Populism, Neoconservatism & Lessons in the Application of Power

I’m a simple man who likes simple things like truth.

Here is one truth as I see it — populism is usually popular but rarely gets anything done, while neoconservatism is unpopular but gets much accomplished (such as the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq). Why?

I put “populism” into Youtube and one of the suggested videos is on power. Author Eric Liu says: “Power is the ability to have others do what you would have them do. This plays out in all arenas from family to the workplace to our relationships.”

Populism is bad at this while neoconservatism is excellent. Why? You’d think that if you have the people on your side, you’ll be good at getting others to conform. But life doesn’t work out like this most of the time. Why? Because numbers are only one component of power and democracy is not how the world works (most of the time).

Liu says the primary sources of political power are physical force, money, state action, social norms, ideas, and numbers. Populism has numbers but neoconservatism punches about its weight in the other elements of power. The neocons, for example, have instigated the use of American armed force overseas, they are amply funded, they know to press the levers of state action, and they enjoy disproportionate influence in the world of ideas. Their supporters are few but their powers have, at times, been vast.

One formidable neocon thinktank is the Institute for the Study of War. Notes Wikipedia:

ISW was founded in response to the stagnation of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, with core funding provided by a group of defense contractors…

ISW criticized both the Obama and Trump administration policies on the Syrian conflict, advocating a more hawkish approach. In 2013, Kagan called for arms and equipment to be supplied to “moderate” rebels, with the hope that a state “friendly to the United States [would emerge] in the wake of Assad.”[9] In 2017, ISW analyst Christopher Kozak praised president Donald Trump for the Shayrat missile strike but advocated further attacks, stating that “deterrence is a persistent condition, not a one hour strike package.”[10] In 2018, ISW analyst Jennifer Cafarella published an article calling for the use of offensive military force against the Assad government…

Which think tanks favor a foreign policy tailored to America’s interests? I can’t think of any. Which pundits favor the same thing? I can only think of Tucker Carlson.

Professors Stephen Walt and John J. Mearsheimer wrote in a 2006 paper “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy”:

Pressure from Israel and the Lobby was not the only factor behind the U.S. decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was a critical element. Some Americans believe that this was a “war for oil,” but there is hardly any direct evidence to support this claim. Instead, the war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure. According to Philip Zelikow, a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (2001‐2003), executive director of the 9/11 Commission, and now Counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the “real threat” from Iraq was not a threat to the United States.139 The “unstated threat” was the “threat against Israel,” Zelikow told a University of Virginia audience in September 2002, noting further that “the American government doesn’t want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it is not a popular sell.”

…A May 2003 poll reported that over 60 percent of Americans were willing to withhold aid to Israel if it resisted U.S. pressure to settle the conflict, and that number rose to 70 percent among “politically active” Americans.115 Indeed, 73 percent said that United States should not favor either side…

…Within the United States, the main driving force behind the Iraq war was a small band of neoconservatives, many with close ties to Israel’s Likud Party.150 In addition, key leaders of the Lobby’s major organizations lent their voices to the campaign for war.151 According to the Forward, “As President Bush attempted to sell the . . . war in Iraq, America’s most important Jewish organizations rallied as one to his defense. In statement after statement community leaders stressed the need to rid the world of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction.”152 The editorial goes on to say that “concern for Israel’s safety rightfully factored into the deliberations of the main Jewish groups.”

Although neoconservatives and other Lobby leaders were eager to invade Iraq, the broader American Jewish community was not.153 In fact, Samuel Freedman reported just after the war started that “a compilation of nationwide opinion polls by the Pew Research Center shows that Jews are less supportive of the Iraq war than the population at large, 52% to 62%.”154 Thus, it would be wrong to blame the war in Iraq on “Jewish influence.” Rather, the war was due in large part to the Lobby’s influence, especially the neoconservatives within it.

Since the Hamas attacks on southern Israel October 7, I’ve often left Fox News on in the background while I’m doing other things, and I don’t recall seeing any experts on the network advocating reduced American intervention overseas, even though that’s the one foreign policy that enjoys popular support. Instead, Fox News seems to do everything it can to promote war with Iran, Russia and China. The main expert Fox relies upon since October 7 is retired General Jack Keane who always pushes a hawkish line.

Insiders, experts, institutions, and billionaires are rarely populist, and without their support, it’s hard to get things done.

MAGA, the Tea Party and the Arab Spring were populist uprisings that had few accomplishments because they had few elites on their side.

Elites can’t rule against a united people. Elites need to cut deals with parts of a nation to rule and so elites tend to prefer multi-culturalism to national unity. The Democratic party in the United States, for examples, operates by cutting deals with the top and bottom of society against the white Christian middle.

Stephen Turner noted in his 2021 essay, “Ideology of Anti-populism & the Administrative State”:

* The people, the state, and expertise form an unstable triad, and relating the three in a coherent way, either institutionally or theoretically, is ultimately not possible. Finding a way of dealing with these relations nevertheless is a problem that needs to be solved and re-solved…

* Harvey Mansfield defined populism, by which he meant populism as a political idea, as the belief in the virtue of the people. ‘A populist let us say is a democrat who is satisfied with his own and with the people’s virtue’ (Mansfield, 1996, p. 7). Populism is thus based on a myth as well. But it is a myth whose role is primarily negative: it does not constitute an order, but rejects one in the name of the people. Actual rule requires more. But to deny the myth of the superior wisdom of the people is to threaten the democratic idea itself. And this poses a special problem for ostensibly ‘democratic’ regimes. The need for rulers requires its own ‘democratic’ myths, such as the theory of representation. But the myth of the people constrains these myths.

Mansfield follows his line on the populist with another: ‘This distinguishes him from a reformer who is satisfied with his own virtue but not with other people’s. Giving over government to the people is not the same as lecturing them’ (Mansfield, 1996, p. 7). Progressivism took this tack. The progressives of the early twentieth century wanted the support and enthusiasm of ‘the people’, and envied populism for this. But they wanted to lead the people themselves.

