populism

Toxic Language Alert for Campaign 2020: Confounding Populism with Demagoguery

Note:  This essay first appeared in Public Seminar, April 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to supporters at a rally at the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, Iowa, 7 March 2019. (Credit: Matt A. Johnson)

In early April, Washington Post’s adversarial columnist Dana Milibank dubbed Bernie Sanders “the Donald Trump of the left,”  noting perfunctorily at the end of his column that his wife, Anna Greenberg, “works for John Hickenlooper, a Democratic presidential candidate.”  One can assume that Milibank is entering the fray over whom to select to run on the Democratic Party ticket.

As the Democratic Party struggles to work through internal differences, including how far left is too far to defeat Donald Trump, a robust debate can be productive and even contribute to coalition building. Yet the chance of a constructive outcome decreases to the degree that caricature substitutes for characterization and, in the present case, populism is mistaken for demagoguery. (more…)

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Trembling for my Country

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Jefferson Memorial at dusk, 4 October 2011. (Credit: Joe Ravi)

“It’s come to that. I tremble for my country.” These chilling, Jeffersonian words could be the refrain of an unwritten elegy on the fate of the republic.[i] They are the lament of a judicious person I know in Washington, D.C., a person who has served in previous administrations of both political parties and now works as a policy adviser. They are words to express the inchoate angst lurking inside us. Could anyone—even someone stunned by the last presidential election—have foreseen our present predicament of government unhinged and politics gone vile? Yes, it’s come to that, and I, too, tremble for my country. (more…)

Democracy in Authoritarian Times

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American poet Walt Whitman, September 1872, Brooklyn, New York. (Credit: G. Frank E. Pearsall)

We promote a mythic sensibility in this forum on the assumption that, for good or ill, myth is ubiquitous in human affairs. Our goal is not to debunk myth. We expose it where it harms polity and sustains war, but we also wish to cultivate myth to redeem democracy and promote peaceful pursuits.    

A culture of positive peace requires a democratic ethos. Democracy is not simply a matter of voting. It is an attitude, an outlook, a way of life that entails managing our serious differences robustly and constructively. It is not to be confused with the present outbreak of authoritarian populism and demonizing rhetoric.

As E. J. Dionne Jr. maintains, populism per se is not a villain nor is it necessarily hostile to democracy. The kind of populism that maintains faith with democracy does so by challenging “ruling elites to face up to injustices that undermine free institutions.” It does not define “the people” narrowly or treat political opponents as enemies. (more…)

Beyond the Howling Mob

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Saturday March 22, 2009 anti-war protest march on the Pentagon. Photo credit: Bill Hackwell, ANSWERcoalition.org

Historian John Lukacs is no friend of popular democracy. In his view, “Populism and nationalism are the very worst (and, alas, powerful) components of democracy.”[i]

Lukacs laments the decline of liberal democracy and warns that as “democracy devolves toward populism, the danger of tyranny by the majority arises.” Populism means the rise of aggressive nationalism, of demagogues and dictators. Hitler was a practitioner of populist nationalism who knew how to manipulate the masses. In the present “age of democracy,” superficiality is valued over knowledge and authority.[ii]

The rhetoric of nationalist populism, according to Lukacs, “appeals to tribal and racial bonds.” It is “folkish.” It is infused with “the myth of a ‘people.’” It unites people by “hate.” Populists are suspicious of anyone who does not belong to their “tribe.”[iii] (more…)

Populism and the Prospect of Democracy

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Supporter of Donald Trump at a rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. (Credit: Gage Skidmore)

Time magazine’s feature story, “Trump Goes to War,” observes that “Trump has exposed something real: a populist fury at the decades of bipartisan consensus for a more globalized world.” Trump is the star of “a new brand of populist nationalism.”[i]

Populist fury and populist nationalism are themes common to reporting and editorializing on the notorious presidential campaign of 2016. Most often they signal to readers, on behalf of ruling elites, that democracy (symbolized by the specter of populism) is out of control. In some cases, though, the warning is not so self-serving.

Robert Borosage, a progressive political activist writing for the Nation magazine, asked in early October why the contest was so close: “How can a candidate so clearly unfit for office, a foul, boorish cad who has insulted a majority of the voters and embarrassed the remainder, be so competitive with Hillary Clinton, one of the most experienced and prepared presidential candidates in history?” His answer: “It’s the populism, stupid.” (more…)

Populist Hatred?

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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…)

Three-Dimensional Democracy

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“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…)

Populism’s Democratic Excess

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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…)