Category Archives: populism

hearing the faint music of democracy

Democracy has many inherent flaws. This is just the start of a comprehensive list:

  1. Majority tyranny: the many may oppress the few.
  2. Free-riding: it doesn’t pay to be informed or active when you can let others engage instead.
  3. Propaganda: it works.
  4.  Motivated reasoning: people pick information to reinforce existing beliefs.
  5. Boundary problems: many political issues are about who belongs within a given polity, so how can a polity legitimately decide where to draw that line?
  6. The Iron Law of Oligarchy: even in organizations fundamentally committed to equality, a few come to dominate because bureaucracy rewards specialized expertise.
  7. The privileged position of business: because communities need investment, capital will be advantaged even if businesses don’t actively lobby.

Most of these issues have been understood for centuries, yet the scholarly evidence for them accumulates. Then along comes an actual fiasco like the 2016 election, and it’s tempting to give up on the whole idea. Democracy seems to be that system that places a racist fool in the White House.

Yet people have constructed rather remarkable “patches” to keep democracy going. Just for instance, it seems implausible that many citizens would purchase and consume a daily source of fairly independent and well-sourced news that focuses on matters of public importance. But for about a century, most Americans did buy a metropolitan newspaper every day, and the proceeds funded shoe-leather journalism. The newspaper’s financial model worked because people paid for classified ads, comics, and sports as well as news, but they saw the daily headlines on the front page. Although the model was profitable–hence sustainable–it couldn’t have existed without the dedication of the people we call “the press”: professional reporters, editors, publishers, journalism educators (k-16), and some newspaper owners, who were motivated in part by the public interest.

That’s just one example. I would add broad-based political parties, civil rights organizations, public-interest lobbies, responsive government agencies, civic education courses, civic forums, community organizing efforts, the DREAMer movement, and many more.

Why have people worked so hard to create and sustain these efforts, when the flaws of democracy seem intrinsic and intractable? They’ve heard the democratic music as well as the everyday prose.

The music is there if you listen for it. Whitman heard it: “Though it is no doubt important who is elected governor, mayor, or legislator, (and full of dismay when incompetent or vile ones get elected, as they sometimes do,) there are other, quieter contingencies, infinitely more important.” Alexander Hamilton, in most ways so unlike Whitman, heard similar chords. He started the Federalist Papers asking whether we can live together by “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force.” These authors saw republican self-rule not only as a way of making decisions by choice but also as a path to cultural and spiritual development. For Whitman, it meant being able to stand up “without humiliation, and equal with the rest” and starting that “grand experiment of development, whose end, (perhaps requiring several generations,) may be the forming of a full-grown man or woman.”

If we’re smart, we’ll focus on the prose: the catalog of serious and enduring flaws that beset democracy. But if we’re wise, we’ll also hear the music, and that will keep us working on a new generation of solutions.

fighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism

In lieu of a substantive new post here today, I’ll link to an essay of mine on the Oxford University Press blog, “Fighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism.” It concludes, “We need a dose of populism that neither delivers power to a leader nor merely promises fair economic outcomes to citizens as beneficiaries. In this form of populism, diverse people create actual power that they use to change the world together.”

Saturday’s democratic vistas

The ideal of democracy gets weak support today.

Republican presidents from T.R. to George W. Bush presented the United States as a champion of democracy. But a current conservative talking point holds that the US is meant to be a republic, not a democracy, and only the opposition party favors democratic forms of government.

It’s my anecdotal impression that not many Democratic voters are all that enthusiastic about democracy, either; they see a population that likes Donald Trump enough to give him a near-majority, and they are not sure they want that majority to rule.

Overseas, the suppression of the Arab Spring, the frailties of the EU, the rise of popular ethno-nationalists in many countries, and the strong performance of  China’s authoritarian regime have left small-d democrats with a hangover. Julia Ioffe is just one of many well-informed commentators who recalled recent failed democratic uprisings when she observed this weekend’s marches. “Talking to the protesters in Washington today, it was hard not to hear the echoes of the weakness of the Moscow protests five years ago: a vague, unstructured cause; too much diversity of purpose; no real political path forward; and the real potential for the meaning of the day to melt into self-congratulatory complacency.”

