The Wikipedia entry for “Populism” comes in at 35,000 words, and is of not much help to one seeking a coherent definition of the term. All political terms are vague, but the vagueness of this one is a degree of magnitude greater than most. As always in dealing with political concepts, the difficulty is in parsing the interplay between the two fundamental elements of the human condition, the moral model of reciprocity and the differentiating element of firstness. Whereas most such concepts, like “socialism” or “liberal democracy,” are minimally defined by ways of implementing this interaction in the economic and political spheres, the term populism is used to stigmatize political movements as expressing not a viable alternative, but merely popular resentment of those in authority. And as I have often noted in our victimary era, while the Left’s resentment is never described as such in the media, the term is liberally used for “populists.”
The frequent references to populism in the past few years in connection with the Brexit campaign, various nationalist parties in Europe, and of course Donald Trump’s political constellation, obliges us to reflect on its real significance. Does it have a genuine anthropological core, or is it merely an insult, a milder version of the even more vaguely defined term “fascism”? But although the latter term has been bandied about since the 1930s as an insult to conservatives, in the past year or two, populism has been revived to suggest the existence of an inchoate international movement sweeping the West and the weaker precincts of liberal democracy, such as Latin America.
I have not been fond of this term, and have rarely used it in these Chronicles. No party, as far as I know, calls itself populist. It is a generic label that includes Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” and Obama’s “clingers,” the global elite’s expression of contempt for backward native members of a national culture, divorced from the more advanced sectors of the economy, and generally lacking a university education. The sociology of populist voting blocs is similar, mutatis mutandis, in the different countries in which such parties have arisen. In Europe, particularly in the East, these movements often have a xenophobic element that, given Europe’s catastrophic demography and the mass immigration resulting from recent unrest in the Middle East and Africa, is based on not unwarranted fear for the continuity of their national culture.
One could say that the phenomenon that I shall label neo-populism reflects the problems unleashed by the increasing globalization not merely of the economy but of culture itself, which comes into conflict with local traditions. When Western Europe began its project of integration after WWII, its national cultures were fairly well-defined and its populations relatively homogeneous. Increasingly in the past few years, the postwar turning away from nationalism has led to a politics of “multiculturalism” that tolerates alien cultures to the point of self-mutilation, and that has shown itself highly vulnerable to the newly reawakened forces of Islam. Most Muslims may be “moderate,” but after a century of quiescence, Islam’s militant element has fed on the West’s vulnerability and renewed its primordial attempt at conquest that was thought to have ended in the 17th century at the gates of Vienna.
In the United States, although immigration remains a sore point, there is far less sense of a demographic and cultural invasion. But if we agree that Trump’s victory can nonetheless be associated with this neo-populist movement, it provides a cleaner example that should allow us to better understand its foundations.
For one thing, “multiculturalism” is very much part of US tradition. If in France it is still illegal to classify people by race or national origin, so that census takers can’t even count the number of Muslims or Africans in France, the US is used to hyphenated Americans—as well as all too familiar with disparate impact as a motivation for decisions. The American provenance of the term “PC,” commonly adopted now in Europe, is a sign of the greater clarity of the American political landscape in this respect. Xenophobia per se is far less of a problem in a nation formed from many groups of immigrants, and the fact that the archetypal American minority is “African-American,” that is, a group whose ancestors have been in this country for several more generations than most of the others, is also a radical difference.
I have written quite a bit about what I conceive as Trump’s primary role as a bulwark against the PC phenomenon. As we saw in last week’s Chronicle, the extreme point of victimary thought, one toward which many of our institutions seem to be feeling their way, is the denial of any non-communal, objective criteria for human behavior, to the point that any activity, such as mathematics, at which some are measurably superior to others is accused of “Whiteness.” I hasten to add the qualification that the activity must be wholly symbolic, directly recalling the abstract basis of the originary scene of representation. The whiteness association would not be made for a skill like musical or artistic or athletic performance, domains that indeed served to showcase minority talent even in the days of de jure discrimination.
