Copyright © 2006 by Jay B. Gaskill

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[UPDATED 1-3-07]

 

POPULISM 101

An article in development

By

Jay B Gaskill

A Series Begins…

 

NOTE: For the latest Post, go to “The Human conspiracy Blog” at the link above.

 

PARTY, POLITY AND POPULISM

 

PART ONE

 

Here’s the deal:  We’ve evolved two cooperating political elites, each of which runs one of the two parties and shares three common traits: (1) high education levels, (2) important wealth (3) a distrust of the populist vote bordering on fear.  Winning elections for each requires a periodic courting ritual during which the populist vote (on which success depends) is earnestly sought, followed by a measure of post-election betrayal.

 

The corporate country club conservatives and the Lexus limousine liberals have so far succeeded in achieving a rough division of the populist center: social populists on one side, economic populists on then other. 

 

But conditions are rapidly changing.  Democrats are finally desperate enough to bend the rules of political correctness in order to recapture congress.  Republicans, faced with the prospective loss of the Reagan democrats (read patriotic, blue collar populists), are rethinking the “betrayal thing”.  Change is in the air.  The divide-the-populist-vote-and-prosper strategies of each party are coming apart.

 

In Part Two, I will take up the three populist issues that are causing the political elites the most trouble.

 

 

PART I.5

 

In my first Posting, I wrote:

In Part Two, I will take up the three populist issues that are causing the political elites the most trouble.

 

Before doing that, some preliminary observations are in order:

 

The general thrust of this discussion will be the influence of populism in American politics during the next decade or so, a time when it is very likely that the democratic and republican parties will undergo significant change.

 

Two Disclaimers:

 

Populism as an ideology has a checkered history for a reason.  All populist ideologies eventually betray populist expectations.  Populism as ideology distorts the populist ethos and exploits it.  This is part of the reason (the best part) that the elites in both parties distrust populism.

 

Neither populist issues nor populist candidates always win elections because voters triage the issues that are of most immediate concern to them at the moment and local concerns tend to trump general concerns.

 

A Working Definition:

I will refine and fill out this working definition, but for purposes of this discussion:

 

Populist is meant to describe the politically relevant precepts, attitudes and core positions that distinguish an enduring majority of adults from the political elites that depend on their approval.

 

In general, populist positions tend to be dismissed or marginalized by the political elites as primitive or unenlightened while the elite counter positions are disdained by populist minds as effete or impractical.

It is a huge mistake for elites to think of populist positions as the product of the unintelligent or that all the elite positions of the moment represent the inevitable march of social progress.  The most enduring populist positions are rooted in field-tested folk wisdom of the kind that has inspired parables like the Emperor’s New Clothes.

 

Both elite and popular opinions are subject to fads.  The populist positions that interest me the most are the ones that endure from election to election and will be relevant to the American political scene over the next decade or so.  As I promised in my first posting, I will identify and discuss the top three populist issues but several others will necessarily enter the discussion.

 

Let me begin with two predictions:

 

The elements in the elite-engendered ethos loosely described as Political correctness that collide most sharply the populist mindset will be discredited within our lifetimes.

 

The political party or parties that do the best job of reconciling their policy stances with the core populist positions will prevail over those that fail to do so.

 

 

PART TWO

Monday, November 27, 2006

 

AMERICAN POPULISM 101

(POPULISM, POLITICS AND PARTY, CONTINUED)

by 

Jay B. Gaskill

As promised, I’ll now outline the three most prominent threads in the reemerging American populism that will shape the parties and the political discussion over the next decade.

They are:

 

Procedural populism.  The signal anti-populist development of the last 65 years was the emergence of governance via non-elected institutions under the control of the non-populist elites of the two parties. Principally the courts and the administrative agencies, these new power centers have quietly and not so quietly set public policies in motion that never could have gathered sufficient popular support.  Examples, many obvious, will follow as I expand this discussion. The signal pro-populist development in the same period was the emergence – principally in California producing what some political scientists are now calling “hybrid government” of the popular initiative as a tool for setting social and tax policy in ways that the legislative bodies – controlled by party elites – did not.

 

Me-first nationalism.  Starting with Ross Perot several election cycles ago, this is the many headed hydra that the elites in both parties fear the most, and it is the most universal form of populism.  The failure of the Soviet Empire is an international model is a classic case of a putative universal ideology hitting the nationalist wall.  Note that party elites of all stripes tend to be more internationalist than the so called “common people”.

 

Tough minded populism vs. the wimp elites. This covers a whole range of issues that will be pivotal in the next decade, all interesting.

 

 

Background and a Reprise

 

In the wake of the democratic defeat of 2002, I wrote about the coming populist reformation.  It will be an interesting exercise to review just how far the democrats have moved – given their recent reversal of fortunes, because that will determine – at least in my  opinion – how durable or evanescent their victory will be over the next three election cycles.

 

This is what I wrote then:

 

The democrats need a leader whose visceral commitment to a muscular and farsighted defense of the homeland is immediately recognized as authentic, a leader who speaks with a distinctly American voice, the voice of a modern populist. This must be content not stylistic populism because Americans can tell the difference. 

Here’s what the post 9-11 version of a renewed American populism would look like:

Populism speaks with the confident assertion of American exceptionalism, the ideal of America as representing the powerful social exemplar for the world. This is the populism that animated the chants of rescue workers in the rubble of the World Trade Center, “USA! USA!”

