What is Populism?

lasch millerI have been writing about populism in light of the recent Christianity Today editorial calling for the removal of Donald Trump.  You can read my posts here and here and here and here.

What is populism?  How should we think historically about this term?  I would encourage you to listen to Episode 41 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  In this episode we talk with Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin, the author of several books on populism.  Listen here.

I was also thinking about Eric Miller‘s biography of intellectual historian Christopher Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time:  A Life of Christopher LaschLasch was attracted to a particular version of populism.  Here is Miller:

The regnant American belief in “progress,” Lasch contended, far from being a misty vesitge of an older, mythical, millenarian worldview that saw history moving in an upward direction, was instead mainly the mental effect of so many decades of unending improvements in the “quality of life.”  True, these improvements  were only material in nature–which had once upon a time troubled the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  But the apologists for the new order had emerged quickly, having “mastered the tone and bluff of jocular dismissal, the unapologetically pristine defense of everyday comforts,” and such worries were allayed with impressive dispatch.  “No one could argue very long against abundance,” Lasch acidly noted.  Progress, “this tawdry dream of success,” was here to stay.  Lasch’s entirely unsparing depiction to the merest pleasures cast the reign of industrial capitalism not as the triumph of an ideal but as the effecting of a seduction, and the seduced were now sleeping to the steady rhythms of The Economy, shamelessly content, degradingly weak, confident in progress and lost in nostalgia, burning up the world to maintain their tenuous state of warmth.

Between these polar tendencies, “progressivism” and “conservatism,” lay the radical option.  Recognizing humans’ perennial need for the renewal of life, radicals did not give in to the life-denying forms of political and intellectual dependence–whether “traditional” or “progressive”–that characterized both right and left.  Rather, radicals sought through particular practices to cultivate an independence of mind and spirit that, structured within and by the community, could give a person the keenness to detect and strength to resist the political and economic powers that sought always to enthrone themselves as the necessary ends of human life.  In short, while conservatives defaulted wearily to “tradition” and liberals ran after “progress,” radicals pursued virtue–and so justice, Lasch pointed out, if at times only as a hope against hope.

In the nineteenth century this radical political sensibility came to be most fully embodies by populism, Lasch argued, but its antecedents included, along with the Puritans (and other Christian streams), the republicans of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and even some species of liberal thinkers, such as Thomas Paine, who saw in incipient industrial capitalism a threat to the communal world of craftsmen and farmers they thought more desirable.  In the nineteenth century these varying populist trajectories had in the crucible of the industrial economy melded oddly but powerfully to yield a “producer ethic” that was “anticapitalist but not socialist or social democratic, at once radical, even revolutionary, and deeply conservative”; it was preserved most fully in the lives of the petty- bourgeoisie–the lower middle class.  Poised between the “fatuous optimism” of the scientific progressives and the “debilitating nostalgia” of Burkean conservatives, the populist sensibility held firmly to a way of life that is understood to be the foundation of the nation’s promise–the old understanding of the American dream.  “A whole way of life was at stake in the struggle against industrialism,” Lasch concluded, following with special appreciation the argument of populist scholar Lawrence Goodwyn.  “Producerism; a defense of endangered crafts (including the craft of farming); opposition to the new class of public creditors and to the whole machinery of modern finance; opposition to wage labor”: all of these were the battlefronts of the great populist attempt to keep alive another America, another meaning of citizenship.  But at that moment of direct confrontation at the end of the nineteenth century they had lost, steamrolled by progress–by progressives.

The victors had been led by H.L. Mencken’s “civilized minority,” and they became the new ruling class.  Their sociologists lost themselves in fruitless attempts to understand “gemeinschaft” and “gesellschaft” dynamics, typologies that only quickened their sense of disconnection from the past.  Their historians (most eminently, Hofstadter) told self-congratulating tales of their own righteous ascent, stories that only increased their distant from the “uneducated” masses.  Blinded by their confidence in their own progressive march, they misunderstood the past and misread its inhabitants, veering sharply between sentimentality on the one hand and contempt on the other, remaining convinced all the while that, whatever its pitfalls, “modernity” made possibly an undeniably superior way of life….

Is Mark Galli an “Evangelical Elite?” Is He “Out of Touch?”

CT

Carl Trueman, a theologian who teaches at Grove City College in western Pennsylvania, thinks that Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today and the author of this editorial, is an “evangelical elite” who is “out of touch” with ordinary evangelicals.  Here is a taste of his piece at First Things:

Galli sees the situation as urgent: “If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?” Yet, to ask the obvious question, what is the alternative? Now, that question can be used as a lazy, rhetorical way of justifying a vote for Trump—or for any status quo, however wicked. But I intend it as a serious inquiry: When someone calls for Trump to be thrown out of office by impeachment or the ballot box, it is reasonable to ask what the available alternatives are. As Mother Theresa is unavailable for the White House, we are really looking at Biden, Warren, or Sanders. I can’t speak to the personal moral qualities of these people, but would voting for them or their policies give Christians any more credibility? Given the role of abortion and LGBTQ rights in their respective campaigns, this is surely something any Christian has to address.

