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Book Review: Me the People: How Populism Transforms Democracy by Nadia Urbinati

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 20/10/2020 - 10:28pm in

In Me the People: How Populism Transforms DemocracyNadia Urbinati examines populism as a form – and deformation – of representative democracy. This is a rich work, brimming with ideas about the nature of representative government, how we conceive of it and how populism interacts with these, writes Ben Margulies, and is recommended to university students and scholars seeking to learn more about democratic and populist theory.

Me the People: How Populism Transforms Democracy. Nadia Urbinati. Harvard University Press. 2019.

Populism is more than an ideology or an object of study; it is the news. So it is not surprising that scholars writing about populism face a problem common to journalists: trying to find a new angle on a topic everyone is talking about. For political scientists and other academics, this may be more challenging now that definitions of populism are starting to converge around the importance of the conflict between ‘the [good] people’ and ‘the [illegitimate] elite’. Some academics focus on defining populism as an ideology, like Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser; others, like Benjamin Moffitt, talk about the populist style of communication; while Catherine Fieschi talks about populist epistemology, the ways populists decide what is authentic knowledge.

Nadia Urbinati, who holds a chair in political theory at Columbia University, finds her own perspective in Me The People: How Populism Transforms Democracy. Urbinati examines populism as a form – and perversion – of representative democracy. Her work is an examination of populism as political theory, comparing it to the (idealised) theory of representative democracy that we associate with the ideal democracies of the late-twentieth-century West. Though some of her observations are echoed by other authors, her work stands out for its explanation of democratic theory and the ways populism both fits into and deforms our representative systems.

Urbinati devotes the heart of the book to explaining how representative democracy is meant to work and the political theory that underpins it. Urbinati evokes ‘an interpretation of democracy that has political liberty and pluralism at its core’ (91). In a true democracy, the idea of the ‘sovereign people’, the community of citizens who hold ultimate power and legitimating authority, is a fictio iuris [a legal fiction] (88). The actual body of citizens is an assembly of multiple interests engaged in permanent contestation. Majority rule is a decision-making process that grants one particular constellation of interests the power to govern (which is not the same as sovereignty) for a set period of time, but not forever. Democracy must permit the possibility of a loyal opposition and new, different majorities. Citing Hans Kelsen, Urbinati writes that:

In order for majority rule to avoid violating political autonomy, all citizens must be equal before the law and must have an equal right to determine the politics of the commonwealth and be heard […] they cannot be frozen in any specific social determination, such as ‘‘the few’’ and ‘‘the many’’ (89).

Urbinati distinguishes between deliberation and decision-making in representative democracy. She separates ‘will’ (voting) and ‘opinion’ (assessment and judgment) (7). This is necessary, because it allows the majority to change its shape and change its mind. ‘Representative democracy has an endogenous disposition to generate dissent and conflict along partisan lines; voting regulates this dissent and conflict, but it never resolves it’ (166). In this arena, most actors claim to speak in the name of the people, but they rarely claim that only they can speak for the people, or that they are the people. This would rob democracy of its open-endedness, its ‘indeterminacy’ (92) – ‘the people’ is a symbol that sanctions majority decisions, but has no permanent identity.

Populism is dangerous because it denies and attacks this pluralism. In populism, the majority is no longer a way to make temporary decisions in a diverse society. Rather, the majority becomes the people itself. Urbinati cites Aristotle, who distinguished between majority rule – a way to make decisions – and ‘the regime of the majority’, in which the majority simple governs and ‘does not tolerate opposition and tries to conceal it as much as it can, when it does not liquidate it altogether’ (98). Populists claim that the majority is the people, including the legal sovereign.

This majority is by definition not identical with everyone in the polity. Rather, the majoritarian people are the ‘good’ people who are worthy of holding sovereignty. This is a point Jan-Werner Müller makes in What is Populism?, speaking of distilling a sort of pure people from the body of citizens or nationals. As Urbinati argues, populism ‘makes politics consist in a part that declares itself, as such […] to be at the center of state power, and to claim that it is the “good part” entitled to rule’ (151). Furthermore, populism rules solely in its own interest, ‘pars pro parte’  [‘the part acting for the part’, as opposed to for the whole] (152), and not for all society (also an argument Müller advances).

To summarise, Me the People depicts populism as a machine for collapsing the distinctions that make representative democracy work. It annexes the abstract sovereign to the voting majority, getting rid of deliberation and opposition. It merges the space of opinion and the space of decision, which leaves the people nowhere to gather and assess what the leader is doing. That new demos merges with its leader, and then this composite juggernaut absorbs the state. This also means the erasure of ‘the distinction between ordinary political and constitutional politics’ (133), since the sovereign is the only possible actor.

Urbinati has some interesting arguments and observations about the nature of populist leadership. She rejects Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser’s claim that populism does not necessarily require a charismatic leader. Instead, she aligns with the camp that argues that populism needs a single leader to embody the homogenous people (120). Furthermore, that leader must never seem like part of the establishment, the elite. Populists are installing new elites, but must never appear to be doing so. Populist leaders avoid this through an unremitting campaign against the never-quite-vanquished elites (124-25).

More intriguingly, Urbinati proposes that populist leaders take advantage of their roles as merely an instrument of the people. Since the leader is just the people incarnated, ‘the leader is never truly responsible, for better or worse’ (128). (Urbinati could have gone on to say that the people, being sovereign, cannot be held responsible either.)

Where did populism come from? Urbinati tends to blame two developments. The first is the erosion of the middle class, again citing Aristotle (102). The other is the rise of what Richard S. Katz and Peter Mair (1995) called cartel parties  (see also Mair (2013)). Katz and Mair described how parties sidelined their already declining mass memberships to become professional organisations dependent on state funding in the late twentieth century. Partly because parties had grown weaker, electorates became fragmented assemblies of interest and identity groups and parties had to construct majorities ad hoc through media appeals and attractive leaders. This created an opening for populists, who construct their electorates in similar ways

Me the People is primarily a work of theory, and as such it does not engage deeply with political science literature about specific parties or electoral patterns. This is not a fatal flaw, but it does create some problems. In talking about populism as a largely theoretical construct, Urbinati has no space to really examine one of its most worrying features, which is its tendency to unite with radical right ideologies. In Europe and much of the rest of the world, the populist radical right is often dominant, with its ethnonationalism and authoritarianism. Although Urbinati does discuss the distinction between fascism and populism, we do not see any examination of the broader relationship between populism and radical-right ideology.

Me the People does examine the internal mechanisms of populist parties in some detail, choosing The Five Star Movement in Italy and Podemos in Spain as examples due to her interest in how these parties try to combine internet-based direct participation and competent electoral leadership, which in practice centralises authority in the leadership. However, these examples are not really representative of populist parties or electorates in Europe. The Five Star Movement lacks any clear ideological grounding, while Podemos is left-wing. Many, if not most, populist parties in Europe are radical right and far less concerned with democratic internal procedures.

Occasionally, Urbinati’s definitions feel slightly confused. On the one hand, she describes populism as a mutation or ‘disfigurement’ of democracy. But she also argues that ‘a democracy that infringes basic political rights – especially the rights crucial for forming opinions and judgments, expressing dissents, and changing views – and that systematically precludes the possibility of the formation of new majorities is not democracy at all’ (8). So is populism the negation of democracy or merely its disfigurement? This is not entirely clear and may not be a fully resolvable question.

Me the People is a rich work, one brimming with ideas about the nature of representative government, how we conceive it and how populism interacts with these. Close students of populism will recognise some of these ideas in other works, but this presentation is novel. Unlike What is Populism?, this is not a book aimed at general audiences. But for university students and scholars, Me the People is a good tool for learning about democratic and populist theory, especially if theory is not your area of expertise. I have not been able to summarise all of Urbinati’s thinking here, so if you are intrigued, read the book.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay.


Theories of authoritarian personality

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 15/10/2020 - 4:33am in

A key problem faced today by liberal democracies throughout the world is the fact that millions of citizens in those democracies seem to support parties and candidates who are fundamentally anti-democratic. The authoritarian tendencies of Prime Minister Modi of India, President Erdoğan of Turkey, and President Trump of the United States are evident in their speeches and their actions, in varying ways and degrees. And each of these national leaders is supported by millions of citizens in their countries, who apparently endorse and support their inclination towards authoritarian rule and the suppression of the rights of minorities and critics. What explains the willingness of ordinary citizens to support these populist strongmen in their open contempt for the norms, values, and institutions of constitutional democracy?