 

Populism is rooted in our common American social values, especially the historically pro-family social traditions that govern in the heartland.  These values trump all the non-democratic institutions of governance. While I still believe that a legitimate populist movement can accommodate local custom (when popular sentiment clearly differs from the mainstream, thinking of the accommodations for gay marriage in Vermont for example), I also believe that there can be no accommodation for the anti-democratic reversal of the popular will in the rest of the country in this important area of life, especially by judicial fiat.  When judges abuse their trust by overriding the popular will on essential “family values” issues, a populist rebellion is inevitable.

 

Populism values the contribution of all newly arrived Americans but recognizes that the current very low rate of assimilation poses a threat to American cultural integrity.  There is an emerging populist consensus about immigration: the rigorous exclusion of illegals coupled with robust restrictive border control and a very high priority for assimilation into American culture and values.

 

Populism is authentically tough on crime and terrorism. National and domestic security considerations (especially during the current wartime conditions—think of FDR’s “Freedom from Fear”) trump all bureaucratic processes, political correctness, isolationist obstructionism, and fractious interest group politics. A self confident populist administration would overcome the narrow civil libertarian objections to “racial” profiling to exclude terrorist suspects and to the use biometric identification technologies and terrorist lists for all those entering the U.S.

 

A populist environmental policy is explicitly pro-human, with equal emphasis on resource preservation and people access. Environmentalism by the people and for the people prevails over those who worship the environment as some quasi-deity or who elevate the protection of obscure species at the expense of the concerns of ordinary people.

 

Populists favor and honor productive work (which includes the critically important work of child rearing) over all forms of subsidized idleness. Few living democrats seem to honor the pro-work ethos of FDR’s New Deal except in hollow rhetoric.

Populists agree that the burdens of taxes must be meaningfully reduced on those who are actually working for a living.  This issue transcends all the other left-right, partisan issues on tax policy.

 

Populist economic and social policy is governed by the goal of promoting upward mobility without undermining the value of the goal: to be successful, financially secure, and to be allowed pass on those benefits to one’s family.  Liberals find it incomprehensible that “ordinary” working people, who (from the perspective of the Euro-centric left) have no prospect of gaining great wealth, would nevertheless oppose confiscatory taxation of estates.  This is because these liberals don’t take the American dream as seriously as do the so called “common” people.

 

In other words, there is a core populist agenda the departure from which vitiates all populist rhetoric.

 

There is more to come.

Stay tuned…

 

PART THREE

POPULISM 101 CONTINUED: WHAT ABOUT THE GOP?

December 1, 2006

 

I have earlier identified some of the populist shortcomings of the liberals (see http://www.jaygaskill.com/liberalismasreligion.htm ). I’ll now continue the discussion with a similar analysis of the conservative side.  As I wrote on this blog earlier, conservatism has undergone a renaissance mostly because of the excesses of the left. 

 

The last election may or may not expose the growing ideological fractures in the conservative ranks.  We can assume, for the purposes of this analysis, that the Iraq conflict will have been moved to a background issue by 2008. 

 

Will the conservatives be able to mount an effective challenge to the democrats?

That depends, in my analysis, on the extent to which the conservatives recapture their earlier populist momentum (that was driven by mostly populist rejection of elitist democratic liberals).  The GOP lost its populist identification in 2006.  This debacle was driven by a popular revulsion at the ruling congressional republicans who were seen as phony populists. To understand how this happened we need to review the surfacing cracks in the conservative movement.

 

As a coherent belief system, conservatism is in trouble.  Revulsion at the excesses of the left no longer fully or adequately defines “conservative”.  Here is my short list of the conflicts and overlapping sub-movements within this loosely defined conservative alliance:

 

The religious vs. secular conservatives (the latter unconcerned about God in the pledge or the Decalogue in the public square);

 

The “social” conservatives vs. the “socially tolerant” ones (generating issues like abortion vs. free choice and traditional marriage vs. “new paradigm”);

 

The libertarian conservatives vs. the public order conservatives (this fuels the drug legalization conflict, among others);

 

The isolationists vs. interventionists (isolationists went silent when the Trade Towers fell, but returned as the “Why is Israel so important, anyway?” crowd);  

 

Between the nationalists and internationalists (of which the free trade vs. American protectionism is but one example).

 

The President first identified himself as a possible populist political leader when he was the governor of Texas.  Having run an oil company and a baseball team “W” plausibly presented as less patrician and more authentically “blue collar” (if that phrase isn’t already obsolete) than his father.  His first presidential campaign was headed to victory when a last minute revelation of his all-to-cleverly hidden DUI broke.  The aura of inauthenticity nearly cost him that election, and did depress his popular vote. 

 

The President’s populist persona reemerged post 911 in the rubble of the World Trade Towers.  It was plain to all discerning observers that on that day and in the company of the firefighters, police and rescuers, “W” was among men like those he had rubbed shoulders with in the oil business and on the baseball field and that he was comfortable.  Everyone in that rubble zone felt that this President was one of them, and that the “SOB’s” who’d done this to our country would be made to pay.  A populist republican president was born in that moment, riding the one issue that trumps the typical republican rep as the party of corporate CEO’s and the country club set – Don’t tread on America

 

This issue will always trump the rest provided two conditions are met: (1) the leader doesn’t break trust with the American people and (2) we actually succeed in beating our enemies.

