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Saturday, December 10, 2016
Fear of the Majority
In the 1950s and early 1960s, a number of social scientists had a dim view of direct popular influence on public policies.
These individuals had been alarmed by fascist and/or communist movements in Europe in the early decades of the 20th century which received widespread support from the working- and/or lower-middle-classes. During the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s, several movements in the United States, such as Huey Long's Share Our Wealth program, Father Coughlin's sizable radio audience, William Lemke's Union Party, and, somewhat later, Joseph R. McCarthy's supporters, also unnerved many of those already suspicious of grassroots populism.
Their notions crystallized into a body of thought that came to be known as "empirical democratic theory." Although different writers focused on diverse topics, the theory had basically two commonalities: (1) proponents relied heavily on the then-recently developed practice of scientific public opinion polling; and (2) most of the empirically oriented theorists stressed the mass public's political limitations. The empirical democratic theorists argued that public opinion polls from the 1930s to the 1950s overwhelmingly documented ordinary people's passivity, political ignorance, and anti-civil-libertarian proclivities. Consequently, these theorists touted political elites' critical role in maintaining democratic stability.
For a brief period, the empirical democratic theory held sway among some social scientists.
Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that the dominant perspective on American populism at that time was the historian Richard Hofstadter's The Age of Reform from Bryan to F.D.R. (1955). Influenced by social scientists' theorizing, Hofstadter stressed the negative features of the populist movement in America, especially the populists' strident nationalism, ethnocentrism, religious -- especially anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic -- bigotry, and anti-civil-libertarianism. Hofstadter had little or no faith in the populist creed.
Researchers have disagreed on how to portray American populism, but most concur that some of its essential features are a profound faith in ordinary people's political judgment, a distrust of elites, and a desire for greater equality.
As often happens in social science, however, time's passage was accompanied by several criticisms of the empirical theory, which, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, had coalesced into the notion of "participatory democratic theory." As with the earlier empirical theory, participatory democratic theory varied in its particulars from author to author, but boiled down to two main points: (1) ordinary people were capable of conducting themselves rationally in the political arena, and, for that reason, democracy flourished when there was "maximum feasible" participation by the mass public; and (2) elites, who were driven by self-interest, should not be trusted with democratic governance.
If it is fair to judge the empirical theory of democracy as leaning rightward, it is also fair to contend that the theory of participatory democracy leaned even more to the Left.
Beginning in the 1970s, the theory of participatory democracy became more and more widely credited by social scientists. For a time, at least, the theory was also well-received among some political activists, especially in the Democrat Party.
Once again, however, times changed, and with changing times, notions that once were popular become less and less so.
In the last few years, for example, we've seen in the U.S., and especially Europe, severe doubts expressed in certain quarters about the possibility that populism and democracy are compatible. Could we be witnessing a refurbishing of the older empirical theory of democracy?
The question is intriguing, and merits exploration.
We certainly seem to be witnessing a wave of criticism of populism. Those criticisms are often akin to facets of the empirical theory of democracy.
At least three developments seem to be generating much of the hostility toward the contention that populism and democracy can coexist. In Europe, especially, opposition to the influx of Muslims has led to the emergence of and/or rise in popularity of various right-wing movements and parties, such as Marine Le Pen's Front National in France. Possibly stimulated by anti-immigrant sentiments in Great Britain, the Brexit from the European Union also flummoxed those who distrust populism. In the U.S., the rise of Donald Trump has triggered considerable revulsion against his "basket of deplorables." (Depending on which leftist you pay attention to, the proportion of Trump's backers who are deplorable ranges from half to almost all.)
Space limitations require a focus on the American case.
Hostility toward populism in the U.S. does not exist in a vacuum.
In 2010, for example, Angelo Codevillawrote The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do about It. Codevilla contended that America is increasingly divided into two classes of unequal size. He called the smaller one the Ruling Class, "which holds the commanding heights of government, from which it disposes in ever greater detail of America's economic energies, from which it ordains new ways of living as if it had the right to do so, and from which it asserts that right is based on the majority class'[s] stupidity, racism, and violent tendencies." A hallmark of the Ruling Class is its unshakeable belief that its members are better informed, wiser, and more competent than are those in the majority class, a.k.a. the Country Class, who are racist, sexist, homophobic, ethnocentric, nativist, jingoistic, etc., and generally incapable of self-government. Members of the Ruling Class "believe not only that government and… 'public affairs' are both best left to 'professionals,' but that more and more of what ordinary people think of as private decisions… should occur within guidelines firmly set by experts like themselves."
Despite its belief in its own superiority, Codevilla contended that the Ruling Class's record is one of increasing incompetence, leaving America more corrupt.
Others apart from Codevilla have drawn attention to the Ruling Class's arrogant smugness, which motivates how its members, Republican establishmentarians as well as left-wing Democrats, react to any popular outbursts, such as the Tea Party and/or the Trump movement.
The Ruling Class's reaction to Trump's presidential candidacy, and especially to his victory in the election of 2016 suggests how its members -- Republicans and Democrats -- feel about popular involvement in public affairs.
It's probably too soon for leftwing academics to vent their antipathy for Trump's voters. Leftist activists, however, have already chimed in.
It serves little purpose to cite the litany of claims that Trump's voters were racists, sexists, homophobes, Islamophobes, etc. If you have the stomach for it, however, read Tess Rafferty's rant equating a vote for Trump with racism.
If Rafferty's rant is too much to take, read the slightly more sedate article by Zack Beauchamp that appeared on Vox on November 9th. This article attributed Trump's victory, as well as the rise in popularity of several allegedly right-wing movements/parties in Europe, to a combination of xenophobia and racism.
If one believes the other side harbors such sentiments, should they be allowed to influence public policy?
Reaction to the outcome of the 2016 election illustrates, once again, that the American Ruling Class and its mainstream media sycophants do not trust the Country Class's political judgment. Until the swamp created by the elites is drained, America will continue to be badly divided, much like it was in 1860.