Meanwhile, impressive scholarly evidence continues to build that people make political choices on the basis of social identities, not by forming independent opinions of issues; that our conflicting moral views have unconscious bases that are “nearly impregnable to arguments from outsiders“; and that voters are badly uninformed. Walter Lippmann (1925) and Joseph Schumpeter (1942) already held this general view, but the accumulating evidence must be taken seriously.

Many thoughtful people have accepted the diagnosis in full. They are aware of democracy’s real maladies. Unfortunately, their commitment to finding cures is much weaker.

After all, any political system is only as good as we make it. There are generic arguments in favor of core principles of democracy, such as “voting equality at the decisive stage” (Dahl 1989), but there are also generic problems with it, such as majority-tyranny, propaganda, free-riding, motivated reasoning, the “iron law of oligarchy,” and polarization. An actual system based on voting equality will work well only to the degree that we build institutions and norms that can counter its weaknesses. For instance, a city newspaper can address low information and polarization in a metro area–as long as it finds a market and uses its revenues to inform the public. A grassroots political party can overcome free-riding problems by getting citizens involved–but only if it engages citizens.

If we want to build the new institutions and norms that can make democracy work in the 21st century, we need a lot of people to see its potential. We must be hard-headed designers and reformers of institutions, our eyes open to human limitations; but we must also hear old Walt Whitman’s music:

The purpose of democracy … is, through many transmigrations, and amid endless ridicules, arguments, and ostensible failures, to illustrate, at all hazards, this doctrine or theory that man, properly train’d in sanest, highest freedom, may and must become a law, and series of laws, unto himself. …

Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruits in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men, and their beliefs — in religion, literature, colleges, and schools — democracy in all public and private life, and in the army and navy. I have intimated that, as a paramount scheme, it has yet few or no full realizers and believers. I do not see, either, that it owes any serious thanks to noted propagandists or champions, or has been essentially help’d, though often harm’d, by them. …

I submit, therefore, that the fruition of democracy, on aught like a grand scale, resides altogether in the future.

Whitman saw glimpses of that future in his own time, and I think hundreds of thousands of people–including me–scanned new democratic vistas on Saturday. That was the first essential step toward actually repairing our democracy together.

responding to the deep story of Trump voters

(Washington, DC) This is Arlie Russell Hochschild’s now-famous “deep story” of Louisiana Tea Party supporters, their “account of life as it feels to them.” It’s become famous because it’s also the “deep story” of at least some Trump voters:

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

One response to anyone who holds this story is basically: Drop it. The people you believe have moved ahead of you on line are actually still behind, in the sense that they still face unfair disadvantages. For example, an applicant with an identical resume is much less likely to receive a job interview if his name sounds African American rather than White. (My own team is replicating this finding now, as part of a larger study to be released later.) To the extent that some people are moving forward on line, it’s because the most blatant inequalities are being to some extent remedied.

This is true, but I don’t believe it will work politically. I can’t think of any group in history that, upon being informed of its unfair advantages, has responded by yielding them willingly.* The standard response to being told you are privileged is to realize that you have something to defend. And I think that’s an especially likely response if you actually face hardships and disadvantages–which is true of White working-class rural Louisianans.

Waiting in line is a perfect example of a zero-sum situation. Literally, to move one space forward in a queue is to move everyone else one space back. As long as people see themselves in zero-sum relations with others, politics will be ugly. Of course, people don’t have to see the competition in racial terms. If, for instance, White rural Louisianans saw themselves as part of the same group as African-American rural Louisianans, they wouldn’t count successful Black people as winning against them. As Jamelle Bouie wrote yesterday, “many white Americans hold (and have held) a zero-sum view of politics, where gains and benefits for nonwhites are necessarily an imposition on their status.” He adds that how to “fix this white voter problem … is a separate and difficult question.” Telling the people whom Hochschild interviewed that they are racists does not seem to me a likely solution (nor does Bouie suggest it).