 

For the moment, the fractures on the right were healed and the left was silenced. Then…

Stay tuned…

 

PART FOUR

December 4th 2006

 

POPULISM 101

THE DISCUSSION CONTINUES

 

The liberal intelligentsia who woke up on 9-12-01 yet they were not yet changed by the experience. 

 

When the republican Texas governor, whose occupation of the White House on that occasion was an historical fluke (from their point of view), suddenly became a credible populist, tremors of real fear rippled though the entire democratic establishment.  The democrats had endured a previous republican populist under the movie star turned Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan.  A repeat performance by RR II could well have ended the democratic dominance of the American political scene for decades.  These democrats knew, but were loath to publicly acknowledge, just how far their party had strayed from the blue collar roots of the FRD coalition – hence the “Reagan democrat” phenomenon and the Democratic Party’s ongoing vulnerability.  

 

Insiders in the Democratic Party knew all too well that a majority of their former “working class” allies were not in favor of the abolition of the death penalty for murder, had absolutely no pacifist inclinations when it came to anyone who would dare attack America, and no longer responded like ‘red diaper baby” neo-Comm’s to the anti-capitalist, class bating that had served their European labor counterparts so well. 

 

I believe that the original impulse that fueled the liberal campaign to stoke hatred of George W. Bush was fear.  The democratic inner circle knew that this president must be stopped from gaining real traction among their “natural constituencies” at all costs. 

 

When President Bush – who had relied on the same intelligence that had led President Clinton to the same conclusion – was confronted with the post invasion failure to find Saddam’s large stocks of WMD’s, the democrats were quick to exploit the issue:  They instinctively knew that the weak link of any populist leader is a betrayal of trust.

 

Had “W” been a more effective, visceral populist, instead of the inherently decent son of George and Barbara, he would have turned on Clinton’s CIA, fired several scapegoats, and invaded Syria.

 

The populist mind is combative and loves victory.  This president’s current troubles flow from his inability to deliver victory quickly enough.  I am certain that the Iraq conflict will be a background issue in 2008.  But how it seems to be resolved before then will help shape the political landscape for a decade or more.  

 

But the political landscape will be formed by the larger war, the jihad against the West, by the energy production independence issue and by that sleeper issue that won’t go away: Who will be working in this country at what jobs, for whom and at what pay?

Stay tuned…

 

PART FIVE

December 6, 2006

 

THE COMING POPULIST REFORMATION?

Populism 101 cont.

 

As the conservative and liberal elites grapple with the implications of coming populist reformation, everyone should remember that the main populist strands of opinion, concerns and perspectives are not the only such threads in American politics, just the ones most often neglected by the elites of the left and right.  This is why populism tends to erupt from time to time, instead of congealing around a particular party or set of interest groups.  The center of gravity of American populism is located among those who are too busy working, earning and living real lives (elites would say “mundane” lives, here) to become political junkies.  They periodically awake—like the mythical sleeping giant – only when provoked by prolonged policy neglect or irritated into sufficient anger by repeated disregard of their core values and concerns. When the elites forget who really serves whom for long enough, there is hell to pay. 

 

Populism has a sharply different look and feel in the USA as opposed to – say- Venezuela or Iran because the American middle class is so well entrenched and numerous that its numbers overwhelm those who cling to hereditary privilege.  While ours is not a fully “classless” society, its various divisions tend to be blurry and membership levels very fluid as people and families migrate from hardship to wealth and back again.  This is the country where the less wealthy can reasonably aspire to wealth and the wealthy can reasonably worry about losing everything. 

 

In this milieu, there are only two great “class” divisions in the populist mind that really matter:  those who work, create value and struggle to make productive things happen for themselves, their families and the community at large, and those who manipulate the former group.  In the populist mind, the manipulative class includes the idle rich, the idle poor, and the political and cultural leaders who exploit the productive “class”.

The coming populist reformation will be driven by the events and exigencies of the next few years because these challenges will bring the failures of elites of right and left to address the core populist values and concerns into sharp relief.

 

We elites could have seen this coming.  Think of the California tax revolt, the popular resistance in many states to judicial or administrative attempts to impose political correctness (as in the aborted attempt to conflate gay rights with the earlier post-slavery struggles of the civil rights era) and the abrupt right turn by the democrats on the “border security” issue.

 

What are the challenging events and exigencies of the next few years?  The broad outlines are already clear.  The pattern was first evident with the oil and hostage crisis under the non-populist President Jimmie Carter and became blatant with the 9-11-01 attacks on American soil.  There are a number of vital sub-issues, among them the primacy of the English language, the obligation of the elites to control the influx of unassimilated “outsiders” and to vigorously promote the assimilation of the “newly arrived” and the fervent wish of those who work for a living to be able to retain their earnings.  These populist issues (in altered form) are alive and well in Europe where the elites may have irretrievably mucked thing up.  Here, the American elites on the right and left are on notice that there is still time to avert disaster. 

 

Incidentally, when one is discussing disaster in the context of growing populism, “disaster” can take one or both of two forms: (1) The trigger event that inaugurates a true populist eruption – through neglect or deception – actually happens; (2) We get a powerful, irresponsible populist figure on the stage bent on “sticking it to” the elites.  The notion of a “populist reformation” is that the elites will be able to reconcile rational policy to the main populist concerns before a triggering disaster takes place.  The game so far has been one of obfuscation, placation and deception.  In the hyper information age, this game is now over.  Information flow has been democratized.  