Left and Right correspond grosso modo to the two constitutive elements of the human condition: the moral model of reciprocal exchange and recognition, and the element of firstness that allows human beings, liberated from “instinct” by the scene of representation, to construct and propose initiatives for the benefit of the group.
All evidence suggests that the egalitarian organization of archaic hunter-gatherer societies is the least effective in regulating violence. Every offense, real or imagined, is an affront to equality, and every injury must be responded to in kind, unto the nth generation. It is in reality these “utopian” societies that embody to the greatest extent the war of all against all that Hobbes’ Leviathan, or shall we say, the ethnologist’s big-man, helps to defer, thereby making greater, but better organized and less self-destructive violence possible.
Left and Right having a clear anthropological basis, what then can we say for populism? In the past, American populism was associated with the Democrats, traditionally the party of the Left, although until the Civil Rights era they were also the party of Jim Crow. Now Jim Crow is anything but a policy of equality, yet it is not either a policy of the Right. On the contrary, it was the Republicans who defined themselves as the anti-slavery party, and Lincoln was their first president. If we can understand this conundrum, unique to the US, but precisely exemplary of the populist problem in a way that European “populism” is not, we will better be able to understand the resurgence of the phenomenon today, and in particular explain its association with Trump’s visceral Burkeanism.
For the postwar evolution of the two parties toward a clear Left-Right division is both more and less simple than it appears. Less simple, because the present composition of the Democratic party that includes both the “lower” and “higher” classes, billionaires and minorities, is closer to that of the old Tory party than Labor, and we have seen that the working class has largely deserted the party as it has moved farther to the left, which should be a contradiction in terms. (Compare the French situation, where Mélenchon’s France Insoumise still retains the basic demography of the old Left, with the addition of large numbers of Muslims; its ambition, indeed, is to combine traditional leftism with nationalist suspicion of the Brussels-directed EU.) But also more, because the evolution of the two parties allows us to understand the paradoxical contrast between the Left’s disparate electorate supporting equality, and the relative homogeneity of the difference-affirming Right.
We should recall that the origin of today’s victimary Left is the postwar reaction against Nazism. This is not simply a matter of moral revulsion; extremism clarifies the mind. The specifics of left-wing tyranny—to cite a recent example, the descriptions of the horrors of China’s Cultural Revolution in Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Norton, 2016), with students beating and torturing their own teachers—are in a way even more sickening than the more impersonal horrors of the Holocaust. But they lack the latter’s ascriptive emphasis. Those accused of rightism are spoken of in terms just as venomous as those the Nazis used for the Jews; but these persons are blamed for their sin, which is to say that, nominally at least, their human moral freedom has not been denied, as was that of the Nazi Untermenschen. (We should note the similarity to this of the Islamic attitude toward ascriptive difference; in principle, at least, the Islamic umma is meant to include all humanity, whatever their prior belief systems; convert and you will be spared.)
Our horror at Hitler’s extreme affirmation of racial difference demonstrates by its historical lateness that the denial of essential difference among ascriptive human categories had not previously been considered central to the social implementation of the moral model. As we inevitably fail to recall, the doctrine of Anti-Semitism was proudly affirmed as scientific truth, much as “climate change” is today. And well before the birth of “scientific” racism, nothing was more common than the conviction that other “races” (and this term could be taken very narrowly, as in the prejudice of the English against the Irish, or the Tutsi against the Hutu) were inferior to one’s own.
The most significant positive moral outcome of WWII was the definitive rejection of de jure ontological differences, and the consequent affirmation of a virtual worldwide human community. The process of deferral that we call civilization is always in disequilibrium, and bears no guarantee of continuing indefinitely. But the stigmatization of “racism” in principle is a major step toward “one world.” It has become so natural today to speak of all humans as essentially equal that one can understand, if not accept, that the facile accusation of “racism” (let alone “sexism”) might be leveled at just about everyone who lived before WWII, from Columbus and George Washington on down.
