Populism on the Half Shell
The Personal Weblog of Edward W. Farrell   
Populism on the Half Shell Saturday, May 14, 2022
I've been thinking over the recent populist flowerings in the US and in Europe and the things that led to them. These are more the thoughts of a citizen on the ground than an academic study, and are mostly applicable to the post-2016 United States. Insofar as contemporary populism is a feature of Europe as well as the US, these thoughts may also apply to Brexit and even somewhat to Hungary and Poland, though your mileage may vary.

Potential populists are any among the mass of everyday working people whose only dog in a political fight is maintaining whatever conditions keep them fulfilled, employed, and offer a real possibility of advancing their status and autonomy. Their main interests are simply having fruitful lives for their families and friends--not the machinations of politics. But when these interests are threatened, they become dissatisfied and in their politically unsophisticated way begin to look for redress. Now they become real, not potential, populists. But they do not thereby gain a voice. In today's post-modern, hyper-politicized climate such lack of voice is unfortunately fatal. And so contemporary populists become the left behind hoi polloi whose social scope is family, church, communities (where they still exist), and whatever other local and traditional loyalties remain in an increasingly technologized, homogenized, and globalized world. They are ignored by anyone even pretending to be progressive, much as you'd ignore the potholes in a road you can't yet afford to patch. But populists can only be ignored until their dissent coupled with their large numbers trashes the ambitious plans currently underway for a glorious world that excludes them.

Populists feel betrayed by the movers and shakers of the world who they faintly hoped were working in their best interests but were actually working in the interest of something else. What is this "something else?" Nothing less than a perfectly homogenous world untroubled by nationality or biology or religion, a world superficially diverse in ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation but lockstep in rigid ideology and hatred of dissent; a world, oddly enough, that's perfectly suited to fuel the engines of global commerce which feeds the global lust for feel-good distraction. The down payment for this perfect world is the perfect elimination of populists. Populists have discovered this by observing the inexorable erosion of their accustomed way of life over several decades along with the livelihoods that once supported their freedom of self-determination--all to the tune of "things are getting better all the time."  When they have the temerity to ask "getting better for whom?" and become too loud to be ignored, or God forbid they support a Trump, they receive a scornful lecture that they're working against their own best interests, which they are too stupid to understand. But they understand what this means: shut up and quit interfering with the best interests of your employers, their employers, all the government wonks that tirelessly work to support the wealth brokers to whom everyone grovels, and everyone else who knows nothing except that you and your kind are an albatross hung on civilization's neck.

Populism is not a feature of the governing or administrative classes since it arises in opposition to them. But it is not in itself a competing leadership paradigm, so its "arising" should not be confused with revolution--"revolution" here defined as overthrowing and replacing the old order of things with something entirely new. Quite the opposite--populists are the old order of things and they're resisting the new arising order sought by progressivism and globalism. Does this mean progressivism and globalism are revolutionary? Yes, although the tenor of this revolution is different from previous ones, and hinges on the question: "When does progress become revolution?" This could be more fully phrased as "In what manner does the "progress" lauded by progressives since the early 20th century lead to a new social order that for most people is unanticipated and unwelcome?"  This underscores that the current spate of populism is not simply a reflexive reaction of unthinking people to economic circumstances; it's a clash of traditional and progressive worldviews exacerbated by economic and civil unrest. Worldviews are articulated by intellectuals in every case and there is a rich literature supporting recent populist contentions. However, populism is not aligned with any political party and therefore lacks the sanction of the mainstream political class. This is the main reason it is so vulnerable to political adventurism, since its leaders must come from outside the fold and such leaders often have an autocratic temperament that would not easily survive in the consensus driven, committee infested world of political parties.

Ironically, the mainstream opposition to populism is more knee-jerk than the populist uprising itself, and this drives the mainstream away from any line of thought that might sanction populist grievances, and does not acknowledge or even investigate populism's true depth and breadth. This is why the political mainstream was dumbstruck and sucker-punched by Trump's election and Brexit's success, and why their dominant response has been to demonize their opponents and gnash their teeth endlessly. A more constructive response is in order considering the fearful places that unaddressed populism has led to in the past, but to date this has not been forthcoming from our mainstream politicos. Until this happens musings like these will remain academic and subsequent cause and effect will transpire in the fog of culture war.    