The list of hot button populist issues and pending challenges to our elites is longer than this, of course. I’ll get to several more as this discussion progresses.

Stay tuned.

 

PART SIX

December 10, 2006

POPULISM 101

The Series

By

Jay B. Gaskill

The Blue Dogs of Washington:

Why The Populist Reformation Will End Political correctness

 

Political junkies know that “Blue Dog Democrats” are the party’s moderates and semi-conservatives.  They have been locked out of the building so long that they have turned blue in the cold, hence the term.

 

Well, as a result of the last election, there are more of them.  And as a group, they are less politically correct than the dominant democrat species. Within the small group of original Blue Dogs we find Representative Jane Harmon, ranking democrat of the House Intelligence Committee, by all accounts an intelligent and effective moderate. The new Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, a quintessentially politically correct liberal had twice snubbed Ms. Harmon.  The Class of 06 will give this Speaker much more trouble.  And there is more trouble still in the making.

 

I am predicting that the worst excesses of political correctness will be rejected by the American people first then by their representatives. We are beginning to see the first signs of this trend; the coming populist reformation begins to gain traction in Congress.

 

A Review:

 

Our political elites, divided on many issues, each share three common traits: (1) high education levels, (2) important wealth (3) a distrust of the populist vote bordering on fear.  Winning elections for each requires a periodic courting ritual during which the populist vote (on which success depends) is earnestly sought, followed by a measure of post-election betrayal. The corporate country club conservatives and the Lexus limousine liberals have so far succeeded in achieving a rough division of the populist center: social populists on one side, economic populists on then other. 

 

Until Reagan, 20th century republicans were so identified with corporate America that they had no credible populist credentials.  But the democrats have drifted so far from the populist center than a huge opening was created.  Some of the populist shortcomings of the liberals were outlined in my earlier article: http://www.jaygaskill.com/liberalismasreligion.htm .

 

These conditions are rapidly changing.  The last election demonstrated that democrats were finally desperate enough to bend the rules of political correctness in order to recapture the Congress.  [I think of a James Webb newly elected to the Senate, for example, a pro-gun democrat, who has less in common with the “Californiacrats” on populist issues than with the entire Midwest republican delegation.]

 

In the populist mindset, the family social traditions that govern in the heartland are not lightly (or covertly) to be discarded.  I still believe that a legitimate populist movement can accommodate local custom (when popular sentiment clearly differs from the mainstream, thinking of the accommodations for gay marriage in Vermont for example).  But at a minimum, the traditional populist values trump all non-democratic institutions of governance. When judges abuse their trust by overriding the popular will on essential “family values” issues, a populist rebellion is inevitable.  As a result, we can expect the democrats to suddenly become more sensitive to “state’s rights” where these “social issues” would otherwise fracture their fragile populist-liberal elite coalition.

 

The coming populist reformation will be driven by the events and exigencies of the next few years because these challenges will bring the failures of elites of right and left to address the core populist values and concerns into sharp relief.

 

The Populist Reformation vs. the Political Correctness Imposed by the Elites

 

By this time in history, the term PC (or Political Correctness) should require little explanation. Yet I’ve discovered a large variation among audiences; often—while a plurality  gets it”—a substantial number of people – especially on the “left coast” have never actually given the matter any thought; for them the whole idea is dismissed as some “talk show” construct. 

 

I believe that the topic deserves serious analysis, particularly in light of my contention that the days of PC (at least in its most aggravated forms) are numbered.

 

Political Correctness is a form of social Marxism in which the role of the proletariat is replaced by an ever expanding victim class, including groups that are “entitled” to redress of grievances.  These grievances can include mere slights, among other things, the offense of speaking ill of them (an offense determined solely by the victim class).  This places open discussion, free speech and normal social interaction hostage to the most overheated victim-sensitive souls among us, and opens up an avenue for a form of blackmail by persons or groups posing as victims.

 

Enter Blair


One current side effect is the notion of “multiculturalism” a construct based on an ethos of tolerance so extreme that we are now expected to tolerate as “equally valid” groups and individuals whose intolerance poses an actual danger to our essential freedoms.

British Labor PM, Tony Blair, a brave man with common sense, recently made the following observation, much to the consternation of the left on his side of the Atlantic:

 

“If outsiders wishing to settle in Britain were not prepared to conform to the virtues of tolerance then they should stay away. He added: ‘Conform to it; or don’t come here. We don’t want the hate-mongers, whatever their race, religion or creed.

 

“If you come here lawfully, we welcome you. If you are permitted to stay here permanently, you become an equal member of our community and become one of us. The right to be different. The duty to integrate. That is what being British means.”

 

A major American public figure giving a similar speech might well be required to apologize for his or her violation of “PC” rules.

 

Origins of PC

 

What we now call “PC” took root in the wake of the Vietnam War. It was a promising beginning. New social and political norms, aimed at reversing patterns of racism and sexism, captured university and workplace cultures beginning in the late 60’s. But, as momentum gathered, even sexual banter was forbidden as possible “harassment”. This sorry development caused distress among males who had enjoyed the benefits of “sexual liberation” during and immediately following the anti-war movement.  The introduction of this neo-Puritanical element was the real beginning of “political correctness”.

