Populist Hatred?


Caricature of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. (Credit: DonkeyHotey)

Trumpism is not uncommonly associated with populism as a politics of hate.

Question: How despicable is Donald Trump the presidential candidate?

Answer: He’s a racist, a misogynist, a bigot, an authoritarian . . . and a populist. (more…)

Not This Woman, But Barabbas


Hillary Clinton on 9 February 2016. (Credit: Ted Eytan)

Then cried they all again, saying, Not this man, but Barabbas. Now Barabbas was a robber.

KJ, John 18:40

The Mozart of baseball journalists, an exquisite writer whom I have admired for decades, has shamed me into revealing—for whatever little it’s worth—my vote in the next presidential election. To read Roger Angell’s distinctive, lucid prose is like listening to the song of a water spirit in a fresh mountain stream. At the age of a youthful 96 years, Angell has taken to the pages of the New Yorker (his long-time home) to declare his vote for Hillary Clinton.

I once heard Ruben Berríos, leader of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, say that a US presidential election was always a choice between “Mr. Hamburger and Mr. Hot Dog.” The customary spectacle in our time of two unfortunate male clowns lunging for the presidential chair has been—to say the very least—disheartening. But there is a never-before-seen wrinkle in this year’s election: it is a choice between Mr. Hot Dog and a Woman. Hillary Clinton may yet turn out to be another fool in our endless parade of presidential clowns, but there is no doubt that Donald Trump will be a vulgar buffoon.

I have taken my responsibilities as a democratic voter seriously in this election. At the risk of my sanity, I have heard most of the primary debates, followed the news assiduously in print and social media, and have taken the time—seeking surcease of sorrow—to review the history, speeches and debates of the greatest of presidents, Abraham Lincoln. At the end of this self-imposed Way of the Cross, through which I sought revelation in penance, I make mine Roger Angell’s words: “I will cast my own vote for Hillary Clinton with alacrity and confidence.” And let me clarify: I am not voting for Clinton because I think Trump is a punk (although I do). Trump, to my mind, was the very best of the stable of presidential candidates Republicans offered US voters in the primaries; I will vote for Clinton because I trust (I do) that as president she will walk on paths that I think best for this great country. (more…)

Representing the People

Presentación del Documental CATASTROIKA y Presentación de la Revista Debates y Combates

Professor Ernesto Laclau during a presentation in Ecuador, 16 May 2012. (Credit: Cancillería Ecuador)

Ernesto Laclau’s conception of populist reason, as I mentioned in a recent post, is an account of the people being constituted in discourse. It complicates the distinction between speaking by and speaking for the people. A “people” exists in and through the practice of representation. The representative reflects in some degree the identity of those represented but also adds something to the mix (such as an informed judgment on a matter in dispute), which contributes to their identity. Representation “is a two-way process,” moving back and forth between represented and representative, with the identity of a “people” subject to reconstruction rather than frozen in time.[i]

Laclau insisted “the construction of a ‘people’ would be impossible without the operation of mechanisms of representation.” Those mechanisms include the articulation of an empty signifier with which people can identify because it represents (names, incarnates, invests) a chain of equivalences among a heterogeneity of unmet demands.[ii] This process is integral to the operation of democracy. (more…)

The Chair of Abraham Lincoln


Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, 9 February 1864, by Anthony Berger. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Assume for a moment that the present status of undocumented immigrants in the US is exactly what we want it to be: except for the criminals, we want them working in the country (in spite of our self-righteous talk about walls and mass deportations); but we don’t want to legalize their status—no amnesty and no path to US citizenship. In these times of deplorable political rhetoric, one does well to find guidance in the bosom of Abraham Lincoln, who was once branded “Abraham Africanus I” by a Copperhead political pamphlet.

Lincoln understood the 1857 Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court as a cog (“piece of machinery so to speak”) in an effort by the Southern states to “declare the perfect freedom of the people, to be just no freedom at all.”

Here is Lincoln’s analysis of the decision: (more…)

Discourse of the People


South side of the United States-Mexico border wall in Progreso Lakes, Texas. 21 March 2016. (Credit: Rebajae / Wikimedia Commons)

J. Dionne, Jr., an opinion writer for the Washington Post, prefers civility over boorishness in politics. Most of us concur that contemporary politics are degraded more than usual, even if we are suspicious of the ideal of civility, which too readily serves the interests of the already overly privileged. Of course, boorishness can serve that same undemocratic purpose.

Dionne worries specifically about Donald Trump’s racism in the current presidential campaign. Drawing from Lee Drutman, Dionne writes that Trump is not an aberration of Republican Party politics but is instead a historical culmination of a strategy grounded in racial affect. Trump’s “indifference to truth and consistency” is what happens when the necessary balance between reason and emotion in politics devolves into “absolute cynicism . . . about voters, their attention spans and democracy itself.”

So what is at stake here? In Dionne’s opinion, “the democratic idea is in grave jeopardy when citizens simply shrug over being manipulated and don’t expect more from their political leaders than posturing, positioning and captivating media circuses.” (more…)

Waiting for Monica

Mónica Puig at the 2014 China Open. (Credit: Tatiana / Wikimedia Commons)

Mónica Puig at the 2014 China Open. (Credit: Tatiana / Wikimedia Commons)

Two weeks ago, after writing a series of posts about Puerto Rico for our Hunt the Devil blog, I sat at the bar of the Caribe Hilton in San Juan nursing a drink and watching the sunset on the beach. At such times, it is easy to understand how the first explorers believed they had found Paradise when they discovered the Caribbean islands.