Preconditions for Contemporary Populist Uprisings

1 A large minority or even a majority of citizens who are loyal to their traditional culture and mores but are governed by a progressive political and intellectual class who wish to replace or at least remake the traditional culture along collectivist lines. "Collectivist" as used here loosely means a favoring of groups over individuals, centralization of state power, managed uniformity of social and economic outcomes, and adversarial in-group out-group dynamics.

2 The traditional culture is governed by an ethic of individual freedom that favors equal opportunity and free enterprise. It favors non-discrimination as an ideal but does not otherwise restrict advancement of the most successful in favor of the less successful, and though it accepts regulation does not favor redistribution of wealth outside of rudimentary tax collection to fund general welfare projects such as infrastructure and police and military protection.

3 The progressive leadership culture is governed by an ethic of fairness defined by equal social outcomes, and which seeks to equalize social outcomes by legislation and subsequent bureaucratic management to achieve state-formulated redistribution of wealth, and more importantly state-formulated redistribution of opportunity via status-ranked group classifications of minorities and assigning forced employment and education admissions quotas on the basis of it.

4 Economic or social conditions outside the traditional/progressive dynamic that materially threaten the traditional culture loyalists both in their immediate economic circumstances and in their prospects for future success. This creates a trigger point where a common middle class citizen finds his current wealth and autonomy diminished while his future opportunities for success appear less under his control and more under the control of the state--a state that already appears to be indifferent if not hostile to his plight.

5 A leader from outside the mainstream leadership culture.        

Some Related Ideas that Underpin these Preconditions

Cultural Evangelism In one respect populists are rather like heretics trying to buck the Church of Rome. This is because the US and the EU, in addition to being governmental bodies, are evangelical bodies that desire to enlighten the world to their way of life.  After World War II, this resulted in the US gospel of secular democracy as the best of all possible worlds and the policy of creating democratic regimes throughout the world in place of ancient or modern despotisms (and Marxist regimes) wherever possible. Europe (and its reincarnation as the EU) is more modest in that its scope is restricted to Europe and its borders, and is more ambitious in that within that scope it hopes to render harmless (if not eliminate) European nationalism and the related nastiness that led to two world wars.   Today's populists might have supported such evangelism while it manifested itself as a war against Communist imperialism. But as time went on, both the EU and the US have progressively taken to evangelizing a secular gospel of human rights that goes hand in hand with their political aims.  For the US this commonly plays out in making both foreign aid and domestic funding contingent on the provision of contraception, abortion clinics, and local measures to ensure progressive women's, homosexual, and transgender rights.

In the EU similar sorts of measures are propagated through the treaties and EU courts. Most of western Europe is acclimatized to this (except maybe for immigration issues) but Eastern Europe is not: here there are still many people who are very loyal to their cultural and religious traditions. Since these philosophical, ethical, and religious traditions are the inheritance of a complex and hugely influential 2,500 year old civilization, they consider themselves quite civilized without the new secular gospel. This is a major underlying feature of the populist backlash, particularly among its intellectual apologists.

Populism cannot be considered by its evangelizing opponents as anything but the mindless, reflexive yapping of troglodyte haters and racists. While this view has traction as propaganda, it's nevertheless a cartoon.  It certainly doesn't acknowledge the many intellectuals in the US and in Europe who for many years now have been describing how traditional differences among long-reigning political parties have tended to become moot in their universal embrace of globalism, which the parties conveniently see as an historical inevitability and not as an expected result of their leadership, and which leaves many citizens unrepresented, even discarded, and ripe for populist backlash. And it does no justice at all to Eastern Europe, where whole populations were robbed of their traditions and religion by Nazi genocide followed by a generation of Soviet occupation. Having regained their freedom, they have gone about restoring their lost inheritance only to find much of it opposed by the new European secular gospel. Many Eastern European immigrants have received the same reception in the US, with the irony that their liberalism with respect to Soviet rule translates to conservatism with respect to US progressives (who in their zeal for ideological conformity resemble the old Soviets more than the increasingly mythical risk taking, free-thinking, freedom-loving Americans).

