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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"A True and Defensible Populism"

That's how Patrick Deneen puts it. If Obama's gaffe has had any kind of meaningful consequence in the political life of America at this moment, it is that it has forced some truly brilliant political observers and thinkers--Patrick foremost among them--to reflect on class divides, class perceptions, and how both of those phenomena haunt even populist efforts to bridge them (or, perhaps more accurately, to empower those on one side of the class divide). I cannot do better than to quote him a length:

I suggested that at the very least some of the anger expressed in the rural towns of our heartland has its sources in resentment toward the "successful" (and hence, a degree of jealousy), inasmuch as the narrative of progress appears to have been embraced widely and deeply in our culture....[M]y libertarian critics are nevertheless correct to note that many small towns have emptied as other opportunities have arisen. I have a good number of students at Georgetown who come from these sorts of towns, and whose parents hope that they can be given opportunities at a place like Georgetown that will allow them to live and succeed in places like San Francisco. Moreover, and perhaps most problematically, many who remain in those towns have been complicit in the destruction of the economic bases of those very towns by readily embracing the opening of Wal-Marts and Home Depots, and ironically killing off the manufacturing base that once undergirded their communities....

[W]hat do we mean by populism now? Are our small town denizens now any less inclined to shop at Wal-Mart or to watch American Idol than many other Americans? I doubt it; indeed, I suspect they are likely to be more inclined. The populists of the turn of the last century were notable because they realized that they needed to actively defend their way of life against encroachments from the centralizing and homogenizing powers of business and government. I am not so certain that many small town Americans are as willing, or perhaps able, to defend their way of life and the fundamental philosophical bases on which it rests....I think we need to acknowledge that the dominant narrative of progress (and growth and globalization) has become well-nigh monolithic in our age, and intellectual sources of opposition have withered. As discomfiting as it may be, I am inclined to conclude that people who are blessed with some degree of time and the opportunity for reflection, but more importantly, intellectual connections with a countervailing philosophical and religious resources, need to articulate and propound this alternative from every available soapbox. This is discomfiting because it smacks of "elitism," but it also reflects the paradoxical truth that even populism requires an intellectual class to make its best case....I say: Down with false consciousness, up with a true and defensible populism.

"A true and defensible populism." What would that mean, in today's world, coming as it almost certainly must from elites like myself...or Patrick, for that matter, or even Senator Obama? Not that Obama is necessarily a populist, a civic republican, a communitarian, a localist--call it what you will...but as I've argued before, he can sometimes almost sound like one--and more importantly anyway, he seems to be aware of the argument any kind of populist critique must be based upon, though of course what he proposes to do in response to that argument is probably very different from what Patrick would like to see get done. But perhaps all that is besides the point. Shouldn't populism by definition be an expression of that which is "popular," not that which is articulated by elites? Isn't any argument about the "bitterness" and the "interests" of "the people" going to always involve imputations of "false consciousness"?

I say no. The discourse between each and every person who takes the time to familiarize themselves with ideas and argue about how to best theorize them and apply them to one's own and others' lives is, of course, invariably going to be a discourse between members of an intellectual elite...and therefore in today's information economy probably a socio-economic elite as well. But--and this I would insist upon--not all elite ruminations upon our social condition involve allegations of false consciousness, of claims about how "the people" (or maybe just "those people") don't understand what's happening underneath their feet because of patently false or infantilizing or just silly beliefs. Imputations of false consciousness are, to be sure, rampant in academia and the blogosphere, and not just there; we've had generations of stereotypes built up over the years which surround us, stereotypes about "God, guns, and gays" that exist solely to enable others to mock a certain hypothetical class of people and avoid taking their concerns as having any kind of essential cultural significance. Obama came unfortunately close to invoking just such stereotypes in his original comment, and it was unworthy of him. But I believe you can speak in an "elite" way without relying upon them; you can, I think, articulate a populism which does not condescend. You can and should be able to talk about what some of one's fellow citizens do not realize about what's happening to their material lives, and about how they respond to those happenings within a democracy, with sufficient care and concern so as to not fall into these stereotypes which do ride upon implicit allegations of false consciousness. I think you can and should be able to talk about small moves here and there to recover economic and cultural sovereignty--the real heart of populism, which is very different from majoritarianism--while taking the beliefs and practices of Wal-Mart and Home Depot shoppers seriously.

