Friday, September 15, 2006

Gathered Thoughts: Populism, Democracy and Liberalism, the Trope of the Brave Idealist , American Exceptionalism

Sometimes, we find things that interest us, we keep 'em, but can't really find a way to work them in to a post. Well, here are the remnants after picking through a summers' worth of left-overs.

Back in July I was led to this Dallas Morning News piece that called for a new type of populist movement.

There is a tremendous cost to the health of the republic, to the common good, that comes with the creative yet destructive power of unlimited economic and political progressivism. The vital role property-owning and self-sufficient families, small towns and regional governments play in a free republic has been recognized for centuries. The civic virtues associated with widespread ownership of land, decentralized systems of trade, commitment to the common good of one's tribe and the moral sturdiness of belonging to a tradition are necessary to the continued independence of a free people.

And the loss of these goods will always strike the middle classes first and hardest. When they are lost, they are felt as loss – loss of an entire way of life. And just as the masses of dispossessed and alienated fought back during the Gilded Age, they are likely to again....

What is called for is an anti-progressive populism; an anti-movement movement; a return to what is near, known and particular. What is called for is what I think of as regional populism. Its first political task will be to rediscover the ways citizens of the old American republic used to think and talk....

Folk populism requires people willing to make sacrifices to defend what they love from encroaching destruction via spaghetti-like superhighways, foreign entanglements, megacorporations and megachurches, technological developments, mass media and hypermobility....

What would this kind of regional populism look like in an actual political platform? Broadly speaking, it would seek at every turn to end the dependence of its constituents on elites. It would oppose, for example, the nationalization of any sector of our economy, from health care to agriculture. Instead, it would seek creative ways to open regional markets for regional goods.

It would seek to permit regional cultural and religious particularities to emerge from the fog of federalized regulation and be made manifest in our schools, courthouses, businesses and civic organizations. And it would provide incentives to keep cultural capital local. It would encourage people to work, study and raise families close to where they grew up. It would seek ways to promote local culture and would cultivate loyalty to our neighbors and a fierce love for our own places.

But in the end, what this kind of vibrant regionalism requires is something much more difficult to obtain than a slogan. It is a renewed appreciation for society over and against both the individual and the state. Society defined by what the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry calls "membership" – a network of social interconnectedness and shared obligation. To be a member of this kind of social order is the best hedge against manipulation by the central planning committee for "growth" and "prosperity." It is, to put it plainly, to be free.

On the topic of populism, Prof. John P. McCormick (hosted by Alfredo Perez at Political Theory Daily Review) has a long paper of interest. (Here's the abstract):
The chapters of Rousseau’s Social Contract devoted to republican Rome prescribe institutions that obstruct popular efforts at diminishing the excessive power and influence of wealthy citizens and political magistrates. I argue that Rousseau reconstructs ancient Rome’s constitution in direct opposition to the more populist and anti-elitist model of the Roman Republic championed by Machiavelli in the Discourses: Rousseau eschews the establishment of magistracies, like the tribunes, reserved for common citizens exclusively, and endorses assemblies where the wealthy are empowered to outvote the poor in lawmaking and elections. On the basis of sociologically anonymous principles like generality and popular sovereignty, and by confining elite accountability to general elections, Rousseau’s neo-Roman institutional proposals aim to pacify the contestation of class hierarchies and inflate elite prerogative within republics—under the cover of more formal, seemingly more genuine, equality.
James Lileks examined the '50's and the adolescent mind-set by skewering a play that championed the prototypical brave counterculturist who took on McCarthy.
I’m not going to defend McCarthy, because he was a brute and boor and a butter-eating drunk who set back the anti-Communist cause four decades. To say that he was sorta right, in the sense that there were Commies about, is like saying that J. Robert Oppenheimer had a salutory effect on Japanese urban renewal. I’m not interested in those debates right now. I’d just like to point out that it’s a little late in the game to trot out a play about the mean old witch-hunts. The bravery of the scrappy idealists! The piggish philistinism of the anti-commie brutes! The smothering wet quilt of Conformity that held America motionless until it was thrown off by the undulating hips of Elvis! (Did you know they didn’t show him below the waist on TV, at first! True! It was horrible, the Fifties; no one had sex without weeping in shame afterwards. Sometimes during.) It's just interesting how Westerners think that that Red Scare was a historical event of such towering proportions it trumps the tales of the Soviet Union in the same period. US version: communist sympathizers frozen out of screenwriting jobs, justly or unjustly. USSR version: actual communists killed in ghastly numbers by a parody of a legal system underwritten by brute force and an industrialized penal system built on slave labor. Why is the latter ignored, and the former celebrated?
Jonah Goldberg offered thoughts on whether its democracy or (classical) liberalism that we should focus on spreading in the Middle East:
No serious person, it seems to me, can deny that it would be better to live in a liberal but undemocratic society than a democratic but illiberal society. In other words, democracy — while an important mechanism — is fundamentally amoral. A society of evil men can democratically choose to do evil.

I think many democracy-boosters understand this, and agree, but they use democracy as an umbrella term for liberalism. The problem is that this leads to a corruption of rhetoric and, eventually, thinking. I think it's pretty clear that liberalism and democracy go together in the long run. But I think it is obviously false that democracy automatically yields liberalism. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn't. More often — as in the United States, Great Britain etc — one could just as easily argue that liberalism leads to democracy. I understand we need to take a principled pro-democracy stand. But we shouldn't blind ourselves to the fact that undemocratic institutions are often on the side of the angels. The Turkish military, for example, is a defender of Turkish liberalism - flawed though it may be — against the threats it faces from, among other things, democratic Islamic populism.

Pursuing elections before you've cultivated liberal values is a recipe for Hitlerism or Hamas-ism. Indeed, it's a fascinating contrafactual to ponder how different things might have been if the Bush Administration had not emphasized — rhetorically — literal elections over everything they think elections represent (see here for a recent lament along these lines in the Corner).

Rich's points are well-taken. There's a reason we're stuck dealing with the Middle East — because much of the rest of the world has come to its senses. The Arab or Muslim "street" doesn't much care about democracy. Until it does, harping on elections is a fools errand. That doesn't mean we shouldn't support pro-democracy groups and activists — where our support would help — but our choices right now are basically, to use a social scientific phrase, really sucky. That's why I think we can't be tied down to one approach. If there's a strong-man who wants to be Attaturk, we should give him some leeway. If elections will advance the ball toward liberalization, we should be for elections. Our principles are larger than mere elections and a more realistic foreign policy would advance our ideals more if it took this into account. Ronald Reagan, for example, understood that pushing democracy in the Soviet Union was a far less effective rhetorical weapon than the subject of human rights.

Finally, Scott McLemee examined how globalization has contributed to American Exceptionalism, Maurice Obstfeld and Alan Taylor wrote a related paper (PDF), Joshua Zeitz reviewed Eric Rauchway's contribution (Blessed Among Nations) to the debate, and AEI has James Q. Wilson's explanation of the qualities that make American political institutions unique.

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