Populism and Elitism, pt. 2

Posted: October 24, 2016 in Debate, Economics, History, Idealism, Politics, Torture
Tags: , , , , ,

This is a continuation from part 1.

A long, tortured argument could be offered how we (in the U.S.) are governed by a narrow class of plutocrats (both now and at the founding) who not-so-secretly distrust the people and the practice of direct democracy, employing instead mechanisms found in the U.S. Constitution (such as the electoral college) to transfer power away from the people to so-called experts. I won’t indulge in a history lesson or other analysis, but it should be clear to anyone who bothers to look that typical holders of elected office (and their appointees) more nearly resemble yesteryear’s landed gentry than the proletariat. Rule by elites is thus quite familiar to us despite plenty of lofty language celebrating the common man and stories repeated ad naseum of a few exceptional individuals (exceptional being the important modifier here) who managed to bootstrap their way into the elite from modest circumstances.

Part 1 started with deGrasse Tyson’s recommendation that experts/elites should pitch ideas at the public’s level and ended with my contention that some have lost their public by adopting style or content that fails to connect. In the field of politics, I’ve never quite understood the obsession with how things present to the public (optics) on the one hand and obvious disregard for true consent of the governed on the other. For instance, some might recall pretty serious public opposition before the fact to invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in response to the 9/11 attacks. The Bush Administration’s propaganda campaign succeeded in buffaloing a fair percentage of the public, many of whom still believe the rank lie that Saddam Hussein had WMDs and represented enough of an existential threat to the U.S. to justify preemptive invasion. Without indulging in conspiratorial conjecture about the true motivations for invasion, the last decade plus has proven that opposition pretty well founded, though it went unheeded.

What would explain the decision to ignore public opposition to military involvement in the Middle East, unlike how public outcry helped to end U.S. involvement in the the Vietnam War? Put another way, where is the disconnect between populism and elitism? My answer is that the disconnect has always been there. However, when it’s convenient, the elite will go to the modest trouble of selling its plans to the public — cloaked in the clothing of populism. Convincing the American public that it was aggrieved over events of 9/11 was an easy sell. Hanging blame on the party not responsible was a harder sell, but it took less than a year with respect to Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom launched October 7, 2001) and somewhat longer with respect to Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom launched March 20, 2003) for the Bush Administration to misdirect and act with disregard for public opinion. The Orwellian slant of those two terms, BTW, shouldn’t be overlooked.

No lessons need be learned by government elites, of course, who had long known to pause long enough to distort facts and minds before pursuing actions abhorrent to the public (including torture). That was the takeaway of the Reagan and (first) Clinton Administrations, both of which steered public opinion conspicuously rightward to enact policies and legislation harbored for years. Indeed, the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1990s and the New Democrat Coalition in the 2010s have succeeded so well in abandoning the Democrat’s traditional New Deal orientation that the Democratic Party has become indistinguishable from the GOP — except that the GOP has during that same period been infiltrated by Christian fundamentalists, been radicalized, and gone batshit crazy. Still, the GOP knows to adopt a posture of populism, and its radicalism has only served to attract the worst kinds of ardent support.

Which brings us to our two presidential candidates — not exactly standard bearers for their respective parties but rather unexpectedly the best either party could field as each candidate steamrolled his and her way to the front of what’s shaping up to be a fascist moment in U.S. history. Neither candidate could be described in the least as “of the people,” nor could it be argued effectively that either has the public interest in mind. Both are in fact extraordinary narcissists, one able to appeal adroitly to the radical Right (speaking a language of fear and inchoate rage) and the other less able to obfuscate a rather obvious will to power, which doesn’t seem to matter in the end. Both pretend to be populists, but neither truly is. Indeed, they share perspectives on two signature issues of the day: extreme wealth inequality and military escapades around the globe. Near as I can tell, they both plan to double down and actually intensify the very policies that have led to our miserable casino economy and national security state.

Aside: fellow blogger Leavergirl just published a parallel post celebrating the promise of populism as an antidote to demagoguery. I’m less sanguine than she is about what can be achieved through the power of the people. Rather, like other historical trajectories (national and global) yet to manifest fully, I believe things will get an awful lot worse before getting better, if they improve at all. I admire her optimism, though, and wish I could share it.

  1. leavergirl says:

    Thank you, Brutus. I can’t say I am all that optimistic… I wanted to affirm the values progressive left has been shedding in a hurry, values that make us civilized in the better sense of the word. And to make a call for unity among those who currently stand in opposition to the status quo. But I have to admit that the reason I have not written any posts so long has been despair — coming from several directions. I might blog about it.

    To answer your puzzle in para 2, I recently saw an interview of some Obama apparatchik who pretended not to understand the interviewer regarding why the govt behaved in ways so clearly alienating people around the world. He doggedly held forth on what could only be described as crass PR. But I think that’s just another aspect of elitism… same with the communist elite I once knew — they have no intention to talk about reality; they specialize in the manipulation of perceptions. Gah.

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