In today's political world, such serious care and concern in speech and thought won't be enough, of course; the charge of "elitism" will be brought against you, and in this age of the mass man, you won't be able to much defend yourself. But you just have to keep on, as Wendell Berry keeps on, aware that most dismiss his critiques of modern life as a kind of reverse-privileged crankery, always hoping that somewhere, someone will understand his point, and recognize the messenger as someone who has done his best to be live alongside those he is speaking to.

It's not easy, that's for sure. There is probably nothing I've worked harder at doing on this blog, and nothing that I've gotten more mixed up with in my sometimes overwrought attempts. I've talked about it in connection with the contemporary farming world, with the economy of big box stores like Wal-Mart, with the presidential contest, and much, much more. A lot of it--my stabs at "simplicity," my elaborations of "left conservatism"--are probably more than a bit of a mess. It's would be much simpler, much more clean, if I could bifurcate things like one my oldest and more consistent critics, Nate Oman, does:

[A]t the end of the day [Obama's] protectionism is not going to bring back highly paid, unskilled, union jobs to anyone. That ship has sailed and unless one is willing to repeat the world holocaust--World War II--that created it. Why do you think there were all of those comfortable, high paid, unskilled, union jobs in the 1950s and 1960s? It is an intellectual's conceit to think that they were created by a different ideology and it is a bit of historical and economic ignorance to think that they were created by tariffs. They existed because with the exception of the United States literally every major industrial region of the globe had been subject to massive aerial bombardment. Scuttling another bilateral trade agreement may serve to hurt a small Latin American economy, but it ain't going to bring back Detroit in its hey-day....Rather than adopting perverse policies in an attempt to rescue or recreate what can't be rescued or recreated, let's provide opportunities to obtain training and expertise that will allow people to prosper in a modern commercial economy....I love the poetry of Wendell Barry and I read it regularly, but I don't delude myself into thinking that it represents intelligent and informed thinking about economics.

Populist hopefuls like Patrick and myself and others are, of course, talking about more than protectionism...but the broad conceptualization of local economic life which presumes the importance of at least certain kinds of protectionism definitely fits within our general scheme, as does our suspicions of the "modern commercial economy." In this, as Patrick observes, we may be making a critique that appeals to sensibilities that are so inchoate, so minimal in the lives of many who have embraced and been lifted up by the global liberal capitalist ethos, that they might possibly be a well that has plain run dry. Not just intellectually, but in terms of practical politics as well. Consider this report on the "white working class" by Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz (cited in this post by Ross Douthat, in which he claims that the problem with Obama's comment wasn't so much any possible reliance upon claims of false consciousness, but simple economic inaccuracy):

Americans, including white working class Americans, generally adopt a bifurcated view of their economic situation that is not easily reflected in populist rhetoric. On the one hand, they tend to believe that things have changed for the worse--that the economy is doing poorly, that the security that families once enjoyed is disappearing, that leaders just don't get it. On the other hand, these very same members of the white working class believe that they are holding up their end of the economic bargain, that they are working hard and doing right by their families, that their story is one of optimism and hope, not pessimism and despair....Populism appeals to the negative, pessimistic side of these voters' outlook, but it frequently falls short in appealing to the positive, optimistic side. These are voters who, after all, are more and more likely to have at least some college education and, over time, have become decidedly more affluent than the New Deal working class....The white working class today is an aspirational class, not a downtrodden one.

Populism, of course, predated the New Deal--indeed, depending on how one looks at it, the New Deal was the death-knell of populism, the final and near-total appropriation of all truly localist, republican, populist, egalitarian and/or agrarian ideas into an industrial, national, individualistic, Progressive context that sapped them of their ability to truly challenge trends in America's socio-economic and cultural life. I don't entirely believe that; I tend to think that a proper populism--a proper concern for economic and cultural sovereignty and collective empowerment--survived into the Progressive and New Deal eras. But I can understand why other populists may doubt this; I mean, look at me: here I am, trying to discern a legitimate populism amid the admittedly elitist husks of Democratic and Republican party rhetoric! Who am I to speak?

Well, I'm a reader of smart, self-critical elites like Patrick Deneen, for one. The conversation which Obama's gaffe brought to the fore is an old one, and it won't be resolved soon. The American polity has changed, and is changing further still, and all the old arguments--including, perhaps most especially, populist ones, have to change with it. Let's hope, as some of us continue in our unfortunately-but-perhaps-unavoidably elitist way to point out the all the democratic, participatory, local, and communal possibilities that are being compromised as our country continues to rush forward, that we won't lose entirely the ability to speak persuasively to that small audience that still needs to and wants to hear someone pontificate upon what they themselves very well may have somewhat lost ability to say.

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