Why I Distrust Populism

I’m not a great patriot, a fact you may have picked up on from the “God and Country” episode of the podcast. I’m certainly not anti-American, and I’m not particularly interested in living anywhere else—I’ve devoted my life to the study of American literature, and if you’re a little old-fashioned in your criticism, as I am, studying American literature means to a large extent trying to figure out what makes America special.

But the more I learn about the early days of this country, the less convinced I am that the American Revolution was a shining moment in our history. It started in ninth grade, I guess, when I learned about the Boston Massacre in detail for some time. I had a hard time identifying with the Americans, many of whom, as I understand it, were drunk and most of whom were throwing rocks at the British soldiers. The Boston Tea Party was perhaps not as disgusting, but it still made me uncomfortable to think that someone relatively innocent had gone through a lot of trouble to get that tea to the colonies—for nothing.

These are mobs, and they’re mobs no matter how much you dress them up as “political protest” and no matter how noble the reasons are that brought them together in the first place. Our country, then, began its history with at least two mass demonstrations, and the Founding Fathers wrote the right to (peaceably) assemble into the Constitution. There must be a difference between a protest and a mob, but my own constitution must be too delicate to notice it.

I’m wildly uncomfortable with mass demonstrations of any kind and no matter what the politics are. Athens, Georgia, is a hotbed of political protest, and at least once a week, as I walked to my car, I was forced to push my way through a crowd of people standing on a corner, holding signs that said “HONK IF YOU” fill in the blank: “HATE THE WAR,” “SUPPORT A WOMAN’S RIGHT TO CHOOSE,” “WANT FAIR PAY FOR A FAIR DAY’S WORK,” etc., etc. Some days, there’d be a group of counter-protesters across the street, holding up similar signs that said, “HONK TWICE IF YOU SUPPORT THE TROOPS” or “HATE ABORTION” or “THINK THESE PEOPLE SHOULD GET REAL JOBS,” and Broad and College would become a hideous cacophony.

What a waste of time, folks. Let’s say for a minute that the War in Iraq was fought primarily on the basis of what the residents of Athens, Georgia, thought. Is honking really the best way to express it? Is standing on the street corner? Wouldn’t you be better off writing your Congressman, or even writing a letter to the editor, or, you know, actually doing something worthwhile? (I find myself wondering—and David and Nathan can probably answer this question—if the anti-war protesters are still asking for Athenian honks now that the war continues under a president who isn’t George W. Bush.)

Protest is easy, in other words, especially loud, angry, and hateful protest. And I suspect that it’s hard for a large group of people to come together under the auspices of shared political views and not have things turn to hatred of the other side. A Sarah Palin fan famously yelled “KILL HIM” about Barack Obama at a pre-election rally a few years ago. That doesn’t mean that Sarah Palin wants to kill Barack Obama, but it does suggest that she has aggressively courted the type of voter who would yell a violent call to arms once he got around like-minded people.

Palin is now involved with the so-called Tea Party Movement, what must be the largest group of demonstrators in America today. They had a conference in Nashville last weekend, most of the press coverage of which I quite thankfully missed out on. I can understand the concerns of the Tea Party—I remain skeptical of the efficacy of the health-care plan Obama is trying to get through Congress, at least, and while I am generally on the liberal side economically (and on the conservative side socially), the Huffington Post will never ask me to blog for them.

But the Tea Party frightens me. It’s too big a group with too little in common (composed, as this article says, of “footloose Ron Paul supporters, goldbugs, evangelicals, Atlas Shruggers, militiamen, strict Constitutionalists, swine-flu skeptics, scattered 9/11 ‘truthers,’ neo-‘Birchers,’ and, of course, ‘birthers’—those who remained convinced that the President was a Muslim double agent born in Kenya”) to define themselves any way but negatively, and any group that primarily defines itself negatively is bound to turn their efforts to hatred before too long. And their tactics nauseate me. As one Tea Party constituent says, “Unlike the melodramatic lefties, I do not want to get arrested . . .  I do, however, want to take a page from their playbook and be loud, obnoxious, and in their faces.” Uh…congratulations? Are we supposed to admire a person whose stated goal is to make herself as annoying and shrill as possible? Way to take the least attractive methods in the liberal textbook and apply them to a party who could have risen above them.

The Tea Party movement is, of course, a product of Sarah Palin’s political populism and Glenn Beck’s gadfly conservatism. Palin’s populism has frightened me since she hit the national spotlight in 2008—her persona is, as we all know, that she’s just like me, you, and Joe the Plumber, and hey, we know how to run the country a lot better than those eggheads on the other side. Problem is, I don’t want the average Joe—be he Six-Pack or The Plumber—running this country. An appeal to the masses is an appeal, by definition, to mediocrity, and saying that you’re just like everyone else is an admission of your own unremarkability. If this country is as great as Republican rhetoric makes it out to be, doesn’t it take a remarkable person to run it? Apparently not.

In some ways, I feel as though we’re about to move into a new Jacksonian era. Andrew Jackson didn’t do American populism first, but he did it the best, to the point where his nickname in the press was “King Mob.” And indeed, urban mob violence became a commonplace under Jackson’s rule. His great skill was appealing to the common man (I am certain he would have used the term Joe Six-Pack had six-packs existed), whom he then used—cynically or otherwise—as a tool to get himself into office. He rewarded his supporters by inviting the whole lot of them to the White House for his Inauguration dinner. And that reception is where we see the real face of populism—a drunken mob who broke thousands of dollars worth of White House china and only left when they were lured outside by alcohol, like a donkey chasing a carrot.