John Dean and Bob Altemeyer have offered a summary of a theory of authoritarian psychology that has long roots in the discipline of personality psychology, extending back to efforts by psychologists to understand popular support for fascism and Nazi dictatorship in the 1930s and 1940s. Their book Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and His Followers summarizes these theories and offers a warning: Trumpism will survive the presidency of Donald Trump. They argue that a very large number of supporters of Trump's variety of populist authoritarianism score high on psychological measures for intolerance (racism, xenophobia) and support for authoritarian leaders, and that these psychological characteristics account for the fervent and unwavering support that the President gains from his base. In a word, many men and women in Trump's base continue to support him because they appreciate his impulses towards authoritarian language and action, and they approve of his apparent comfort with white supremacy and racism. Dean and Altemeyer propose a psychological theory of Trump's base and the base that supports other right-wing xenophobic populists in other countries as well: a certain percentage of citizens have been subject to social, cultural, and familial circumstances that enhanced features of intolerance, hierarchy, and authoritarianism in their personality structure, and these individuals constitute ready ground for supporters of xenophobic authoritarian populism. And, very importantly, Dean and Altemeyer were able to make use of a highly reputable survey research organization (the Monmouth University Polling Institute Survey, Autumn 2019) to measure personality characteristics of a sample of voters (link). The surveys found that Trump supporters do indeed show high levels of intolerance and prejudice, and high levels of authoritarian attitudes.

There is an extensive field of research on the topic of personality characteristics of "liberals" and "conservatives". Carney, Jost, Gosling, and Potter (2008) review this literature and current developments in the field (link). They affirm that there are persistent differences in the personality characteristics of conservatives and liberals, writing that:

We obtained consistent and converging evidence that personality differences between liberals and conservatives are robust, replicable, and behaviorally significant, especially with respect to social (vs. economic) dimensions of ideology. In general, liberals are more open-minded, creative, curious, and novelty seeking, whereas conservatives are more orderly, conventional, and better organized. (808)

And they quote an important conclusion by Jost et al. (2003) (link):

We regard political conservatism as an ideological belief system that is significantly (but not completely) related to motivational concerns having to do with the psychological management of uncertainty and fear.... Although resistance to change and support for inequality are conceptually distinguishable, we have argued that they are psychologically interrelated, in part because motives pertaining to uncertainty and threat are interrelated.... (814)

The analysis offered in Authoritarian Nightmare is based on two distinct psychometric measures developed by different traditions of social psychologists that have been used and refined over several decades. The first is a scale measuring "social dominance orientation" (SDO) and the second is a scale measuring "right-wing authoritarianism" (RWA). Social dominance orientation is the psychological characteristic of expecting and valuing inequalities of worth and status in society, manifest for example in racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-homosexual attitudes, and anti-Muslim bigotry. The psychological characteristic identified in the measure of RWA is a willingness to accept a political system based on domination and one-person or one-party rule, without institutional protections of the rights of minorities.

Bob Altemeyer is a respected and accomplished academic psychologist who is one of the founders of RWA theory. He spent his career (in Canada) studying the emotional and motivational characteristics of authoritarian citizens, and was the author of Right-Wing Authoritarianism in 1986. Through his research Altemeyer developed an instrument for measuring an individual's propensity for authoritarian thoughts and actions. This is the RWA scale, and the method has received widespread adoption and use. Saunders and Ngo provide a brief explanation of Altemeyer's construction of the scale in "The Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale" in Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences (link).

The right-wing authoritarianism scale measures the degree to which people defer to established authorities, show aggression toward out-groups when authorities sanction that aggression, and support traditional values endorsed by authorities. (1)

Saunders and Ngo note that this line of research derived from studies of "the authoritarian personality" initiated by Adorno et al, The Authoritarian Personality (1950). Here is their summary of the RWA scale:

Right-wing authoritarianism, as currently measured by the RWA scale (Altemeyer 1981, 1988, 2006), is an individual difference variable that assesses attitudes concerning three covarying facets derived from Adorno et al.’s (1950) nine original dimensions: Authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism. In other words, RWA measures the degree to which people defer to established authorities (i.e., authoritarian submission), show aggression toward out-groups when authorities sanction that aggression (i.e., authoritarian aggression), and support traditional values, particularly those endorsed by authorities (i.e., conventionalism). (2)

The "social dominance orientation" (SDO) scale was introduced by James Sidanius and colleagues in the 1990s, and is presented in a research article entitled "Social dominance orientation: A personality variable predicting social and political attitudes" (Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, Malle, 1994; link). Here is the abstract to the article:

Social dominance orientation (SDO), one's degree of preference for inequality among social groups, is introduced. On the basis of social dominance theory, it is shown that (a) men are more social dominance-oriented than women, (b) high-SDO people seek hierarchy-enhancing professional roles and low-SDO people seek hierarchy-attenuating roles, (c) SDO was related to beliefs in a large number of social and political ideologies that support group-based hierarchy (e.g., meritocracy and racism) and to support for policies that have implications for intergroup relations (e.g., war, civil rights, and social programs), including new policies. SDO was distinguished from interpersonal dominance, conservatism, and authoritarianism. SDO was negatively correlated with empathy, tolerance, communality, and altruism. The ramifications of SDO in social context are discussed.

They explain the central idea of social dominance ideology in these terms:

The theory postulates that societies minimize group conflict by creating consensus on ideologies that promote the superiority of one group over others (see also Sidanius, Pratto, Martin, & Stallworth, 1991). Ideologies that promote or maintain group inequality are the tools that legitimize discrimination. To work smoothly, these ideologies must be widely accepted within a society, appearing as self-apparent truths; hence we call them hierarchy-legitimizing myth.... For example, the ideology of anti-Black racism has been instantiated in personal acts of discrimination, but also in institutional discrimination against African-Americans by banks, public transit authorities, schools, churches, marriage laws, and the penal system . (741)

Saunders and Ngo observe that the RWA scale and the SDO scale are often used together to predict the political affinities and behavior of different groups, and that the two measures are correlated with each other.

What appears to be left unexplained in the psychometric literature on the SDO and RWA measures is the developmental question: why do different individuals develop in such a way as to manifest important differences on each of these scales? Why do some individuals become intolerant and authoritarian adults, whereas other adults are tolerant and democratic? Are these two aspects of personality linked, or are they independent from each other? What facts of social context, family relations, education, and other social and political factors are most important for giving rise to the social psychology of social dominance and right-wing authoritarianism? The most plausible theory mentioned by Saunders and Ngo is a social-cognitive theory (motivated social cognition) derived from Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway (link): "people adopt RWA attitudes to meet psychological needs such as the reduction of fear (i.e., existential needs), uncertainty and loss (i.e., epistemic needs), as well as meeting related needs for structure and cognitive closure." Jost et al summarize their approach in these terms in the abstract to this article: "Analyzing political conservatism as motivated social cognition integrates theories of personality (authoritarianism, dogmatism-intolerance of ambiguity), epistemic and existential needs (for closure, regulatory focus, terror management), and ideological rationalization (social dominance, system justification)." On this approach, conditions of insecurity, fear, and threat are thought to encourage the personality psychology of intolerance and authoritarianism. 

The developmental question is important, but the empirical fact is alarming enough: tens of millions of American citizens rank highly on both scales, and these individuals tend to support right-wing populists with xenophobic and racist inclinations. And the two scales are correlated. "In large adult and student samples, for example, right-wing authoritarianism positively predicts anti-Black prejudice and did so more strongly than several other correlates of prejudice" (Saunders and Ngo 2017:4).

In Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos make use of this body of theory and research in their analysis of the influence of racism within grassroots conservative movements in the United States, including the Tea Party movement. In particular, they make use of survey research to assess the level of Social Dominance Orientation in different voting groups.

Abamowitz’s analyses of the 2010 ANES data yield results that are very consistent with the Parker/Barreto findings. In particular, Abamowitz finds three variables to be especially strong predictors of attitudinal support for the Tea Party. Two of the three—“dislike of Obama” and “racial resentment”—essentially mirror the first two variables in the Parker/Barreto study. Abramowitz’s conclusion echoes that of Parker and Barreto: “these results clearly show that the rise of the Tea Party movement was a direct result of the growing racial and ideological polarization of the American electorate. The Tea Party drew its support very disproportionately from Republican identifiers who were white, conservative, and very upset about the presence of a black man in the White House.” Support for the Tea Party is thus decidedly not the same thing as conventional conservatism or traditional partisan identification with the Republican Party. Above all else, it is race and racism that runs through and links all three variables discussed here. Whatever else is motivating supporters, racial resentment must be seen as central to the Tea Party and, by extension, to the GOP as well in view of the movement’s significant influence within the party. (p. 353)

It seems, then, that researchers in personality psychology have developed theories and measurement tools that contribute to answering part of the anti-democratic populism puzzle. The prevalence in a significant percentage of citizens of the personality attributes of social dominance orientation and right-wing authoritarianism may explain the dramatic and surprising upsurge of support that anti-democratic populist politicians are able to draw upon. The difficult questions of "why now?", "why in this generation?" are as yet unanswered, though the cognitive theory of personality formation above may give the clue. The precariousness of certain parts of the populations in Western Europe and North America -- terrorism, fear of shifting demographic balance, fear of the consequences of globalization -- may be all it takes to trigger this toxic and intolerant form of personality in an extensive proportion of the population of these countries. This suggests that the theories of authoritarian personality at the individual level and political entrepreneurship at the political level -- in an environment of rapid change and perceived threats to various groups -- may go a long way to explaining the scope and depth of right-wing populism in liberal democracies today.

