Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Mysteries of Right-Wing Populism

I've been trying to sort out what our current wave of right-wing populism is all about. We have been discussing here the idea that it is anti-meritocratic, a "revolt of the losers" that feeds on the resentments of ordinary people against the successful, or especially against the entitled attitudes of the successful. The problems with this notion start with the populist in the White House, whose whole career has been an exercise in flaunting both his success and his entitlement. I've been reading some lately about Brett Kavanaugh, and he comes across as even more a scion of privilege who has coasted from one great job to another without actually accomplishing very much; really he sounds like one of the most obnoxious Georgetown Prep-Yale-Yale Law sort of entitled jerks one could meet. Kavanaugh is not really a populist, but populists are perfectly willing to support him, which says to me that their real concerns are elsewhere.

Commenter Szopen says that the problem with Anne Applebaum's take on Polish politics is that supporters of the right wing Law and Justice Party are not really less wealthy or successful than its opponents. Reading around, I have not been able to find anything that contradicts this. It is possible to show statistically that support for right-wing populism correlates with economic trouble in both the U.S. and western Europe, but that is different from saying that the cause its root is the anger of losers toward the successful. Trump has plenty of rich fans.

So if populism is not about resentment of the elite in any simple sense, what is it about?

Let's consider that it might just be a non-elite version of conservatism. A right-wing populist is focused on preserving, not high culture or grand tradition, but the patterns of ordinary life in his or her own social class; "the world I grew up in," as John Boehner and others have put it. I think this is an important component, and it explains why right-wing populists usually end up allied with other sorts of conservatives: they are nostalgic for a time they think was better than now.

A sense of being under attack by powerful enemies seems to be another key component. Our reader David gave the example of Modi in India, whose program is all about how Hindus have been attacked by outsiders for centuries: Muslims, the British empire, the Americans, international bankers, historians who question his version of history, geneticists who dispute his claim that the Hindu people have lived in India for 40,000 years. The rhetoric of Trump and his supporters is full of this: "the enemy has stolen from America for decades and it stops now."

It may be that the reason economic troubles promote populism is that populism is fundamentally about grievance, and economic troubles give people good reason to be aggrieved.

But who is this unnamed enemy?

I don't have any problem with the assertion that somebody has been stealing from ordinary Americans, but to me the obvious culprit is the titans of capitalism; if, over the past 40 years, you had held the top 1% of our society to the same income gains as the rest of us, and distributed the money evenly, we would each have an extra $2,000 a year. One of the mechanisms through which upward income redistribution has been managed is, I think, globalism: by moving jobs around the world in search of ever cheaper labor

So why does the rage of right-wing populists end up directed, not against capitalists, but against minorities and university professors?

I have to think that the rage against professors goes back to the sixties. Above is a famous photo of the "Hard Hat Riot" that took place in New York on May 8, 1970, when about 200 construction workers from the World Trade Center Site attacked anti-war demonstrators. They were joined, as the picture shows, by some suit-wearing men from Wall Street. Many people think our culture war politics were born then, when workers and bosses came together to fight hippies.

In the 60s there really were prominent voices calling for a social revolution; it is easy to find professors of that era who said our society must be "destroyed." Tom Hayden told students at Kent State that they must be ready to "kill your parents."

So to me the culture wars of the 60s make a certain amount of sense; under attack by Maoists, Yippies, Weathermen, and Black Panthers, defenders of the culture naturally allied together across class lines to defend American society.

But now? Now, right-wing people in America regularly spout the same sort of extreme rhetoric that their parents and grandparents used in 1968, but about things that to me seem about as dangerous as kittens.  Maoism was a real and definite threat to American society, or at least it would have been if it had had any real support, and its advocates were not afraid to set off bombs and shoot policemen on its behalf. But gay rights and Black Lives Matter? How do they compare? The notion that today's American left has mounted some kind of attack on our society is nonsensical; compared to Trump-supporting construction workers the average American liberal is a lot more devoted to marriage, family, and the Constitution.

Reading lately about the 1960s, I have been struck by the force of Marx's comment that events occur twice, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. The 60s, Nixon, Vietnam, Kent State, and Watergate was an American tragedy; Trump, Pepe the Frog, Emailgate, and the Pussy Tape is the farce.

Seriously, to what extent is our current culture war just an echo of fifty years ago, when global communism was a powerful force, thousands of American were dying in Vietnam, and radicals of a dozen stripes were setting off hundreds of bombs a year? Did our culture in some sense get used to the idea of dangerous radicals, so that now that we don't have them we have to imagine them? Did right-wing Americans find a powerful new identity for themselves as the enemies of hippies, and refuse to let it go?