Suddenly my contemplation was disturbed by a storm of police sirens, fire trucks blaring, PA systems screeching, TV news reporters and a mob of hotel guests rushing towards the entrance of the hotel. To the anxious question what is happening? the bartender answered with Beckettian simplicity: “Monica’s here.”

He was referring to the arrival of Monica Puig, first athlete to ever win a gold medal playing for Puerto Rico, fresh from her victory at the Rio Olympics in the single women’s tennis event. She was staying in the hotel complex to train for the upcoming US Open tournament, and to attend a scheduled parade in her honor. At this point in time my wife Margarita, who is a native born Puerto Rican, left the seat beside me to join the rushing crowd trying to get phone pictures of Monica. (more…)

Three-Dimensional Democracy


“Stump Speaking,” oil on canvas, by George Caleb Bingham, 1853-54. (Credit: St. Louis Art Museum)

“. . . faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Hebrews 11.1 (Holy Bible NRSV)

Surely, faith in democracy is a steadfast hope for a condition of self-rule that so far remains unrealized—a belief in the unseen.   What passes for democracy these days is more akin to oligarchy than self-rule, with democracy reduced to the conceit of ritualized voting.

The political imagination, as Sheldon Wolin holds, is a function of vision, of “seeing” a phenomenon in political space from a particular angle or perspective. Such vision can be descriptive or, more to the point, imaginative. As an act of imagination, it expresses fundamental values and seeks to transcend history. It is a multidimensional image that projects “the political order into a time that is yet to be”—an aesthetic vision of “political society in its corrected fullness, not as it is but as it might be.”[i]

An image of the people engaged in self-rule is the essence of the democratic faith. Two of its three dimensions, as I indicated in “Democracy with Property,” are the twin populist principles of increased political decentralization and adequate distribution of personal wealth, enough to keep elites from dominating the citizenry.   (more…)

Democracy with Property

Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Official Presidential portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Democracy is impossible without an adequate distribution of personal wealth. This is a fundamental premise too easily lost in the political fog of radical individualism and too easily confused with the collectivism of socialism. It is a populist vision of the path to real democracy. Adrian Kuzminski’s history of populism traces this vision back to ancient Greece and forward to modern times.[i]

What is an adequate distribution of personal wealth? It means a degree of economic independence, enough to enable citizens “to come together more or less as political equals.” It presumes a right to possess private property, not just an opportunity to struggle for it.[ii] (more…)

Populism’s Democratic Excess


Cleisthenes, the father of Greek democracy. (Credit: ohiochannel.org)

“To various degrees and in various ways, more traditional politicians have used elements of Trumpist ‘reasoning’ to whip up populist enthusiasm. In that sense, he [Donald Trump] does not represent some wholly new spirit in U.S. politics, but he is a reflection of its worst incentives and a magnification of its worst pathologies.”

Stephen Stromberg, Washington Post, July 22, 2016

Populism, as we discussed in our previous post, is commonly invoked to warn of a democratic deficit (the canary in the tunnel of elite rule) and/or to pronounce a slur against democracy (the irrationality of mobocracy). The invocation is a ritual of naysaying that sustains the rule of elites.

Either way (as a warning or a slur), political theorist Ernesto Laclau observes that populism typically is “linked to a dangerous excess.” It is described in this way so that “the kind of rationality inherent to its political logic [is] excluded a priori.” Populism is constituted in negative, rather than positive, terms as a vague, imprecise, manipulative, and emotional deviancy from conventional reason and wisdom. This prejudice clouds the possibility of seeing populism as “a performative act endowed with a rationality of its own” and, thus, as a “legitimate way among others of constructing the political bond.” Indeed, Laclau affirms, populism and the construction of a “people” are integral to democracy, “the sine qua non of democratic functioning.”[i] (more…)

Populism and the Democratic Imagination

"The Demagogue," oil on canvas, by José Clemente Orozco, 1946. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“The Demagogue,” oil on canvas, by José Clemente Orozco, 1946. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Populism is the canary in the coal mine of American representative democracy.”

Robert Westbrook, “Populist Fever”[i]

John Lukacs, in his book on Democracy and Populism, ominously observes that Hitler was a populist and in some ways a democrat.[ii] Representative democracy, grounded in the political principles of liberalism, is one thing. Raw democracy is another. As Lukacs puts the matter: “Majority rule is tempered by the legal assurance of the rights of minorities, and of individual men and women. And when this temperance is weak, or unenforced, or unpopular, then democracy is nothing more (or else) than populism” (p. 5).

The populist “fever” is a political “fury,” an “outburst,” in Robert Westbrook’s words. George Packer, writing in the New Yorker, remarks on “the volatile nature of populism.” It is a rhetoric, he says, that can “ignite reform or reaction, idealism or scapegoating . . . . It speaks of a battle of good against evil, demanding simple answers to difficult problems.” Populism can take a “conspiratorial and apocalyptic bent,” Packer observes. It is “suspicious of the normal bargaining and compromise that constitute democratic governance.” The populist politician—whether Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump—presumes to “articulate what ordinary people feel.”

By this reckoning, Trump’s rhetorical volatility is the mark of his populist appeal, his demagoguery. (more…)