* Progressivism was to be the alliance of experts and an aroused ‘people’ (Turner, 1996). And this followed an emerging practice of social movements based on expertise, notably the prohibition movement, which employed the techniques presently associated with climate science under the heading alcohol science (Okrent, 2010; Turner, 2001, 2014), through this and other movements, became the third leg in the modem triad. And anti-populism came to take the form of a set of assertions about expertise and governance.

* The place to begin, with populism, is with the pure democratic idea itself. Classically, it means rule by the people, the demos. But we are accustomed to adding disclaimers and qualifications, or specifications, to this idea: that expressions of the will of the people must take the form of laws and procedures, such as election laws and laws governing representation; or from a liberal perspective, that genuine democratic will-formation requires free individuals with freedom of speech and various individual rights; or from the Left, that substantive equality rather than mere formal equality is required for meaningful democratic participation.

* Populism is intrinsically a denial of the special superiority of rulers and elites. …one can think of government as a scheme of reconciling the two: of adjusting the relation between the wishes of the ruled and the superior power of the ruler necessary to achieve political goods. …desirable governmental actions require expertise that the public lacks.

* The anti-populist, who is, unlike the populist, not satisfied with the people’s virtue, faces a fundamental problem: to deny populism is to deny democracy, or a founding element of the democratic idea, that the people should be, and are the best, governors of themselves. Thus anti-populism, if it pretends to be democratic, cannot overtly deny the myth of the people. But the need for rulers and for the justification of their rule creates an opportunity to redefine the democratic idea, to create an appropriate counter-myth that enables the people to have a place, but not to rule.

* Populism, by asserting the superior wisdom of the people, rejects the identification of power and expertise. But in doing so it calls into question the notion of democracy itself. If governments are legitimated by experts, what, exactly, is the point of democratic accountability? What role do ‘the people’ have other than to obey, or perhaps to occasionally ratify the system of governance as a whole?

* Populist movements happen when political parties, traditional leaders, elites, and politics as usual fail to deliver the expected goods, or fail to accord with the popular sense of reality, or are perceived as untrustworthy and corrupt.

* Populist tendencies are prone to co-optation, and typically do not outlast the situations that produced them, though they do represent a reserve of general sentiment against elites and particular ruling groups that can be activated in new situations. They differ from ideologies and ideological parties in that they are situational rather than analytic, in the sense that they have concrete targets and grievances rather than a developed analysis of political life that is extended to new situations and refined and elaborated. This accounts for many of the distinctive features of populist movements, especially the preference for leaders who promise to act decisively, in contrast to normal ‘politicians’, and their hostility to ‘politics as usual’.

Populisms are situation-driven rather than analysis-driven, or to put it differently, driven by specific crises or grievances, rather than by a permanent ideological viewpoint… Populism typically arises in situations in which there are larger failures, failures which extend beyond normal political processes, and therefore beyond mere legislation within existing political practices.

* The antinomy of populism is elite rule. Elites rule through particular strategies, and fail through typical issues. Elite solidarity is essential to elite rule; division among the elite is a typical cause of elite failure (Shipman, Edmunds & Turner, 2018). Elites rule through alliances between the elite and a significant non-elite group. The most stable of these alliances have been with the middle classes, normally under an ideology of meritocracy, property rights, and support of business, an alliance which is played off against the demands of the excluded group, the poor. But an upstairs-downstairs alliance is always possible, and the upper hand the elite has in dealing with the non-elite segments of society depends on its ability to choose alternative groups to ally with. Thus pluralism favours the elite, because it provides more opportunities to change alliances. Populism, in contrast, must produce enough unity in the population to effectively counter the elite, and must therefore transcend differences between segments of society in the name of the people. Both Left and Right populisms are anti-pluralist, as a simple consequence of the dynamics of elite alliance-making: neither kind of populism could succeed if the elite used its alliance-making power to divide the movement. To the extent that elite rule depends on manipulating and shifting alliances with non-elite groups, as is the norm (Shipman, Edmunds & Turner, 2018), an attack on pluralism is a threat to elite rule as a political system itself.

* Weber famously praised [William E.] Gladstone for his ability to break out of the constraints of party and speak directly to the people, and promoted a constitutional design that was intended to maximize the possibility of this kind of leadership. He thought of this as the only means to control the bureaucracy, which parties would not do. Just as Weber viewed the fundamental form of democratic rule as plebiscitarian, and wished to amplify plebiscitary possibilities and forms, the American populists endorsed ‘the legislative system known as the initiative and referendum’ (National People’s Party Platform, [1892] 1966, p. 95).

The point of anti-populism was to prevent the use of these means, and restrict accountability even more – to the point that it was anti-democratic in the name
of democracy.

During the 2016 Brexit debate, virtually all of Britain’s elites opposed Brexit, and yet the people passed the referendum and it became law.

Populism has no thinktanks. There are few career prospects for a populist intellectual, while dozens of scholars have jobs churning out articles and books promoting American intervention overseas.

I was thinking about these lofty issues while watching a wildly entertaining (but frequently fact-free) conversation between lefty comic Jimmy Dore and former TV host Tucker Carlson.

I heard so many glowing things about democracy in my youth that I took it for granted that it was the best way of running things. Then I grew up and experienced a world that extolled democracy while operating by dictatorship (women in charge particularly liked to talk about collaboration while acting in cliques that often ostracised me for failure to fall in line with their sacred programs – I think my ornery skeptical challenges wearied them). I can’t find many examples of important things in the world that operate on democratic principles aside from periodic political elections and 12-step programs.

I don’t know what world you live in, but in my world, I rarely hear about the problems that come with too much democracy. The media I consume promotes democracy as a transcendent good. Is that true? Is more and more democracy always for the best? If so, why does almost everything require hierarchy to function?

The world runs on dictatorial lines but our rhetoric is awash in democracy promotion. Perhaps we wouldn’t need to protest so much about the wonders of democracy if it really was this unalloyed good? I sense a giant mismatch between the reality I experience and what I’m told to believe about reality.