Obviously, the PC movement had no sense of humor.

 

In the very beginning, there were major legislative gains for the civil rights movement; race-based discrimination was banned in public accommodations and schools.  It was an admirable accomplishment, if late, and a great watershed in American history.  These early successes generated pressures to expand the movement by including more oppressed groups.  The search for new “victim classes” had begun. The movement reached a legislative zenith in the early 90’s. 

 

When “insensitive” jokes were banned as potentially offensive to each new protected victim group, the first signs of incoherence began to develop within this loosely defined movement. At least at first, black Americans could still tell sexist jokes and disparage “cripples”, but that was soon to change. All criticism of the new order was to be shut down, and any defense of its primary targets, (Southern politicians, the police, the military, and – eventually—all white males with crew cuts), would be ridiculed as politically “retrograde”.

 

The parallels from the communist era became too obvious to ignore.  Parody was irresistible. Our assigned PC nannies began to look like stand-ins for the Chinese party officers and Soviet secret police who spied on everyone under Mao and Stalin. Then some unsung comedian invented the term “political correctness” and it stuck to the movement like a limpet to the bottom of a ship.  Of course, under those communist regimes, people who deviated from political correctness tended to disappear. Except for the secret graves, PC reality often does resemble parody.  

 

Political correctness, as its name indicates, actually has roots in the New Left, the “Post-Marxist Marxism” that infiltrated the milieu of the 60’s. By no means did Marxism define the anti-Vietnam War movement (since Marxists are not pacifists, especially against capitalist targets). At the time, especially in the movement’s Berkeley epicenter, free love, free drugs libertarianism, traditional social democracy, a mid-western patriotic decency (“We just don’t do that!”) were equally strong elements of this unlikely coalition.

 

Social Marxism germinated among the “Critical theory” intellectuals whose ideas can be traced back to Germany’s Weimar Republic. The Weimar Republic (1919-33) ended in political and economic chaos and Hitler’s takeover. Among the German intellectuals of that period, two “social” Marxists, Eric Fromm (1900-1980), and Herbert Marcuse (1838-79), moved to New York and lectured at the “Institute of Social Research”. Although Fromm and Marcuse disagreed (the latter accused the former of espousing “hedonism”), both were highly visible critics of American capitalism and bourgeois culture, contributing to the “New Left” and the subsequent ideas that formed modern (should I say postmodern?) “PC”. Of the two, Marcuse was a stronger critic of Soviet Stalinist excesses and Fromm was a stronger exponent of sexual, gender liberation.

 

PC is a socio-political ideology based on four elements:

 

  • A radical egalitarianism, the notion that all human differences are arbitrary and accidental and that the proper goal of society is: (a) to pretend these differences don’t exist; and/or (b) to force social reality to conform to the construct in which they don’t exist.
  • Systems of legal, peer, and cultural repression designed to punish those who deny or oppose #1.
  • A “victim” coalition to implement #2 against all who resist (who now become, by definition, the oppressors).
  • A style of implementation that conceals the hard edges of the forgoing by promoting fictional voluntary compliance, forms of social “reeducation”, and “consensus building.”

 

This amounts to a thinly disguised return to tribalism (whose membership is defined by PC victim/oppressor categories), a de facto repeal of the gains for the individualism and rationalism of the Enlightenment.  The latent incoherence of the PC agenda becomes evident when conflicts emerge – as they already have– among the various “victim” groups, and when membership of one or more such victim groups must be narrowed, eliminated, or the excluded members even redefined as oppressors. The group of favored minorities resembles an exclusive social club.  The exclusion of the Jews in the decades after their active leadership participation in the American Civil Right’s movement coupled with the growing anti-Semitism among some African-American leaders is one case in point. The attempt to exclude hard working, “over-achieving” Asian-American students in the affirmative action context is another.  The prospective exclusion of Hispanic-American males (as “too Catholic” and “too macho”) is the newest trend. Well educated, high achieving African-Americans are not far behind.  The growing tribalism has actually prompted some to self identify as “Euro-Americans” but I doubt that membership in “club victim” will be open to them!

 

The populists are now laughing at the PC elites.  Think how they/we will look to some future generation:

 

They/we were trapped in a prison of ambivalence.  They/we tended to say that it’s not for us to judge others, while hoping to escape judgment ourselves. Yet we elites felt guilty because we know we might be wrong.  When some shrill members of our assigned peer group demanded our support for their cause, we agreed. “Yes you are victims.  Of course we support you.”  Sometimes we signed petitions. They/we even wrote checks, rarely paid attention to the real world consequences of their/our beliefs. By “us”, “they” and  we’, I’m not talking about the strident followers of Marx, Lenin and the other ideologies of grievance, discredited for the most part, but alive and well among the intelligentsia. And I’m leaving out those ardent worshipers of Allah, God, Christ, or the Buddha who are busy trying to get over their sectarian differences even as their numbers shrink among the post graduates who hope to run things when they grow up. No, I’m not referring to those blessed with authentic moral convictions. This is an interesting group to be found an anthropology museum in Kansas.  All these people were inoculated against the essential ambivalence I referred to. No, the PC elites  are a special group. 

