"Effective Populism" - An Introduction
What an "Effective Populism" Can (and Must) Be
Today, Joe Biden will be sworn in as the next President of the United States.
An era has ended.
And yet, the possibilities for populism, held back in the short term, appear to have exploded in the long term. Free from an attachment to Trump (his “Patriot Party” grift notwithstanding), a genuine populism may have space to emerge.
Trump was a seriously weak president, and it is dubious to say he embodied much populism besides the rhetoric. His final failure to pardon individuals like Assange, Ulbricht, and Snowden was a last kick-in-the-balls to the hopeful populist movement he was supposed to represent (and wholly refused to).
So, free from Trump, what does a “real” populism look like? What would an effective populist movement have to be based on? What principles and values would guide it, and what policies would they guide to?
Three Core Pillars of Effective Populism
1. Material > Ideology
Put very simply, the core focus of a populist must be to improve the material well-being of the people. It is perhaps disappointing that we have to dub this “populism”, as this should be the mission of all politicians. Politicians, being our rulers, are not there to be your friend or make you feel good, but rather to meaningfully improve your life. A populist, ironically, must acknowledge that they are a ruler (even if “democratically elected”), and act to fulfill this important duty all rulers have to their subjects.
That may mean sacrificing some Sacred Cows. Perhaps the “Free Market” doesn’t actually lead to the “greatest good for the greatest number” as Adam Smith claimed it does. Perhaps local diversity, on average, tends to lead to worse outcomes than a patchwork of more homogenous neighborhoods/locales within an otherwise diverse country. Perhaps the claims behind “free trade” are largely B.S. Perhaps immigration has deleterious effects on the social fabric beyond its dubious impacts on wages and GDP growth. Perhaps libertarian “freedom” is a sham and “anti-business” frequently means “anti-executive”…meaning those “anti-business” proposals might be good for the economy overall. Perhaps seeing people who look like you in positions of power not only does nothing, but this purely aesthetic change simply placates people as nothing materially changes.
Re-orienting around the material well-being of the people does not mean embracing vulgar productivism. GDP arguably doesn’t measure anything that makes life truly worth living. Rather, the focus on material well-being means understanding that many of the ideological commitments each side holds actively make the lives of most people worse. If we want to build a movement focused on making people’s lives better off, we must be willing to ditch any (and possibly all) of our ideological commitments. That demands being humble, and willing to not only start from first principles, but interrogate our first principles themselves. To better understand society and what makes life worth living. Which leads us to pillars 2 and 3…
2. Properly Understanding Power Dynamics, Networks/Institutions, and Incentive Structures
If you follow my substack or my twitter, you are probably tired at this point of me continuously screeching about the need to build alternative institutions. But I will not stop. They are the core of any kind of opposition to a hostile imperial force. Understanding how to build institutions (and especially how to build institutions resilient to the kinds of power Blue Empire is willing to exert/deploy) is critical.
Beyond this, the Populist must acknowledge a distinction between two forms of power: Material and Formal. I summarized this distinction before in this way:
One can centralize decision-making through the centralization of authority, without necessarily centralizing material power to as much of an extent.
Freedom does not exist when material power is concentrated and decision making is formally distributed to the people, allowing an oligarchy to launder their interests through the legitimization scheme of “voting”. Freedom exists when material power is distributed, and all decision makers in the polity are visible/de-obfuscated and able to be held accountable.
In effect, the Populist, in service of improving the lives of the people as any good ruler is bound to do, must bear a commitment to distributing material power while formalizing and de-obfuscating decision-making power.
In a move that seems contradictory but is actually wholly synergistic, the Populist must be a defender of Localism and distributed material power, while simultaneously centralizing formal decision-making power in order to improve accountability. The centralized formal power makes it clear who is responsible for policies, and the distributed material power (especially in terms of ownership and weapons) allows for meaningful resistance to bad policies. Without accountability, actors hostile to distributed material power and localism can act in the shadows, slowly centralizing material power while evading organized resistance against them. Accountability, and therefore centralized decision-making, must accompany distributed material power.
Finally, populists must also conceptualize society in terms of incentive structures. We must understand what our policies incentivize people to do. This goes hand-in-hand with the abandonment of ideology in the face of a renewed commitment to the VALUE of improving people’s lives. If we want to improve the lives of the people, we need to identify what actually improves their lives (and that is usually not what gets celebrated in the public sphere) and set policies that generate incentive structures that push people towards these improved lives. Cries of “paternalism” will be silenced by noting no government is neutral, and that all governments/policies enforce some kind of incentive structure. In that case, the final pillar of what populism must accomplish is to present a reason why this particular set of policies is superior to alternatives…
3. Presenting a Positive Vision for the Future
One of the more damning critiques of both Left and Right is its failure to provide a substantive moral vision or a compelling aesthetic vision:
No Substantive Moral Vision:
Neither the Left nor Right appears capable of articulating a substantive moral vision (“what should I do”, “what is a good life?”, “what does it mean for me to have ‘dignity’”, “what goods truly matter/should I pursue?”, etc.) that both: A) extends meaningfully beyond Liberalism, and B) is not simply a retvrn to a previous historical state with all the contradictions that implied. The few segments of the Right that pass A, almost uniformly fail B. Everyone else on the “Right” appears incapable of grasping that conservatism is the abused and battered wife of capitalism, and that “liberty” is not a substantive moral vision. And perhaps the single most damning argument against the Left (broadly speaking) is its inability to articulate a positive moral vision of the future besides what amounts to Red Liberalism.