I don’t see much that is precious in the world that is not tightly guarded. The more precious the thing, the more guards. Free unregulated access to good things destroys them. Civilization requires walls.

Harvard Business School notes:

The tragedy of the commons refers to a situation in which individuals with access to a public resource (also called a common) act in their own interest and, in doing so, ultimately deplete the resource…

This theory explains individuals’ tendency to make decisions based on their personal needs, regardless of the negative impact it may have on others. In some cases, an individual’s belief that others won’t act in the best interest of the group can lead them to justify selfish behavior. Potential overuse of a common-pool resource—hybrid between a public and private good— can also influence individuals to act with their short-term interest in mind, resulting in the use of an unsustainable product and disregard the harm it could cause to the environment or general public.

To prevent the tragedy of the commons, you need hierarchy backed by force.

Dec. 9, 2023, Steve Sailer wrote:

The unpleasant reality is that, at the most fundamental level, most political opinion is a call for the use of, or threat to use, force. In essence, government relies on armed men enforcing the will of the government. So, First Amendment-protected expressions of political opinion tend to be, to some extent, calls for potential violence against somebody.

Calls for less Israeli retributive violence against Gazans, for example, can be interpreted, somewhat tendentiously but also somewhat accurately as being calls for more impunity for Hamas violence. Similarly, denunciations of Hamas’ October 7th massacre can be seen, with some degree of honesty, as potentially setting the stage for mass bombings of Gaza and the ethnic cleansing, if not outright genocide, of Gazans.

PBS Frontline did a powerful documentary, “After Uvalde: Guns, Grief & Texas Politics.” Police didn’t storm the unlocked classroom housing the killer for 77 minutes. A major reason for the slipshod response was that there was no hierarchy. There was no command post. There was no commander. Every man did what was right in his own eyes, and that usually meant staying out of harm’s way while children and teachers bled out.

Common sense suggests to me that most things in civilization such as religion, education, work, charity, law enforcement and the military require hierarchy to operate efficiently. I can’t imagine, for example, a democratic army or a democratic corporation running effectively.

It seems to me that life without hierarchy is a life of continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. According to the Mishnaic Tractate Ethics of the Fathers, “Rebbe Chanina, the assistant High Priest, says: Pray for the welfare of the government. For without fear of it, people would swallow each other alive.”

Without hierarchy, men swallow each other alive.

The most intense pleasure I have experienced has been in the course of intimate closed relations with beautiful young women. I am too modest to get into details, but suffice to say that these were not democratic experiences open to anyone. They were exclusive and hierarchical — I was hers and she was mine and we did things together that we didn’t do with other people. It usually went without saying that if either of us became more democratic in our approach to love, that meant the end of us.

My experience of formal education was not democratic. It was hierarchical. You had to go along to get along and what you thought was important didn’t usually matter much to those in charge. I loved Social Studies, but when my sixth grade class was required to build something, it didn’t matter to my teacher how many books I was eager to read and report on in this field. Because I wouldn’t build anything, I got a bad grade. Though better read than all of my classmates, I often got C grades in English through college because I wouldn’t parrot the lines and approaches expected of me.

Many of my teachers found me their most challenging student. My independent skeptical and rebellious approach was rarely conducive to my getting good grades and recommendations while students who colored within the lines had things easier.

I began working for people at age 11 and quickly discovered that work was slavery — you had to do what you were told on the job just like a slave and in your off-hours, you couldn’t say or do things that would get back to your employer and discomfort him. My fellow employees who pretended enthusiasm for their work and flattered their bosses tended both to get ahead and to get away. “I don’t pay you to think,” was one of the most frequent lines I heard from my bosses.

My father Desmond Ford was a Seventh-Day Adventist theologian who was scrupulous about the way he presented himself. He would walk around carrying holy books and he’d delve in and out of them while eating up the miles and maintaining a beatific countenance. He kept far away from any setting likely to be considered sinful, such as movie theaters. His whole life was dominated by his ministry. There was no public setting in which he didn’t feel a profound responsibility to be a holy man. He had no time off from being a representative of Jesus Christ.

As a church employee until 1980, he had to toe the line. In 1980 at the Glacier View Conference that decided his Adventist fate, General Conference President Neal Wilson stated that of course Adventist employees did not enjoy First-Amendment protected freedom of speech, and my father was consequently removed from the ministry.

Everybody has a boss. When the Church wasn’t my dad’s boss, the donors to my dad’s evangelical Christian ministry Good News Unlimited became his new boss, and he refrained from saying things in public that he knew to be true such as that Genesis 1 and 2 had different authors because he didn’t want to discomfort his donors. Many of his most fervent supporters were obsessed about the end of the world and he had to produce a product and a personality attentive to these needs.

The 2006 edition of the book, Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream, noted:

But important as Ford’s rebellion was, it did not have the lasting effect that Adventist leaders feared and that his followers hoped. The decisive way church leadership dealt with the crisis was a factor in this.. The sequence of events that leads from Questions on Doctrine to the dismissal of Desmond Ford is a remarkable example of the way in which a web of theological ideas can unravel once a single thread has been cut… Ford’s agitation itself was widely believed to be a portent of Christ’s soon coming…The church’s views on salvation and the Sanctuary remained in tact. Like all previous Adventist dissidents, Brinsmead and Ford disappeared from view, once separated from the church, and the denomination went on much as before… The outrage expressed by church scholars following Glacier View perhaps had less to do with the conviction that Ford was treated unfairly than with the realization that they had been outmaneuvered by the administration that had used them to discredit the Australian theologian.

Nevertheless, the removal of Ford marked the end of an era. The flame of open inquiry that had burned brightly with the founding of the AAF [Association of Adventist Forums] in 1968 was quenched by the events of 1980. Glacier View defined the limits of academic freedom in the modern church and left Adventist scholars defeated on the sidelines.