Tony Judt on memory and myth in the twentieth century

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 08/09/2020 - 9:23am in

One of the historians whose work I greatly appreciate is Tony Judt. I've posted about his seminal book about Europe after World War II (Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (linklink)) and his history of the French left in Marxism and the French Left: Studies on Labour and Politics in France, 1830-1981) (link). Some of his most penetrating reflections about twentieth century European history are developed in his essay, "The Past is Another Country: Myth and Memory in Postwar Europe", published in Deák, Gross, and Judt, The Politics of Retribution in Europe (lightly revised from original publication in Daedalus in 1992). Judt's premise is that postwar "Europe" as a complex of values and common identities cultivated since World War II is founded on a grave self-deception and amnesia in the representation upon which it depends concerning issues of responsibility for atrocity, genocide, and collaboration. And Judt believes that these comfortable "mis-tellings" of the story of the 1930s-1950s unavoidably lead to future contradictions in European politics and harmony.

The new Europe is thus being built upon historical sands at least as shifty in nature as those on which the postwar edifice was mounted. To the extent that collective identities—whether ethnic, national, or continental—are always complex compositions of myth, memory, and political convenience, this need not surprise us. From Spain to Lithuania the transition from past to present is being recalibrated in the name of a “European” idea that is itself a historical and illusory product, with different meanings in different places. In the Western and Central regions of the continent (including Poland, the Czech lands, Hungary, and Slovenia but not their eastern neighbors), the dream of economic unity may or may not be achieved in due course. (317) 

Further, Judt believes that the self-deceptions and false memories created during and especially after the Second World War are a key part of this instability.

I shall suggest that the ways in which the official versions of the war and postwar era have unraveled in recent years are indicative of unresolved problems that lie at the center of the present continental crisis—an observation true of both Western and Eastern Europe, though in distinctive ways. Finally I shall note some of the new myths and mismemories attendant upon the collapse of Communism and the ways in which these, too, are already shaping, and misshaping the new European “order.” (294) 

 Memories matter, and false memories matter a great deal. Consider the matter of "resistance to Nazi oppression". Judt finds that the romantic stories of resistance are greatly overstated; they are largely false.

Another way of putting this is to say that most of occupied Europe either collaborated with the occupying forces (a minority) or accepted with resignation and equanimity the presence and activities of the German forces (a majority). The Nazis could certainly never have sustained their hegemony over most of the continent for as long as they did had it been otherwise: Norway and France were run by active partners in ideological collaboration with the occupier; the Baltic nations, Ukraine, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, and Flemish-speaking Belgium all took enthusiastic advantage of the opportunity afforded them to settle ethnic and territorial scores under benevolent German oversight. Active resistance was confined, until the final months, to a restricted and in some measure self-restricting set of persons: socialists, communists (after June 1941), nationalists, and ultramonarchists, together with those, like Jews, who had little to lose given the nature and purposes of the Nazi project. (295)

 Judt believes that the grand myths of the Second World War must be confronted honestly:

At this point we leave the history of the Second World War and begin to encounter the myth of that war, a myth whose construction was undertaken almost before the war itself was over. (296)

Here are the exculpatory myths that Judt believes to be most pervasive:

There is space here to note only briefly the factors that contributed to the official version of the wartime experience that was common European currency by 1948. Of these I shall list just the most salient. The first was the universally acknowledged claim that responsibility for the war, its sufferings, and its crimes lay with the Germans. “They” did it. There was a certain intuitive logic to this comforting projection of guilt and blame. After all, had it not been for the German occupations and depredations from 1938 to 1945, there would have been no war, no death camps, no occupations—and thus no occasion for the civil conflicts, denunciations, and other shadows that hung over Europe in 1945. Moreover, the decision to blame everything on Germany was one of the few matters on which all sides, within each country and among the Allied powers, could readily agree. The presence of concentration camps in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and even France could thus readily be forgotten, or simply ascribed to the occupying power, with attention diverted from the fact that many of these camps were staffed by non-Germans and (as in the French case) had been established and in operation before the German occupation began. (296)

So everyone is innocent; everyone is a victim.

Italy’s experience with fascism was left largely unrecorded in public discussion, part of a double myth: that Mussolini had been an idiotic oaf propped into power by a brutal and unrepresentative clique, and that the nation had been purged of its fascist impurities and taken an active and enthusiastic part in its own liberation. Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium were accorded full victim status for their wartime experience, and the active and enthusiastic collaboration and worse of some Flemings and Dutch stricken from the public record. (304)

This deliberate forgetting of national and citizen culpability all across Europe seems to be a part of contemporary Polish politics, coming to a head in the abortive 2018 Holocaust law (link). But Poland is not alone. Judt makes it clear that a very similar process of myth-making and forgetting has been a deep part of the narrative-making in the collapsed Communist states of eastern and central Europe.

The mismemory of communism is also contributing, in its turn, to a mismemory of anticommunism. Marshal Antonescu, the wartime Romanian leader who was executed in June 1945, defended himself at his trial with the claim that he had sought to protect his country from the Soviet Union. He is now being rewritten into Romanian popular history as a hero, his part in the massacre of Jews and others in wartime Romania weighing little in the balance against his anti-Russian credentials. Anti-communist clerics throughout the region; nationalists who fought along- side the Nazis in Estonia, Lithuania, and Hungary; right-wing partisans who indiscriminately murdered Jews, communists, and liberals in the vicious score settling of the immediate postwar years before the communists took effective control are all candidates for rehabilitation as men of moderate and laudable convictions; their strongest suit, of course, is the obloquy heaped upon them by the former regime. (309-310)

If I were to distill Judt's points into a few key ideas, it is that "history matters"; that oppressors and tyrants are invariably interested in concealing their culpability, while "innocent citizens" are likewise inclined to minimize their own involvement in the crimes of their governments; and that bad myths give rise eventually to bad politics -- more conflict, more tyranny, more violence. So the work of honest history is crucial to humanity's ability to achieve a better future.

Is there a lesson for us in the United States? There is indeed. We must confront the difficult realities of racism, nationalism, bigotry, and authoritarianism that have simmered throughout the decades and centuries in the United States, and that have broken into a boil under the Trump presidency. Tony Judt is right here: the myths of one decade become the action principles of the next.

Review of Thomas Frank’s “The People, No”

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 30/07/2020 - 7:11am in

By Polly Cleveland

These days the major media fill with denunciations of populists. They are the ignorant people who rally to the standards of far-right fascists like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines or Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil or Marine Le Pen of France. Or to a supposed leftist demagogue (but in fact democratically elected) Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. In the US, they are Donald Trump’s loyal “deplorables” or Bernie Sanders’s “Bernie Bros.” They are racist, sexist, xenophobic, suspicious of expertise, contemptuous of those who disagree with them, resentful of privilege, backward-looking, quick to mob violence. In short, populists represent a rising danger to democracy.

Taking his title from Carl Sandburg’s book-length Depression-Era poem, The People, Yes, Thomas Frank proposes that anti-populists pose the real threat. Modern scholars and media have the story backwards.

Frank begins with the largely-forgotten Populist political party. The Populist, or People’s Party, founded in Kansas in the early 1890s, was the last serious effort to form a national third party. It drew together the Farmers’ Alliance, which promoted collective action by farmers, the Greenbackers, who sought a fiat currency instead of the gold standard, labor organizers like Eugene Debs and Terence Powderly, advocates of votes for women, followers of utopian novelist and activist Edward Bellamy, and followers of economic reformer Henry George.

Most of the reforms on the Populist platform sound familiar today and would eventually happen. The Populists called for regulation of the banks and public ownership of railroads. They proposed to end the gold standard, which harmed famers and other debtors by causing steady deflation. They called for direct election of senators, votes for women, a graduated income tax, and the eight-hour work day. To achieve these objectives, the Populists sought to create a coalition between midwestern famers and city workers. Even more radical, poor white farmers in the south allied with organizations representing poor black farmers. Far from disparaging knowledge, the Populists believed in education, publishing millions of pamphlets and setting up reading and discussion groups among farmers and workers. Above all, the Populists believed that an alliance of ordinary working-class people could take control from the moneyed elite.

