May 2, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The Sword of Damocles
I AM INTERRUPTING my essay on philosophy and science in order to deliver these present thoughts at what seems to me a pertinent moment. For, given the proximity of the French elections, it is surely appropriate to dedicate some immediate attention to a question which is hanging over those elections like the veritable sword of Damocles.
The term “populism” has been cropping up more and more in our discourse, to the point that it finally begins in subtle and noteworthy ways to define it. As a word, it has been with us for better than a century now, but, if memory does not deceive me, it first began to make its appearance widely in our everyday speech but recently—in the United States, more or less with the advent of Trump, in Britain with the question of Brexit, here in Italy with the rise of the Movimento Cinque Stelle, and in other countries following similar historical occurrences. This word is all the more interesting for a certain inconsistency of its use: by some it is meant as a pejorative, by others as praise—but it is taken by all as a force to be reckoned with.
To begin from the superficial, we might ask what we would expect this word to mean, if we were encountering it here for the first time? It derives clearly from the word “populace,” originally from the Latin populus, which means variously a people, a group of human beings unified by common customs and laws, or, more rarely, a crowd, a mass, an undifferentiated group of individuals united by this or that accidental cause. And taking this etymology also at face value, one might assume that “populism” means only the simple concern for the people, either for their welfare or their desires. Populism would thus appear to be essentially and fundamentally democratic.
Yet this is precisely one of the qualities of populism that seems to be most hotly disputed. I heard an Italian journalist not a week ago refer to populism as the concern, not with the people as a whole, but with a fragment of the people—the desire to elevate this fragment and its exclusive concerns to unjustified precedence over the remainder of society. Populism thus understood is in fact nothing but a modern-day synonym for factionalism, that force so dreaded by the earliest practical theoreticians of republican government. Or again: some weeks ago, I attended a round-table discussion at Cagliari University on the prospects of the French election; the interlocutors, despite their vocal and unequivocal support for democratic institutions, were unanimously opposed to the phenomenon of populism. Or yet again: considering the general mood now reigning throughout our Occident, it is certainly clear that populism is rising someway like a specter, a real and pressing menace to the current institutions of nearly all the governments of the Western world. The mainstream press often enough takes this tone when speaking of populism, inquiring for instance how the “populist wave” in such and such a country is to be stemmed or dampened. Yet it is indubitable that this same mainstream press would praise democracy to the heavens if it ever felt the need, and only a partisan of some populist cause could suspect such praise of being merely rhetorical. Meanwhile others, those within populist movements, speak of populism as though it were the last best hope for reclaiming a dying democracy.
Compounding the problem of the relation of democracy to populism, we find that “populism” everywhere expresses different ideologies. The populism of Marine Le Pen takes its force from its anti-immigration and nationalist policies; the populism of the Movimento Cinque Stelle here in Italy gains the better part of its popularity rather from its proclaimed intention of combating the systematic corruption and disastrous over-spending of the Italian bureaucracy. Populists of the left want to augment the bounds of the welfare state to sometimes absurd extent; populists of the right want as dramatically to reduce the same. Some populists are libertarian; others communist; others yet fascist. There is a wide variety of often contradictory concerns motivating populism in different nations, thus making it apparently impossible to give this word a singular definition or to arrive at a unitary understanding of it. It is like a vessel which one might fill now with this, now with that, vintage. What remains identical in all cases, however, is not the contents, but the form.