As I moved through my teens, I realized I was naturally pleasure-seeking, lazy and selfish, and if people in authority didn’t hold me accountable, I was not usually a shining light of God’s love and excellence. Reluctantly, I concluded that a non-hierarchical approach to tough things like work and learning and relationships would not bring out the best in me. If a boss, teacher or girlfriend allowed me my own inclinations, I behaved like a pig (doing as little unpleasant work as possible and taking other people into consideration rarely), but if I were called out for my bad behavior and threated with expulsion, I usually shaped up.

“This is not working out” is a phrase I’ve heard from teachers, bosses and girlfriends from seventh grade on, to which I would typically reply, “I can change, please give me another chance.” Sometimes they would and sometimes they wouldn’t.

After I twice told my shocked seventh-grade teacher to shut up, she said to me I would be happier getting home-schooled. That prospect filled me with horror and I dramatically improved my behavior toward her. Fear has been my great motivator.

In January 1994, I wrote about a painfully common experience of my life:

After saying goodnight to my rebbe, I turned to Paula and her Jewish friend Melanie who also attends Ohev Shalom synagogue.

“She wants to tell you that you’re obnoxious and rude,” Paula warned me. Melanie blushed and turned away.

“Go on,” Paula urged her friend. “Talk to him. He’ll listen.”

Melanie stepped up to me and stuttered. Stepping back, she stood on the curb and began again.

“Luke, you’re brilliant and fascinating, but you’d have more success if you toned down. People fear approaching you because of your intensity. Several members of the class may try to have you kicked out because you take time away from their relevant questions to go off on your own tangents.”

I reckon that “We didn’t know what to do with him” is the most frequent sentiment heard from those who endured my regular company in class (bosses always knew what to do with me and that usually meant firing me, sometimes within half an hour of starting a job). Only a hierarchical situation could tame me into behavior that approximated the socially acceptable.

A nice way that people have broken up with me is to say, “We want different things.” Many of my ex-friends, ex-partners and ex-bosses noticed that I was set on a life of poverty and ostracism while they preferred to live with connection and prosperity.

In March of 2000, I saw a psychiatrist in Brisbane who reported back: “Luke tends to make unreasonable demands of people who are eventually driven to setting limits on him. Luke takes this very badly.”

To the extent I’ve improved in this area, it’s because the results of my naturally selfish approach to life have become so painful that it has been easier for me to change rather than to keep getting humiliated.

My instincts are rarely sweetness and light and I don’t think I’m exceptional in my selfishness. All right-wing approaches to politics take it for granted that human nature is not basically good. While the left thinks that we are born good and are corrupted by society, the right thinks we’re born selfish and society makes us better.

The most dramatic example of this that comes to my mind is that people after age 30 rarely delight in publicly humiliating others to their face while that behavior seems habitual among kids.

When I was bedridden by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in my 20s, almost everybody I encountered over 40 was kind to me while almost everyone under 25 wanted to flee from me.

If people aren’t basically good, how then shall they govern themselves? One approach is populism.

According to the first result in Google, populism is “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”

According to Wikipedia:

Populism is a range of political stances that emphasize the idea of “the people” and often juxtapose this group with “the elite”.[1] It is frequently associated with anti-establishment and anti-political sentiment.[2] The term developed in the late 19th century and has been applied to various politicians, parties and movements since that time, often as a pejorative.

A common framework for interpreting populism is known as the ideational approach: this defines populism as an ideology that presents “the people” as a morally good force and contrasts them against “the elite”, who are portrayed as corrupt and self-serving.[4] Populists differ in how “the people” are defined, but it can be based along class, ethnic, or national lines. Populists typically present “the elite” as comprising the political, economic, cultural, and media establishment, depicted as a homogeneous entity and accused of placing their own interests, and often the interests of other groups—such as large corporations, foreign countries, or immigrants—above the interests of “the people”.[5] According to the ideational approach, populism is often combined with other ideologies, such as nationalism, liberalism, or socialism. Thus, populists can be found at different locations along the left–right political spectrum, and there exist both left-wing populism and right-wing populism.[6]

…In popular discourse—where the term has often been used pejoratively—it has sometimes been used synonymously with demagogy, to describe politicians who present overly simplistic answers to complex questions in a highly emotional manner, or with political opportunism, to characterise politicians who seek to please voters without rational consideration as to the best course of action.

Some scholars have linked populist policies to adverse economic outcomes, as “economic disintegration, decreasing macroeconomic stability, and the erosion of institutions typically go hand in hand with populist rule.”

Emily B. Finley writes in her 2022 book The Ideology of Democratism:

* Democratism can perhaps best be summed up as the belief that democracy is real or genuine only to the degree that it reflects an idealized conception of the popular will. The president of Freedom House was oriented by this democratist conception of democracy when he declared popular majorities a “threat” to democracy.

* It is routine to hear about this or that policy or action being urgently needed in order to “save democracy,” for example. Yet increasingly, it seems, democracy must be rescued from itself. It must be saved even from popular majorities. The term “populist,” paradoxically, is now often used to indicate those who allegedly wish to destroy democracy. “Populists” are often derided as “authoritarians” or “fascists.” The democratist ideology has created the framework for this otherwise perplexing phenomenon, equating populism with what would seem to be its opposite: authoritarianism.

* The editors of the recent Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy (2018) bemoan the global ascendancy of “post-truth” politics and the rise of populist leaders. These deliberative democrats and others assume that if the people were better educated and more informed, they would naturally reject the populist leaders whom they had once supported.

* President of Freedom House Michael J. Abramowitz laments that “right-wing populists gained votes and parliamentary seats in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria during 2017.” “While they were kept out of government in all but Austria,” Abramowitz says, “their success at the polls helped to weaken established parties on both the right and left.” These “right-wing populists,” according to Freedom House, are a source of the global democratic “crisis.”