A different approach is to attack the zero-sum framing of the situation. People should be asking why anyone must wait so long for the American Dream. White Americans have voted for progressive policies when they have come to think that maybe everyone could achieve a good, secure, prosperous life. The underlying rules could be changed so that everyone wins.

The immediate barrier to that kind of solution is distrust in government. If you don’t believe that government can be trusted to improve the social contract, then the existing contract may seem inevitable. Then your struggle with other people is zero-sum.

And people no longer trust the government much …

Perhaps the most common way to change this trend is to try to “sell” people on the government again– to persuade them that it offers solutions by outlining the policies that it can achieve and by using more effective rhetoric to defend it as an institution.

I dissent in part. People should not trust governments. As Jean Cohen writes, “One can only trust people, because only people can fulfill obligations.” Trust in the US government, as displayed by the American public ca. 1958, was naive. It often involved viewing presidents and other national leaders as friendly personalities, which reflected poor judgment. When it comes to governments and other large institutions, we ought to use one of these substitutes for trust:

  1. A sober assessment that the incentives are aligned to make the people who run the government also look out for our interests. I don’t think rural White Louisianans have much reason to make that assessment, even though, in my view, they would have been much better off with Clinton than with Trump.
  2. Personal connections to people who work in or closely with government. Because politics and government service are now the preserves of white-collar professionals, working-class people have few such connections. Consider, for example, the almost total absence of actual, current working-class people at both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.
  3. Intermediary organizations that tangibly answer to us and (in turn) influence governments. Unions [and grassroots-based political parties] were prime examples, but they are shattered.

I’d support anything that makes White Americans less likely to see zero-sum situations in racial terms. But I believe it’s most promising to reduce the zero-sum situation more generally. Improving the social contract requires large institutions. Governments are strong candidates, although unions, co-ops, and other nongovernmental structures can be effective as well. Any large institution must, in turn, have direct, human connections to the people whose support it seeks. That means that even if the government is our main tool for social change, we need more than the state by itself; it must come with a panoply of social movements and organizations that link people to it. The hollowing out of these movements and organizations is thus at the root of our problems.

See also why the white working class must organizeto beat Trump, invest in organizingbuilding grassroots power in and beyond the election.

*Partial exception: the French nobility voted on August 4, 1789 to abolish the privileges of feudalism, spending all night eliminating one major privilege at a time by majority vote. It was a heady spectacle, but many of them lost their actual heads in 1793-4. Besides, they were voting for a new regime that promised all kinds of glories, not just moving themselves down the social hierarchy.

separating populism from anti-intellectualism

I’m a populist, yet I advocate the life of the mind. I’d like to see less elitism (of certain kinds) along with more intense and widespread intellectual inquiry. Unfortunately, the most prominent varieties of populism today are anti-intellectual. This is a problem rooted in social structures. Some of the solutions involve changing the way formal educational institutions work. Others involve enhancing intellectual life in informal contexts.

Let’s define “anti-intellectualism” as a rejection of advanced, specialized, complicated thought, which is viewed as antithetical to common sense. According to Mark Fisher (The Washington Post 7/17), Donald Trump is an explicit anti-intellectual:

He said in a series of interviews that he does not need to read extensively because he reaches the right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.” Trump said he is skeptical of experts because “they can’t see the forest for the trees.” He believes that when he makes decisions, people see that he instinctively knows the right thing to do: “A lot of people said, ‘Man, he was more accurate than guys who have studied it all the time.'” … Trump said reading long documents is a waste of time because he absorbs the gist of an issue very quickly. “I’m a very efficient guy,” he said. “Now, I could also do it verbally, which is fine. I’d always rather have — I want it short. There’s no reason to do hundreds of pages because I know exactly what it is.”

