Razib Khan surveys the rise of democratic populism in the United States:
New England was the last redoubt of the Federalist vision of hierarchical conservatism, from limited white male suffrage to established churches. Additionally, the rise to the fore of what during the Enlightenment would be termed “Enthusiasm” is notable, as democratic politics turns into a quadrennial performance. In religious terms there was an alliance at both ends of the theological spectrum; Free Thinkers & Deists in Philadelphia made common cause with Baptist “Back Country” farmers and nominally Episcopalian “Low Country” planters against the urbane Congregationalist ascendancy of New England. The historical reality of the rise of democratic populism, and something of an amnesia about the nature of the republic during its early years (when democracy was something of a term of insult), leads to the peculiarities of the American Right, which is in many measures a descendant of classical liberalism.
I find this interesting because we seem to have gradually replaced explicit barriers to political participation with more subtle cultural and social hurdles. Much has been made of President-Elect Barack Obama’s sterling establishment credentials. And while Obama is undoubtedly a unique historical figure, his academic pedigree reflects certain core assumptions about where our presidents should come from. Similarly, John Kennedy may have been our first Irish Catholic president, but his background and political advisers epitomized establishment thinking. Given these circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that the United States’ first black president came to the White House by way of Harvard Law School rather than Howard University.
Poll taxes and property requirements were blunt instruments for stymieing populist anxieties, but mediating cultural institutions like elite schools serve much the same function. The backlash against the bailout, for example, was largely ignored by experts driving government policy. In the midst of an economic meltdown, the credentials of a Paulson or a Bernanke were certainly reassuring, but it’s worth remembering that their approach to crisis management wasn’t nearly as considered as many of us (myself included) first assumed. All of which begs the question: do soft cultural barriers actually do a better job of weeding out incompetence and diluting the influence of an excitable public? Elite groupthink is probably an inevitable result of any non-egalitarian social arrangement, but the recent crisis suggests our unique brand of meritocratic elitism is particularly susceptible to arrogant short-sightedness
I could have sworn that one William Kristol was a member of our “highly educated and sophisticated elite.” Perhaps this is his round-about way of taking responsibility for the Iraq debacle?
Most of the recent mistakes of American public policy, and most of the contemporary delusions of American public life, haven’t come from an ignorant and excitable public. They’ve been produced by highly educated and sophisticated elites.
Needless to say, the public’s not always right, and public opinion’s not always responsible. But as publics go, the American public has a pretty good track record.
Read the whole thing for your daily dose of pseudo-populism. Despite Kristol’s incessant cheer-leading, Palin did not emerge from the wilderness as the pristine, unadulterated Voice of the American People. She’s a talented Alaskan politician who was pulled off the GOP bench because she plays well with a national audience. No amount of “say it ain’t so, Joes” and “golly gees” are going to transform the Republican ticket into a genuine expression of the public’s frustration with the status quo.
Here’s an interesting interview with Ron Paul from Nathancontramundi. I’ve soured on the man since his quasi-racist tendencies were exposed by The New Republic, but I can’t help but admire his stubborn adherence to principle.
It occurs to me that the emergence of a genuinely populist candidate would look radically different from Governor Palin’s stage-managed political entrance. Mike Huckabee, for example, was a populist presidential contender who came out of nowhere to challenge the GOP’s political establishment. The hallmarks of the Huckabee campaign – the shoe-string budget, the lack of institutional support, the tide of grassroots enthusiasm – reflect his populist bona fides. And Huckabee’s economic platform was about as far as you can get from conservative political orthodoxy in a Republican presidential primary.
Ron Paul is another recent example of a certifiably populist presidential candidate. Like Huckabee, his views diverged fairly radically from the GOP mainstream, and his institutional support from the conservative establishment was virtually non-existent. Paul’s campaign was fueled entirely by small-donor enthusiasm, though he never managed to gain much traction at the ballot box.
The merits of Paul and Huckabee’s positions are subject to dispute, but both men were genuinely anti-establishment figures. Huckabee’s populist economic rhetoric and socially conservative positions reflect the mood of a country that has accommodated itself to the welfare state but not to the prospect of gay marriage. Although Paul’s political leanings were a bit more fringe, his small government message definitely struck a chord with certain segments of the Republican base.
Palin’s populist credentials, on the other hand, are more akin to a John Edwards than a Mike Huckabee or a Ron Paul. This profile from the New Yorker (via Culture11) suggests that Palin had been tapped by the GOP establishment as an effective surrogate long before the 2008 election season. On the campaign trail, her rhetorical nods to Joe Sixpack and hunting caribou are simply window-dressing for a message that is remarkably indistinct from bog-standard Republican orthodoxy. A compelling biography and down-home charm make Palin an effective messenger, but that’s not the same as embodying real populist frustration with the establishment’s foibles. Incidentally, John Edwards (another pseudo-populist) was thought to be an effective liberal spokesman precisely because he married a conventional progressive outlook with a compelling personal biography. Needless to say, that didn’t work out too well . . .
The bailout passes the House. So much for the next great populist uprising . . .