The extremism of popularist politics
If reactionary liberalism is so popular, why do they keep rebranding it?
Time for another round about “popularism”, this time owing to a brief little take at MSNBC by Chris Hayes. If you aren’t familiar with the term, congratulations: all you’ve missed is the latest campaign to market reactionary Democratic politics as a fresh new idea. As Chris correctly points out, what pundits like David Shor and Matt Yglesias call popularism is really just a rebrand of a kind of politics that has been with us for decades. Call it centrism, call it triangulation, call it moderation, call it pragmatism, call it whatever you like: when popularists argue that the left shouldn’t advance a radical agenda because the public won’t approve, they aren’t saying anything new.
As a rule, I think we always do well to meet buzzwords like this with a lot of suspicion. Elite political vocabulary is absolutely overrun with synonyms, and most of them share the same etymology: criticism and popular disapproval of the old one became so potent that demagogues had to coin a new way to say the same thing. Recognize this, and you’ll appreciate the extraordinary paradox facing popularism. You’d think that “do what the people want,” as a political doctrine, would be wildly popular; and yet for some reason, popularism has become such a politically toxic brand that these folks have to keep changing their name.
It’s tempting to dig into the polls here and try to tease out exactly what it is that Americans find so objectionable about popularism (the story is more complicated than they’ll admit). But wouldn’t that be giving in to the terrorists? Let’s try something else: I am going to lay out an argument about why popularism is a terrible political strategy. Even worse, I am going to plead that if the majority of Americans disagreed with me, they should consider changing their mind, since my position, on the merits, is correct.
Popularism is either trivial or absurdly dogmatic. Put defensibly, all it means is that we should compromise with popular opinion sometimes — an obvious position that no one disputes. That’s why half the conversations you’ll see about popularism end like this:
As far as I can tell there is only one logical alternative to this reading of popularism: it is the theory that we should always compromise with popular opinion, in every single case. If this isn’t what it means, then — as Alex points out here — popularism gives us zero insight into how we should approach any political question whatsoever, since they must all be judged based on the particulars.
Is there some third meaning of popularism that I’m missing? I know there are a million ways that they can rhetorically muddy the waters in this debate, but the logic is what it is. Popularists are telling us that popular opinion is an important political consideration in our political strategy, and from here we have to ask whether it is merely important or decisive. If important, duh; if decisive, this a radically dogmatic — even extremist — position, delegitimizing all kinds of political stands that were unpopular at the time but that we celebrate today. This is why Chris’s appeal to the war against Iraq is so damning; if popularists believe that the left should not have stood against it, they should own this.
What’s really going on here, of course, is that popularism is really just a kind of rhetorical motte-and-bailey; you make an “always do what’s popular” position to delegitimize any left position you like, and then you pretend that you were just making the banal “sometimes do what’s popular” position instead. Centrists played the same game, and when everyone gets what the popularists are really up to, I have no doubt that they’ll have to change their name again.