I just read Kevin Matton’s thoughtful article in The American Prospect arguing that liberals need to “Forget Populism” and focus on winning voters minds, not hearts, by proving our superior expertise and intellect to govern. I really admire Kevin as an historian and public intellectual but I vigorously — dare I say, in populist terms, passionately — have to disagree. Two overarching reactions.
First, populism in America today may be 99% about rhetoric, but rhetoric matters. I don’t want to reduce all predictors of small-p political sentiment to anecdotes about large-p Politics in Washington, but arguably Al Gore and John Kerry fared poorly in their elections because they were perceived (rightly!) to be elitist technocrats to which average Americans had trouble relating. As a reminder that all of life is really just a recapitulation of high school, Gore and Kerry and many Democratic “leaders” today are the math and science geeks. Sarah Palin is head cheerleader. No one likes her for her brains. In high school, as in politics and society more broadly, popularity is not necessarily equated with intelligence.
In the high school power structure, Barack Obama was that rare blend (especially rare for Democrats) of smart kid and popular kid. He’s the basketball team captain who also makes valedictorian and is elected student council president. His intelligence, which appealed to the base of geek-loving Democrats, was always on display alongside his inspiring eloquence, which broadened his, well, popularity. I remember resenting in the Bush-Kerry election how voters were actually polled on who they would rather have a beer with, let alone that they chose Bush. What a stupid question? But like it or not such stupid questions are what “real people” care about and, while incredibly reductionist, are crass ways at trying to get at the unmeasurably quality of charisma.
On the left, we’ve generally abandoned belief in charisma, partly for ideological reasons — a political correctness-based assertion that we’re all leaders in equal portion — partly for practical reasons — that we’ve been hard-pressed for a long time to come up with one prominent progressive charismatic leader, let alone enough to cover the airwaves and opinion pages and be elected to a governing majority nationwide. It’s no wonder that when the charismatic Obama came along we all ignored that he was plainly a centrist in progressive sheepskin and happily pumped our fists in populist “Yes We Can” euphoria. Just because our most recent affair with populism after a long, long dry-spell didn’t turn out as we hoped doesn’t mean we should cede the entire concept to the Right.
Which brings me to my second point. The essence of populism is, as Mattson writes, “the people, yes” — the idea that ordinary Americans have as much (or even more) to contribute to our political, economic and social evolution as do technocratic elites. Frankly, as someone who has seen first hand the deep condescension of many Washington-based progressive advocacy organizations toward “the field”, I think a movement-wide emphasis on populism is a welcome counterweight. The “don’t worry, we’re the experts in DC, we’ll handle the big questions” attitude toward the progressive movement outside Washington is as frustrating to grassroots liberal activists as the same sentiment coming from politicians in Washington irritates voters. Moreover, while conservatives certainly don’t want to help anyone — especially not poor people of color — the pity-filled do-gooder Sally Struthers-eque “thank goodness you have us to help you” attitude exuded by many white liberal activists (most often implied but often explicit) is downright offensive. Why is there no mass grassroots progressive movement rising up on the left like the Tea Party? Our not-so-hidden bias against average people is a big part of the answer. It’s in our attitudes, but it’s also reflected in the way we structure the progressive “movement” such as it is — focusing on Washington, DC think tanks and lobbying arms and spending barely little money and attention on real grassroots organizing.
If the newfound liberal love affair with populism gets progressive activists in general — and progressive organizations in Washington in particular — to spend less time running “the movement” on behalf of the needy ordinary Americans and calling the shots for the paltry grassroots constituencies that we have organized (when they even both to try working with them) and instead focus on building authentic, bottom-up people’s organizations so that an ever-widening base of progressive Americans feel their voices and their values are being heard in progressive organizations and, in turn, reflected in policies being passed in Washington … if “populism” is really a coded critique for the lack of respect for and attention to real grassroots organizing and popular leadership development in the progressive movement… then I say “populism, yes”!
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