 

They/we are the educated and sophisticated “elites”, the first beneficiaries of first world economies and culture. We include that vast pampered army of boomers, yuppies, and “bobos” featured in a media run mostly by us. We live in urban areas in Europe and North America, but this is the information age, so actually we live all over the place; we’re a widely dispersed global elite. For the most part, we are the comfortable cohort who find peer support in our shared essential ambivalence.  We include teachers, professionals, leaders, journalists, and consumers. We are the “new minds,” the children of “science”. We are the new generations weaned in the post-religious culture.

They/we have achieved the supreme act of mental compartmentalization: We claim to believe in human rights while at the same time we’ve become the grownups for whom “right” and “wrong” are just the inventions of Culture, Tribe, and Individual Preference.  We are “free” only in the sense that we can adopt the transient enthusiasms of gesture politics and moralist stances with the same abandon as a child trying on Halloween costumes.  We are not free because, when challenged, the very rights we claim to support are founded on the fragile foundations of cultural relativism.

 

Rescue is on the Way

 

The PC elites are not constrained by principle or consistency because these are artifacts of a discredited age.  But they are afraid to openly challenge the moralist enthusiasms of their peers, especially their claims as victims, because they might be excluded from the tribe. They’re certainly not ready to challenge the notion that, beneath all the gestures and enthusiasms, there is a hollow core.  These elites are the prisoners of a facile and hollow political correctness. The hollow, pseudo-ethical mess at the center of the PC ethos is more evident than they dare think. Their children can smell ambivalence as easily as a guard dog can smell fear.

 

All this will change. The PC elites are about to be rescued by the coming populist reformation

 

Stay tuned.

 

PART SEVEN
WHY MODERN AMERICAN POPULISM IS SO UNIQUE:
December 14, 2006 (as edited 12-23-06)
POPULISM 101
The Series Continues
By
Jay B. Gaskill
 

A word of explanation for those of you who have tracked this discussion so far:


There is an apparent contradiction for anyone who tries to write sympathetically about populism, because doing that is an “elite” activity. Or is it?  My favorite populist thinker of the 20th century was Eric Hoffer, the immigrant longshoreman. He was self educated, trenchant and brilliant. His signature work, “The True Believer” was a classic takedown of the elites of communism, Nazism and the religious authorities whose organizational structure these two bloody secular religions of the last century copied. I had the privilege of seeing this passionate, coherent longshoreman twice when I was a student in the Bay Area. He was a man who maintained from life experience that the common people were “lumpy with talent” and that the idle intellectuals were a dangerous combination of skill and lack of judgment. As a student, I worked in road construction and enjoyed the company these older guys for whom a 10 hour day with a shovel or jackhammer was a career, as opposed to a source of tuition money. As a lawyer, I’m now unable to deny my “elite station” in life.

 

My predicted populist reformation is not a populist revolution.  We’ve seen far too many of those events; they end badly for the working people these revolutions purport to help.  Instead I’m predicting (and supporting) a mutual adjustment of the relationship between the manipulative elites and the productive men and women who actually make things happen.  This reformation is only possible in contemporary America because here the distance between elites and non-elites is smaller than anywhere else in the world, and the fund of experience, common sense and talent in the “populist sector” often exceeds that of the elites. 
 

Ours is a unique situation, the product of three converging social forces: (1) the democratization of information flow (note that the cyber-revolution is already changing the information dominance of the academy); (2) the democratization of economic processes (success of the pricing systems and entrepreneurial models of modern capitalism that are copied within socialist economies produce a sort of quick-entry elite group and destabilize the older ideological and hereditary elites); (3) the decline of the authority of the manipulative elites because of the corrosive effects of an overly-fluid relativistic value perspective that has caused the withering away of the traditional moral underpinnings of all ruling cliques everywhere that the post-modern ethos has penetrated.Just how dramatically different is the American situation?  Compare just two examples: In rural India, the ancient practice of sati is still being practiced.  Widows are expected to be burned alive on their husband’s funeral pyre.  The urban elites of India condemn (and prosecute) this barbaric “populist” practice as murder.  In this country, a late term unborn male, heart beating, just short of unassisted viability outside the womb, is dismembered at the prospective mother’s request.  Some of our elites defend this as a “therapeutic medical procedure” and as a “proper exercise of female autonomy”.  Some of our populists condemn the practice as “barbaric, approaching infanticide” or even as “murder”. 

 

Leaving aside all of the constitutional law arguments and nuanced public policy debate on the abortion issue, we elites might reasonably concede that it is not at all clear whether the elite position always represents the more enlightened moral perspective.
 

This raises the major reason that our current circumstances auger a populist reformation that will soon effect a transformation in one or both of this country’s political parties.   The older established elites operated openly, sustained by a mantle of moral authority grounded in deep tradition and/or universal moral principles commonly accepted as normative by an overwhelming majority. 

 

The post modern elites are so disconnected from the popular ethos that the must attempt to operate in the background, their actual attitudes and positions cloaked with three well honed opinion shaping “technologies”: deception, obfuscation and distraction.  This is a hard act to maintain in the information age, much like that of the emperor who thought none of his subjects would notice that he was naked.
 

A necessary caveat: At this point I will seem to have romanticized the populist ethos.  This is really the contrast effect.  The modern populist perspective looks very good next to the post modern moral ambivalence and narcissistic indulgence (including a tendency to faux moral posturing) that prevail among the manipulative elites.  Naturally, there are aspects of the populist mindset (especially on the fringes) that I don’t share.  For example, I am much more inclined to support changes in public policy and private practice that include our gay and lesbian friends in the mainstream than is typically acceptable within the populist mindset.  But I differ with the typical elite perspective that dismisses American populist thinking as retrograde or barbaric.  I agree with the populists who would not conflate the goal of the full social integration of our tiny gay subpopulation with the struggles against slavery. 