A simple observation might help us begin to navigate these complexities. Populism can be seen from two perspectives. On the one hand, a politician or candidate might be considered “populist” insofar as he is supported by the people; on the other hand, he might be considered “populist” insofar as he panders to the people. Now, “the people” here cannot be taken as synonymous with the populace, the sum-total of persons of a nation, nor necessarily even with the majority of the same. Donald Trump, while indubitably a populist figure, was certainly not elected nor even supported by the majority of Americans. “The people” here is rather intended in contradistinction to what we today tend to call the “elites,” which means in short the moneyed powers. These powers include both the more or less corrupt politicians or bureaucrats who perpetuate the present system primarily to maintain their position within it, as well as the rich private individuals who act upon that system to realize some personal agenda. The interpenetration of these two groups is often referred to by its enemies and critics as “the establishment.” Populism thus indicates concern with the welfare or desires of some generally poor segment of the populace which is not favored by this establishment, which is excluded from it, which is actively spurned by it, or which for ideological reasons believes it to be immoral or unsustainable.
When we speak of populism as the movement of this segment of the populace, it is clear we are speaking of something which has real democratic purport. We are speaking of persons who simply “want their voices to be heard,” we are speaking of a “grass-roots movement.” The success of such a movement means the inclusion of ever greater portions of the citizenry in the workings and aims of the state, which must be considered as a great boon by any truly democratic standard. This is the meaning of populism intended by its supporters and partisans, or by anyone who speaks of a populist movement as being democratic, or as an attempt at the reclamation of democracy.
Now, that segment of the populace which is generally involved in any populist movement is, as we have indicated, poor, or at least not exceptionally wealthy. This means that the members of this segment will tend to be less educated than the “elites” the struggle against; they will in the main not have enjoyed the opportunities for study and instruction that the affluent part has enjoyed. They will pertain by and large to the working class, which means they will generally not have much leisure to ponder the events or issues of the day at any great depth or to any degree of complexity. They will derive their information, as well as their views on events and issues, from authorities whose opinions they have neither the time nor the ability to evaluate. For these reasons, they will be, if not ignorant, than certainly in danger of succumbing to ignorance. The critics of populism perceive that certain politicians, candidates, and policies appeal consciously to this ignorance of the masses. Such politicians and candidates seek to manipulate the masses by means of promises which cannot be delivered, and which in many cases they have no intention of attempting to deliver. This kind of populist politician was once called a demagogue, one who deceives that portion of the populace incapable of seeing through such deceptions, in order to attain power. A movement headed by such a demagogue, far from being democratic, is in fact among the greatest threats to democracy, for it may provide the catapult by which a tyrant or one with a non-democratic mindset might propel himself to power.
More: the critics of populism perceive as well that the ignorance, be it real or potential, which animates the supporters of any populist agenda, can often lead populist movements to oppose in part or in whole the very democratic order which permits them to exist. Hence the anti-populist proponent of democracy is forced to make a distinction between liberal democracy, and democracy as such: between that liberalism which necessarily presupposes specific institutions and specific ideals on the one hand, and the untrammeled will of the people to establish the government it desires, even at the expense of these liberal institutions and ideals, on the other. The anti-populist proponent of democracy, whatever he may think of the establishment, must therefore become the temporary advocate of the establishment, whenever he sees it forcibly challenged by populist movements. This is the stringent logic which led Bill Kristol recently to exhort, “Obviously strongly prefer normal democratic and constitutional politics. But if it comes to it, prefer the deep state to the Trump state.” The establishment, whatever form it might take, whatever its failings and vices might be, is preferable to untamed populism.
But this stance, to an educated proponent of populism, to say nothing of the average member of a populist movement, has every appearance of being the byproduct of entrenched and anti-democratic establishmentarianism; and the expression of such opinions can only convince the proponent of populism the more ardently that his position is not only right, but urgently requisite, as the unique acid for dissolving an utterly corrupt and compromised system. The anti-populist response drives the populist to become yet more zealously populist, which in turn forces even those moderate individuals who might be in some ways sympathetic to the populist cause, to oppose themselves to it wholesale; and the rift in society between the establishment and that portion of the population which feels excluded from the establishment thus both deepens and widens.