Trueman’s piece seems to suggest that the reduction of abortions in the United States will happen by electing the right POTUS. The implication is that Christians should tolerate Trump because he will appoint anti-Roe v. Wade justices.  I am not convinced that overturning Roe v. Wade will reduce abortion in America any faster than what is already happening.  I made this case in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Trueman’s piece also suggests that LGBTQ people should not have rights. Is he implying that we should tolerate Trump because he will make sure they don’t get these rights? If so,  I disagree. This is why I, along with the CCCU and NAE,  support Fairness for All.

Trueman continues:

Indeed, he [Galli] goes so far as to say that he believes the removal of Trump “is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.” That is an astounding claim for the editor of Christianity Today to make, for it involves him accusing every Trump voter of heinous sin, however reluctant or conflicted he may be.

As noted above, Galli is not playing some sanctimonious Pharisee, standing in the Temple of Twitter, thanking God that he is not like other evangelicals—white supremacists, misogynists, or even this Trump supporter over here. But his editorial is symptomatic of the same underlying pathology. Evangelical elites are clearly as out of touch with the populist evangelical base as is the case in society in general. And lambasting populist evangelicals as hypocrites or dimwits will simply perpetuate the divide.

I don’t think Galli is calling anyone a hypocrite or a dimwit.  Nor is he accusing evangelicals of committing a “heinous sin” for supporting this president.  But I have witnessed a lot since Galli’s editorial appeared last night.  Today I saw Trump evangelicals on social media react positively, sometimes with great vigor, to Donald Trump’s Twitter attacks on CT.  I read CT editor Ted Olsen’s call for prayer in the wake of the hate mail and threats the magazine has received from pro-Trumpers.  I listened to Franklin Graham, a man with millions of followers in the evangelical community, claim that Galli’s piece does not contain even a kernel of truth.

All of this makes me wonder if it is Trueman who is out of touch. Earlier in his piece, Trueman says, “I live in the heart of Trump territory and know many who voted for the Donald, almost none of whom took any pleasure in doing so.” Yes, the folks he describes exist.  I have met many of them.  The 81% is a diverse group–men and women who pulled the Trump lever for a variety of reasons.  But Trueman fails to recognize, or at least underestimates, the millions of Trump evangelicals who go to MAGA rallies, think that the president is God’s anointed one, and believe that Trump’s policy on Israel will somehow hasten the return of Jesus.

Let’s not pretend that anti-intellectualism is not at work in the evangelical support for Donald Trump.  I have wrestled with the “evangelical elitism” critique for a long time.  As the product of a working-class family who pursued a Ph.D in American history and became part of the ivory tower, I bristle when people call me “elite.” All of my extended family are Trump supporters.  Like Trueman, I also live in the heart of Trump country.  I am forced to engage with pro-Trump neighbors in my largely lower-middle-class neighborhood and in my church.  As I wrote here yesterday, I have worked hard at being a translator.  I fail often.

But somewhere along the way we need to say, like Mark Galli did, that those who defend this president need to engage in a deeper level of Christian thinking. We need to acknowledge that there is a “scandal of the evangelical mind“and it helps explain why so many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.  To quote Galli, we need to “call a spade a spade.”  And most importantly, we need to bring attention to the fact that the evangelical support of Donald Trump is hurting the witness of the Gospel.  After spending a year traveling with Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I have collected enough stories to believe that this is true.

If “evangelical elitist” means that I want to think deeply as a Christian about public life and challenge others–perhaps those of another social class–to do the same, then I gladly accept the label. I am, after all, an educator.  Smart evangelicals challenged me to worship God with my mind when I was a young, working-class, new convert to evangelicalism.  I listened to them and it changed my life.  It made me a better Christian.  When we challenge our fellow evangelicals in this way we must always do so with empathy, compassion, and love, but there are other times when such challenges must come in a Mark Galli-like prophetic voice.

Read the Trueman’s entire piece here.

Who are the Most Intolerant Americans?

Educated elites

The most intolerant Americans are white, highly educated, older, urban Americans.  They are the most “isolated from political diversity.”  Here is a taste from a recent study commissioned by The Atlantic:

In general, the most politically intolerant Americans, according to the analysis, tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves. This finding aligns in some ways with previous research by the University of Pennsylvania professor Diana Mutz, who has found that white, highly educated people are relatively isolated from political diversity. They don’t routinely talk with people who disagree with them; this isolation makes it easier for them to caricature their ideological opponents. (In fact, people who went to graduate school have the least amount of political disagreement in their lives, as Mutz describes in her book Hearing the Other Side.) By contrast, many nonwhite Americans routinely encounter political disagreement. They have more diverse social networks, politically speaking, and therefore tend to have more complicated views of the other side, whatever side that may be.

