Monday, April 19, 2010

Populism, Plebiscitarianism, and the Tea Parties

Over the weekend, Samuel Goldman and Daniel Larison had an exchange relevant to one of my annoyingly constant pre-occupations: defending a notion of populism which is local, democratic, and egalitarian, all at the same time. Picking up on an argument made by Peter Beinart--namely, that those who support the Tea Party movement "are today’s version of the California suburbanites who rose up against their property tax bills in the late 1970s...[t]hey’re the second coming of what Robert Kuttner called 'the revolt of the haves'"--Goldman allows that the Tea Party movement isn't a true populist one...at least, not on the first, more historical definition of populism. But what about the second? He writes:

On the one hand, populism can refer a particular tradition of redistributionist, anti-corporate, usually agrarian political ideas. Most Tea Partiers reject that tradition. On the other hand, populism can describe a conception of the appropriate relation between governors and governed in a representative democracy. On this view, policy should be much more closely tied to public opinion, or to direct popular decision, than to the judgment of legislative or bureaucratic elites. Many of the Tea Partiers, it seems to me, are populists in the latter sense. If you prefer, call them plebiscitarians rather than populists.

For Larison, this only goes to show how poorly thought out are most of the slogans which the Tea Partiers brandish; looking at the polling support which most Tea Partiers appear quite willing to give to established entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, he suggests that their plebiscitarian rhetoric is highly confused, as no one, not even themselves, appear to be taking seriously what building a truly anti-federal government majority would actually entail (for one thing, convincing majorities of the American people to reject social welfare entitlement spending). Goldman isn't terribly disturbed by this; he allows that the Tea Partiers may suffer from "extreme cognitive dissonance," but that such doesn't compromise their longing for a more direct democracy, as they understand it, all the same.

An important point needs to be added here, I think: namely, that Goldman's two definitions of populism are complementary--in fact, are historically entwined. The redistributionism, agrarianism, and anti-corporatism of William Jennings Bryan and those who supported him was grounded in a particular notion of democracy-as-sovereignty...or, to use more classically republican language, of self-rule. As expanding industrial technology, mobility, and complexity came to characterize the post-Civil War American economy--economic activity which both followed and supported the centralization and urbanization of America's primary generators of wealth and prestige--what the farmers and small town residents of states from Georgia to Kansas to Montana recognized was that their ability to maintain a decent livelihood was becoming dependent upon the decisions of bankers and railroad moguls who lived far away, in New York City and Philadelphia and Chicago. The corporate monopolies of the Gilded Age were deeply undemocratic, not because (or at least not only because) their wealth and power enabled them to buy influence outside the normal democratic procedures of the American polity, but because their very size forced other, small, less prestigious economic actors to orient the control over their own lives--lives focused upon what historically had been more or less self-sufficient communities--to the whims of others. It was, very simply, the replacement of self-government with a free-market oligarchy. And that was what turn-of-the-century Populists hated: being obliged by the rules of the market economy to consent to the rule of a distant minority of wealthy robber barons, a rule which made meaningless the willingness of majorities of people, all across the American South and West, to work in accordance with economic rules they themselves had set. Populism, in the end, was, as Norman Pollack has argued, all about attempting to erect a different, more responsive "framework of democratic power."

For numerous reasons, that framework would almost certainly be inoperable today--but the relationship between demanding greater democratic empowerment and redistributionist, egalitarian policies remains very real, even if it is rarely expressed in populist terms....or when the connection is noticed, it is noticed in highly confused ways. The frustratingly wrong-headed complaint which Megan McArdle made about the passage of the health care bill being an example of the "tyranny of the majority"--a complaint which, if one thinks about it, seemed to suggest that the solution for such tyranny would be for elected politicians to be...even more responsive to popular majorities!--is a case in point. If one dreams of more plebiscitarianism, I'll support it, not the least reason for which being that a little more direct parliamentarianism in our government, a little more willingness to empower voters to direct the government towards specific ends--and, then, giving elected representatives the tools to do so--would very likely (or so I would argue, anyway) result in a more responsible and less poisoned movement towards that which can be popularly and broadly expressed and responded to, in terms of votes. (To use various Western European parliamentary states as examples, the results could easily include both greater social welfare guarantees, and more restrictive, common-sense abortion laws.)

To be sure, a little more listening to voters would have its own political complications and pathologies; there is something to be said, sometimes, for government bureaucracies which often lack both the funds and the political accountability to accomplish what they understand (sometimes poorly) themselves to have been directed to do. But if the primary complaint of the Tea Partiers really comes down to a mildly incoherent plebiscitarianism, I can't complain too much. Whether they realize it or not, they're presuming, or demanding, a more populist democratic framework...one whose ends--especially if directed to local targets--are much more likely to be amenable to an empowering, egalitarian democracy than their own noisy libertarianism.

3 comments:

Aloysius said...

I support a third house of congress that is elected based on the cumulative income and excise taxes paid by the individual voters. We don't need plebiscites especially if the electorate isn't paying taxes.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Interesting proposal, Aloysius. Bring in a bit of oligarchy, to balance out the dependent (and, to be fair, often non-voting) poor? To an extent, the Senate used to be more explicitly that: a place for the wealthy to exercise, on a state-by-state basis, their influence, so as to squelch the power of the House. As someone who would actually like to see the 17th Amendment repealed and a new role for our "upper house" be imagined, I'm not entirely opposed to that...though for me, it would have to bring along with it similar parliamentary reforms (such as the Senate being only able to slow legislation, not block it entirely, etc.).

Or, perhaps you're not thinking seriously about such reforms, and instead were just taking a cheap shot at the fact that folks on welfare are still citizens with voting rights? Hmmm...

Aloysius said...

There are citizens and there is the mob. Citizens bear civic duty. The mob demands pleasures and entertainments. Because I don't believe in a permanent poor class (that the Democrats require) I don't see this as a oligarchy. In fact in my conception of it Tim Geithner (an oligarch and a tax cheat) would be disenfranchised. My third house would be the legislative body that would approve the budget and would require a super majority to raise taxes. It would have every incentive to enfranchise voters.