From which we may conclude that liberal democracy, in order to be preserved, must atimes become radically undemocratic; while populism, in order to triumph, must await that moment in which the establishment has made itself so generally despised that populism may succeed, either from the widespread discouragement of the populace, or thanks to its cynical lassitude. The concern for purity in both the one case and in the other leads to necessary conflict between the establishment and populism, which conflict will be more and more likely in coming years to erupt in divisiveness and open violence.
I may suppose that most of my readers would wish to avoid such an end as that. The means for avoiding it is deceptively simple: simple, because in truth its attainment would cost the purveyors of both sides of the issue little; deceptively simple, because the psychological forces involved, to say nothing of the social and ideological forces, are powerful enough to utterly disband any attempt in such a direction from the start. It would be necessary simply for the populists to move ideologically toward the establishment they loathe, thus taking the edge off the sword they wield, or else for the defenders of the establishment to permit the populists some partial success, thus dampening the ardor of the movement and quarantining those feelings of indignation, resentment, and exclusion which give it momentum. But the establishment as establishment is generally too entrenched to permit itself such a maneuver, the common members as well as the core of populist movements are generally too monomaniacal in their ideals to even flirt with compromise, and the leaders of the same perceive too clearly that they owe their support mainly to an appearance of incorruptibility, which means, speaking popularly, unyielding and unflagging insistence on the original populist claims in their entirety. For these reasons, it is unlikely for either side in this conflict to defuse the combustible materials standing between them. And even if some member of one or the other side makes some occasional attempt toward peacemaking, it is likely in the end only to exacerbate the tensions further, as the purists react to what they perceive as betrayal on the part of one of their own.
We thus find ourselves in a position of having to choose between two sides in an undeclared war, or else of going quietly and peaceably our own way until such a time as we can no longer do so.
Within populism itself, we must make distinction between three strata of its supporters. In the first and heaviest stratum, the wide base, we find that disgruntled portion of the populace which has already been discussed, either the people or the crowd. In the second are those whom one might term the educated friends of populism; these are individuals who support populism, not as such, but rather in some concrete case, and who see in this particular populist ideology, either a vehicle for furthering their specific political ideal, or a means of rebuking or injuring the establishment. In the third and lightest stratum are the profiteers and commandeers of populism, who hope to ride the whirlwind to fortune or apotheosis. The first are usually driven by passion to the exclusion of reason, and the third are commonly unyielding in their ambitions and easily bought. It is the role of the core of any populist movement to seek to forge its members into a whole, unified by common customs and laws; that is the great challenge of any populist movement, supposing it would be something more than a mere faction or a glorified interest group.
We have called populism a democratic movement, but we have not specified the meaning of this phrase. Democracy taken in its widest possible sense is that regime according to which the populace determines both the form and the matter of politics. This populace need not be the majority, and it need not be the people; atimes, for the confusion or the indifference of a wide swath of the population, a fragment thereof can gain power over the remainder. Democracy as a regime is inherently unstable—as unstable, say, as a fallow field; for it is anything but a given that those who take power in democracy, will desire its perpetuation rather than its destruction or transformation. The historical solution to the problem of democracy’s instability has been classic liberalism—the establishment of a state whose institutions would permit it to withstand the faults of democracy. But classic liberalism desired, not democracy, but republic, the mixed regime; the very fact that we today speak exclusively of “democracy” where the original founding generation of classic liberals spoke exclusively of “republic,” reveals that the classic solution has failed. For in attempting to weed out the vices of democracy while harvesting the virtues, the founders had of necessity to sow the seeds of that plant they at once despised and desired.
That contradiction leads us to our present moment, and to the very conflict we now consider, whose sharper edge is called populism. We may now risk a definition of populism: populism is the birth of democracy in our day—a birth which, as any birth, cannot be stopped, evaded, or avoided once it has reached a certain point. If it comes not now and peacefully, it will come later and with a fury. This is not to recommend resignation: for everything depends on the form and the matter of the populism which finally makes its bid for power. But we must understand the quality of the day if we are to live it rightly.