 

In the main, the distinctively American version of populism has captured a great deal of folk wisdom and common sense morality that the elites should dismiss only at their peril.

Another special qualification:  By contrasting the manipulative, non-productive elites with the much larger group of us who are engaged in productive work, I have radically changed the contours of the normal populist-elite divide, and effectively reduced the number of issues held in common that define the populist perspective. I would specifically include among the populist cohort those of us who toil at creative tasks.  The creative-productive among us have their own set of “issues” with the manipulative, non-productive elites.
 

Modern American populism, in this expanded and general sense, is much more functionally egalitarian than non-American populists and much more so than our own manipulative elites who profess an ideal utopian equality that is functionally empty.  At the deepest, often unexamined level, our elites have a very strange egalitarian notion indeed, one driven by the psychological contradiction between an ingrained narcissism and the need to be “well thought of”. 

 

I see three elements operating in the manipulative elite mindset:(1) Those who think alike are morally equal.(2) Material inequalities of all kinds should be redressed by some kind of compensation. (3) The manipulative elites manage to feel insulated against the (truthful) allegation that they’re part of the “inequality problem” by selectively demonizing the people who don’t think like them. After all (these elites typically think) that retrograde, unenlightened mindset is the root cause of all the world’s ills.

 

Our home grown populists are united by a common experience of productive struggle.  That experience validates of the value of earning which leads quickly to the idea that all men and women are entitled to keep the fruits of their productive efforts.  Inequalities tend to be readily accepted by the populist mind when they are not accomplished by fraud and are not accompanied by hypocrisy. 

There are conscientious and reasonable members of the manipulative elites who will be able accommodate the coming populist reformation.  But this will require some self-reassessment. 

 

I see two takeaway points that will be central to this process:

  1. All of the most salient and durable populist positions represent “field tested” values, enduring social norms whose utility is well established.  These include tough “rule-consequences” policies for crime control, the obvious morality of retribution against our enemies on the foreign policy stage, the need for robust protection of the earned fruits of the productive efforts of “the people”, and for strong, effective policies to protect the health and stability of the families who make and rear children.
  2. The elites owe respect for all strongly held populist positions such that major reversals or changes should never be accomplished via deception or manipulation.

 

This brings the discussion back to what I first described as “procedural populism”:  

The signal anti-populist development of the last 65 years was the emergence of governance via non-elected institutions under the control of the non-populist elites of the two parties. Principally the courts and the administrative agencies, these new power centers have quietly and not so quietly set public policies in motion that never could have gathered sufficient popular support.  Examples, many obvious, will follow as I expand this discussion. The signal pro-populist development in the same period was the emergence – principally in California producing what some political scientists are now calling “hybrid government” of the popular initiative as a tool for setting social and tax policy in ways that the legislative bodies – controlled by party elites – did not.
 

Stay tuned.
    

 

 

PART 7.1

POSTED JANUARY 3, 2007

 

REFLECTIONS ON THE COMING DEATH OF “PC”

 

A Footnote to “Populism 101, the Series”

 

In a small writers’ gathering a couple of years ago, I held forth on this topic, only to learn that several in the small audience were confused by the usage.  Was I talking about computers?  Another subgroup felt threatened by the topic: As I challenged (i.e., made fun of) the doctrines of political correctness, wasn’t I mocking their own quasi-sacred beliefs?

 

Clearly this topic needs more humor.  Fortunately, we are experiencing a new humor outbreak.

 

Q: What do the following creative minds common? 

Chris Rock; Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park and Team America); the latter day George Carlin; Sacha Baron Cohen (Borak). 

 

A: (1) Popularity and (2) Gleeful disregard of PC constraints imposed.

 

Humor inThe PC Prison

(Sadly, we do need to laugh.)

 

Yes, there is hope.  The walls of our PC cells are crumbling and we’ve started laughing at the guards.  Outbreaks of rebellious humor are the leading edge of any “serious” movement’s collapse. 

 

One morning over coffee, I noted an account in the 5-1-03 New York Times with a silent, “about time!!!”. A comic humanitarian genius, David Gonzales, had created tiny collectable figurines called “Homies”.  These little figures depict characters like the wheelchair-bound gangster “Willie G.”

 

Our PC minders were aghast. The Homies were instantly popular. 

 

As the trend to laugh at our PC minders gathers momentum, we can hope to see the day when PC World dissolves in a huge mirthquake.

 

Humor is critically necessary to our sanity and to the preservation of our humanity under stressful conditions.  I’ve had the privilege being around this kind of humor – you find in the Trauma centers, the ER’s, rehab centers, police stations, and (in my case) among overstressed criminal trial lawyers on both sides of the metaphorical aisle.  Sadly, I’ve also seen the gradual decline of permitted humor in the workplace, (including in my former office), in academia, and among friends.  And I’ve seen the signs of unrelieved stress in the high pressure workplace when we loose humor (distress, divorce, disability, burnout, depression and suicide).