Presumably, Trump’s anti-intellectualism was more of a political asset than a liability in the campaign, and that tells us something about our culture. (On the other hand, one of the most curious and thoughtful political leaders in modern America–and a very fine writer–won the two previous presidential elections, so politics is not a vast wasteland.)

Let’s define “anti-elitism” as a rejection of the superior position, entitlement, and power of some privileged group. This is different from anti-intellectualism because an elite needn’t be defined by knowledge or expertise: the business class, for instance, usually is not. However, the two ideas often come together, not only in Trump’s rhetoric but in many other examples from American history. For instance, in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), Richard Hofstadter wrote:

The kind of anti-intellectualism expressed in official circles during the 1950’s was mainly the traditional businessman’s suspicion of experts working in any area outside his control, whether in scientific laboratories, universities, or diplomatic corps. Far more acute and sweeping was the hostility to intellectuals expressed on the far-right wing, a categorical folkish dislike of the educated classes and of any thing respectable, established, pedigreed, or cultivated. The right-wing crusade of the 1950’s was full of heated rhetoric about “Harvard professors, twisted-thinking intellectuals … in the State Department; those who are “burdened with Phi Beta Kappa keys and academic honors” but not “equally loaded with honesty and common sense”; “the American respectables, the socially pedigreed, the culturally acceptable, the certified gentlemen and scholars of the day, dripping with college degrees .. . the “best people” who were for Alger Hiss”; “the pompous diplomat in striped pants with phony British accent”; those who try to fight Communism “with kid gloves in perfumed drawing rooms “; Easterners who “insult the people of the great Midwest and West, the heart of America; those who can “trace their ancestry back to the eighteenth century or even further” but whose loyalty is still not above suspicion; those who understand “the Groton vocabulary of the Hiss-Achcson group.”

The businessmen who distrusted independent intellectuals represented one elite quarreling with a different one–Wall Street and Detroit struggled for influence with the Ivy League and the State Department. But the “far right-wing” rejected elites that they defined in terms of social privilege rather than intellectualism. For these people, the problem with Groton School alumni was not their sophisticated ways of thought but their social pedigree and arrogance. These right populists were against Wall Street and Harvard. Although Hafstadter is writing here about the right wing, some left populists share the same targets.

I think anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism come together because educational institutions serve two functions simultaneously.

On one hand, schools and colleges are spaces for intellectual inquiry. They are the most prominent and best supported places where people address unanswered questions of public importance, conduct deep and sustained conversations about unresolved topics, and model and teach the skills and values required for those pursuits.

At the same time, schools and colleges confer social status. A college degree is a prerequisite for occupying many of the advantaged slots in our social order. Educational institutions at all levels teach not only intellectual skills, but also manners, modes of social interaction, and ways of writing and speaking that mark out the advantaged class. And despite their protestations that they admit students fairly, they are dominated by children of privileged groups. For reasons that I’ve explored in some length, I don’t think this situation is likely to change markedly.

To make matters even more fraught, the genuine search for knowledge can be conducted arrogantly or else responsively. One can pursue the truth by studying other people and their problems in order to change those people (for good or ill), or one can listen and create knowledge together. Finally, claims to advanced knowledge can be trustworthy or not. After all, highly credentialed experts are the ones who told us to blast highways through inner cities, minimize fat consumption, and invade Iraq.

I think several trends worsen the conflation of populism with anti-intellectualism today.

First, although advanced intellectual inquiry occurs in some spaces that aren’t educational institutions–community organizing groups, online magazines, some religious communities, and hip hop–the state of “informal” intellectual life does not seem to be strong today compared to the past. Most of the people who can spend a lot of their time reading, writing, and talking about complex issues work as teachers or professors.

Second, tools for data collection, analysis, and influence are giving frightening amounts of power to people who possess and deploy information.