Progressivism vs. Pluralism In the US progressivism evolved out of a basic opposition to the notion of natural rights that is a premise of the US constitution, and this created a lasting political divide over how a nation is best governed and under what constraints. Inalienable natural rights are individual rights and above all the right to individual self determination free from the oppression of tyrannical class, religion, or state. But as the early progressives observed, this combined with capitalism often leads to unfair outcomes (though defining "fair" is quite difficult) in which the strong get stronger and the weak get weaker, and they believed that since this unfairness receives assistance from the concept of natural rights, the constitution is seen as an impediment to proper government. The debate about this goes on, but as long as these political differences don't threaten to destroy the promise of individuals and families rising into the middle class and beyond, or threaten to extinguish their traditional values, a live and let live pluralism is the norm and the US constitution was designed to encourage this.

Pluralism is evidenced even in very divisive issues like abortion. Roman Catholics and many Protestants (and more than a few secularists as well, for that matter) oppose abortion and dislike that Federal law forces all states to allow it. But except for a tiny minority of violent fanatics, they live with it even if they protest against it, and this is largely because they've come to accept that pluralism is a necessary condition if free people with differing beliefs are to live peacefully together. On the flip side, pluralism allows the religious the option of like-minded Roman Catholic hospitals that don't perform abortions and Protestant pregnancy clinics that will council options besides abortions and this satisfies them that they still have a visible place in the public square. This was challenged under the progressive Obama administration. Under the proposed Affordable Care act, even Catholic hospitals would be required to perform abortions or suffer crippling punitive fines. Many religious citizens correctly interpreted this to be part of an effort to marginalize traditional Christian mores in a public square that progressives sought to make exclusively secular. It is also part of the progressive goal of redistribution of opportunity, in this case by lessening the opportunity of what they perceive to be an already powerful group kept powerful by special privilege. Though the Trump administration removed many of these religious strictures, the traditionalists, religious or otherwise, have noted the shot across their bow and remain a large group now concerned for their future viability in a hostile political climate. This fuels populist backlash.  

Globalism and Progressivism Globalism is multi-faceted and its cultural and economic aspects are deeply meshed. The spread of Western culture, including the cultural evangelism mentioned above, goes hand in hand with trade, and culture makes inroads where markets open up and vice versa. This has been going on for a long time. But it's only in the last 30 years that the internet and a more general revolution in communications completely disassociated both consumers and producers from fixed localities. Production facilities can be remotely managed from anywhere on earth; likewise staff to manage and operate local hardware can be found and trained anywhere.  Consumer markets have similarly globalized in what Richard Baldwin calls "the great convergence," which is the merging of rich and poor nations through globalization. Among other things this resulted in an erosion of the middle class in the US and Europe wherever their skills can be found more cheaply overseas. Naturally this is a huge source of populist rancor, especially since this erosion is ongoing. But middle class diminishment in the west fuels the growth of middle classes in less developed countries such as China and India, which further expands globalist markets. Because of this, US multinational corporations have no special interest in catering to the needs of US middle class consumers when the emerging middle classes of China and India promise to provide far larger markets. To add insult to injury, these same corporations strongly oppose any form of protectionism that might jeopardize their ability to exploit those vast foreign markets. This is also clear to populists and adds fuel to their frustration. These and other negative local effects of globalism on first world production and labor are becoming well known to analysts of any stripe, as are some of its corrosive effects on local culture. What is less clear is the increasingly obvious relationship between globalism and progressivism. Is it a family relationship, or symbiotic?  For now I'm going to go with symbiotic.