I don’t mean to sound anti-conservative here—to the extent that the Democrats stoop to populist and rabble-rousing tactics, I dislike and distrust them, as well. I just wish the current crop of conservatives, in the Tea Party or otherwise, would find a civil and intelligent way to get their opinions into the great Marketplace of Ideas. I wish they’d find a way to make themselves heard without resorting to large, ugly crowds built on doctrines of negation. Any leader who gets put into office by a mob is likely to be a despot, as Alexander Hamilton tells us in the first Federalist paper:

The vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty . . . in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interests can never be separated; and . . . a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter.

“Sound and well-informed judgment,” then, is the key to making political discourse something other than the shouting of a mob, and it’s what’s missing in all demonstrations that devolve into anger and violence.

There is a way to do political protest right, I suppose–and that’s to follow the example of the Southern Christian Leadership and their Civil Rights protests in the late 1950s and early ’60s. What sets these mass expressions of discontent apart from the Tea Party is their tone–they are built not on hatred of a perceived enemy but on compassion for a genuine oppressor. Glenn Beck, it is fair to say, is less oppressed by Barack Obama than Martin Luther King, Jr., was by Bull Connor–and yet the former reacts with bile and hatred, which he passes on to his millions of fans, whereas the latter reached out his hand in love to the policemen with dogs and fire hoses ready to go. If mob rule looked more like that, maybe I’d be more in favor of it.

But that’s the opposite of populism, really, because it refuses to set up a “we the people” vs. “them the interlopers.” It’s built on an understanding that we are all in the same boat.

5 comments for “Why I Distrust Populism

  1. Robert
    9 February 2010 at 12:33 PM

    Populism is more than ever a word seeking definition. But it doesn’t work very well to round up the multitude of human failings and impulses you’re describing here. You actually seem to be agreeing with the ancients’ abhorrence of democracy (their meaning of the word, not ours).

  2. Michial Farmer
    9 February 2010 at 12:54 PM

    Yeah, I realized after I wrote this that I’m talking about more than just populism (though I’m certainly talking about that, in part).

  3. David Grubbs
    10 February 2010 at 8:08 AM

    I, too, would like a little more clarification about what “populism” is, exactly. Is it a political argument aimed at “the masses”? Is it a political argument that invokes the anger and discontent of the governed? Or is it a political argument that challenges the wisdom and motives of those who govern? Because, from my perspective, if we get more specific than that, we have to bring up partisan issues and then we cease to critique “populism” as a non-partisan phenomenon. All three of these general approaches have been used for ages, by political factions of every stripe, color, and cardinal direction you can think of — and I have no quarrel with any of them!

  4. Michial Farmer
    10 February 2010 at 9:54 AM

    In my view, it’s a political movement directed at the masses that does not appeal primarily or perhaps at all to logic (it’s not even fair to call it an “argument,” which is why I’m misusing the word “movement” instead) but to the emotions, generally anger. It can be on the left or the right–I’ve found when people talk about it, it’s typically in a critique of conservatism (Palin and Beck are certainly the most visible populists today), but it doesn’t have to be, since liberalism is obviously also concerned with bringing “power to the people,” etc., etc. So it’s not partisan by definition, and I object to it in almost all its forms.

    To respond further to Robert…I do distrust democracy as a whole. I don’t think people are, by and large, wise enough to govern themselves, which is why we have a republic rather than a straight democracy. I’d be interested in taking that further, actually–I’d like to require some sort of test to vote. One the one side, there’d be a basic civics test (I read a few years ago that 40 percent of Americans don’t know how many branches of government there are…and yet they’re allowed to make decisions on how those branches should be run); on the other, a test on what the politicians one is voting for feel on specific issues.

    Unfortunately, “voting test” brings to mind Jim Crow’s literacy tests, but it doesn’t have to. I’m perfectly fine with the idea that such a test could be orally administered if necessary, or given in multiple languages, or what have you. My point is that only informed opinions should be treated with respect, and “arguments” that are meant primarily to stir up emotion in the masses are not arguments at all but mere “blowhardery.”

  5. Jason
    19 March 2010 at 6:08 PM

    I think that most political movements are populist, inasmuch as to have a chance of being in a position to promote/enforce your movement in a democratic system you have to appeal to the major group of the population.

    Of course there is always the option of violent struggle aimed at overthrowing the government and establishing the reign of the proletariat over the bourgeois. =)

    We can hardly claim that Obama appealed to the thinking community, “I promise you hope and change, and change and hope, and even change and change, with some hope with that” is not really a substantial campaign manifesto.

    That said the Palin centred system doesn’t seem much better.

    I think it was Chesterton who summed up patriotism when he said, the man who says ‘my country, right or wrong,’ is like the man who says ‘my mother, drunk or sober.’

    Loving ones country, for no other reason than that it is your country is a good thing. But if you start to love your country for some particular reason, then you will seek to preserve that reason even if it is ultimately detrimental to your country.

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