June 17, 2017


Populism, X: The imperative of freedom : On the struggle to keep government in the hands of a free people. (Roger Kimball, June 2017, New Criterion)

The question of sovereignty, I believe, takes us to the heart of what in recent years has been touted and tarred as the populist project.

Consider Britain. Parliament answers to the British voters. The European Union answers to--well, to itself. Indeed, it is worth pausing to remind ourselves how profoundly undemocratic is the European Union. Its commissioners are appointed, not elected. They cannot be turned out of office by voters. If the public votes contrary to the wishes of the E.U.'s commissars in a referendum, they are simply presented with another referendum until they vote the "right" way. The E.U.'s financial books have never been subject to a public audit. The corruption is just too widespread. Yet the E.U.'s agents wield extraordinary power over the everyday lives of their charges. A commissioner in Brussels can tell a property owner in Wales what sort of potatoes he may plant on his farm, how he must calculate the weight of the products he sells, and whom he must allow into his country. He can outlaw "racism" and "xenophobia"--defined as harboring "an aversion" to people based on "race, colour, descent, religion or belief, national or ethnic origin" and specify a penalty of "at least" two years' imprisonment for infractions. He can "lawfully suppress," as the London Telegraph reported, "political criticism of its institutions and of leading figures," thus rendering the commissars of the E.U. not only beyond the vote but also beyond criticism.

It's a little different in the United States. I'll come to that below. At the moment, it is worth noting to what extent the metabolism of this political dispensation was anticipated by Alexis de Tocqueville in his famous passages about "democratic despotism" in Democracy in America. Unlike despotism of yore, Tocqueville noted, this modern allotrope does not tyrannize over man--it infantilizes him. And it does this by promulgating ever more cumbersome rules and regulations that reach into the interstices of everyday life to hamper initiative, stymie independence, stifle originality, homogenize individuality. This power, said Tocqueville, "extends its arms over society as a whole."

It does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one's acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.

Tocqueville's analysis has led many observers to conclude that the villain in this drama is the state. But the political philosopher James Burnham, writing in the early 1940s in The Managerial Revolution, saw that the real villain was not the state as such but the bureaucracy that maintained and managed it. It is easy to mock the apparatchiks who populate the machinery of government. Thus James H. Boren writes wickedly that "the noblest of all of man's struggles are those in which dedicated bureaucrats, armed with the spirit of dynamic inaction, have fought to protect the ramparts of creative nonresponsiveness from the onslaughts of mere citizens who have demanded action in their behalf." But the comic potential of the morass should not blind us to the minatory nature of the phenomenon. Indeed, it presents a specimen case of the general truth that the preposterous and the malevolent often co-mingle. The shepherd of which Tocqueville wrote was really a flock of shepherds, a coterie of managers who, in the guise of doing the state's business, prosecuted their own advantage and gradually became a self-perpetuating elite that arrogated to itself power over the levers of society.

Anatomizing this sleight-of-hand is at the center of "James Burnham's Managerial Elite," Julius Krein's essay in the inaugural issue of American Affairs. "Although the managerial elite uses the state as an instrument to acquire power," Krein notes, "the real enemy is not the state but rather the managerial separation of political and economic power from the liberal social contract."

This separation of the real power of society from the economy and political life renders the managerial elite all but untouchable. And this, as Burnham saw, was the property neither of liberalism nor of conservatism but rather of anterior forces that engulfed both. "The contradiction of contemporary conservatism," Krein writes,

is that it is an attempt to restore the culture and politics of bourgeois capitalism while accelerating the economy of managerialism. Because of its failure to recognize this contradiction, "much of conservative doctrine is, if not quite bankrupt, more and more obviously obsolescent," as Burnham wrote in 1972. Since then it has only evolved from obsolescent to counterproductive. At this point, expanding "free markets" no longer has anything to do with classical American capitalism. It is simply the further emancipation of the managerial elite from any obligations to the political community. Likewise, promoting democracy as an abstract, universalist principle only undermines the sovereignty of the American people by rejecting national interests as a legitimate ground of foreign policy.

Sovereignty, Burnham saw, was shifting from Parliaments to what he called "administrative bureaus," which increasingly are the seats of real power and, as such, "proclaim the rules, make the laws, issue the decrees." As far back as the early 1940s, Burnham could write that " 'Laws' today in the United States . . . are not being made any longer by Congress, but by the nlrb, sec, icc, aaa, tva, ftc, fcc, the Office of Production Management (what a revealing title!), and the other leading 'executive agencies.' " And note that Burnham wrote decades before the advent of the epa, hud, cfpb, fsoc, the Department of Education, and the rest of the administrative alphabet soup that governs us in the United States today.

I am convinced that the issue of sovereignty, of what we might call the location of sovereignty, has played a large role in the rise of the phenomenon we describe as "populism" in the United States as well as Europe. For one thing, the question of sovereignty, of who governs, stands behind the rebellion against the political correctness and moral meddlesomeness that are such conspicuous and disfiguring features of our increasingly bureaucratic society. The smothering, Tocquevillian blanket of regulatory excess has had a wide range of practical and economic effects, stifling entrepreneurship and making any sort of productive innovation difficult.

But perhaps its deepest effects are spiritual or psychological. The many assaults against free speech on college campuses, the demand for "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings" against verbal or fashion-inspired "micro-aggressions" (Mexican hats, "offensive" Halloween costumes, etc.) are part of this dictatorship of political correctness. In The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek said that one of the "main points" of his argument concerned "the psychological change," the "alteration of the character of the people," that extensive government control brought in its wake. The alteration involves a process of softening, enervation, infantilization even: an exchange of the challenges of liberty and self-reliance--the challenges, that is to say, of adulthood--for the coddling pleasures of dependence. Max Weber spoke in this context of "Ordnungsmenschen," men who had become increasingly dependent on an order imposed upon them from above. Breaking with that drift becomes more and more difficult the more habituated to dependence a people becomes. In this sense, what has been described as a populist upsurge against political correctness is simply a reassertion of independence, a reclamation of what turns out to be a most uncommon virtue, common sense.

The issue of sovereignty also stands behind the debate over immigration: indeed, is any issue more central to the question Who governs? than who gets to decide a nation's borders and how a country defines its first person plural: the "We" that makes us who we are as a people?

The reason that populism is an epithet is because it is the claim of the marginal to popularity.  Note that as populism is defined by American Heritage and accepted by Mr. Kimball--a political philosophy directed to the needs of the common people and advancing a more equitable distribution of wealth and power--the great populist movement of modernity is Communism, which has always had to seize power violently rather than winning at the ballot box. It is this marginal nature that gives us claims to populism by both the far Left and the far Right.  And even though there is considerable overlap between the two, few Bernie Bros would accept that they are similar to the alt-right, nor vice versa.

Immigration--the example Mr. Kimball chooses--provides the perfect example of these phenomena.  Donald and his supporters oppose immigration for racial/cultural reasons while Bernie and his oppose it for religious and trade-unionist reasons.  But the American people support it in overwhelming numbers, including most who voted for either of them. Their populism is not merely unpopular nationally but antithetical to the ethos of the citizenry.

Mr. Kimball is right then, to decry immigration as a failure of popular sovereignty; he just has it exactly backwards.  It is the refusal of the wings in Congress to pass immigration reform that is thwarting sovereignty.

Posted by at June 17, 2017 7:41 AM