In the 1892 presidential election, won by gold-standard supporter Democrat Grover Cleveland, the Populist candidate won four states. In 1896, responding to the growing Populist movement, the Democratic Party dumped Cleveland and nominated a passionate gold standard opponent, the young William Jennings Bryan, to run against Republican William McKinley. The Populist Party with some trepidation threw in behind Bryan. That simply terrified the railroad magnates, bankers and other robber barons. It petrified the bourbon Democrats who ruled the South. As Bryan barnstormed across the country on a platform of free coinage of silver, the Republican establishment mounted a massive campaign of disinformation and intimidation that would have made Karl Rove proud. Bryan and the Populists were murderous beasts, they said, seeking mob rule like the French revolutionaries a hundred years before. (Frank has posted some great cartoons.) Bryan lost disastrously and the Populist Party collapsed, though it continued a while competing in local elections. The first anti-populist campaign succeeded magnificently.

While the Populist Party foundered, populist ideas nonetheless filtered into the Progressive movement, and into corners of the major parties. In the early 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) began to enforce the 1990 Sherman anti-trust act. He supported labor unions and denounced big business. Under Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), Congress established the income tax (affecting only the wealthy), created the Federal Reserve to tame the boom and bust cycle and passed the 19th Amendment giving women the vote. Populist enthusiasm and lawmaking reached a peak in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal era from 1932 to 1940 with the establishment of a host of regulatory agencies, strong labor laws, Federal deposit insurance, Social Security, vigorous anti-trust enforcement and decisive reining in of the banks with the Glass-Steagall Act. Anti-populists complained bitterly that Roosevelt had betrayed his class, but to no avail.

In the broad prosperity following World War II, populist enthusiasm waned while anti-populists quietly regrouped in the US Chamber of Commerce, University of Chicago, and new right-wing think tanks. By the 1970s, as Frank documents, many scholars were reinterpreting populism in negative, pessimistic terms. These included historian Richard Hofstadter, famous for his book The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964). Following the shocking election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, liberals and centrist Democrats increasingly became a party of the educated elite. They clucked their tongues at the benighted and bigoted classes who listened to Republican racist dog-whistles and hypocritical religiosity, wondering why these people couldn’t see their economic self-interest.

That was the question Frank posed in his 2004 best-seller, What’s the Matter with Kansas? and again in Listen Liberal (2016). His answer remains the same: Democrats have forgotten that they were the party of ordinary working people. That was painfully obvious in Hilary Clinton’s “deplorables” and before that in Barack Obama’s excruciating remark to wealthy donors about how residents of Midwestern small towns “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them…” In true populism, ordinary folks stand together against powerful and unaccountable elites. Centrist Democrats have joined those elites. They have become scolding, condescending anti-populists. In so doing, they have left the door wide open to Republican faux-populists of whom Trump is only the latest and worst.

Frank quotes historian Lawrence Goodwyn that to build a movement like the Populists of the 1890s or the labor movement of the 1930s, one must “connect with people as they are in society, that is to say, in a state that sophisticated modern observers are inclined to regard as one of ‘inadequate consciousness.’” (Emphasis in original.) Only by practicing “ideological patience,” said Goodwyn, can one build a hopeful and powerful movement. Let’s pray the growing progressive wing of the Democratic Party can develop more of that patience.


In his account of the Populist Party, I wish Frank hadn’t omitted an important part of the story. The Populists substantially overlapped with the Georgist movement, starting in 1879 with the publication of Henry George’s worldwide bestseller, Progress and Poverty. That was one of the main books that those Populist study groups were reading. It was George who gave the Populists their sophisticated understanding of economics and helped convince them they could change their lives by taking control of government through the ballot box. The anti-populists were equally enemies of George, making sure that his classical economics were replaced by new-fangled neoclassical economics which put working people back in their lowly place.

Interested readers may want to check out the three-part interview Paul Jay (formerly of The Real News Network) did with Thomas Frank about his book: https://theanalysis.news/uncategorized/thomas-frank-on-populism/.

POLLY CLEVELAND is an adjunct research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Poland: Populism Strikes Back

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 23/07/2020 - 6:07am in

image/jpeg iconpolish_elections_2020.jpg

The seventh democratic presidential elections in Poland since 1990 have ended on 12 July 2020. Official statistics show the highest ever turnout, with a record-breaking 68.18% of the entitled electorate choosing to cast a vote in the second round.

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Book Review: Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream by Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 21/07/2020 - 9:04pm in

In Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream, Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter challenge the assumption that democracy is necessarily progressive through introducing the notion of ‘reactionary democracy’, showing how narratives that claim that the resurgence of racism, populism and the far right are the result of popular demands obscure the manipulation of the idea of ‘the people’ for reactionary ends by those in power. This is an indispensable book, writes Rahel Süß, and is a must-read for those seeking to contest prevailing ideas about the relationship between racism and liberal democracy.

Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream. Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter. Verso. 2020.

Reactionary Democracy is destined to be one of the indispensable books of our time, a work drawing upon the enduring debate about the causes of systemic racism. Introducing readers to the entanglement of racism and liberal democracy, this co-authored book seeks to shed new light on how these forms of power interact and the possibilities emerging in the wake of this.

In western societies, authors Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter observe, the liberal narrative celebrates the abolishment of slavery and the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the US as a defeat of racism. The problem with such a framework is that it constructs racism as something of the past, and therefore fails to account for systemic racism today.

Starting from the assumption that democracy is not necessarily progressive, the book introduces the idea of ‘reactionary democracy’. The central claim holds that the resurgence of racism, populism and the far right is not the result of popular demands but instead the consequence of ‘a more or less conscious manipulation of the concept of ‘‘the people’’ to push reactionary ideas in the service of power’ (17). Such an argument emerges out of the authors’ critique, which shows that the rise of the ‘alt-right’ and the far right is not only a reaction to the limitations of liberal democracy and its failure to address them, but also is the product of liberal institutions.

There are several instructive arguments animating the book. In Chapters One and Two, the authors introduce what they call ‘illiberal’ and ‘liberal racism’. The former describes articulations of racism associated with biological racism, genocide, racist violence and segregation, which are claimed to have been defeated by the forces of egalitarian liberal societies (79). Liberal racism instead refers to the ‘denial of the forms of racism which persist and have deep roots in liberalism’ (94). While they admit that the borders between the two are ‘fuzzy’, they insist on the importance of this conceptual distinction to allow for nuanced analyses of how ‘the existence of illiberal racism in opposition to liberal racism is essential to the perpetuation of a system built on discrimination and privilege, ensuring its mainstream acceptability’ (19).

Drawing on case studies from the UK, the US and France, Chapter Three subsequently discloses how the mainstreaming of the far right and the radicalising of the mainstream function as intertwined processes. Holding the view that the mainstreaming process originates not only from popular politics of far-right parties and movements but also from discursive elites (such as the media, politicians and academics), the authors explore this dual dynamic. Finally, the task of Chapter Four is to outline in detail how the processes of legitimising and mainstreaming reactionary understandings of equal rights and liberty operate.

Populism serves as an explanatory example for Mondon and Winter’s argument. By drawing on the common usage of the term, they disclose how the discursive link between ‘the people’ and the far right has been created through the term ‘populist’. For them, it is vital to understand how the term ‘populism’ euphemises ideas around racism by falsely assuming an ‘ideological evolution away from racism’ towards more ‘blurry forms of politics’ (162-63).

For Mondon and Winter, there are at least two problems with this discursive link between ‘the people’ and the far right: firstly, ‘it legitimises the far right and its ideas’; and secondly, ‘it delegitimises the people as central to the democratic process’ (279) because of ‘the almost exclusive association of the term ‘‘populism’’ with the far right’ (280). In their view, the far right has largely benefitted from the skewed interpretation of the rise of the populist right, in particular by a) constructing racist and exclusionary ideas as representing the will of ‘the people’; b) positioning them as an example of popular revolt; and c) discussing its potential as an alternative to the current system (211).

Drawing on the current political discourse about the working class, Mondon and Winter show how the link between the working class and racism was constructed especially in the context of both the UK Brexit referendum and the 2016 US election campaign (325). In disclosing how most of the political commentary assumed that the working class was white, they also highlight how the ‘enemy’ of working-class struggles became ‘defined only by race, ethnicity or foreign nationality, rather than by class’ (332). Their argument, however, is not that the working class should be seen uncritically as a vessel for emancipatory politics. More interested in tracing back the particular narrative which equates the working class with the rise of the far right, Mondon and Winter seek to develop an understanding of the ‘ideological underpinnings of this manoeuvre, which places the blame squarely on the voiceless, […] deflecting attention from those responsible for the current sociopolitical situation’ (333).

Yet there is another important aspect of the relationship between populism and the mainstreaming of the far right. As liberalism has created a new political dichotomy between populists on one side, whether of the left or the right, and anti-populists on the other, Mondon and Winter show that liberalism positions itself as the defender against ‘all forms of authoritarianism and irrational politics’ (283). In doing so, however, liberal institutions not only ignore their ‘share of responsibility for the rise of authoritarian politics’, but also ‘create a diversion away from their own failures’ (283).

Conclusively, the misuse of the category of populism as the only alternative to the establishment has allowed the systemic failures of liberalism to go unremarked within public discourse. It is this absence of antagonism in contemporary politics that marks, according to the authors, a central source for the mainstreaming of the far right. But how does this mainstreaming operate? With the help of powerful actors, Mondon and Winter argue, that legitimise the far right’s ideas as a credible alternative. As carefully described by them, ‘the mainstreaming of the far right is not simply or even predominantly the result of popular demand or the savviness of the far right itself’ (290). It is also the result of sensationalist media coverage as well as the short-term and opportunistic strategies of politicians and academics.

Turning to the question of a more radical democratic imagination at the end of their book, Mondon and Winter convincingly emphasise the importance of understanding racism as power relations that evolve and adapt. Consequently, racism is not exhausted by its illiberal articulations. Liberalism itself has ‘failed to live up to its own supposed ideals’ (392). Ultimately, it is essential to recognise that ‘the far right is not the (only or inevitable) alternative’ (296).

While the overall argument of Reactionary Democracy convincingly illuminates current debates about systemic racism, it fails to fully account for the role white privilege plays. Part of the problem is the absence of a conceptual discussion of the term ‘democracy’. Although Mondon and Winter shift attention from democracy as an institutional process or electoral politics to more ‘discursive forms’ (210), they say little about the underlying assumption. In the absence of such systematisation, the book is unable to fully grasp how contemporary inclusive and participatory politics stabilise what the political theorist Joel Olson refers to as ‘white democracy’. This term is used to describe how attempts of democratic repair fail because they misconstrue racial oppression as a problem of exclusion (for which the solution is inclusion), rather than a problem of white privilege.

Finally, the book offers little guidance on the question of strategy and increasing democracy. Besides a few references to grassroots and social movements, it does not discuss the potential – or danger – of current experiments with new democratic institutions and practices, such as the inclusive politics of civic lotteries or participatory citizens’ assemblies. Because of the absence of such a discussion, Mondon and Winter do not address whether emancipatory or participatory politics can play a role in mainstreaming the far right. More inclined to develop a framework for understanding liberal and illiberal racism, the book focuses instead on how the idea of progress has falsely left a lasting mark on the liberal democratic imagination.

Overall, however, it can be said that Reactionary Democracy is an important contribution to the continuing debate on the causes of systemic racism. With its call for a thorough analysis of the relation between the far right and liberal democracy, the book provokes the right question at the right time. For scholars and students of politics, philosophy and history seeking to challenge prevailing ideas about racism and liberal democracy, this is a must-read.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: Triptych image created using photo by James Eades on Unsplash, taken at Black Lives Matter London Protest, 6 June 2020.


Mounk on the crisis of democracy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 21/07/2020 - 2:40am in

Yascha Mounk's recent The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It is one of several important efforts to understand the crisis that right-wing populism is creating for liberal democracies in many countries. (An abbreviated version of Mounk's analysis is published in his contribution to the Atlantic in March 2018 (link).) Mounk shares with Madeleine Albright (Fascism: A Warning), John Keane (The New Despotism), and Levitsky and Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) the concern that the political realities that brought Donald Trump to the presidency in the United States have the potential of profoundly undermining our democracy. I share that concern (link, link, link, link). And yet after reading the book, I'm not entirely convinced that Mounk has hit the target quite right. In the end, he sometimes seems to be more of a critic of liberal democracy than of radical authoritarian populism.

To begin, Mounk makes a determined effort to separate "democracy" from "liberalism", where the former concept refers to any system in which the "people" rule and the latter refers to any system that embodies legal and institutional protections of the rights and freedoms of all -- majority as well as minority. In this way he gives credence to the claim by Viktor Orbán in Hungary to have created the basis of "illiberal democracy" in Hungary (link). Here are the definitions that Mounk offers:

  • A democracy is a set of binding electoral institutions that effectively translates popular views into public policy. 
  • Liberal institutions effectively protect the rule of law and guarantee individual rights such as freedom of speech, worship, press, and association to all citizens (including ethnic and religious minorities).
  • A liberal democracy is simply a political system that is both liberal and democratic—one that both protects individual rights and translates popular views into public policy.
  • Democracies can be illiberal. (27)

But democracy is not a single-stranded political conception. It is an "ideal type" that draws together several important ideas: self-rule, of course; but also the rule of law, constitutional protection of citizens' rights, and a commitment to the neutrality of political institutions. Democracy is anti-authoritarian; and this means that there need to be principles, rules, laws, and institutions that protect the rights and freedoms of individual citizens. Therefore the only system worthy of the name as "democracy" is in fact what Mounk refers to as "liberal democracy". And what Orbán describes is not democracy -- any more than a counterfeit coin is a coin.

Mounk details the large decline in public confidence in the political institutions of liberal democracies across Europe and North America. He sees this as an especially worrisome feature of our current political realities: a rising percentage of citizens are willing to look with favor on "strong man" government or even rule by the military. And he recites the evidence of contempt for democratic values and institutions expressed by President Trump since 2016, and by the Republican Party for decades before that.

Over the course of his campaign, Donald Trump broke just about every basic rule of democratic politics. He promised to jail his political opponents. He refused to say that he would accept the outcome of the election. He bullied the press and threatened to expand libel laws. He invited a foreign power to sabotage his main competitor. He incited hatred against ethnic and religious minorities and promised to take unconstitutional action against them. (119)

What Mounk does not do is trace the connection between conservative Republican activists, their deliberate strategies aimed at discrediting and demeaning the institutions of government, and the resulting decline in public opinion that he documents. These shifts of public support for democratic values and institutions are not self-generated; they are at least in part the result of deliberate anti-government strategies of the right, in the United States and other countries. Figures such as Grover Norquist ("I simply want to reduce [government] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub"), Newt Gingrich (“One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty” (link)), and the Tea Party had a very consistent and extended political message: government is not to be trusted, and the institutions and values of our political system are bankrupt. Surely this propaganda offensive -- fueled by Fox News, talk radio, and social networks -- has played an important role in the decline of trust (and adherence) in the institutions and values of liberal democracy. On this topic I find more to learn from McAdam and Kloos, Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America (link, link).

In fact, chapter 2 of Mounk's book ("Rights without Democracy") could serve as the letters of indictment of a fairly cerebral right-wing populist propaganda specialist. Much of the chapter seems intended to show that liberal democracy is a sham: "As long as you let us call the shots, we will pretend to let you rule" (53). Bureaucrats, judges, international lawyers, and the wealthy make the major decisions, in Mounk's telling of the tale. Mounk gives the impression that the "founding myth" of American democracy (or British democracy) is exactly that -- a myth. And here Mounk is unfair. It is of course true that citizenship was limited in the first century of the US democracy; but it is also true that, through struggle by African-Americans, women, and other excluded minorities, the political system and constitution expanded. We are not the political system we were in 1776 or 1789 or 1861. Nor is it obvious that representative democracy is less democratic than direct democracy -- unless we take it as a definitional matter that democracy means direct decision-making by the population.

Mounk's narrative here gives some credence to the radical populists' claim that "elites are running the country" (in Britain, in Germany, in the EU, in the US), based on the extensive bureaucracies involved in modern government. He discusses bureaucrats and civil servants, judges, independent agencies, and international treaties and organizations as examples of "unelected elites making basic decisions". But this claim is itself far too sweeping and simplistic. The fact that public health specialists offer scientific advice about wearing masks during pandemic -- and governors act on this advice -- is not elitism; it is the result of the principle that "good public policy should be guided by the best scientific understanding of the problems we face." Yes, governments in liberal democracies deploy legions of "technical experts" or "technocrats", and these men and women help to formulate public policies in directions that are often hard to sell on Fox News. But this is how governments should act; and it is part of the shameful performance of the Trump administration that Trump and his cabinet have done everything in their power to silence and ignore the advice of qualified scientists, from climate change to atmospheric science to global pandemic.

Mounk emphasizes the very substantial increase in "bureaucratization" that state agencies have undergone in western democracies -- the creation of large agencies with substantial regulatory authority such as the Securities Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency (64). And he seems to suggest that this process gives some truth to the populist refrain that "elites are running our lives without control by the people". But, as Mounk obviously agrees, a large bureaucracy is unavoidable in the administration and regulation of complex activities like the broadcast spectrum, nuclear power plants, food safety, or pollution. This is not an indication of elitism; it is rather a necessary consequence of highly complex and extended economic and social processes that serve to ensure the health, safety, and security of the public -- the people. A democracy requires regulatory agencies, under the broad charter of legislative action. Government is "big" -- big government exercises a great deal of decision-making authority. Of course! Democratic legitimacy requires that we make these processes more transparent to the public, but the fact of bureaucracy is not a legitimate complaint against liberal democracy.

Mounk gives an extended example from Switzerland to illustrate the way he divides "democracy" from "liberalism". A local community sought to prevent a local mosque from building a minaret; the Federal Supreme Court declared in favor of the rights of freedom of worship of these individuals, including the right to build a minaret; and the populist right took up the issue, brought it to a national referendum, and were able to incorporate a restrictive clause  against Muslims into the Swiss constitution: "Freedom of religion and conscience is guaranteed ... The construction of minarets is prohibited" (48). Mounk describes this as a case in which "democracy" and "liberalism" parted ways: "That is why I prefer to say that the controversy over minarets epitomizes the disintegration of liberal democracy into two new regime forms: illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism" (48). But the justices of the FSC are not elite technocrats substituting their judgment for the "will of the people"; this is exactly what a Supreme Court is charged to do within a constitutional democracy. How else are the rights and freedoms of minorities to be defended against the will of the majority?

Mounk notes that populist leaders and parties seek to undermine the press: "In the early phases, the war on independent institutions frequently takes the form of inciting distrust, or even outright hatred, of the free press" (44). He sees this effort as an attack on liberal principles. But the war waged by radical populist leaders against the press (including, of course, Donald Trump) is not merely anti-liberal; it is anti-democratic. Its aim is to disenfranchise the portion of the population that would oppose the populists' policies and action by denying them access to information and fair interpretation by other intelligent, well-informed observers. It is to replace "freedom of thought and speech" with the power of propaganda, and the goal is not merely to deny information to potential opponents, but to shape "knowledge" and political discourse in ways that favor the political fortunes of the populist. Again -- democracy without liberal institutions and values is only sham democracy.

Mounk is of course right in noticing that populists claim to advocate for democracy, by proclaiming to their followers that they are the true "people" and that their will is the political program of the populist movement. But this is charade, as Mudde and Kaltwasser (Populism: A Very Short Introduction; link) and other scholars of populism have shown. When Sarah Palin claims that the "real Americans" are those who live in small racially homogeneous towns in the Midwest, she is making an appeal to a minority segment of the American population. Her "real Americans" do not include people of color, liberals, urban people, gay people, or legal immigrants. This is not an appeal to democracy; it is an appeal to an exclusionary view of "good Americans" and "bad people living in the country".

In brief, Mounk's mid-semester grade for the American democracy is pretty low:

At a minimum, I suggest, any democracy should have in place a set of effective institutional mechanisms for translating popular views into public policy. In the United States, these mechanisms are now significantly impaired. The country's commitment to liberal rights remains deeply ingrained. But the form this liberalism takes is increasingly undemocratic. (92)

This is a C- when it comes to evaluating a set of political institutions; it suggests that perhaps the student should choose a different major. But actually, we have more to work with in our liberal democracy than Mounk believes. And there is a certain amount of risk of contributing to a self-fulfilling prophecy here: part of the problem in our democracy is a declining level of confidence in political institutions and the worth of government -- a decline very specifically and deliberately orchestrated by the right for the past forty years -- and the C- hits us where it hurts.

This is not to suggest that liberal democracy does not need reform. The role of money in politics; the disproportionate influence of big business on public policy; the persistent and deliberate racism involved in voter suppression strategies of gerrymandering and discouragement of minority participation in elections -- these are the fundamental flaws of our existing political institutions, and they clearly demand solution.

And yet -- liberal democracy is the best we have to offer. Modern democratic institutions of government are not the key risk to human freedom in the twenty-first century; the real enemy of individual freedom and dignity is the sustained rise of powerful populist parties and bosses. Levitsky and Ziblatt are closer to the truth than Mounk.

Mounk has a response to these criticisms:

High-minded defenders of liberal democracy believe that there is something uniquely legitimate about the political system to which they are committed. 

Its democratic element, they claim, ensures citizens’ equality. In a monarchy, the king is elevated above his subjects by the accident of his noble birth. In a democracy, by contrast, all citizens get one vote without regard to the color of their skin or the station of their ancestors. 

Its liberal element, meanwhile, ensures citizens’ freedom. In a totalitarian regime, the government can regulate the lives of its subjects in the most minute detail and punish them at whim. In a liberal polity, by contrast, the reach of the law is limited, and citizens are protected against arbitrary interference in their lives. The peculiar genius of liberal democracy is that it is able to honor both of these values at the same time. 

This account of democratic legitimacy is a little too blithe. (129)

Really? Are we wrong to be "high-minded"? In its essence, this is precisely the defense that is needed for the institutions of a liberal democracy: it is a complex of institutions and values aimed at assuring a population of equal citizens the full exercise of their rights and liberties within a system in which they are guaranteed equal rights of political participation. The hard task is to reform, perfect, and preserve those institutions in the face of the forces of reaction.

The rhetorical structure of the book is "diagnosis, causes, remedies." The remedies that Mounk explores include three major areas of progress that are needed for a multiethnic, multiracial democracy: a solution to the problem of "nationalism" (or more generally, of divided cultural identities); a more just set of economic institutions and opportunities for all citizens; and the rebuilding of what he calls "civic faith". Interestingly, these areas of recommended reform align rather well with the list I mentioned in an earlier post:

  • A broad consensus that all members of society are treated fairly
  • Confidence in a high level of equality of opportunity in social, political, and economic positions
  • Confidence that government institutions and officials are reasonably honest and transparent
  • Confidence that private influence does not unduly affect the content and application of laws and regulations
  • An overriding conviction that we are "one society" consisting of many communities, and that the wellbeing of all depends on the contributions and fair treatment of all
  • An effective interlacing of communities through cross-cutting political, social, and economic organizations

The most substantial practical advice that Mounk offers as a strategy for lending strength to our liberal democracy (and resisting authoritarian impulses of some of our leaders) is popular protest and expression of our values in the public space -- real, active political engagement on behalf of a just liberal democracy.

Thankfully, there is a lot that those of us who want liberal democracy to survive the dawning age of populism can do: We can take to the streets to stand up to the populists. We can remind our fellow citizens of the virtues of both freedom and self-government. We can push established parties to embrace an ambitious program capable of renewing liberal democracy’s promise of a better future for all. And if we do win—as I very much hope we shall—we can muster the grace and the determination to bring our adversaries back to the democratic fold. (265)

I find much to admire and learn from in Mounk's book. The complaints offered here are aimed, really, at the lawyerly effort that Mounk makes to build the case against liberal democracy. Much of the narrative provided in the "diagnosis" part of the book is an impassioned argument aimed at demonstrating the correctness of many of the populists' key complaints against the liberal state. And a lawyerly defense of the legitimacy of the institutions of contemporary liberal democracies is lacking. But this concedes too much to right-wing populists. Liberal democracy and right-wing populism are not on the same moral plane. And illiberal democracy is no kind of democracy at all; it is despotism.

Book Review: A Brief History of Fascist Lies by Federico Finchelstein

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 09/06/2020 - 9:15pm in

In A Brief History of Fascist Lies, Federico Finchelstein offers a new historical examination of how fascism does not just embrace lies, but integrates them into a distinctive, irrational structure of ‘truth’ that serves its political ends. This is a worthwhile read that provides a clear and lucid overview of how fascism perceives ‘truth’, reason and leadership, writes Ben Margulies, and will be particularly useful for undergraduate and postgraduate students of politics.

A Brief History of Fascist Lies. Federico Finchelstein. University of California Press. 2019.

One of the central lessons of the twentieth century is that lying is a key tool of totalitarian government. Secondary-school students the world over absorb this lesson through the works of George Orwell. The Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and propagandist Joseph Goebbels are frequently quoted about the power of ‘the big lie’. Most laypeople could explain how autocratic governments can exert control through untruth (especially if they happen to also favour conspiracy theories).

This popular understanding is entirely correct. However, it leaves certain questions unexamined. Do totalitarian rulers believe their own lies? How do they justify their mendacity? And what is the relation between bald-faced, opportunistic lying and ideology, a set of strong normative beliefs about the way things should be? In this slim volume, A Brief History of Fascist Lies, Argentine historian Federico Finchelstein examines these questions in relation to fascism. The result is a lucid examination of how fascism does not just embrace lies, but integrates them into a distinctive, irrational structure of ‘truth’ that serves its political ends. Finchelstein’s key arguments are immensely valuable to our understanding of contemporary politics, even though his book suffers from some stylistic flaws.

Finchelstein is a scholar of fascism and populism. In his previous book, From Fascism to Populism in History, he traced the transition from the former to the latter, which he argues began in Latin America with Peronism and similar movements. Fascism proposed a ‘true democracy’ through a spiritual communion between people, state and leader in an authoritarian order. Finchelstein argued that populism preserved this political union and authoritarian impulse in a democratic, electoral frame. Finchelstein added that fascism is expressly violent; populism, generally, is not.

In A Brief History of Fascist Lies, Finchelstein focuses more specifically on fascism, which he defines as ‘a modern counterrevolutionary formation […] ultranationalist, antiliberal and anti-Marxist’ (22). He stresses its character as a ‘transnational phenomenon both inside and outside Europe’ (22), citing many fascist sources from Latin America, as well as the work of critics including Jorge Luis Borges.

At the core of the book lies Finchelstein’s understanding of how fascists historically defined truth. To fascists, what was ‘true’ was not what was empirically verifiable. Rather, ‘fascism proposed the notion of truth that transcended reason and was incarnated in the myth of the leader’ (28). Truth stemmed from atavistic, primordial myths, from spiritual truths, more normative than real. ‘In fascism, truth was considered real because it was rooted in emotional emanations of the soul, images and actions that fascists identified with political ideology’ (53). So, for fascists, ‘lies’ were not so much denials of the truth, as rejections of the ‘real world’ in favour of an idealised one fitting their spiritual beliefs about what should be. They were statements of faith in a deeper ‘truth’.

Fascists contended that this deeper spiritual truth could only be ascertained instinctively and irrationally: ‘the idea that the soul had an authentic inner notion of the world was at the center of the fascist intellectual process’ (58).  Finchelstein devotes a chapter to the fascist reaction to psychoanalysis. Fascists recoiled at the idea of rationally examining the subconscious or the personality; ‘fascism renounced self-awareness and put in its place a Godly truth supposedly emanating from a purified self’ (63). They reacted with horror to the idea that the subconscious might be a source of disorder or wanton desire, and condemned Sigmund Freud because he ‘questioned the idea of the sacred [in the sense of locating it in the human psyche] and therefore the politics that fascism represented’ (66). Fascists also demonised psychoanalysis through antisemitic claims that it was a Jewish plot against the people or race.

Finchelstein emphasises the role of the fascist leader. It was the leader’s role to excavate, interpret and propagate this soul-myth from deep inside the collective people. ‘Only the leader was the ideal representation of sovereign desires’ (58); he ‘acted as the best expression of the people’s ideal self’ (60). In the fascist imaginarium, the leader derived these truths from some deep spiritual foundation, but Finchelstein points out that often what he was really drawing on was the desires – the ids, to use a Freudian term – of their constituents: ‘Their primary aim was the fulfilment of their followers’ repressed destructive desires’ (88).

Fascists did not only believe that truth drew from some irrational mythical source. It also animated their political practice. Their goal was to refashion reality in accordance with their own mythos, usually through the violent realisation of their desires, which is why political violence was so important. ‘Power derived from the affirmation of myth through violence, destruction and conquest’ (26), confirming the fascist mythos by forcing reality to surrender to sacralised prejudices. Fascism’s goal was to ‘make lies true’. This reworking of the world was also retrospective, as fascists energetically refashioned history according to mythos.

Finchelstein’s book explains these important points with great clarity and power. However, it has an unfortunate tendency to explain them over and over again, in somewhat different configurations (also a problem with From Fascism to Populism in History). The key points of the text are straightforward enough to fill a reasonably long journal article. Over the course of almost 100 pages, it feels like Finchelstein is reprising them in every chapter.

Finchelstein makes heavy use of various fascist writers to explain their ideological conception of truth. This is effective, but it also snags the flow of the text; it sometimes feels like reading a compilation of different quotes. It’s also unclear why Finchelstein has chosen the particular sources he has.

Finchelstein’s final chapter deals with the role of lies in modern-day populism – perhaps the subject his readers will be most interested in. Here, he refers to US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. He discusses the way Trump’s followers see him as a source of truth and a divinely elected leader (92-94; 98), and he accuses Bolsonaro of attempting to redefine the meaning of dictatorship and Brazil’s political history in order to justify his authoritarian project (98-100).

Here, however, Finchelstein’s evidence base is relatively thin. He cites very few populist leaders and their statements and compares them to those of classical fascism; he also notes how ‘fascism and populism both appeal to the political trinity, leader, nation and people, as their main source of legitimation’ (96). However, he does not engage with any of the voluminous literature on populism and its models of leadership in the way he does with fascism (in the rest of the book, he cites fascist thinkers and their critics like Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno and Borges). The chapter makes a few brief comparisons while making a largely unexamined assumption about the similarities between fascism and populism. I find that assumption very credible, but Finchelstein needed to provide more evidence for it (Catherine Fieschi’s Populocracy deals with similar questions regarding reason and truth, though it was published after the release of this book).

For all these flaws, Finchelstein’s book is very much a worthwhile read. It provides a simple, lucid overview of how fascists ‘lie’, or more precisely, how fascists perceive ‘truth’, reason and leadership. As a guide to understanding how fascists – and perhaps many other kinds of right-wing political activists – think, it is immensely helpful. I would recommend it for politics undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: Crop of Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash.


High cost of immigration: GDP gets the sign wrong

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 31/05/2020 - 12:03pm in

Much of the alleged economic benefit of high immigration is actually a very large cost. GDP is not accounting, and its misuse as a measure of welfare distorts our priorities, in this case egregiously.

[Can’t seem to interest anyone in this argument. Looks like it can’t be right I suppose.]

Kristina Keneally, Labor’s immigration spokesperson, recently set the dogs barking again by arguing that the rate of immigration after covid-19 should be lower than the previous very high rate. She argued that we should look to get Australians back to work before importing more people (though her choice of phrasing could have been better).

The sudden dramatic drop in immigration is evidently of great concern to some, judging by a spate of opinion pieces at the ABC (e.g. here and here) and elsewhere reiterating the usual claim that a high immigration rate is good for the economy, or even essential to the economy.

Some of the arguments are flimsy or marginal at best, but a central one is that immigrants create jobs, rather than taking jobs. Presumably this refers to the construction of houses and other facilities required by immigrants. Certainly the construction industry benefits from a lot of extra work, and this will show up as a large addition to the Gross Domestic Product. The Prime Minister will then brag that ‘the economy’ has grown.

However we need to look more carefully at what really happens. First, most of the facilities required by immigrants are built before they arrive. We do not just send them to some green-fields site and invite them to build a town for themselves. This means the cost of building the new facilities is borne by those of us already here. It is irrelevant whether the cost is borne by the private sector or by government: the cost is borne by our society as a whole, regardless of which sector pays for which facilities.

There is an opportunity cost involved in this arrangement. To be sure, many people find employment, but what other things might we have spent our money and effort on, and would we get more benefit from them? We might, for example, choose to raise the unemployment benefit permanently, or to improve our education system and thus improve the skills and productivity of our young people. We might speed up the transition to clean renewable energy, which would also provide many jobs and make the economy more productive.

A house provides a service to its occupants, but it does not provide a return on investment the way a new factory would. Certainly the immigrants, once they are established, will be productive members of society, but there is a delay, and a cost to us, while they get established.

How big is the cost? We have been importing as many as 400,000 people per year, net. That means we have in effect to build a new city the size of Canberra every year. That includes, houses, shops, roads, water, power, office buildings, everything, public or private. The cost of all the extra ‘durable assets’ was estimated by Jane O’Sullivan some years ago (summarised here). It comes to around $500,000 per new person. The total cost over recent years has thus been of the order of $200 billion per year.

If this amount seems outlandish, think what it would take to build Canberra in a year. Even if O’Sullivan’s estimate were a bit rough, and the cost was only $100 billion per year, you could still buy a lot of clean energy installations for that. You could pay for our universities as we used to, before they were required to become addicted to overseas student fees. You could raise the minimum wage and give the anaemic economy an immediate boost.

Nothing so far indicates that the cost of expanding our durable assets is not in fact a cost. There might be some compensating benefits, but they will be delayed. The higher the immigration rate, the more has to be built every year and the bigger the imbalance. Mainstream economics doesn’t do imbalances or rapid changes, intellectually fettered as it is to being close to an entirely fictional equilibrium.

You might call the cost an investment, but we don’t distinguish capital expenditures from recurrent expenditures as we once used to.

If we had proper national accounting there would be a balance sheet for recurrent expenditures and incomes, and a balance sheet for capital expenditures and benefits. Then all of this would be clearer. You could add up each side of the balance sheet and see if we are actually better off. (Perhaps such things exist, but they don’t make the headlines.)

Instead we add the expenditure to the Gross Domestic Product and claim ‘the economy’ has grown and we are better off. GDP is not accounting, it is a crude tally. No distinction is made between spending on good things, useless things and bad things. Clear felling a forest is a plus. Cleaning up pollution is a plus. Digging holes and filling them in would be a plus.

GDP was never intended to be a measure of our general welfare, and its originator Simon Kuznets clearly warned against using it as such. During the war, when the US government was directing much of the economy into war production, it made some sense to look at the total volume of production. With so many deleterious effects, on our planet, land and people, of unrestrained ‘development’, it makes no sense any more.

Some of the other arguments about immigration make no sense if you put aside economic abstractions and just think about people and what we do. Would the economy stagger without immigration? That’s silly, it implies we can’t provide for ourselves. The ‘ageing population’ is a hoary perennial, but more unproductive oldies implies fewer ‘unproductive’ children, and anyway would we not look after our ageing parents, especially if we were richer than now?

Alleged skills shortages have greatly proliferated over the past couple of decades, but really they are an excuse to import cheap labour and an excuse for governments not to fund our education and training systems properly.

The debate about immigration numbers needs not only to be had without reflexive charges of populism, nationalism, xenophobia and racism, its economics also needs to be sensibly rethought. The misuse of the GDP grossly distorts our priorities, and covers up for incompetent management of our society. The claim that immigration is of immediate benefit is a particularly egregious example.

Book Review: Populocracy: The Tyranny of Authenticity and the Rise of Populism by Catherine Fieschi

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 04/05/2020 - 9:13pm in

In Populocracy: The Tyranny of Authenticity and the Rise of Populism, Catherine Fieschi examines the rise of populist politics, arguing that a desire for authenticity has been integral to its success today, focusing on the cases of France, the Netherlands, Italy and the UK. This is a thought-provoking and innovative contribution to scholarship on populism in situating authenticity as a key part of the populist imaginary, writes Ben Margulies.

Populocracy: The Tyranny of Authenticity and the Rise of Populism. Catherine Fieschi. Columbia University Press. 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped populists, or those who study them. While US President Donald Trump defies experts and political foes (and then some) from the White House Press Room, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro refuses to accept pandemic control measures and championed mass marches against the other two branches of the Brazilian government. A number of articles have been published trying to assess if and how COVID-19 will affect populism, and about how populists are responding to the crisis.

The Guardian published one such piece by Catherine Fieschi, the director of the Global Policy Institute at Queen Mary, University of London. Fieschi has recently published her own book on populism, Populocracy, the product in part of more than twenty years of research into populist parties in Europe. This short book offers a new vision of populism as an ideology, and as a way of constituting and sustaining identity groups. Though quantitative scholars may have some objections, the book presents novel theoretical contributions and makes a welcome addition to the literature on the subject.

Fieschi’s focus is on populism as an ideology, which she defines as ‘a set of ideas and the ideals that hang together as a blueprint for political action’ (23). In calling populism an ‘ideology’, Fieschi stakes a position in a long-running battle over whether populism qualifies as something so comprehensive and intellectual. Benjamin Moffitt, for example, in The Global Rise of Populism, describes populism as a ‘political style’, a type of performance which is distinct from ideology. Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser accept that populism is an ideology, but a ‘thin-centred one’ that has to form a symbiotic connection with a more developed system of thought like nationalism. On the other hand, Mattia Zullanello has observed the existence of ‘valence populist’ parties that compete purely on populist themes without an auxiliary ideology.

Fieschi firmly declares populism a self-sufficient ideology and outlines its major features. These include: a belief in a sovereign and pure people; democracy and its promise of self-government and control; a complaint that this promise has been betrayed; and, finally, a desire for authenticity. It is this last concept that is central to Fieschi’s book and marks her major contribution to populism studies.

In Fieschi’s writing, authenticity is a way of thinking, of recognising people and validating knowledge. It is, to a great extent, an epistemology, a way of deciding who counts as an authority and what information can be verified as true. Authenticity values common sense, folk mores and shared, unspoken understandings. An authentic community is bound by the ability to instantly recognise members of the in-group through their manners and common mental furniture; they can identify a suitable leader in the same way. Fieschi describes talking to Dutch people in her research:

One of the key insights from the Netherlands was just how reluctant people were to have to explain themselves […] Dialogue had come to mean, to many of the people I spoke to, bending over backwards to make themselves understandable, when they themselves had not changed (78).

Elites, on the other hand, construct intellectual systems and artificial ways of speaking, while immigrants cannot share ‘instinctual’ understanding of how to be and act. Multiculturalism requires a considered way of speaking, precisely because people lack common backgrounds. Referring again to the Netherlands, Fieschi writes:

All of multiculturalism’s basic tenets (that one needs to learn tolerance, that one can create institutions that can turn diversity into an asset, that language needs to be practiced carefully and used in order to respect diversity) were taken as sign of an intellectual posturing clearly at odds with common sense, but more to the point with instinct (79).

Fieschi also advances an innovative argument tying her concept of authenticity to the development of digital culture. For Fieschi, search engines and social media create a demand for immediate, authentic connection, in which misunderstanding and misinterpretation become impossible. Everything should be simple and transparent (partly because the hard work is carefully hidden by the tech companies that produce the hardware and software  (147) – here, it would have been interesting if Fieschi had considered whether distrust of those same tech companies might in turn fuel the anti-elitist aspects of populism). The ostensible simplicity produces ‘a disdain for, and suspicion of, complexity’ (148) and demands for instant, transparent solutions. Since these are impossible, populism usually fails, creating ever more frustration – which is met with more populist responses.

Fieschi’s authenticity paradigm also allows her to suggest an explanation for why populist leaders lie so often, and why they get away with it. Lying serves several functions – it signals the people’s ambitions and desires, defies the rationality and shaming of the elites and demonstrates ‘someone who is willing to take chances in order to get elected’ (151). Most intriguingly, Fieschi argues that lying is a demonstration of a leader’s humanity and flaws, which is more authentic: ‘In this respect the populist politician can be regarded as authentic even if they are insincere and dishonest’ (151).

Fieschi devotes much of her text to four case studies which, she argues, chart the development of the populist ideology across time and space. She uses France and the Le Pens as her first example, following populism’s emergence from the rubble of fascism; then goes on to the Netherlands, where she demonstrates its embrace of authenticity and how it began to use Islam and immigration to concretise the threat to ‘the people’. After that, she studies her native Italy, as populism evolved in part as a way to deal with the stubbornness of the country’s clientelistic and ineffective governance. Finally, she concludes with Brexit Britain, tracing English/British populism in part to Thatcherism, and UKIP’s success partly to David Cameron’s decision to move away from that populist-authoritarian project upon taking the party’s leadership in 2005. Fieschi adds some personal anecdotes from her work, including some shocking, and at times hilarious, tales about the Le Pen family (including the story about the end of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s first marriage on page 48 – Pierrette Le Pen apparently left the family home with ‘Jean-Marie’s best glass eye’).

Fieschi’s work is a welcome addition to the literature. However, some will take issue with her approach. The author openly declares her preference for qualitative work, based on verbal data like interviews and party publications and on observations she has gathered in her previous research over decades. This approach is well suited for this book, which maps out concepts and the way people conceive them in their own minds. But it also means that Fieschi has yet to further test these understandings. Though she talks about understanding the populist voter, she hasn’t – to my knowledge – taken her theories, turned them into some sort of workable experiment and tested whether populist voters agree with her characterisation.

Her cases are also limited to Western Europe and mostly deal with the populist radical right (though not exclusively). Fieschi argues that left-wing populists have different ideas about the homogenous community, which imagines the people as a collective of citizens rather than an organic body (31). It is unclear whether left-wing populists can claim the same focus on authenticity if that means relying on unspoken assumptions and common sense. An examination of Latin American cases might demonstrate that left-wing populism could rely on these cultural markers and understandings too, given the sharp distinctions between the elites and the masses there (see Pierre Ostiguy’s discussion of the high and low, which describes the culturally ‘low’ register of populism in a way similar to Fieschi’s concept of ‘authenticity’).

Fieschi does attempt to suggest some solutions to the conundrum of populism, but this section is brief and undeveloped. She talks about creating new forums that allow for both pluralism (the enemy of populism, where there is only one truth and identity) and for authenticity (164). She notes that French President Emmanuel Macron’s national debate, opened in the face of the gilets jaunes, had some success (162). In any case, such propositions must face the active opposition of those already committed to populism: as Fieschi notes, the populists’ goal is to create their exclusionary community, not join in a new plural one (162-63).

These quibbles aside, Fieschi’s work is accessible, thought-provoking and innovative. Her concept of authenticity provides an intriguing, and quite likely valid, way of describing the populist imaginary. I look forward to seeing more research (qualitative or quantitative) demonstrating how the public understands ‘authenticity’, and how it influences political behaviour.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: Nigel Farage backstage at BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions in Hurstpierpoint on 5 May 2017 (Steve Bowbrick CC BY 2.0).