The news media say our democracy is under threat, but both of America’s major parties have strong anti-democratic tendencies. Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times Feb. 2, 2022:

…conservatism has always had a fraught relationship to mass democracy. The fear of mob rule, of demagogues rallying the masses to destroy a fragile social order, is a common theme in many different right-wing schools of thought, showing up among traditionalist defenders of aristocracy and libertarians alike.

To these general tendencies, we can add two specifically American forms of conservative anxiety about the franchise: the fear of corrupt urban-machine politics that runs back through the 1960 presidential election to the age of Tammany Hall and the racist fear of African American political power that stamped the segregation-era South.

Because all these influences touch the modern G.O.P., conservative skepticism about mass democracy was a somewhat normal part of American politics long before Donald Trump came along — and some of what’s changed in the Trump era is just an events-driven accentuation of existing tendencies…

Republicans have long feared voter fraud and noncitizen voting, for instance, but the fear — and for liberals, the oft-discussed hope — that demographic change could deliver permanent Democratic power has raised the salience of these anxieties. Likewise, Republicans have long been more likely to portray America as a republic, not a democracy, and to defend our system’s countermajoritarian mechanisms. But today this philosophical tendency is increasingly self-interested, because shifts in party coalitions mean that those mechanisms, the Senate and Electoral College especially, advantage Republicans somewhat more than in the recent past.

But then things get complicated, because the modern Republican Party is also the heir to a strong pro-democracy impulse, forged in the years when Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon won crushing presidential-level majorities but conservatives felt themselves constantly balked by unelected powers, bureaucrats and judges especially.

This experience left the right deeply invested in the idea that it represents the true American majority — moral, silent, what have you — while liberalism stands for elite power, anti-democratic forms of government, the bureaucracy and the juristocracy and the Ivy League.

And that idea and self-image have remained a potent aspect of the right-wing imagination even as the old Nixon and Reagan majorities have diminished and disappeared: With every new age of grass-roots activism, from the Tea Party to the local-education revolts of today, the right reliably casts itself as small-d democrats, standing boldly athwart liberal technocracy singing “Yankee Doodle.”

Against this complicated backdrop, Trump’s stolen-election narratives should be understood as a way to reconcile the two competing tendencies within conservatism, the intellectual right’s skepticism of mass democracy and comfort with countermajoritarian institutions with the populist right’s small-d democratic self-image. In Trump’s toxic dreampolitik there’s actually no tension there: The right-wing coalition is justified in governing from a minoritarian position because it deserves to be a true electoral majority, and would be if only the liberal enemy weren’t so good at cheating.

…liberalism is the heir to its own not exactly democratic tradition — the progressive vision of disinterested experts claiming large swaths of policymaking for their own and walling them off from the vagaries of public opinion, the whims of mere majorities.

This vision — what my colleague Nate Cohn recently called “undemocratic liberalism” — is a pervasive aspect of establishment politics not only in the United States but across the Western world. On question after controverted question, its answer to “Who votes?” is different from its answer to “Who decides?” In one case, the people; in the other, the credentialed experts, the high-level stakeholders and activist groups, the bureaucratic process.

Who should lead pandemic decision making? Obviously Anthony Fauci and the relevant public-health bureaucracies; we can’t have people playing politics with complex scientific matters. Who decides what your local school teaches your kids? Obviously teachers and administrators and education schools; we don’t want parents demanding some sort of veto power over syllabuses. Who decides the future of the European Union? The important stakeholders in Brussels and Berlin, the people who know what they’re doing, not the shortsighted voters in France or Ireland or wherever. Who makes important U.S. foreign policy decisions? Well, you have the interagency process, the permanent regional specialists and the military experts, not the mere whims of the elected president.

Or to pick a small but telling example recently featured in this newspaper, who decides whether an upstate New York school district gets to retain the Indian as its high school mascot? The state’s education commissioner, apparently, who said the state could cut funds to the school board that voted to keep it unless the board reverses course.

Pure democracy (direct rule by the people) is not practical, and even representative democracy requires considerable elements of dictatorship to function just as dictatorships often contain elements of democracy. The world is rarely pure.

People argue about whether or not countries such as the United States are a democracy or an oligopoly. I think this is a shallow discussion. All functioning first-world countries contain elements of dictatorship, democracy, oligopoly, socialism, free market capitalism, dictatorship and other forms of rule.

In 2010, two law professors published an important paper called “Constitutional Dictatorship: Its Dangers and Its Design”:

* If Americans know one thing about their system of government, it is that they live in a democracy and that other, less fortunate people, live in dictatorships. Dictatorships are what democracies are not, the very opposite of representative government under a constitution.

The opposition between democracy and dictatorship, however, is greatly overstated.

* No matter how well designed a constitutional system might be, the true sovereign will always be able to escape the confines of that design and make exceptions to it.

* Emergency, or at least claims of emergency, are the standard cause and the standard justification for creating dictatorships.

* The first decade of the twenty-first century has made us all too aware of the various dangers that can plague our social orders; even the cost of terrorist attacks may pale in comparison to the damage wrought by tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, or dangerous viruses. Thus in 2009, the President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, placed the entire country under a “state of emergency” because of the potential swine flu pandemic. As John Ackerman, chief editor of the Mexican Law Review has explained, this serves to: “concentrate political power in his hands…. [President Calderon] has authorized his health secretary to inspect and seize any person or possessions, set up check points, enter any building or house, ignore procurement rules, break up public gatherings, and close down entertainment venues. The decree states that this situation will continue ‘for as long as the emergency lasts.’. . . This action violates the Mexican Constitution, which normally requires the government to obtain a formal judicial order before violating citizens’ civil liberties. Even when combating a ‘grave threat’ to society, the president is constitutionally required to get congressional approval for any suspension of basic rights. There are no exceptions to this requirement.”

* John Yoo, the author of the notorious “torture memos,” has argued that, despite American objections to King George III, the President still enjoys the powers possessed by the English monarch at the time of the American Revolution. Although Parliament retained the powers of the purse, Yoo explains, the King possessed unbounded discretion over the use of military force.