 

This non-PC humor goes by a different brand name, “Predator Humor.”  In its more benign manifestations (of course, all truly funny humor is benign), we’ve enjoyed it in the cartoons of Gary Larsen. [I’ve often wondered whether Gary was actually taken to his Island in Puget Sound by a band of PC nannies, where he’s being held incommunicado.  Gary, you can come out now! ] We’re beginning to hear Predator Humor again in whispers … when our PC “minders” aren’t close by.

 

The following is what we students of the law call a “fact pattern”.  In this instance, my fact pattern is based on a real event.  Forgive the stilted language; it’s a pidgin amalgam of Lawyertalk and PCspeak.  Deal with it…. 

 

There were three miscreants who formed a criminal cohort. Their basic scheme involved the two robbers (we’ll call them “Tobe” and “Not” for reasons that will soon be apparent) teamed with a mistress of the night (we’ll call her Ms. Bait).  Their plan was not sophisticated: Non-indigent victims were seduced by Ms. Bait, then forcibly separated from all their belongings by Mr. Tobe and Mr. Not.

 

One evening, a contractual dispute erupted between the two male miscreants and Ms. Bait, who was accused by them of retaining more than her share of the proceeds. 

 

So Mr. Tobe decided – improvidently-- to “shoot the h… ” in retribution. {H… is Street slang for Ms. B’s profession; rhymes with beaux.}

 

Regrettably (for Mr. Tobe), the bullet passed cleanly through Ms. Bait, leaving her available, after treatment, for testimony). Even more regrettably, the bullet struck Mr. Not, who was positioned in the line of fire behind the “h…”. 

 

Not’s dying words (it was a chest shot) were addressed at Tobe in a mixture of anger and wonder:

 

“You dumb f… !” {F… Usage is similar to “fool”, rhymes with the four letter word for fortune.}

 

Who says G-d lacks a sense of humor?  Not’s dying words were later echoed in court, evincing a spreading ripple of agreement: Jury, judge, and Tobe’s girlfriend concurred-- 

 

“He was a dumb f…”.

 

Sadly, the real world is full of “dumb f…s”, and we do need to laugh.

 

 

January 5, 2006

 

POPULISM 101 CONTINUES…

 

PART EIGHT

USA! USA! USA!

 

A Review

 

So far, two essentially new ideas have been advanced in this ongoing narrative:

 

First: That the new face of American populism is loosely organized around the most productive elements in society (including those of us engaged in the creative struggle) as against the “manipulative elites’

 

[“Those who work, create value and struggle to make productive things happen for themselves, their families and the community at large, and those who manipulate the former group.  In the populist mind, the manipulative class includes the idle rich, the idle poor, and the political and cultural leaders who exploit the productive ‘class’.”]

 

Second: That there is a coming populist reformation (as opposed to a populist revolution) in which one or both of the leading political parties will curb the sharp edges of its ideological fervor in order to bring itself into line with the most neglected features of the populist ethos.  The preferred outcome is for both parties to do this (crudely for the democrats to become more socially populist and for the republicans to become more economically populist) because the country always does much better when both parties are closer to the political center. When each party stays sufficiently competitive that a major power shift (a) is always possible (b) but doesn’t involve a tectonic shift in ideology), corruption is held in check.  If only one of the parties achieves a populist reformation, the other will be marginalized over time.

 

A Preview

 

I’ve posed these questions:

Why was President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), our 7th President, a more authentic American populist than William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925)?

What is the common thread that links our three greatest populist Presidents: Andy Jackson (7th), Abe Lincoln (16th) and Teddy Roosevelt (26th)?

The short answer is that Presidents Jackson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt had one important element of the enduring populist ethos right and the failed perennial presidential aspirant, W. J. Bryan, never accommodated:  A robust, muscular American nationalism.  Bryan’s “Republican cross of gold” rhetoric was part of the now almost forgotten populist thread, the demonization of bankers.  His anti-tight money theme has been assimilated into conservative and liberal economic theory.  But his rhetorical attacks on “American imperialism” never quite captured the American populist imagination. [But the temptations of an “America First” isolationism loom close to the surface in the populist mindset.]

 

The bottom line: A tough minded, even enthusiastic pro-American stance (social, economic and military -- think of Teddy Roosevelt) remains central to any modern iteration of American populism.

 

A qualifier: We can grant that populism is not the same as intelligence.  But we can also grant that intelligence without a large dose of populism is a map to the political ghetto occupied by the stable of splinter parties and also-rans.

 

What is the shape of a forward looking, intelligent populism?  It will have three key elements, each captured by today’s tag line (USA!).

 

American primacy over all its enemies, domestic and foreign: This includes the protection of the homeland from terrorist incursions and the ultimate strategic defeat of the jihad against the West.

 

American primacy over all threats to our energy supply: This implicitly supports a robust, practical program of energy independence such that our enemies and hostile competitors will never again be able to disrupt our supply of fuel.

 

American primacy in the realm of manufacture and production: Populism is ultimately practical and brooks no excuses. Until the engines of specifically American job creation are so robust that outsourcing to foreign workers is irrelevant, this issue will continue drive populist economic policy.  

 

Neither party is particularly well equipped by ideology (or for that matter by visible intelligence) to effectively address the last two points in a way that will earn populist support.  There are intelligent solutions.  But each requires leadership of a kind we’ve rarely seen in the last seventy years.

 

I’ll pick up the threads of this discussion next week.

 

Stay tuned.