by political scientists. Jan-Werner Mueller is a German scholar who offers a refined definition of populism, based on his recent book, in the London Review of Books. He dismisses the most popular definition of populism by stating that "Not everyone who criticizes elites is a populist....populists don't stop at protesting against Wall Street or 'globalism.'" In contrast to a leftist ideal of what populism could or should be, Mueller asserts that populism is essentially the opposite of pluralism. "Populists claim that they and they alone speak inthe name of what they tend to call the 'real people' or the 'silent majority,'" he writes, "Populists accuse all other political contenders of being illegitimate....Populists hold that those who don't support them -- or who don't share their sense of what constitutes the 'real people' -- may not themselves properly belong to the people." Mueller's populism is authoritarian if not totalitarian; for populists, he claims, "dissent and opposition are by definition suspect, even outright illegitimate." On that understanding, when he sees Donald Trump tweet that "We will all come together as never before," Mueller perceives "more of a threat than a promise."

Mueller goes on to characterize Trump voters as "a white-identity movement," but let's not go there today. Just from what I've quoted, I think it can be seen that Mueller overstates his case against populism as supposedly exemplified by the Trump movement. For him, populism is clearly on a slippery slope to Nazism because of its exclusivist or supremacist assumptions, but I think something slightly less awful is going on. Let me suggest that populism is less a claim of exclusive national or cultural identity and more an assertion of priority best summarized in the familiar slogan, "America First." We might get a better grip on populism if we accept that its opposite is not pluralism, which would make populism totalitarian, but universalism. In the U.S. at least, Trumpist populism rejects first and foremost the idea that the American people should treat everyone on earth the same way we treat each other; that we should let foreign industry compete with domestic industry by any means necessary; that we should let people from any country settle here; that we should care what happens to people in other countries as if it were happening here to us. This is why populists oppose free trade and neocon foreign policy as well as "multicultural" tendencies at home. The guiding idea is that the first priority of foreign policy and trade policy should be to maximize American interests, understood as the material interests of the American people, and not to fulfill any ideological imperative. Domestically, populism is more likely majoritarian rather than dogmatically authoritarian or totalitarian. Majoritarianism can take authoritarian forms, but it isn't necessarily as hostile to pluralism or multiculturalism as Mueller supposes populism to be. It makes pluralists and multiculturalists uncomfortable just the same, not by challenging their legitimacy, much less their existence, but by insisting that on some level -- electorally, at least, but perhaps culturally as well -- minorities are answerable to the majority, on the assumption that the majority has some right to define what the national culture is -- or to say that there is a national culture -- just as it should define the national interest.

Like other non-liberal mentalities, populism may reject a liberal ideal that is individualist as well as multicultural and asserts that it's your unassailable right as a citizen to be yourself, whether that means identification with something other than the majority or traditional culture or an idiosyncratic self-fashioning in defiance of any cultural norm. By rejecting this ideal a populist doesn't necessarily see nonconformists or self-conscious minorities as traitors, but he may feel that such people are failing part of their responsibility as citizens. In our time populism seems inevitably to bend right because most of the American left has shrugged off old notions of individual duty, while populism may have assumptions about citizens' duties (rather than their rights) at its core. The first duty for populist citizens, we can guess, is loyalty in action if not thought to a nationality that is concrete and specific, made up of real people who have a claim on their fellow citizens prior to the imagined claims of humanity. Such a claim offends those who see no contradiction between love of country and love of humanity and thus see populism imposing a zero-sum choice on them at humanity's expense. I don't assume that a populist can't be a humanitarian, but I'd guess that populists see love of country and love of humanity as separate kinds of love that should not be confused with one another to the point of disproportion. If they seem sometimes like ignored or cuckolded spouses in their anger at those who dismiss or disparage their claims, then you're probably getting closer to the essence of populism than many academics do. There's nothing automatically authoritarian about such attitudes, but the attitude comes with an assumption that you don't really have a right to ignore it, and for some people that's just as bad.


Anonymous said...

I think "populism" is an illusion. It is a term liberal-leaning intellectuals throw at something that stands in opposition to their agenda, which they don't understand.