None of this means, however, that all ascriptive groups have statistically equivalent levels of ability in every domain. The disparate impact doctrine, in other words, is not implicit in the extension to all of humanity of the moral model that previously had been confined by most to their own group and extended restrictively to some others, and rarely to all.
This allows us to understand why, in the post-bellum era, and even up to WWII, Jim Crow was not felt to be incompatible with the egalitarian impulse of the Left. The “poor whites” of the South clearly shared, on the one hand, a desire to reduce their disparities with the “rich,” and on the other, a desire to maintain their privileges over the blacks. And by the same token, we understand why it was the Republican party, based in the Northern liberal-industrial elite, that opposed slavery. For the promotion of firstness in the modern world, the agriculture-based slave economy was archaic—indeed, Left-wing cynics like to insist that this was the real reason the Northern capitalists opposed it. But liberal democracy’s mode of integration of difference with moral equality is incompatible with slavery on a moral level as well. Slavery had already disappeared from Europe, and even in Russia, Alexander II emancipated the serfs in 1861, at the very beginning of America’s Civil War.
The perpetuation of black legal inferiority by Jim Crow had its echoes in the North, in housing covenants and other more or less open forms of discrimination, albeit not in such egregious areas as use of public facilities. For despite the abolition of slavery, the idea of ontological racial difference was not dead—put on the defensive, it indeed became more assertive in the late 19th century—and in the US, it could be finessed via the hypocritical notion of “separate but equal.”
Describing Jim Crow as a characteristic expression of populism permits us to define the term, while explaining its acquisition of a pejorative tinge. The de jure racial privileges of the Southern poor whites had been overturned by the 13-15th amendments. Their reinstatement of these privileges through various subterfuges embodied populism as a flight from the liberal-democratic free-market’s meritocratic model to the safety of a racial caste system incompatible with this model, yet, in the pre-Hitler era, still permissible on the basis of so-called intrinsic racial differences. In this respect, the “scientific” racism that proudly affirmed the justification for antisemitism was a respectable ally. No doubt blacks shouldn’t be chattel slaves, but they could still be considered essentially inferior to whites, just as Jews, not despite but because of their demonstrably superior intellectual talents, could be considered “inferior” in a more obscure moral sense. The tail end of this Southern populism can be found in the resistance to the Civil Rights movement and the campaigns of George Wallace, who in his later years rejected segregation and embraced racial equality.
Now let us return to the 21st century and attempt to situate the neo-populism that arouses such fear in the global elite. Needless to say, the Democrats love to pinpoint any marginal leftovers of the KKK and neo-Nazi groups they can find as “typical” examples of Republicans in general: for example, the recent Virginia campaign advertisement in the wake of the New York City jihad attack, showing a truck with a Confederate flag bearing down on minority children, along with clips from the recent Charlottesville march. Calling Trump’s voters “deplorables” as well as racist, sexist, and all the rest is to define them in pre-Hitlerian terms, to accuse them at the very least of living in a more morally primitive era, and more simply, of rejecting the conclusion that all good people are obliged to draw from WWII, that any establishment of moral inequality among ascriptive groups is an evil in itself.
What allows the victimary left to consider the KKK and neo-Nazis as typical examples of the neo-populist Republican electorate is that “racism” is now defined no longer as discrimination but as non-discrimination, that is, as rejection of the doctrine of disparate impact. If police arrest and courts jail proportionally more blacks than whites, that is cited as res ipsa proof of the police’s and court’s—perhaps “unconscious”—racism. Similarly, if Latinos do worse on the SAT than Asians… And so on.
In Europe, the neo-populist phenomenon is defined rather in terms of recent immigration, which is a problem not as easily parsed in moral terms as racial discrimination. Do the European countries somehow owe admission as a moral obligation not merely to genuine refugees, but to migrants of all kinds? European liberals from the Pope to Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron often speak in this sense.