No Compelling Aesthetic Vision:
This goes hand in hand with a lack of a moral vision (Charles Taylor calls these both “strong evaluations”), but fundamentally, there is little compelling about these visions beyond vague, hand-waving niceties. Honestly, this is significantly more of a problem for the Left than the Right. The Right at least possesses some elements that produce highly compelling aesthetic visions, with a focus on family, community, architecture, etc. The Left…well…let’s just say “luxury gay space communism” is not a compelling aesthetic vision for anyone who graduated high school. It’s a meme (and that’s fine).
If you want to begin to convince people of your position, you need both a serious positive aesthetic *and* moral vision. You cannot continue to define yourselves solely negatively, railing against the oppressive/evil Other. You can rail against the oppressive Other all you want, but eventually people will ask what your alternative is AND (more importantly) WHY THEY SHOULD BELIEVE IN IT. Far too few "radicals" possess serious answers to this question.
Charles Taylor calls this tendency for moral ideas to feed on their enemies and require their enemies’ continued existence in order to survive a kind of “parasitism”. Faye calls this “negative legitimization”.
Ultimately, a populist must be willing to build a serious moral and aesthetic vision of the world. You need to present a serious positive picture of what a good life is, what it means to have dignity, and why these goods should be pursued.
As I’ve noted before, changing people’s ideology requires a kind of “immanent critique”: it requires affirming their values and demonstrating how an alternative ideology better serves those values. There will be many people whose values are incapable with those of populism. That is fine. Some of the dominant values in today’s society are incoherent, and their inherent contradictory nature simply needs to be articulated and comprehensively refuted in order to move forward. Other people will simply have coherent, strongly-held disagreements with a populist project. That is fine. But empathy is CRITICAL to building an effective movement. One must be willing to actually LISTEN to other people and understand where they are coming from, if one wants to have any chance to change their positions/opinions.
And a final note: presenting a positive vision needs more than just talk. It means being able to point to at least some local institutions and going “this is the kind of thing I am talking about”. Many people reject alternatives to the current system because they don’t have faith alternatives will work. They may desperately want to believe, but their skepticism wins out. We need to be able to point at working systems. Only then will the end of Blue Empire be easier to imagine than the end of the world (RIP Mark Fisher).
So we’ve laid out the three core pillars of an effective populism. From here, we will need to do a more thorough investigation of the core structural issues affecting our country and world. From there, we can begin to craft a platform of policy proposals that, backed by evidence and reason, can begin to repair our deeply broken society.
This will include a focus on both what a populist politician must do, and what individuals can (and must) do to continue building institutions.
This series will take place over the next 2-3 weeks (projected 5-8 total posts) and I will continue updating this piece as new posts are made.
I hope you all enjoy this and I welcome feedback and debate.
If you would like to support my continued writing, please consider a paid subscription.
Thank you all, and I hope you enjoy the day.
List of Posts in Effective Populism Series:
Post 1: You’re reading it
Post 2: Neoliberalism is Dead. Long Live Neoliberalism.
Post 3: How Perverse Incentive Structures are Ruining Everything.
It's interesting to me how differently I look at this. To me, populism is simply the proposition that government should seek primarily to serve the interests of people who are on the outside of the existing power structures. We have a pretty good idea of how the power structures are currently composed in the United States: Wall Street, Silicon Valley, defense contractors, Big Pharma, issue NGO's, teacher's unions, etc., control government via lobbyists and law firms who control politicians via their ability to finance campaigns and related expenditures.
Both parties have traditionally had their respective bases within those power structures, but it's clear in 2021, to me at least, that the power structure has for now at least largely fused with the Democratic Party, with the Republican Party having been taken over by first the Tea Party then the #MAGA movement, both of which are populist in essence. There are left populists who have tried to similarly take over the Democrats, but the power structure has too firm of a grip and it's not possible. Thus, the power structure is now largely Democratic.
It's still a little early IMHO to do a full post-mortem on Trump, but at this point, I'm focused on a couple of maybe related things: (1) he wasn't/isn't smart enough; and (2) it's not possible to "drain the swamp" entirely, at some point, you have to make friends and allies there. This isn't entirely about Trump either, the GOP as a whole does generally represent that "unrepresented" (i.e. the middle class of middle America), which from an electoral standpoint is certainly not a bad place to start, but the way our democracy works at present, you can't win with just by representing a (theoretical) majority of the electorate. To state the obvious, the power structure has all the power.
Maybe if Trump was a little smarter, he could've figured out a way to defeat the UN, EU, CCP, drug/trafficking cartels, Democrat Party, GOPe, CIA/FBI/DOJ, WHO/CDC, Gates/Bezos/Bloomberg/Soros/Zuckerberg/Dorsey, CNN/MSNBC/Fox/ABC/NBC/CBS/NYT/WaPo, AFl/CIO, NEA, etc., etc. (and in fact he came within a few late night ballot dumps of doing so), but the GOP/populists may need to think about what parts of the power structure are most amenable to the interests of the unrepresented and build some ties. At this point, I have to acknowledge that we don't live in a real democracy as I would define it. We can vote, but the outcomes are fundamentally predetermined and mediated by an unelected power structure that we cannot dislodge. Something has grown up in between the Constitution and our votes and it's for the foreseeable future a permanent feature of our political system. What to do about that is the basic question facing "populism" as I would define it.
I am honestly tired of these stupid fucking essays suggesting idiot political solutions to a hyperpolitical problem. The question of power in America is a different type of problem, with a different solution to match. Stop suggesting answers of pure rhetoric, promises, visions, ect, and start building a political industrial complex that spans beyond just simple policy.