What happened in Britain and the U.S. - and seems to be beginning to gather momentum in much of Europe - is that the "people" are sick of the status quo. They are sick of being told to tighten their belts so the wealthy can get fatter. They haven't reached the point of understanding that there truly is a near-global class war being fought against them, so are not exactly sure who to vent their anger at.

On top of that, there is a very real fear of "radical" islam (although the fear should be directed at islam in general, not just the radical elements.) inundating the West, and our own governments shoving these people - and their unwanted cultures - down our throats.

You know me. You know I used to consider myself more-or-less a liberal, or at least a leftist. Even I have been pushed too far and I know there are others like myself who no longer support "liberalism", "multi-culturalism", "pluralism" or whatever other prettified term the left uses to shove unwanted, uneducated third-world peasants who do not even want to be "American" or join our culture down our throats. The reason tRump won is because the left has become as stupid as the right and those of us on both sides, who consider ourselves intelligent are no longer willing to support the shit sandwiches and giant douchebags the establishment keeps vomiting up.

Samuel Wilson said...

You can definitely argue that "populism" is a chimera, yet liberals also keep the idea alive because they still think there's something to it they can exploit, i.e. dislike for "elites" so long as they are the truly greedy elite, i.e. those opposed to regulations, taxes, higher wages etc., as opposed to liberals' corporate patrons

Americans in particular seem obsessed with "populism" because it was an actual thing here in the late 19th century. That movement didn't get very far, though the People's Party made a respectable showing in the 1892 presidential election. It was "anti-elite" in its opposition to the railroads and the banks, but just as 21st century "populism" seems too white for some people, the 19th century version seemed too rural for the urban working class who dismissed the Populists as a bunch of angry hicks. Why Europeans picked up the term, I can't say. Your explanation may actually apply better to them than to their American counterparts.

It's definitely simpler for "populists" to vent their anger at stupid politicians and an alleged cultural elite than at the people actually making their lives worse, when the former groups can't help insulting them while the latter know better. There has to be a way to not insult this constituency and not appear to be slighting others, or else we'll be stuck with Trumps for decades to come.

Anonymous said...

Well, until the DNC stops thinking it knows what's best for its constituents and actually starts listening TO their constituents, we'll be stuck with Clintonites for awhile to come as well. Yesterday I watched a video from some BLM member demanding that all white people leave the DNC. So the divide gets wider, the hatred runs deeper and intelligence and reason go out the window. Another couple of generations and we will have achieved the American dream: Idiocracy.

Anonymous said...

To answer your question, populism is no more authoritarian than any other form of government. Government, by its nature, is authoritarian. The real question is how oppressive is populism.

Samuel Wilson said...

7:32 - I'm sure the DNC believes that they do listen to their constituents. Their challenge is to recognize who their constituents are, since they tend to miss the forest for the trees. It's not that they should ignore the trees, but they shouldn't ignore the forest, either.They actually should have an easier time "listening" in 2018 and 2020, since they'll have no reason to deny that people are suffering in the economy -- assuming, of course, that Trump hasn't turned things around somehow.

9:36 - By "authoritarian" people usually mean governments with few or no safeguards for civil liberties or checks on the ruling person or party. Populism, despite Mueller's fears, should be no more or less authoritarian than any other ideology in power, since populists aren't really calling for the removal of those checks or safeguards. As for whether it will prove oppressive, there's nothing inherently oppressive about "America First" unless people mean something more specific than "America" when they say that. But if someone sees "populism" as an academic euphemism for "racism," they'll assume that populism is lynch law no matter what the evidence shows.

Anonymous said...

My view on this is to remain as objective as possible. My interest is in the future of humanity. The fact that we NEED to begin working together at some point is self-evident. Unless we are willing to be subjected to draconian population control, or humanity, in general, suddenly realizes they can't just keep popping out babies, then the only option left is to start getting off planet. So that is my interest. Any culture or group of people who stand in the way are completely expendable for the sake of humanity's future. So if some populist movement arose that supported that end, I wouldn't care who they lynched.

If I thought the silly paranoid/delusional fantasies about "illuminati" and "new world order" were true, I'd be trying to join the illuminati.