Globalism is not simply about making consumerism the universal engine of economic growth for all nations. It's also about creating the conditions under which this can best come about. These conditions, taken together, constitute a picture remarkably similar to the so-called technological society that Jacques Ellul envisioned and feared 60 years ago. This is a society where the means are also the ends, and whose effectiveness is measured by the efficiency of the means. In short, it's a society that worships technique, not the religious or cultural goals and aspirations of previous Western societies. Technique is all about process, and within this sphere it is scrupulously rational. More precisely, it is algorithmic because it treats its processes--be they administrative procedures, regulatory rules, or pieces of software--as closed systems with a defined starting point and measurable results that can be evaluated and perfected. This sort of thinking is routinely applied to the management of human beings since the industrial revolution, as more and more skilled work falls into the service of the machines that actually do most of our civilization's "heavy lifting." The rules governing the design, construction, operation, and management of machines are all part of a single continuum in which little differentiation is made between men and machinery. In spite of the equally long history of disgruntlement and opposition to this dehumanizing treatment, such management thinking persists and receives support from the increasingly popular view that humans are just biological machines anyway who must be conditioned more than taught.

This sort of algorithmic thinking animates globalism, especially with regard to the things that hinder it and must be either controlled or eliminated. Chief among these things are: religion, national or cultural loyalty and partisanship, strong families that desire autonomy and enforce husbandry of resources as opposed to impulsive consumer spending, and anything else that might incite destabilizing populist uprisings. Technique favors social plasticity, a concept Ellul considered a key element of the technological society and a necessary precondition of it. Social plasticity is a condition in which masses of people become atomized by loss of family, community, nationality, and even meaning in life and therefore become more manipulable by the state. Globalism favors these conditions because it believes that when they prevail people are not prone to many of the divisive behaviors that interfere with global commerce. American exceptionalism, for instance, may favor an adversarial stance towards competitors such as China; protection of national worker's wages may lead to trade-inhibiting tariffs.  

At first glance globalism and progressivism might seem strange bedfellows, but they're not. In the US, progressivism aims to restructure ("transform") American society along egalitarian, collectivist lines. If this transformation successfully results in a more homogenous, less competitive society it will be far more compatible with globalism than the traditional American individualism it seeks to replace. So why have progressivism's most recent tactics been centered around identity politics via critical race theory, gender and transgender politics, and ever expanding definitions of hate speech? And the so-called "cancel culture" by which such thinking is sometimes enforced? These are extremely divisive tactics that tend to drive even centrists and moderates towards the populist right in fear of their implications for the future. But divisive as they may be, they have thus far been quite effective in putting holders of traditional American values behind the eight ball, and such efforts have received unprecedented corporate and institutional support. What's clear is that multinational corporations believe that backing progressive initiatives in the US is good for business, for the unstated reason that progressivism's desired outcomes increase the deterioration of local and traditional allegiances that hinder the social plasticity required by globalism. But do corporations not simply support progressivism for moral reasons? No. In China, for instance, these same companies fully support an authoritarian regime that is wholly opposed to the human rights concepts favored by the west.

Identity Politics and the Transformation of Civil Rights My discussion here is based largely on Christopher Caldwell's The Age of Enlightenment, though of course he cannot be blamed for any tangential interpretations or conclusions I've drawn from it.

The path of race relations since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 reveals the true depth of the chasm between progressives and traditionalists. The traditionally-minded American sees America as exceptional: a beacon, "the city on the hill," built on constitutional foundations that are wise, sound, and unprecedented. In this view civil rights was never intended to alter American exceptionalism or the foundations that supported it. Rather, civil rights was seen as an effort to bring blacks, oppressed first by slavery and then by discriminatory Jim Crow laws in the South, into full citizenship with the majority of US citizens with all their attendant privileges and opportunities. The ultimate goal here was "race neutrality," a concept whereby race would no longer be a factor that lead to discrimination or preferential treatment.

By 2020 it became obvious that many progressives had something entirely different in mind. They did not share the vision of America as a "city on a hill;" rather, they believed racism was central to America's ethos and that all of its institutions were racist. Racism had not so much to do with individuals and their treatment of other individuals. Racism was "built into" all of Americas laws and institutions; in fact, the notion of race neutrality was simply a dodge that perpetuated white power. And the progressive goal of racial equality (as opposed to neutrality) demanded that the institutions, laws, and cultural ethos that supported white power be destroyed or otherwise rendered harmless to its victims. Identity politics became the means of determining which group was the most oppressed and thus stood first in line for their share as white power was dismantled and redistributed.

How did this divide come about?