Read the entire article here.

A Form of Populism I Can Believe In

Springsteen Obama

Damon Linker nails it in his regular column at The Week.

Here is a taste:

The global elite think they’re sitting pretty. How wrong they are.

Democrats keep telling themselves that Hillary Clinton “really” won the 2016 election (or would have, had it not been for interference by Vladimir Putin and James Comey). Republicans keep patting themselves on the back about how much power they now wield at all levels of government. And centrists throughout the West are breathing a sigh of relief about Emmanuel Macron’s likely victory over the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in the second round of the French presidential election on May 7.

You can almost hear the sentiments echoing down the corridors of (political and economic) power on both sides of the Atlantic: “There’s nothing to worry about. Everything’s fine. No need for serious soul searching or changes of direction. Sure, populism’s a nuisance. But we’re keeping it at bay. We just need to stay the course, fiddle around the edges a little bit, and certainly not give an inch to the racists and xenophobes who keep making trouble. We know how the world works, and we can handle the necessary fine tuning of the meritocracy. We got this.”

And why wouldn’t they think this way? They are themselves the greatest beneficiaries of the global meritocracy — and that very fact serves to validate its worth. They live in or near urban centers that are booming with jobs in tech, finance, media, and other fields that draw on the expertise they acquired in their educations at the greatest universities in the world. They work hard and are rewarded with high salaries, frequent travel, nice cars, and cutting-edge gadgets. It’s fun, anxious, thrilling — an intoxicating mix of brutal asceticism and ecstatic hedonism.

The problem is that growing numbers of people — here in America, in the U.K., in France, and beyond — don’t see it like this at all. Or rather, they only see it from the outside, a position from which it looks very different. What they see is a system that is fundamentally unjust, rigged, and shot through with corruption and self-dealing.

They see Marissa Meyer, the CEO of Yahoo, taking home a cool $186 million in stock (on top of many millions in additional salary and bonuses) for five years of “largely unsuccessful” work.

They see Henrique De Castro, who worked briefly for Meyer at Yahoo, pulling $109 million in compensation for a disastrous 15 months on the job.

They see Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly getting fired from Fox News for sexually harassing a parade of women over the years — and taking home tens of millions of dollars each in severance.

They see former Democratic President Barack Obama sharing a $65 million book advance with his wife, earning $400,000 for a single speech scheduled to be delivered in the fall at investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald, and gallivanting around the globe with David Geffen, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, and Bono.

In Washington, they see a president who promised to act as the people’s voice appointing a long list of millionaires and billionaires to top positions. They see the White House and Congress struggling to pass a health-care bill that will leave millions more without insurance coverage at a time when a majority of Americans and a plurality of Republicans favor a single-payer system that would cover all. They see a president proposing to drastically cut corporate and individual taxes (including the elimination of inheritance taxes, which will benefit only the richest of the rich) when polls show that the top frustration with the tax system is that corporations and the wealthy don’t pay their fair share. They see a unified push to cut government programs at a moment when polls show a growing share of the public prefers bigger government.

And yes, I am willing to criticize Springsteen and Obama here.

At the same time, the populist critique of the global elite must be an educated critique. Such a critique is no excuse for ignorance or a fundamental misunderstanding of the kinds of questions raised by the humanities about how to live together in a democratic society.  Give Archie Bunker a book–preferably a history book! 🙂

Allen: “Elites Are Starting to Look Around”

Trump voters

The election of Donald Trump is forcing some educated elites to take a look around in an attempt to understand their fellow Americans who voted for the new POTUS.

Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen, one of those elites, thinks this is healthy for our democracy.

Here is a taste of her Washington Post op-ed, “Trump’s Presidency is Teaching Elites Like Me a Lesson.”

This brings me to the issue of we, the elites. One of the key questions for any effort to rebuild our capacity to collaborate is whether members of the professional elite can recover a commitment to the people as a whole, and not merely to those who live near them — near us, I should say — in urban enclaves.

The good news is that those of us who win coveted seats at the top colleges and universities, and jobs that earn the wage premiums of our knowledge-dependent economy, have started to try to see how we look from the perspective of those we often fail to see. There’s Nicholas Kristof journeying to Oklahoma and the huge popularity of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy.” The research work of Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case about increases in mortality rates in the white working class has by now fueled many investigative reports about rural America.

Of course, the working class impacted by our economic travails also includes many black and brown people. We shouldn’t forget this in our hurry to see people we’ve been overlooking. Similarly, we shouldn’t downgrade the issue of mass incarceration. For that matter, too much of rural America is dependent on jobs in prisons in out-of-the-way places. That, too, is something we should notice.

But at least we elites are starting to look around.

Read the entire piece here.