The first result in Google for defining neoconservatism states “a political ideology characterized by an emphasis on free-market capitalism and an interventionist foreign policy.”

I think of neoconservatism as an ideology that primarily promotes the use of American force to make the world safe for Israel.

According to Wikipedia:

Neoconservatives typically advocate the unilateral promotion of democracy and interventionism in international affairs, grounded in a militaristic and realist philosophy of “peace through strength.”

…Paul Gottfried has written that the neocons’ call for “permanent revolution” exists independently of their beliefs about Israel,[101] characterizing the neoconservatives as “ranters out of a Dostoyevskian novel, who are out to practice permanent revolution courtesy of the U.S. government.”

“What make neocons most dangerous are not their isolated ghetto hang-ups, like hating Germans and Southern whites and calling everyone and his cousin an anti-Semite, but the leftist revolutionary fury they express.”

Populists oppose the ruling elite by definition and consequently are rarely elite themselves. Neoconservatives are at home among the elites and know how to influence them. For example, neither President George W. Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney nor Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were neoconservatives but they acted in office like neocons.

Wikipedia notes:

Many adherents of neoconservatism became politically influential during the Republican presidential administrations of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, peaking in influence during the administration of George W. Bush, when they played a major role in promoting and planning the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Prominent neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration included Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle and Paul Bremer.

Although U.S Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had not self-identified as neoconservatives, they worked closely alongside neoconservative officials in designing key aspects of George W. Bush’s foreign policy; especially in their support of Israel, promotion of American influence in the Arab World and launching the “War on Terror”.[3] Bush administration’s domestic and foreign policies were heavily influenced by major ideologues affiliated with neo-conservatism, such as Bernard Lewis, Lulu Schwartz, Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, Robert Kagan, etc.

Power is usually an insiders game and populists are rarely insiders.

Donald Trump ran a populist campaign to get elected president of the United States in 2016 but he failed to recruit many populists to his administration. Instead, the federal government was run by people opposed to populism.

The further left you go, the more you get the idea that the government should be run by experts, who are rarely popular.

Philosopher Stephen P. Turner wrote in his 2003 book Liberal Democracy 3.0: Civil Society in an Age of Experts:

* Expertise is a kind of violation of the conditions of rough equality presupposed by democratic accountability. Some activities, such as genetic engineering, are apparently out of reach of democratic control, even when these activities, because of their dangerous character, ought perhaps to be subject to public scrutiny and regulation, precisely because of imbalances in knowledge. As such we are faced with the dilemma of capitulation to ‘rule by experts’ or democratic rule that is ‘populist’; that valorizes the wisdom of the people even when ‘the people’ are ignorant and operate on the basis of fear and rumor.

* …the socialist idea was implicitly an idea that was antipopulist or at least hostile to the notion that untutored legislative preferences, that is to say the opinions held by ordinary people of what laws should be enacted, ought to be paramount, and thus implicitly hostile to a related idea that government by discussion
ought to be the center of constitutional order. The ‘collectivist current’ and
socialist doctrine emphasized instead the superior wisdom of the state, and the consequent necessity of intrusions into freedoms of individuals.

In his 2013 book The Politics of Expertise, Turner wrote: “populism [relies upon] the expertise of the people… [in] contrast to that of the administrative class.”

Turner and Gerard Delanty wrote in their introduction to the 2022 book Routledge International Handbook of Contemporary Social and Political Theory:

Populism as a concept and practice is closely related to democracy, but the concepts are distinct. Populism arises as a reaction of “democratic resentment” of failures of democracy in which “the people” are treated as inferior, are excluded, and in which suffering is blamed on elites, leading to a call to a return to the original sense of democracy as the rule of the people… The idea of rule by the people – a literal impossibility – paradoxically implies both self-rule and resentment over being ruled.

In his memoir Mad Hazard: A Life in Social Theory, Stephen P. Turner wrote:

* My politics, by the beginning of the anti-war movement, were antiestablishment and populist – not an unintelligible combination, but not a common one. The war, as we now know from the reporting of Sy Hersh, was a Kennedy concoction run by Harvard elitists like McGeorge Bundy, who thought nothing of throwing away the lives of young people who were not of their kind under the supervision of the inept William Westmoreland, lying about the successes, and failing to take the opportunities that they were given to end the slaughter. This was a class war as well as a generational war.

* My instincts were populist, and not really in tune with the times, during the Sixties and later, when there was still faith in the efficacy of government programs based on assumed technical experience and implemented by massive bureaucracies.

In his 1988 classic, That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession, Peter Novick wrote:

* The approach which [Richard] Hofstadter took to the Populists was the first important example of what became a common feature of cold war historical scholarship, the social-psychologizing of dissidence and insurgency. Taking up themes which received wide currency in The Authoritarian Personality, and the literature which grew up around that much discussed work, Europeanists discussed the irrational drives and longings which led people to embrace Nazism or Communism, while Americanists explored the unconscious forces which produced Populists, Progressives, and abolitionists. If those who wrote in this vein never went quite to the point of identifying protest per se with pathology, and acceptance of the status quo with mental health, they often came close to it.

* With minor exceptions (Parsons in the one camp, Pollack in the other), those critical of the Populists were Jews and from the Northeast; those defending them were gentiles, and from the South or Midwest. This feature of the controversy was well known to the participants and many contemporary observers, but was usually mentioned only obliquely, if at all. It tacitly raised issues of perspectivism and universalism which, for the moment, the profession preferred not to discuss openly.

In the early 1960s Carl Bridenbaugh outraged a good many historians with his AHA presidential address. In what was universally taken to be a reference to Jews, who were for the first time becoming a significant presence in the profession, Bridenbaugh deplored the fact that whereas once American historians had shared a common culture, and rural upbringing, the background of the present generation would “make it impossible for them to communicate to and reconstruct the past for future generations.” They suffered from an “environmental deficiency”: being “urban-bred” they lacked the “understanding . . . vouchsafed to historians who were raised in the countryside or in the small town.” They were “products of lower middle-class or foreign origins, and their emotions not infrequently get in the way of historical reconstructions. They find themselves in a very real sense outsiders on our past and feel themselves shut out. This is certainly not their fault, but it is true.”

