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Why Liberal Policy Savants Deplore Rule by the People

By The Baffler

Populism originated not as a readymade platform for strongman demagogues, but as an economic insurgency of dispossessed farmers and working peopleRead full story

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  • Here's another one of those articles absolutely everyone should read. Highly detailed accounting of how the modern, negative use of the term "populist" is largely based on a wildly revisionist version of the populist movement dating to the mid-50s; in the process he reveals many of the causes of the unimaginative, one-solution-to-all-problems brain-deadness seen in so many establishment liberals.

    "To be sure, the present world order doesn’t lack for strongmen, hustlers, and bigoted scoundrels of

    Here's another one of those articles absolutely everyone should read. Highly detailed accounting of how the modern, negative use of the term "populist" is largely based on a wildly revisionist version of the populist movement dating to the mid-50s; in the process he reveals many of the causes of the unimaginative, one-solution-to-all-problems brain-deadness seen in so many establishment liberals.

    "To be sure, the present world order doesn’t lack for strongmen, hustlers, and bigoted scoundrels of all stripes. But it’s far from clear that anything is gained analytically from grouping this shambolic array of authoritarian souls under the rubric of populism. Indeed, by lazily counterposing a crude and schematic account of populist rebellion to a sober and serenely procedural image of liberal democratic governance, Mounk and his fellow academic scourges of new millennial populism do grievous, ahistorical injury to populist politics and liberal governing traditions alike....

    Populism originated not as a readymade platform for strongman demagogues, but as an economic insurgency of dispossessed farmers and working people. America’s first (upper-case P) Populist dissenters didn’t set out to traduce and jettison democratic norms and traditions; they sought, rather, to adapt and expand them, in order to meet the unprecedented rise of a new industrial labor regime and the consolidation of monopoly capitalism in the producers’ republic they described as the 'cooperative commonwealth'.... The institutionalized system of postbellum white supremacy in the South came in response to the threat of the cross-racial class alliances that Populists sought to build—not as an outgrowth of any pre-existing bigotries on the part of Populist leaders."

    And on Brexit: "[A paper serving as a dominant liberal narrative of Brexit] does cite the sluggish performance of the British economy in the wake of its admission to the EU, but notes in a bizarre footnote that, among the 'big three' continental economies of France, Germany, and the UK, the fact 'that [economic growth] decelerated by less in Britain suggests the EU membership and Thatcher-era reforms had a positive effect.' That would be in the same sense, one supposes, that it’s a 'positive effect' to be kicked in the shins rather than strangled from behind."

    I agree that the consensus reached a year or two ago by the liberal establishment/mainstream media to label all rising, authoritarian governments as "populist", and thus to declare authoritarianism a key part of populism, is deeply disturbing. People should not be afraid of the words "populism" and "patriotism" (or "nationalism", but that could be a whole essay itself). These rather broad descriptors were once seen universally as positive traits. Patriotism: you support your country (not necessarily its government) and all the people in it. Populism: the will of the people is more important than the will of institutions.

    However, the mass media would like you to hear "populist" and think "racist", to hear "patriot" and think "fascist". Why? Because if they can convince enough people that patriotic or populist movements are just secret codes for fascists, they'll stay in power. This is not to say that there are no dangerous populist movements. But to say that ALL populist movements are dangerous is both ridiculous and harmful to the national discourse. The establishment wants to frame itself as the "good guys" and the disgruntled masses as the "bad guys". Not only does this provide cover for the ultra-rich power-broker class, it's a comfortable and self-affirming explanation that despite its intellectual laziness, appeals to many liberals more than a hard look inward does.

    "Here we are again in the reassuring liberal world of declining cultural status. Populists are nativists by definition, and nativists are hostile to immigration because they simply don’t know any better; they live in regions where the presence of a smattering of immigrants is likely to be more upsetting or disorienting than in higher-density outposts of the global knowledge economy. It’s hard not to note the affinities here between Eichengreen’s culturally determinist gloss on the Brexit outcome and Hillary Clinton’s principal alibi for her 2016 election defeat: that Democratic voters are clustered, via their own assortative genius, in places that 'are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward,' while the sad-sack, downwardly mobile Trump base 'was looking backwards' in its Ghost-Dance style mission to make America great again....

    No, re-organizing your productive life in your own interest is too hopelessly divisive, and could even prove to be dangerously 'populist' over the longer term. So just lie back and let above-the-fray global bureaucrats manage your working lives on your behalf, and you can thank us later. This is, at bottom, the vision of expert-mediated civic life that the Yascha Mounks of the world are seeking to repackage as our imperiled tradition of 'representative democracy.'"

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