At issue is a world vastly more interpenetrable than during previous episodes of mass migration, as well as one where the international wealth-demography disproportion, expressed in the old pseudo-lyric “the rich get richer and the poor have children,” has never been so extreme. Future projections of the exponentially growing African population are particularly disquieting, and this has nothing to do with the skin color of the persons involved. The idea that seems to have been behind Merkel’s welcoming stance, that since in the post-Hitler world we are all morally equivalent, third-world migrants can supply a work force to make up for Western Europe’s endemic demographic deficit, fails to take into account the cultural differences that discourage assimilation as well as the extensive resources of the dysfunctional in advanced industrial welfare states. This is visible enough in the US, but in Europe, whose women seem barely able to produce one child apiece, and where masses of poorly assimilated immigrants are lodged in crime-ridden residences at public expense, but where it is considered “racist” to attribute to their presence any consequent difficulties, this has produced a full-blown crisis, and the rise of neo-populist parties, often with a more sinister neo-Nazi presence than the American alt-Right, has discomforted many.
We can thus explain the phenomenon of neo-populism as founded principally on the reaction to the victimary faux-egalitarianism of “PC,” which in different ways dominates the intellectual class of both Western Europe and the US. No doubt Trump’s voters come largely from the white working class that has been disadvantaged in the digital age, but it is not “racism” that makes them resent the racial preferences that make it harder for them to be hired or for their children to go to college. Similarly, in Europe, the souchiens or “native Europeans,” who happen to be white, are understandably upset by the invasion of large numbers of foreigners, not because they are of another “race”—as far as I know, Middle-Easterners are just as Caucasian as Europeans, and the category “Aryan” is no longer taken seriously—but because they are of a different culture. This poses a problem independently of the jihadism that is still so hard to attack directly, although Europeans are coming to deal with it, as no doubt will Americans now that a jihadist attack has been carried out in New York—even as Mayor De Blasio warns us not to “cast dispersions” on the Muslim community.
In a word, Euro-American neo-populists are those who identify with the majority culture and wish to protect it from what they perceive as compensatory policies toward “disparately impacted” minorities. In the post-bellum South, this political stance was indeed expressed as racial discrimination, which roughly corresponded to the “imperialist” policies of the colonial powers—the parallel, once more, being made explicit by the disappearance of both in reaction to the Nazi example. Today’s neo-populism is quite unfairly tarred with the same brush.
These clarifications do not, of course, resolve the political problems that these post-victimary movements have arisen to confront. Rather than attempt to propose a “solution,” which would be a form of pontification contrary to the free-market spirit of liberal democratic politics, I would suggest that the positive way to view the existence of these movements is as a means of restoring a Burkean position in a political configuration that otherwise provides no real defense against the victimary, as Obama’s two terms demonstrated all too well. We need affirm that Trump and his European counterparts are on the “right side of history” only to the extent that they help reestablish a counterweight to what still insistently claims to be not a political faction but “justice” itself—to the point at which the term social justice is used as an all-purpose justification for the coercive imposition of intellectual uniformity.
Visit a university campus if you don’t believe this. Next week, UCLA’s Institute on Inequality and Democracy is holding a colloquium entitled:
On Race: INDIVISIBLE and the Resistance
INDIVISIBLE seeks to cultivate a progressive grassroots network of local groups organized across the United States to build political power, to resist the destructive political agendas of the Trump administration, to challenge structures of white supremacy, and to advocate and realize bold policies for social justice.
Anyone who can provide an announcement of a university-sponsored colloquium on the destructive political agendas of the Obama administration is welcome to correct my error. Failing this, I think we should all realize, and the never-Trumpers of the Republican party most of all, that what is called “populism” here, and I venture to say in Europe as well, is in its essence conservatism in the classical Burkean sense, the defense of traditional norms as a means of protecting necessary social differentiations. In opposition to these norms, the Left deserves to have its say, but it must be prevented at all cost from permanently imposing its monopoly.