Civil rights might as well have been designed from the start to become identity politics considering how inexorably it led there. In fact, the term civil rights, even as originally applied in the 1960s, is somewhat of a misnomer. From the start it was a political exercise in human rights modeled after the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and a growing revolutionary critique (adopted by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, among many others) that the US and Europe were white purveyors of racism and colonialism that both first world minorities and Third World countries must vigorously oppose, violently if need be. This combination of attributes made civil rights more of a universalist, revolutionary movement than its name ever suggested to the US general population. This in turn made the violence and rioting that has periodically followed the civil rights movement another source of progressive-populist divide. Caldwell:

To part of the country the riots were a social movement: a protest against the legitimacy of law enforcement that favored whites over blacks. To the rest of the country, the riots were just crime: a protest against nothing more than the rule of law. In the mid- to late 1960s, that was especially true for whites outside the South. For many, riots were their introduction to blacks, and brought a change of perspective. It seemed to white people that the country had somehow pressed the wrong button and was now getting the "bad" civil rights movement instead of the "good" one they'd been promised---the burn-down-the-business-district version instead of the shake-hands-on-the-White-House-lawn version.

This divide grew deeper over the following decades. This was largely ensured not by the Civil Rights Act itself, but by a growing body of case law that interpreted it terms of the activist's revolutionary critique, which saw racism as a structural, systemic phenomenon that required the tearing down of the assumptions our most basic institutions rested on. These interpretations mirrored the growing influence of postmodern and critical theory, particularly as they morphed into the 1970-80s universities as post-colonial theory, gender theory, critical race theory, and later queer theory. This helps to explain why the scope of civil rights expanded from addressing blacks to addressing any group that could conceivably claim to be systemically oppressed by inherent features of modern society, particularly as they related to the dynamics of capitalism.  

All of this is quite at odds with the popular view of civil rights, which continues to be that it was conceived to enforce race neutrality. But even from the start this was not the case, as evidenced by early rulings on affirmative action. Caldwell again:  

In fact, the judges who interpreted it wound up explicitly repudiating race neutral solutions. The American anti-racist regime developed in such a way as to exclude the most obvious race blind solution to prejudice: neutral civil service, college admission, and hiring exams. In Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971) the Supreme Court justices asked whether a power plant in North Carolina could give aptitude tests to its employees. Title VII (section 703) of the Civil Rights Act had said they could. But Chief Justice Warren Burger and a unanimous Court decided they could not, if such tests disadvantaged blacks in any way: "Good intent or absence of discriminatory intent does not redeem employment procedures or testing mechanisms that operated as built-in headwinds for minority groups," Burger wrote.

That the determination of human intent and subsequent action is not sufficient to identify discrimination leads directly to "systemic racism," suggested in the Burger decision by the phrase "mechanisms that operated as built-in headwinds for minority groups." In this case, the "head wind" was requiring an aptitude test at all. Aptitude and achievement tests of every sort have come to be basic tools of merit-based advancement in the US, as opposed to the more usual practices throughout the world that only offer advancement to hereditary classes, castes, and guilds, cronies of the rich and powerful, or state-sanctioned functionaries. Such tests are simply a fact of life for most Americans, who accept them as much as they may dread their power over future success. Nevertheless, standardized tests were politically controversial from the start. In the case of SAT tests, one of the objections is that they are racist, largely because of statistics that purport to show that affluent whites and Asians do better on the tests than poor Hispanics or blacks. Like the Duke Power aptitude tests, this is offered as evidence of systemic racism. Such thinking made great inroads outside the public eye over the last 40 years, and resulted in what most traditionally-minded Americans would regard as "strange fruit:" SAT subject and essay tests were eliminated by the College Board in 2021, and the University of California voted in 2020 to eliminate all SAT and ACT tests. A similar jaundiced eye has recently turned to artificial intelligence screening.

What is systemic racism? Robin DiAngelo, author of "White Fragility" and a major contemporary proponent of the concept, defines it thus:

Systemic racism is when one group's collective bias is backed with legal authority and institutional control. That transforms it into a far-reaching system that gets imbedded and infused across the entire society in every organization, policy and practice, in cultural definitions [...]. It becomes the default because the group that controls those institutions automatically infuses their biases.

