Populism has a nice ring; ‘will of the people’ and all that good stuff. So, why doesn’t it ever work? Not even in backward nations? Populism is disastrous in a nation as complex as the United States in times as complicated as these. There’s a reason that it never turns out well. Populism feeds off people’s need to believe, their resistance to thinking and learning, and, is invariably nurtured by ignorance. Knowing this, some politicians, when seeking votes, pander to the voter’s ignorance. When this pandering amount to the bulk of their campaign, a politician becomes known as a populists.
When the founders pondered on all this, their solution was a representative form of government; one where the people chose representatives to deal with the complexities beyond the ken of the common man. Back then, most Americans were functionally illiterate. The founding fathers’ chosen means of addressing this issue was brilliant. All things being relative, in today’s highly complex world; the ken of the common man ’tis relatively about the same as it was back then.
Still, every few years, here, and around the world, populism raises up, runs amok with disastrous consequences for a while; then fades away. Not always. Too often, it destroys the country.
It seems that societies are most vulnerable to embracing populism when the people are stressed. Stressed by such as social upheaval, an unstable economy, …. In such times, people can cast about for something, someone to believe in. Huey Long, Jim Jones, Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Donald Trump, all offered the populace, something to believe in during changing, unsettling, times. They offered simple answers.
Ours are indeed changing, unsettling times, …, challenging times. Here and around the world, we see people displaced or abandoned by climate change, economic change, and, to an extent as a consequence of one or both these, demographic change. We see the consequences of overpopulation; of our history. For many, it is all too challenging. Unable to understand, some cast about for simple answers. Again, some politicians are all too willing and ready to offer up simple answers. The problem is, there are no simple answers.
In all probability, it will take years to sort out all that is going on in America, in the world, just now. There’s great probability and a more than good possibility that it is more than one thing; that many of these problems are caused by a combination of things. Some push back is to be expected as we become a more multicultural Nation. The legacy of the south extends beyond racism — religion and the associated resistance to change play a big role in the region’s politics. After all these years, mendacity, epitomized by the likes of Mo Brooks, AL, still abounds throughout the region. Now, and for more than 35 years, the nation has been jerked around by southern republicans, nee, southern democrats, and the right wing media. These are two things we must stand up to as a Nation.
Several Constitutional flaws have stood out during these times. The Electoral College, the inadequacy of Article I, Section 5 in re the structure of the two houses of Congress, the absence of means and procedure for vetting presidential candidates for fitness for the office, inequality of representation inherent the Senate, allowance for gerrymandering, …, come to mind.
Can never be done? How long is never? One-thousand years? One-hundred years? Ten years? Somethings have to be done; else the Nation falls. There really isn’t a choice. As in philosophy, if it doesn’t extend, it isn’t valid. These flaws do not extend.
Democracy is complicated. To understand how democracy works one needs to think on and be able to understand all its complexities; to do so, one needs to study on and be taught about it. Democracy is not simple; it is not a simple answer to anything. That is why democracy is often under threat in time of stress, and the subsequent outbreaks of populism. But, to coin a phrase, it is far better than any known alternative; especially populism.
Not everyone needs to understand democracy for it to work, but a majority does need to believe in democracy for it to work. The Jan 6, 2021, Insurrection was not about democracy. It was an abandonment of, a direct challenge to, democracy by the ‘my way or the highway’ crowd. Opportunistically done in the name of populism. The whole idea behind our Constitution, our democracy, was to provide a peaceful means for change; an alternative to rebellion and insurrection.
“…When the founders pondered on all this, their solution was a representative form of government; one where the people chose representatives to deal with the complexities beyond the ken of the common man. Back then, most Americans were functionally illiterate. The founding fathers’ chosen means of addressing this issue was brilliant…”
“…The literacy rates during the colonial period and the early history of the United States indicate that literacy was steadily growing during that time period to rather high levels. Between 1650 and 1795, for example, male literacy rates are estimated to have risen from 60 to 90 percent. By 1840, literacy was estimated to be between 91 and 97 percent…”
“…I realize none of this is necessarily conclusive but it is generally accepted that literacy rates in the United States were quite high before compulsory schooling was mandated starting in the 1840’s.”
[Several sources are provided at the link of which I took an excerpt from just one and then the researcher’s admission. Several researchers have also found evidence of higher functional literacy rates in early America than we have now if slaves are excluded from early American literacy rates. In most colonies and states back then it was illegal to teach slaves to read. Several researchers mention Common Sense by T Paine which was so widely read as to bring into question the functional illiteracy claim. OTOH, the Founders had a higher stake in establishing a representative republic that represented regional and economic interest over the will of the people precisely because the citizens of early America were so literate and so engaged with discussion among themselves of ideas such as those found in Common Sense.]
Despite that John Taylor Gatto has been mostly embraced by libertarians, conservatives, and home schoolers there is every indication that his historical research is solid despite that his recommended solution set is notably threadbare.
You are speaking of RIGHT-wing populism.
Left populism (1890’s, New Deal, Bernie Sanders) has some of the same characteristics, but is quite a different thing.
