June 28, 2010


Populism, American Style: HENRY OLSEN, National Affairs)

Our view of classical populism is shaped by both the warnings of philosophers and the experiences of some democracies, ancient and modern. In the Politics, Aristotle defines a demagogic democracy as one in which "the decrees of the assembly override the law" and a popular faction "takes the superior share in the government as a prize of victory." The people's leader, the demagogue, incites them to pursue such despotism through extravagant rhetoric, playing on the people's basest desires and fears. The result is laid out ominously in Plato's Republic: The people — "an obedient mob" — "set up one man as their special leader...and make him grow great." The masses take the property of the wealthy to redistribute it among themselves; the people's enemies, meanwhile, are charged with crimes and banished from the city (or worse). The Athenian philosophers were not merely theorizing such scenarios: Their city had lived through them, during the reigns of the 5th century B.C. demagogues Alcibiades and Cleon.

Though classic populism has varied according to time and place, it has generally taken the form of a morality play in four acts. In the first act, the masses come to feel like powerless victims, left helpless against the onslaught of an oppressive "other." In the second act, often following a crisis, that "other" is defined by a popular leader as an implacable enemy — one who has no concern for the welfare of the people, and whose actions are motivated by selfishness and greed. In the third, the leader proposes a solution: The people must use their numerical advantage to seize control of the state. In the final act, that power is used to take back from the enemy that which rightfully belongs to the people, without regard for the enemy's consent or rights.

This basic outline has been followed by regimes throughout history — from the demagogueries of the ancient Greek democrats, to the modern forms of communism, fascism, and socialism. The enemy can be economic (like capitalists or aristocrats), racial (as the Jews were for the Nazis), religious (as with sects in Lebanon or Iraq), or foreign (think Hugo Chávez's denunciations of America). The circumstances of each case differ greatly, of course, but the pattern remains the same: The "victim" seeks to vanquish the "victor," to take what is rightfully his, and to do unto the other what has allegedly been done unto him. When the drama is finally over, the rule of the people has given way to the rule of a despot.

Such a pattern was among the evils James Madison sought to contain through the Constitution. His great fear, as he put it in Federalist No. 49, was that "the passions,...not the reason, of the public would sit in judgment." If this were permitted, Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, "the influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame"; the American republic, he believed, should be designed to keep such conflagrations in check.

Madison assumed that Americans would be tempted to demand classical populism; the challenge was to reduce the ability of the government to supply it. In this sense, his creation has clearly worked: America has never had a classically populist regime. More interesting, however, is the fact that — contrary to Madison's assumption — the demand for such populism has always been fairly low in America. As it turns out, Americans have tended not to launch large-scale quasi-democratic movements in the classical-populist mold. And when such movements have arisen, they have generally not done well at election time — and so have never come close to enacting their agendas.

The relative absence of these movements has always puzzled European and Marxist social scientists, who have struggled to explain why America — in this respect virtually unique in the Western world — never formed a significant socialist or communist party. After all, economic mobility isn't that different in the United States than in Europe. Inequality is worse. Why, then, haven't Americans clamored to overthrow the powerful? What is the matter with Kansas?

The answer is to be found in the American soul, shaped as it has surely been by Madison's system. Americans are a self-governing people through and through, and American populism reflects the American passion for self-determination. That passion certainly leads some Americans to respond powerfully against overbearing elites, and so causes some populist movements to form. But it has also often allowed these responses to be channeled in constructive directions — keeping our politics in balance, and over time giving rise to enduring political coalitions.

In looking at some key populist episodes in our history, then, one finds a pattern that should ease the worries of those now concerned about a politics of resentment. It is also a pattern that offers some crucial guidance for the instigators and cheerleaders of today's populist movement. [...]

Because he led the Union through the Civil War, saved the American experiment, and ended slavery, Abraham Lincoln is generally thought of today as a unifying statesman — not a populist. (Indeed, he staunchly opposed the populist "Know Nothing" movement that sought to curb immigration in his day.) But Lincoln's career nonetheless illustrates the character and strengths of some peculiarly American-populist ideas — ideas that he absorbed during his 20 years' war with the Democratic populists who dominated Illinois politics, and which he later applied as a candidate and as president.

Lincoln ran his 1858 and 1860 campaigns using well-honed populist techniques. He championed the free white people of the North — honest citizens seeking to reclaim America and preserve its ideals for future generations. The people's adversaries, meanwhile, were identified as Southern slaveholders and their Northern co-conspirators. (Lincoln even alleged that his great rival, Stephen Douglas, was engaged in a blatant conspiracy with Supreme Court chief justice Roger Taney, President James Buchanan, and former president Franklin Pierce to bring slavery to the North and to revoke each state's power to abolish the practice in its jurisdiction.) In Lincoln's campaign narrative, justice could be achieved only by removing these adversaries from power; failure to do so would place the American republic in jeopardy.

Classical populism would have rounded out this litany by offering some obvious remedies — chief among them the repossession of the Southern elites' property, and the curtailment of their rights. This, indeed, was the platform of the abolitionists, and many (including William Lloyd Garrison) denounced Lincoln for his failure to adopt it.

But Lincoln rejected the classical-populist temptation, and held to a different course — one that enabled his Republican Party to sweep to victory a mere six years after its founding. Lincoln argued that as wrong as slavery was, Southerners should not be deprived of their human property without compensation. While abolitionists argued that the Constitution was a pact with the devil because it implicitly tolerated slavery, Lincoln argued that respect for the Constitution was essential to American liberty. His approach, therefore, was to limit the spread of slavery — not to launch an extraconstitutional crusade to abolish slavery everywhere in an attempt to assuage Northerners' sense of justice.

Beyond the slavery question, Lincoln's Republicans also advanced economic policies designed to let the average American better himself. The first GOP Congress created land-grant colleges in the states to research agricultural productivity, passed a Homestead Act that gave federal land to settlers who improved it, and provided public assistance for building a transcontinental railroad. Each program enlarged the reach of the federal government, but each was designed to give the individual the means — access to knowledge, land, and transportation — by which to advance himself.

Just convert those FHA loans into Homestead grants.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 28, 2010 3:43 PM
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