* None, so far as I can tell, ever advanced what seems to me the most compelling reason why a group of the background of Hofstadter, Bell, Lipset, and their friends should have taken such a uniformly and exaggeratedly bleak view of the Populists: they were all only one generation removed from the Eastern European shtetl, where insurgent gentile peasants spelled pogrom.

Perhaps one reason populism doesn’t get much done in the United States is that Jews tend to fear it?

June 19, 2016, Armin Rosen wrote for Tabletmag:

Dave Rubin, the Voice of Liberals Who Were Mugged by Progressives

…Then the conversation lurched in a less savory direction. This sometimes happens on The Rubin Report, given some of the riskier guests Rubin has hosted since his show launched in August of 2015—people like English Defense League founder and anti-immigration activist Tommy Robinson, or pro-Trump author and Twitter pugilist Mike Cernovich.

As I wrote on my blog June 21, 2016:

What makes Mike Cernovich a risky guest for a podcast? Because he’s an eloquent supporter of Trump? That’s just the surface reason. The real reason that Cernovich is a risky guest is that he is a threat to Armin Rosen’s hero system.

Let us step back a bit. Can you imagine a right-winger saying anybody is a risky guest for a podcast? No. Right-wing people don’t talk and think that way. They’re not afraid of anybody’s ideas. Only the left consider people “risky” guests for a podcast.

So the risk is to whom? The risk is to a hero system.

The stronger the Japanese identify as Japanese, the more likely they are to have negative views of outsiders. The stronger the Australian gets in his Australian identity, the more likely he is to have negative views of outsiders. The stronger the Muslim gets in his Muslim identity, the more likely he is to have negative views on non-Muslims. The stronger the black gets in his black identity (Nation of Islam, etc), the more likely he is to have negative views of non-blacks.

Not only will a goy with a strong racial/national/religious identity be more likely to dislike Jews, he will be more likely to organize around that view and to take action on it.

So when Armin Rosen says people like Mike Cernovich and Tommy Robinson are risky guests for a podcast, he’s implicitly recognizing that populism and nationalism are an easy sell to goyim because they naturally incline to strong identities that are likely to be anti-Jewish.

Jewish survival and prosperity in the West has usually been based on deals with elites. Jews have rarely been popular. Organized Jewry has cut deals with elites such as kings and nobles and the ruling class. In exchange for protection, Jews contribute money and other resources to the rulers. But always under the surface, populist, nationalist anti-Jewish sentiments are busting to get out. These anti-Jewish tendencies are usually strongest in corporate countries (Muslim, Catholic, East Asian countries) and weakest in individualist Protestant countries.

Another reason that populism doesn’t get much done is that it tends to be narrow, shallow, and lacking in complexity. It’s often politics for dummies.

A 2011 academic paper “Ears Wide Shut: Epistemological Populism, Argutainment and Canadian Conservative Talk Radio” noted:

* What is the epistemology of AOL [Adler On Line, hosted by Charles Adler] and how does it function? Broadly, it is a perspective which we call epistemological populism since it borrows heavily from the rhetorical patterns of political discourses of populism to valorize the knowledge of “the common people,” which they possess by virtue of their proximity to everyday life, as distinguished from the rarefied knowledge of elites which reflects their alienation from everyday life and the common sense it produces. Epistemological populism is established through a variety of rhetorical techniques and assumptions: the assertion that individual opinions based upon firsthand experience are much more reliable as a form of knowledge than those generated by theories and academic studies; the valorization of specific types of experience as particularly reliable sources of legitimate knowledge and the extension of this knowledge authority to unrelated issues; the privileging of emotional intensity as an indicator of the reliability of opinions; the use of populist-inflected discourse to dismiss other types of knowledge as elitist and therefore illegitimate; and finally, the appeal to “common sense” as a discussion-ending trump card. Let’s examine how these parts fit together in concrete terms.

“Opinions that are armed with life experience, that’s what we’re looking for on this show.” One of the many promos that transitioned AOL into commercial breaks, this particular declaration offers an excellent entry point into our analysis of AOL’s epistemological populism as it deftly captures the program’s unequivocal preference for political sentiments which emerge directly from the crucible of both ordinary and extraordinary experience at the individual level. Such individual experience is what lies at the core of the common sense which is consistently celebrated on the program as a counterpoint to the excessively ideological, intellectual or idealistic politics of those who lack grounding in the “real world.”

“Opinions are great, I always say on this program. Opinions are wonderful. But opinions armed with personal experience, knowledge. Man, those opinions are a whole lot better” (December 14, 1–2 p. m.) On this view, knowledge that grows out of an individual’s lived experience is knowledge one can trust. Indeed, knowledge and experience become virtually identical. An individual’s lived proximity to something becomes an index of their capacity to truly understand it, care about it, develop valid opinions about it and speak about it with authority. Conversely, the more abstract the form of knowledge and reasoning, the less rooted in concrete individual experiences, the more such knowledge is to be regarded with suspicion, especially when their conclusions contradict the wisdom of common sense and practical, everyday experience.

…the type of guests, callers and experiences through which the program legitimized certain opinions and knowledge about crime rely on and reinforce epistemological populism. There was virtually no discussion of statistical crime rates at all. Instead, evidence of the urgency of this issue largely took the form of guests and callers serving up a mix of anecdotal confirmation and common sense observations which themselves function as theoretical generalizations while simultaneously disavowing their theoretical status. Has violent crime become a major problem in Canadian cities? Has Canadian penal practice become a revolving door for violent offenders? The answer for Adler was clear. “If I opened up the lines and simply discussed situations that people are aware of,” he explained, “I mean, some people actually, you know, have scrapbooks on this stuff, of situations where people involved in heinous crimes are either those out on parole or have committed two, three, four, five, six other crimes and simply sit in the bucket for a year or two. We could do a show like that and go for twenty-four hours and still have phone calls to do” (January 6, 1–2 p.m.) As the anecdotes pile up in segment after segment, they not only immunize listeners against countervailing arguments and evidence about declining crime rates or the futility of law-and-order campaigns. Equally importantly, they valorize the accumulation of anecdotes as a viable form of populist knowledge making, enabling out-of-hand dismissal of contradictory arguments, reasoning or facts as untrue.