This is a very general statement that, as far as it goes, could reasonably describe large-brush cultural bias inherent in any society. But can anyone describe in any detail how racism "gets imbedded and infused across the entire society in every organization, policy and practice" without resorting to conjecture? Especially when some of those policies and practices (such as the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964) explicitly work to fight racism? No, of course not. "Systemic racism" is therefore an assumption, not a description: an assumption that once accepted changes the framework in which American society is seen and evaluated. Within this new framework people's traditional concept of racism is beside the point. The real point, which is now the defacto position adopted by many progressives, is that American society is racist to the bone and must be radically changed top to bottom. More than this, white people are intrinsically racist and if they don't fully accept their racism and actively work to eliminate it, they perpetuate it. DiAngelo:

The default of society is the reproduction of racism. If you are not doing anything actively to interrupt that default, you are supporting and colluding with it. That is why we say white people automatically benefit from this system. If they don't challenge it, they are participating in the system.

At this point we have two thoroughly incompatible views:

1 The traditionalist view: America is exceptional and a beacon to the rest of the world

2 The progressive view: America is thoroughly racist and needs to be purged top to bottom.

Traditionalists fear that the progressive view is becoming the dominant view, and this may in fact be the largest source of populist backlash. And for those progressives that have adopted DiAngelo's position, it's no longer a topic that can be discussed, since any criticism or denial of the assumption of systemic racism is considered evidence of racism.

Final Thoughts

The various conditions I've described that promulgate contemporary populist uprisings are intensifying, not going away, and it's safe to say that populist uprisings will intensify too. In 2016, opposition to progressivism and its left-wing excesses quietly drove centrists and moderates away from the progressive left and towards the populist Trump. Despite Trump's invidious persona, populist grievances were encouraged and sharpened during his administration. Here populists learned that the mainstream Democrats and Republicans continued to show little understanding or even interest in the deeper issues surrounding populism that allowed someone like Trump to be elected in the first place. On top of this, they saw themselves relentlessly stereotyped and demonized as sub-persons with no right to the respect or concern shown to normal people, and the manner of this demonization had a distinctly Bolshevik stench. Within days of Biden's election, for instance, this demonization expanded to proposals to compile hit lists of Trump supporters to be ostracized and cast out from future public life. Such tactics are not new to American politics nor unique to progressives, but they are thoroughly incompatible with civil society and very similar to the ways totalitarian regimes operate. Now, with Trump out of the picture and without fear of association with him, populist opposition has actually increased under Biden, especially as it became clear that he fully supports the divisive identity politics of the far left. Issues surrounding globalism, on the other hand, have become cloudier with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which has caused the US and Europe to impose economic sanctions on Russia that are having huge side effects on global supply chains and commodity prices.

What remains absolutely clear is that progressives will never compromise with populists whom they view as their moral and intellectual inferiors, and populists know it. Civil discussion is abandoned. But civility can't be an end in itself anyway. You could make the case that anything can and should be dealt with in a civil, respectful manner. But this is not likely to happen if either side in a discussion or dispute suspects that their opponent is merely using civility as a strategy in a zero sum game. Also, discussion is not an appropriate term when applied to political opponents who do not intend to compromise, but are rather intent on scoring points in the short term and vanquishing in the long term. I would argue that civility is only manifested in those willing to compromise as a matter of principle, which implies a shared conviction that pluralism is the inevitable and desirable consequence of a free society given the diversity of aims and views among free people, and therefore a mutual flourishing of competing and even conflicting interests must be accommodated as much as possible. But obviously, a pluralistic society cannot accommodate totalitarianism, which attempts to destroy pluralism. This cautionary observation goes nowhere though. It is one of the basic tenets of populists that the identity politics of the far left, their emphasis on ideological conformity, and the coercive fear tactics they use to silence opposition is a potential segue to totalitarianism that must be opposed. But progressives simply claim in return that it is populists who are the authoritarians and will gladly elect a dictator. We must hope that the progressives are not right about this, because the rise and triumph of populism is a reckoning that's about to come due.



All site contents copyright 2022 Edward W. Farrell This page last updated on 2022-05-20