Following the Brexit vote, the rise of Donald Trump, and numerous other political trends around the world, I’ve heard two equally plausible narratives for the increase of populist sentiment.
In one version, “the people” populist movements purportedly support are easily misled. While some versions of this narrative are generally dismissive of so-called average people as lazy, stupid, or uninformed, it’s important to note that disparaging “the people” is not required for this narrative to work.
In the UK, for example, Brexit leaders actively misled voters and rescinded key promises shortly after the election. Whether you attribute people’s belief in those promises to mere stupidity or to reasonably placing their faith in political leaders who only later turned out to be corrupt, the net result is roughly the same: there was a failure of popular opinion.
Walter Lippmann, who famously decried populist rule, eloquently summed up the many issues which may lead public opinion astray:
Thus the environment with which our public opinions deal is refracted in many ways, by censorship and privacy at the source, by physical and social barriers at the other end, by scanty attention, by the poverty of language, by distraction, by unconscious constellations of feeling, by wear and tear, violence, monotony. These limitations upon our access to that environment combine with the obscurity and complexity of the facts themselves to thwart clearness and justice of perception, to substitute misleading fictions for workable ideas, and to deprive us of adequate checks upon those who consciously strive to mislead.
Even if you had ideal citizens, Lippmann argues, public opinion should not be trusted: it is simply not possible for even an intelligent, well-informed person to truly understand the nuances of every issue. Add to that the facts that even well-intentioned citizens are too busy to devote significant time to becoming fully educated and that there will always be corrupt leaders seeking to mislead, and it quickly becomes clear that popular opinion ultimately means nothing.
Any derision of the intelligence or ability of average people simply cements this view.
In my charitable reading of Lippmann, he is not a strict technocrat, rather encouraging a system where people engage on this issues that they are informed on and stay silent on issues they know nothing about.
Either way, though, it seems fair to say that Lippmann’s core argument is that “the people” – as a mass entity – should not rule. Today’s proponents of this view point to the rise of populist movements as proof of this claim. There would be far less chaos and instability if educated elites instead orchestrated political matters.
A different narrative comes from the other side: today’s political uncertainty is not the fault of the people; rather the blame lies primarily with elites.
Populist movements may or may not be ultimately good for the people who support them, but just as the first narrative doesn’t require a distain for the people, this narrative doesn’t rely on the validity of certain political outcomes.
Our global economy is in turmoil. People have lost their jobs with little hope of finding a new one or of successfully retraining for the new economy. Feeling trapped and hopeless in the grips of poverty, people are justifiably angry and looking to reclaim a sense of autonomy. Perhaps their electoral choices will relieve their trauma; perhaps they are desperate enough not to care. Perhaps upsetting the system – which has failed them so miserably – is enough. At least that way they know they can still affect something in their lives.
I’ll leave aside here issues of racism or xenophobic nationalism as motivators for these movements. While its no coincidence that hate groups are on the rise in the US and that far-right parties in Europe are flourishing on racist rhetoric, this is a topic which could well cover a whole post on its own.
Furthermore, the issue of racism can similarly be told through these two narratives. On the one side, “the people,” acting out of hate or a sense of dwindling power, are not to be trusted to lead. In the other narrative, the explicit hate professed by some in populist movements can be better interpreted as an expression of the broader, systemic racism we are all complicit in. That is, in the U.S. context, blatantly racist rhetoric may be distasteful, but let’s not pretend that Northern, liberal racism is not a thing. We’ve all got a lot of work to do.
This second narrative is not intrinsically populists, but rather urges an understanding and appreciation for the current actions of large portions of the population. Elites may have led us astray, but it remains uncertain whether “the people” will be able to guide us back.
If the core element of the first narrative is that the people cannot be trusted, the core element of the second is that elites cannot be trusted.
“The people” may have a great deal of flaws, but the greatest destructors of society are elites who assume they know what is best.
The danger of this line of thinking is well described in James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State. The worst disasters of the twenty century, he argues, were brought about by elites who were “uncritical, unskeptical, and thus unscientifically optimistic about the possibilities for the comprehensive planning of human settlement and production.”
Bolstered by power and a weak civil society, leaders around the world engaged in “utopian social-engineering,” audaciously believing that humans generally, and themselves in particular, had the capacity to plan and build a better world.
“The Great Leap Forward in China, collectivization in Russia, and compulsory villagization in Tanzania, Mozambique, and Ethiopia are among the great human tragedies of the twentieth century, in terms of both lives lost and lives irretrievably disrupted,” Scott argues.
What I find interesting about this perspective is that it is less concerned with arguing that elites led us into this mess to begin with, but is deeply concerned with how we get ourselves out of it.
In this narrative, diminishing the power of the broader population may seem like an appealing response to current affairs, but that impulse is incredibly dangerous – even more dangerous than the unfettered rule of the people.
I’m afraid I have no satisfying conclusion to this post, but perhaps that is for the best. If there is one thing Lippmann and Scott have in common it is a distrust of human rationality. Perhaps, in the end, none of us can be trusted.