20 January 2019

The populist problem persists

In the January 28 Nation historian Steven Hahn takes a try at addressing the populist problem in an article reviewing another batch of books on the subject. From Hahn's progressive perspective, the problem is that "populism," a term that ought to have progressive connotations (isn't it "people-ism," after all?) but is increasingly identified with xenophobia and other forms of bigotry. Hahn and other writers hope to find in the essence of populism something that can be detached from petty hatreds and directed at the only "elite" worth opposing, the capitalist class.

Hahn at least seems to recognize that this won't be an easy task because populism, as he understands it, is founded on a longing for community. He finds a conservative writer, Patrick J. Deneen more helpful on this score than some more hysterical liberal writers. Deneen is specifically a critic of liberalism -- his book is Why Liberalism Failed -- and Hahn is also a critic of a liberalism that has gone too far in the direction of individualism. Hahn appears to agree with Deneen that individualism has had the paradoxical consequence of amplifying state power and bureacratic dominion at the expense of community solidarity as individuals appeal above their communities for protection of a variety of rights, economic, sexual and otherwise.  Hahn departs from Deneen, however, in cautioning against the excesses of traditional communitarianism: "insularity, demands for conformity, hostility to outsiders, entrenched hierarchies organized around gender and race, and the infliction of so-called rough justice."

Hahn hopes to discover, if not help create, a populism that occupies a middle ground between the hyper-individualist  liberalism that exacerbates inequality and the old-school intolerant communitarianism that liberalism rebelled against. He never mentions socialism at all but it's clear that the populism he wants will be socialistic in its politics, creating stronger bonds of community through greater democracy, but liberal in its respect for personal diversity. The word for that might be "utopian" rather than "populist," especially if Hahn expects his ideal populists to affirm universalist values and extend their vision if equality worldwide. Populism, it seems, is always going to fall short of universalism. It always seems to exalt an "our own" that by definition is something different from humanity as a whole, and it tends to see any liberal, socialist or other movement of global scope as a betrayal. You hear populism, or a sort of populism, when someone accuses someone else of caring more for some outside that for "our own." The absence of that is simply egalitarianism and should be called that rather than "populism." I still understand why the word appeals to the left and why leftists want to claim it for themselves, but if it's still true that "vox populi vox dei," then populism will always be the voice of a jealous god.

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