Tuesday, November 09, 2004

American populism

Arguably every President since at least Teddy Roosevelt has been a populist of one sort or another. Over the coming weeks, I'll be posting regularly on the topic of populism, but I'd like to begin by doing some basic deck-clearing on the topic of populism.

Populism is defined by its opposition to elitism. (The concept of "elites" itself has an interesting history: it was first developed a century ago by an Italian political theorist named Vilfredo Pareto in response to various populist political movements he personally observed. We'll return to Pareto's ideas intermittently.) Leaving aside the theoretical niceties of the term, what's important to understand about populism is that populism can be defined in contrast to any one of many possible elites. For example:
  • economic elites: i.e., the rich, or more specifically, "Wall Street"
  • class elites: i.e., aristocrats, or more generally anyone who "puts on airs"
  • intellectual elites: i.e. scientists, or perhaps "universities" generally, or more narrowly, "the French"
  • religious elites: i.e. established religions, especially Catholicism, or powerful ministries generally
  • political elites: i.e.. "special interests" or, more metaphorically, "Washington"
  • cultural elites: i.e., artists, bohemians, or more recently "Hollywood"
  • ethnic elites: in the U.S. this usually means white people, though elsewhere this can take on myriad forms
  • "experts" on any subject
  • or just about any other group that understands itself in contrast to (and as better than) some notion of "the masses."
When we say that every President since Teddy Roosevelt has on some level or another been a populist, what this means is that every President since Roosevelt has to some extent defined himself and his vision for the country in contrast to at least one of these elite groups.

But it's just as important to recognize that given the realities of political power in America, every President since forever has also, in practice, allied himself with one or more of these elite groups, even as he was attacking another of these elites. (Railing against all elites is nothing but a formula for powerlessness: how effective was Seattle '99?)

On this analysis, the key political question that both political parties must ask themselves is which elites they wish to ally themselves with, and which elites they wish to attack. As I say, I'll be saying much more on this topic over the coming months, but let me conclude for now by saying that I think the Republicans have answered this question for themselves with admirable clarity. As for the Democrats, well... let's just say that for the Democrats to emerge from the political wilderness, they will have to adopt an equally clear-eyed view of which elites they wish to support, and which they wish to array themselves against.

No comments: