The Meaning of Cities   /   Summer 2017   /    Signifiers


Wilfred M. McClay

Universal Composition, 1937, Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949); photograph: Philippe Migeat; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY; © copyright Alejandra, Aurelio, and Claudio Torres 2017.

Populism as false-bottomed box.

It is sometimes said that the history of ideas is the history of words, because what we are able to think is conditioned by what we are able to say. But this claim seems a bit presumptuous. It might be more accurate to say that the history of ideas is a history of compelling but poorly defined words, the sort of words that people sling around all the time, words that they assume they fully understand, that they serve up as incantations, even build their lives around, even fight to the death for, until they are called upon to give a more fine-grained account of what such words actually mean.

Then, under cross-examination, their responses become hesitant and defensive, or angrily dismissive, as hidden presuppositions wobble, sway, and then collapse. Plato’s Socrates was the all-time champion of this sport, exposing those with a penchant for using such words sloppily and unthinkingly as pompous fools venturing onto exceedingly thin ice. But as you may have noticed, the Great Gadfly himself rarely offered definitions of his own. Freedom, justice, dignity, equality, democracy, community, the market, the public, the people: Such grand notions form an essential part of our discourse, yet none of them are very well understood. We live our lives suspended in just such tenuous webs of signification.

There may be inescapable reasons for that. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that because people living in democratic societies are faced with constantly changing circumstances, they must learn to adopt “loose expressions” to grapple with them. Changes in language reflect changes in existential reality. Since democratic people never know whether today’s idea will be applicable to tomorrow, they naturally gravitate to the use of abstract terms, which have a unique utility. They are, Tocqueville said, “like a box with a false bottom; you may put in it what ideas you please, and take them out again without being observed.”

This describes the usage of even the most revered words in our political vocabulary, and none more than the people, the entity to which all democratic thought, and the US Constitution itself, bow as the ultimate source of legitimate political authority in the land. By extension, Tocqueville’s characterization of our democratic vocabulary also applies to the derivative word populism, a term now in near-constant use in America, particularly since the 2016 presidential election, in which two candidates—Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders—were consistently assigned that label. That two such dramatically different candidates, and other political practitioners as different as Elizabeth Warren Democrats and Freedom Caucus Republicans, would all be able to lay claim to the same political category tells us from the start that the category in question—populism—may be an elusive one. What meanings are being slipped in and out of that false-bottomed box?

True, all movements labeled as populist have important things in common. From the Populares of ancient Rome to the movements led by such modern figures as Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, Juan Perón, Huey P. Long, George Wallace, Jim Hightower, or Nigel Farage, among countless others, one consistently sees a forceful, often angry defense of “the people,” who are understood as the guileless, virtuous, and hard-working basis of society, and who are believed to have been exploited en masse by a devious and undeserving elite. Such movements always proclaim as their objective the dislodging of the regnant elite and the establishment (usually presented as an act of re-establishment) of equalizing changes to the social, political, and economic system.

But does this mood of resentment translate into anything like a coherent political philosophy? How can the same word be taken to describe both Sanders and Trump, both Occupy Wall Street, with its excoriation of “the 1 percent,” and the Tea Party movement, with its hostility to Big Government and the smug, credentialed DC elites that run it? Furthermore, is there a way to distinguish between “good populism” and “bad populism,” or left populism and right populism, or constructive populism and vengeful populism?

Scholars have not always been the most objective students of populism, partly because their own interests are at stake, scholarship and expertise being so often numbered among the chief targets of populist abuse. Accordingly, scholars find populism to be too prone to ignorance, anti-intellectualism, and demagogy, and too vulnerable to capture by racial and ethnic and tribal bigotries, to serve as an authentic engine of positive social change. The influential historian Richard Hofstadter, fortified by the highly questionable social science of Theodor Adorno and others, saw authoritarian personalities and anti-intellectual tendencies bristling nearly everywhere in the America west of the Hudson River, tendencies that were the expression, not of a genuinely aggrieved outlook that deserved a hearing, but of social resentment (“status anxiety”) or even psychological disorder (“the paranoid style”).

This was too dismissive, and Hofstadter’s good friend, the great Southern historian C. Vann Woodward, took him to task for it. In a private letter, he lambasted Hofstadter for the sweepingly dismissive generalizations in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, a work for which he would win a Pulitzer Prize and which is still widely cited as authoritative today: “Dick, you just can’t do this,” Woodward exclaimed. “No amount of Adorno, Stouffer, Hartley, etc., will sustain it.” Woodward himself took a far more balanced view of populism, seeing it, in his still-indispensable 1960 article “The Populist Heritage and the Intellectuals,” as one of the often ugly and unpleasant ways by which a democratic society may attempt to recalibrate itself, and rectify its imbalances. “One must expect and even hope that there will be future upheavals to shock the seats of power and privilege and furnish periodic therapy that seems necessary to the health of democracy,” he wrote, But, he added, there is always danger in such upheavals, for “one cannot expect them to be any more decorous or seemly or rational than their predecessors.”

Mark those words: “and even hope.” Woodward was of course well aware that one of the problems with populism is that it has often served as the false-bottomed box within which policies that favor not “the people,” but an insurgent counter-elite speaking in the people’s name, are concealed. We can and should apply that insight to all the varieties of populism—left, right, Trumpist, Warrenist, up, down, and tutti quanti—that proclaim themselves to us in the present day. We ought to be wary when listening to any person or group that claims to speak for “the people.”

But we ought to listen. Woodward’s tone, unlike Hofstadter’s, was wary but attentive, and not at all cynical. Remember, he hoped there would be more populistic rebellions in the future. And note well that his warning about democracy’s need for occasional “shock therapy” was offered in precisely the same spirit as Thomas Jefferson’s famous dictum that the well-being of a republic depends on periodic revolutions and rebellion. “What country can preserve its liberties,” Jefferson wrote from Paris in 1787, “if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?” These are words that resonate in unexpected ways, given the time and place of their utterance.

The current masters of the universe are not the Bourbon aristocrats of the ancien régime or the stout robber barons of Victorian America, but the business-casual hedge fund wizards and T-shirt-clad Silicon Valley wonder boys of the present, not to mention the bipartisan political class that feeds at the trough in an ever-prospering Washington. All think of themselves as invincibly enlightened, and come equipped with all the right words indicating their opposition to “privilege” and “entitlement.” If populism were a set of slogans, they would have it down pat. But in reality, they represent the near-complete separation of progressivism from populism, the very development Woodward warned against. They too may stand in need of a shock and a dethronement, for the good of us all.