What is key here is how Adler’s affirmation of a mode of experiential political reasoning, which effortlessly shifts back and forth between personal experience (either one’s own or others) and broader social and political questions, invariably champions the former as providing answers to the latter. Broader trends or perspectives are never allowed to challenge the generalizability of certain individual experiences. But one of the challenges faced by such an experience-based epistemology is that not everyone’s experience is the same. Not all anecdotes fit the common sense conclusions served up by AOL. So how does Adler distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate forms of individual knowledge, experience and common sense?

Part of the answer lies in a straightforward ideological filtering of guests which, for the most part, strains out those whose experiences, opinions and epistemological framework differ from Adler’s own.

* Epistemological populism, however, goes well beyond opening up space for individual experience as one type of valid knowledge that deserves its place alongside a variety of others. Rather, epistemological populism tends to elevate individual experience as the only legitimate form and extend that epistemological authority well beyond the realm where the person’s immediate experience itself might be seen as relevant.

* …police officials and correctional workers though not social workers were consistently positioned as having a monopoly on expert knowledge in this area.

* Adler’s introduction encourages the audience to accept the constable’s opinions as facts—as the objective truth—not on the basis of any evidence presented but rather because the constable’s “day to day level” experience as a police officer… grants him a special, automatic epistemological authority.

If the persuasive force of epistemological populism flows, in part, from its ability to activate and apply (at an epistemological level) the populist celebration of “the people” and common sense, it also uses the other side of the populist trope—the attack on elites—to dismiss contending forms of knowledge and political opinions. The laudable voices of the people are contrasted with the “elitist” views of academics, defence lawyers and political progressives who were condemned as representing the “special interests” of criminals and gangs.

* we call the performative model embodied in AOL’s discourse argutainment and argue that this style has several defining characteristics. Self-consciously adopted and defended by means of a populist logic which defines itself as a utopian alternative to mainstream models of journalism, argutainment justifies itself through its ability to speak to and represent the interests of “the people.” In defining what is good for the people, it moves effortlessly between political and market tropes in which commercial success and the public good are fused together. What people want in commercial terms (as evidenced by market share) and what people need in political terms (alternative perspectives which cut through the morass of mainstream media) is represented as ultimately the same thing: a provocative and entertaining style of debate, defined as highly emotional and passionate, strongly opinionated, simple and brief and very confrontational. Moreover, argutainment assumes that an aggressive and opinionated host is needed to filter out ideas and modes of speech which he… judges the audience does not want to hear…

Adler frequently uses populist tropes to implicitly and explicitly justify his style of discourse. He regularly celebrates his style as ushering in a “broadcast revolution” in which the antiquated conventions of journalism and the bland, empty rhetoric of public relations are swept aside in the interests of energizing political discussion and debate. He invites us to participate in a populist renewal of the public sphere in which public discussion and debate simulates what he imagines at kitchen tables and coffee shops of the nation, a frank, honest and confrontational exchange of opinion that is open to anyone who wants to join the conversation. Unsurprisingly, one of the most powerful rhetorical defenses offered for his style is the supposed contrast between it and the decayed elitist forms it seeks to replace. For Adler, mainstream media’s traditional commitment to balance, objectivity and politically correct speech—all of which tend to be lumped together—have led to an anemic (and boring) public sphere in which an unconditional respect for the views of others has emasculated our capacity and desire to make difficult but necessary political judgments. According to Adler, such norms have become the shelter of those whose claims could not otherwise withstand the scrutiny of common sense reasoning and experience. Calls for balance and objectivity merely encourage an apathetic public sphere and allow the political claims of vocal special interests to exercise disproportionate influence. In this context, a style that is confrontational, aggressive and highly passionate is politically valuable since it shakes people free from an elite-induced apathy and ignorance.

* For Adler, a pervasive elitist commitment to a polite, nonconfrontational, politically correct style stands in the way of an open, honest and frank discussion of social problems and how they should be addressed. Complexity is stigmatized as little more than an excuse to avoid asking the tough questions and, conversely, a willingness to violate PC conventions of “cultural sensitivity” becomes, in and of itself, a sign of lucid and honest speech. In fact, it becomes a sign of moral courage.

* Adler often openly ruminates on the value of his style, congratulating himself for having the fortitude to challenge political correctness as an organic defender of the people’s interests and pointing to his ratings as the market share equivalent of a democratic vote of confidence in support of his approach. In the final days of the campaign, for example, Adler boasted that the show’s higher ratings were a tribute to his bold and aggressive style.

* The populist genius of talk radio may very well lie in its ability to portray the logic of commercialism (treating political talk as an entertainment commodity) as a politically virtuous invigoration of democracy. According to this logic, the discipline imposed by the need to entertain also keeps political speech honest, accessible and authentic and counteracts the mainstream media’s counterproductive pursuit of diversity, balance, objectivity, moderation. In this view, “giving the people what they want” does not lead to the decline of public discourse but instead to its invigoration and democratic rebirth by welcoming in the values and priorities of ordinary Canadians. Market logic, the logic of commercial culture, is recast as an instrument of political democratization, the means by which the people are put back in charge of the public sphere…

* Adler consistently reminds his audience that serving their needs and interests is his top priority and that all interventions he makes to discipline and shape political speech are designed to make the discussion more palatable to them.

The Jimmy Dore – Tucker Carlson discussion exemplifies these two qualities of popular right-wing discourse. It is grounded in the transcendent truth of their individual experiences and the discussion was “passionate, simple and entertaining.” This feels good but it might not do good.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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