And to what extent is is just the rage of all social animals against that constraints imposed by our need for each other, directed against immigrants and liberals because that works as well as anything else?


Mário R. Gonçalves said...

Well, and what about left-wing populism ? In fact, populism started among left movements before it reached the present day favoritism among the rightists. One easy example is enough: Maduro. You could apply most of your observations analysing Venezuela instead of the States.

And, my friend, the ennemy there is, of course, capitalist imperialism, a paper-tiger, a non-entity, a fantasy monster of the old left populism.

Mutatis mutandis, all populisms are the same, all extremisms are the same. I feel, though, that the tendency for authoritarian regime or dictatorship is stronger in left populism; conservatist populists are smoother and more unlikely to go tyrans.

John said...

@Mário Gonçalves: Yes, absolutely, left-wing populism has an equally bad record. Because I've been reading about the 60s I have lately seen many, many great example of cruel, stupid, and nonsensical left-wing rhetoric. And Venezuela is my go-to example for what happens when people get so disgusted with the status quo that they are willing to embrace any alternative no matter how awful.

I'm just thinking a lot about right-wing populism now because it has a lot more power in my world. That could obviously change -- young people in the US at least are a lot more interested in communism than my generation. But so far they remain a harmless fringe.

Mário R. Gonçalves said...

Ok, John. I only meant to call your attention to the danger of a Trump resignation by force (street furious crowds) leading to an opposite side populism. This sad thing you american majority (?) elected must die either by natural causes (end of time) or by decomposing and advanced rotting.

Good luck, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking to those Szopen posts--very interesting!

@John, I think you're missing two key ingredients (on American populism, anyway). One is race, and the other is cultural resentment. On race, it's simply too well demonstrated that conservative political power since c. 1968 has been built on the fracturing of the old FDR democratic coalition, above all over the issue of race (often glossed as "law n' order"). Southern whites and northern workers were happy with Rooseveltian policies and a basically Rooseveltian leadership unless and until that policy and that leadership began spreading benefits to black folks. As LBJ said after he passed one of his civil rights acts, "I've just lost the South."

Cultural resentment has to do with the populist sense that out there is an elite "they" that looks down on "us." And of course, since at least the 1920s, an important (and, above all, highly visible) part of American liberalism has been about looking down on the vulgar (and it's well to remember the vulgar in this sense would include tycoons and small-world leaders--Babbitt--as well as rednecks). This became even more visible in the 60s, for a variety of reasons, especially the way media put radical chic, acid gurus with rich patrons, Bonnie and Clyde, TV's rural purge, and so on, right in people's faces. The way the morality-based Gene McCarthy cohort began to take over the Dems between 68 and 72--humiliating the old vulgar lions like Daley--was also important. Nixon fed on the resulting commoner cultural resentment, both politically and personally.

I think that populist sense of being slighted needs to be recognized. It's the basis for that relatively subtle but absolutely crucial distinction that right-wing populists make between a rich and successful person like Trump and one like Obama.

szopen said...

@David, I think you have a point about resentment directed at those "who look down at us". It's not resentment because the other ones are successful or richer or better educated, but because they are annoyingly uppish.

At least in Poland I know a lot of people who were always deeply annoyed by the preachy tone of the elites and their assumption that they know what's better, they have "normal, european views" (an actual quote from one media celebrity) and there is no need to talk to the conservatives, because "this generation has to die out". Now, I have no real data on that and I can rely only on personal anecdotes: from talking with people who sometimes had NOT voted for PiS in the last elections, and yet had shown a distinct schadenfreude that PiS has won.

I must admit with shame that this was also about me: I don't like PiS, they are vulgar, their policies are sometimes very hard to justify, but still on some atavistic, tribal level there was something deeply satisfying in hearing the cries from the shocked elites. Therefore, it could be just me projecting.

Another warning: the problem is that I do not know personally a lot of PiS supporters, so I don't know whether those attitudes I talk about are really shared by the real PiS voters. Those of people I know who were not horrified by Kaczyński's success, voted for other rightwing parties or had not voted at all and merely refuse to hate PiS, which in current climate ensures they are called "symmetrists".

Anonymous said...

Chris Hedges is always worth a listen. You may not agree with everything he says but he certainly has ability to make you think .

You can follow his latest town hall talks via Twitter. Personally I think he’s spot on most of the time, goes astray now and then.

Ps. Your blog is a treasure