TPMCafe’s guest stint by Thomas Frank (One Market Under God, by the way, is a masterpiece) has stirred a spirited debate about the place of populism in a progressive future. Populism is a word which has rightly come up fairly frequently in more- and less-enlightened discussions of the left’s future, but too often it seems like folks are talking past each other. Here are six of the somewhat but not entirely related themes I think are in play in the way different people discuss populism: Progressive Economics: In broad strokes, the economic policy proposals that get labeled as populist are the ones least popular with the Washington Post editorial board and the “Washington Consensus” crowd: fair trade or no trade; downward economic redistribution; unionization. Opposition to immigration often gets grouped in here as well as part of the same package, though for obvious reasons I’d rather apply the populist label to the push for equal labor rights for immigrants. Direct Democracy: The other set of policy proposals which usually get the populist labels are the ones which bring political decisions under more direct control of the American public. This includes taking decisions away from judges and handing them over to legislatures and taking them away from legislatures and handing them over to public referenda. Trust in crowds: Populism is also used to describe a posture – whether held by politicians or activists – of trust in the mass public and distrust in elites. Usually, trust in the public is justified by an appeal to the wisdom of common people in identifying their own problems and synthesizing their own solutions. And distrust in elites is justified on the grounds of their inability to understand those insights or, more often, their narrow interests. Democratic Legitimacy: Populism also describes a particular kind of appeal made by elected or unelected political leaders. Candidates for office, especially, tend to get the populist label for seizing democratic legitimacy for themselves – that is, for framing themselves as the bearers and protectors of the people’s will. The corollary to the candidate as representative of the masses is the candidate as enemy of the elites, whose hostility is easily explained by their opposition to the popular policies and popular mandate. Prejudice: Populism is also a frequently-invoked label to describe all manner of ugly prejudice, be it directed against Blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or immigrants. In this conception, populism is the cry of some self-defined majority against unwelcome interlopers. This meaning of populism – which gives elites a lot of credit - is never far when someone’s looking to discredit one of the others. Economic Focus: Maybe the simplest sense in which the word populism is used is to refer to a focus on economic issues (rather than a particular stance on them), to the exclusion of others. That makes two kinds of policy approaches, two rhetorical/ philosophical postures, a question of focus, and a very bad thing (generally thrown into the mix by pundits like Joe Klein to make everything associated with the word sound ugly). Each of them, though, has a way of showing up implicitly in discussions about what is or should be populist. What does it mean, for example, to ask whether Bill Clinton was a populist President? He often gets described that way, in large part because he ran on the economy (“It’s the Economy, Stupid”), and because his challenge to Bush benefited significantly from a sense that Clinton represented the concerns of the American people with which the President had fallen out of touch (and supermarket ray-guns). Others associate Clinton with the decline of populism in the Democratic party, and of the party in the country, pointing to his conservative stance on issues like NAFTA and the technocratic underpinnings of the “Reinventing Government” concept. I’m not going to say they’re both right (I'd say Clinton campaigned as a populist, but he didn't govern as much of one). I will say that on those terms, it’s no surprise that those conversations don’t get farther than they do. Thoughts?


Blogger Zach said...

I think a large part of the populist label, as far as Clinton is concerned, has to do not with policy but rather with the politics of style and image - Clinton's humble origins and trailer park childhood, his plebeian southern accent, affable demeanor, abundant charisma, and "man from Hope" mystique cling to a sort of populist structure of feeling even if Clinton's own economism was technocratic and about as anti-democratic as you can get without involving Karl Rove. (Anyone remember the MAI?) Oh wait, i just reread your last paragraph, and i releazied you pretty much said all that.

And economism/economic focus itself can be deeply problematic and can either result in racialized understandings of difference (the various right wing populisms of the last half-century or more) or in essentialized and grossly simplistic mistheorizations of culture, consciousness, and everyday life -- as many on the left have argued Thomas Frank's reading of Kansas and its Matters to be.

I wonder if it even makes sense to look at the antiglobalization movements through the lens of populism, or if in fact what began with the zapatistas was ultimately a sweeping reinvention of the popular a la Hardt and Negri's Multitude. Is the defenition of populism you use here applicable to9 the various Latin American reformist traditions - Peronismo, the policies and successors of Cardenas, the Arevalo/Arbenz moment in Guatemala?

I'm more sympathetic with your attempt to reclaim populism here than i am with attempts to embrace or rehabilitate liberal politics, but i ultimately think that the terms and stakes of this conversation need to be radically changed.

I'm not sure if i'm making any sense.

7/28/2005 01:15:00 AM  

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