Why Liberals Abhor Populism


Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many — they are few

That’s from Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy; it’s pretty stirring stuff.   What is it about liberals that makes them so wary of that kind of populist language?

The right adopts the populist mode without hesitation. Every day, Glenn Beck, a multimillionaire who actually supported the Wall Street bailout he now denounces,  rallies his pride of angry lions, “the many,” against the liberal elites, “the few.”   But Liberal Offficialdom, which purportedly represents the interests of working people, politely refrains brandishing the club of the majority.

American liberalism can be expressed as the formula “social democracy – x – y – z,” where x stands for a history of a major labor party (absent in the United States), y stands for a radical root-cause analysis of social problems (contrary to American liberalism’s pragmatist focus on outcomes) and z stands for the implicit threat of majoritarian action (distasteful to many liberals).

It is this missing y factor, the reluctance to speak for a  majority, that explains American liberalism’s aversion to populism.  I suggest that there is a good reason, a stupid reason, and an evil reason for why leading liberals are so reluctant to advance their agenda in populist terms.

The good reason is that the American majority, particularly when grouped along racial lines, can rally around any number of reactionary initiatives. Liberals rightly dismiss Palinesque paeans to the goodness and wisdom of the American people because the American people sometimes suck — big time.

American society has often relied on militant minorities to advance progressive causes over the objections and fears of majorities.   Majorities can be dumb.  Conservative men, joined by a faction of right-wing women,  form a formidable anti-choice bloc, if not a majority.  Well-founded anxieties about the job security and depressed wages can be channeled into Tancredo-style white nationalism and xenophobia.  Similarly, it does not take too much imagination to see how a gaggle of angry Americans could invest their legitimate rage at usurious, taxpayer-supported banks into an old-fashioned campaign against the “Jewish Banker Conspiracy” — it has happened before.   These are the good reasons liberals are uncomfortable raising the lions from their slumbers.   More on this later.

The stupid reason liberals and their main institutions resist populism has to do with the optimistic view  that the soundest and most moral policy proposals will ultimately win the “battle of ideas,” because capital-R Reason must prevail.  Under this view, the challenge is merely to ensure that liberal ideas are well articulated by clever wonks or telegenic personalities.   Populist language smacks of unsavory demagoguery and majoritarian coercion is irrelevant  under this conception of democracy as a  Sunday morning talk show, a polite meeting of the minds.

I studied at a Quaker college where consensus decision-making was presented as a superior alternative to majoritarian approaches.   Many Quaker bodies, including Quaker-run business, are managed through consensus-based processes, as are many radical political groups. A Wikipedia entry explains how consensus is supposed to work.

Reaching consensus through dialog is is a worthwhile goal, but only within a community of potential allies.  Unfortunately, politics is often a battle of competing and irreconcilable interests.  Some interests win, and some interests lose.  A credit card company, for example, cannot be an ally in implementing meaningful credit card reforms because it is necessarily against the institutional imperatives of that company to participate constructively in a process that might reduce its profits.   Yes, the enemy will make concessions and reach accommodations, but only under the threat of a more painful alternative.  It  will always take a credible threat, and oftentimes, the threat will not be credible without a disgruntled majority to back it up.

The evil reason Democratic Party leaders might be wary of populism is that marshaling majorities behind progressive proposals would likely make those initiatives successful — and Democratic politicians do not necessarily desire a victory for those causes they purportedly support. Why, for example, would Jay Rockefeller loudly support the public health insurance option when it had no chance of passing, but suddenly get cold feet when reconciliation was put on the table, making the public option a real possibility?

For certain congressional Democrats, particularly the more unprincipled d-bags in the Senate, the AM radio hysteria over health care, and the antics of the very-populist Tea-baggers were probably welcome.  The right-wing campaign against health insurance reform provided them with a convenient excuse to scale back the scope of the proposals and avoid an unpleasant confrontation with their friends and supporters in the insurance industry.  This is evil.

The only tricky issue here is the first, good reason to be uncomfortable with populism: the fear that the multitudes are just as likely to usher in some Bonapartist regime with Sarah Palin as queen and Mike Huckabee as her depraved (but folksy!) dungeon master.   In the face of this terrifying  and possible future,  we must 1) have faith that our potential allies, the vast majority of the people, will do the right thing when engaged with the right kind of agitation and political pedagogy, and 2) accept the fact that we do not live in Quaker-run bakery and that democracy, for better and for worse will necessarily involve majoritarian coercion.

For better, when we, the good guys wield it, and for worse, when they, the bad guys do.

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