Third, in a post-industrial economy, the workforce is increasingly divided between people who work with their hands in low-status roles, and others who work with symbols and data. The former understandably wonder why they must pay for the latter, whether directly or via taxation. University of Wisconsin professor Kathy Cramer describes how she would visit small towns in her state and introduce herself “as a public opinion scholar from the state’s flagship university.” When she asked citizens what concerned them most, they often “expressed a deeply felt sense of not getting their ‘fair share’ …. They felt that they didn’t get a reasonable proportion of decision-making power, believing that the key decisions were made in the major metro areas of Madison [where Kathy works] and Milwaukee, then decreed out to the rest of the state, with little listening being done to people like them.” It became clear to Cramer that when they complained about people who didn’t work hard enough, they were “talking about the laziness of desk-job white professionals like me.” Why did their tax dollars have to pay for someone to drive around the state asking people political questions so she could write her books?

Finally, today seems like a time of growing deference to high-status people. As I wrote last fall:

We live at a time when billionaires, celebrities, and CEOs are given extraordinary deference, especially in comparison to run-of-the-mill elected officials, civil servants, union leaders, and grassroots organizers. Politicians, for instance, are constantly in contact with their wealthiest constituents. First-year Democratic Members of the House are advised to spend four hours per day of every day calling donors. Meanwhile, many advocacy groups are funded by rich individuals, not sustained by membership dues, so their leaders are also constantly on the phone or at conferences and meetings with wealthy people.

One solution is to identify, strengthen, and lift up informal spaces where people who haven’t attended college–at least, not recently–engage in intense intellectual work. When I interviewed the great community organizer Ernesto Cortés, Jr. (Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) co-chair and executive director of the West / Southwest IAF regional network), he told me this was his organization’s strategy:

Building talented, committed, enterprising relational organizers through recruitment, training, and mentoring. We develop their capacity to be reciprocal, relational organizers. Ask–what do Aristotle and Aquinas say? Explore the different traditions. Offer all kinds of seminars with a wide range of scholars from left, right, center. Develop their intellectual capacity, which is the capacity to be deliberative. Help them to understand labor, capitalism, the various faith traditions, strategic thinking. We offer what amount to postgraduate-level seminars in how to create effective leaders in an institutional context–not lone celebrity activists–people who build institutions that can then be networked together. …

Another example is the impressive array of liberal arts programs now being taught in prisons on a pro bono basis by professors. For instance, the Jessup Correctional Institution Scholars Program explains:

Our Program is dedicated to a simple concept: no one in society should be deprived of access to ideas. This has led all of us, through different paths, to seek opportunities to teach and learn outside the walls of the academy, built to keep people out on the basis of their social standing and financial means. And it has ultimately led us to bring intellectual discussion inside the walls of the prison, a space that too many people consider radically separate from society. We see society as a whole riddled with locked doors and those of the prison are just one more set that we hope to open.

Everyone in the program is a scholar, and we think of ourselves as on equal moral and intellectual footing – we strive to create course content as a collaboration between teachers and students, and to make classes free-ranging discussions and workshops more than lectures.

Another solution is to do the intellectual work of the university in ways that better engage laypeople. Guided in part by Albert Dzur, I argue that the way to accomplish this is not to teach graduate students and PhD researchers to be more modest and humble. That message never sticks with an ambitious group, and it’s not really the ideal, anyway. We actually need more courageous and enterprising research. Instead, we can recognize that engaging members of the public in creating and using knowledge requires highly advanced skills–it’s a form of democratic professionalism. We should teach, evaluate, and reward excellent democratic professionalism in the academy.

A third solution is for the academy to take more responsibility–at the institutional level–for communicating research and intellectual life. It used to make some sense to assume that academics conducted research and professional reporters selected and translated the most relevant findings for their readers or listeners via mass media. If that model ever worked, it doesn’t work now that 30% fewer people are employed as professional reporters. Just as institutions of higher education created public broadcasting, so they must now launch new forms of communication.

None of these three strategies will solve the underlying problem completely. The social underpinnings are problematic and require reform. Meanwhile, there are tempting political payoffs for politicians who demonize intellectual life. But these are three ways of fighting back.