Recently discussed by Thomas Frank ….
Repression of left-populism by our rulers ensures that frustrated masses turn to right-populism as their only way to express their frustration with systemic issues.
Ranks right up there with “economic anxiety” driving trump’s win. Populism had absolutely nothing to do with trump’s win. Racism was the main reason. And racism has been the reason for the Gop’s success since the Civil Rights Act. Trump just took the GOP’s racism from Dog Whistles to front page headlines.
Excellent essay, again. Do read, however, wonderful Nell Painter on populism on Google.
Reading Nell Painter or WEB Du Bois we find that after the Civil War, during Reconstruction Blacks formed a successful populist party that lasted till the 1890s when it was crushed.
I had some issues trying to comment since you folks redid the website, and hope this now lets me do so. As to the topic at hand, I think EMichael nails it–ultimately it all comes down to racism or more generally the moronic tribalism described in Dr. Seuss’ story about the Sneetches. Historically, populist movements in this country have always had a strong racist, anti immigrant element and I do not think literacy has much to do with people’s susceptibility to populism. (I recall someone circulating the 8th grade graduation test from Iowa around 1900. Despite having some 19 years of formal education beginning in the late 1950’s, I doubt whether I could have passed it.) I do think that people who want to believe something are particularly prone to populism as well as the conspiracy theories and lies that go with it. If I wanted to be really snarky, I could suggest that is why Evangelicals have continued to support Trump despite his lack of any principles, morality or decency usually associated with Christianity.
Pierce is correct that you can hear in Wallace’s words the GOP of today. Only logical since Wallace is the person that showed the GOP how to win elections.
“Given the participants in the events of January 6, I thought it noteworthy that today is the 57th anniversary of a pivotal oration in American history. On January 14, 1963, George Corley Wallace was sworn in as the governor of Alabama, and he led off his inaugural address with the following passage:
‘Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history. Let us rise to the call of freedom- loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say . . . segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever.’
Read the whole speech and tell me there aren’t parts of it that you could seeLouie Gohmert or Matt Gaetz delivering in Congress. Tell me it doesn’t echo in that seditious rally last week that touched off the whole thing. Tell me you would have been surprised to hear some of this from any podium groaning under the president*’s weight over the past six years.
‘The federal troops in Mississippi could be better used guarding the safety of the citizens of Washington, D.C., where it is even unsafe to walk or go to a ballgame–and that is the nation’s capitol. I was safer in a B-29 bomber over Japan during the war in an air raid, than the people of Washington are walking to the White House neighborhood. ‘
Find me a prominent Republican anywhere who hasn’t at least toyed with these sentiments.
‘…the international racism of the liberals seek to persecute the international white minority to the whim of the international colored majority . . . so that we are footballed about according to the favor of the Afro-Asian bloc. But the Belgian survivors of the Congo cannot present their case to a war crimes commission . . . nor the Portuguese of Angola . . . nor the survivors of Castro . . . nor the citizens of Oxford, Mississippi.’
I am aware that, late in life, Wallace expressed regret for these words, and for the politics that lay behind them, and for the poisonous effect they had on politics going forward. But, as far as I’m concerned, that was between him and his conscience and whatever he perceived to be his god, and they were welcome to it. His regret is not what lived on after him. We saw the immortal monster on January 6 of this year. It hasn’t changed. It doesn’t even bother with camouflage any more.”
Ken, you have lit my fire again. Thank you for listing Article I, Section 5 among the Constitutional flaws. When I look at complex issues and problems like the future of our democracy, I try to find the most critical flaw — the linchpin. For me it is Article I, Section 5 which simply says: “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings.”
Congress has proven time and again that it is not capable of determining its own ”Rules of Proceedings” for the good of the country. Instead the rules are twisted and designed to benefit the party in power, preserve the party structure and discourage alternatives.
In a most egregious recent example; how much more proof do we need that Congress is not capable of developing its own rules when one known traitorous Senator (Sen. Hawley) can block appointments critical to our national security.
Rules and procedures designed by the House and Senate and revised or twisted at will do not result in rational decision making; and they never will. Until this flaw is remedied most other issues will never be addressed in any sustainable manner.
This is currently obvious by our new governance methodology by Executive Order and Continuing Resolution because we are not capable of enacting legislation to address the issues of our time. This leads to autocracy NOT democracy. In the name of democracy we must correct the flaw of Art. I, Sec. 5.
I have called for an independent, National Commission On Congressional Rules, whose purpose shall be to review, revise, amend and establish baseline rules of proceedings for the U.S. House and Senate to fulfill the requirements of Article I, Section 5. The Commission shall establish rules of proceedings designed to establish rational, unbiased decision making and to encourage true bipartisanship in fulfilling the Congressional responsibilities in developing legislation, conducting Executive branch oversight and exercising its review and approval functions. https://tinyurl.com/y2k42yoj
Thanks, J.P. I forgot the state’s rights issue. I think it’s delusional to think that since we seemed to have somehow escaped disaster again, all is well with the constitution. It isn’t that we can’t fix; it is that we must fix the problems before that time comes when the nation doesn’t escape.