There’s no question that Mr. Bannon identifies the rise of populism with a democratic impulse of sorts. And while it’s a right stance insofar as the sentiment goes, it is also riddled with faulty reasoning. In essence, that’s the key to understanding Mr. Bannon’s confusion.
To understand Mr. Bannon’s dilemma, we need not look any further than the founders. Guided by the political philosophy of John Locke, all were quite leery of according voting rights to the demos – principally a propertyless class residing mostly in the cities – and were dead set against majority rule, which they regarded as mob rule. Of course, democracy was not high on their list of priorities – republic was! Right or wrong, it was purely an elitist viewpoint, clearly at odds with the spirit of democracy.
Mr. Bannon makes his anti-elitist sentiment abundantly clear when he cites, for example, the 2008 bailout of our financial institutions by Obama & company as the single most egregious example of our political class at work. To his mind, this action disregarded overwhelming public opinion to the contrary, for fear that to abide by that opinion would estrange its most prolific donors’ class.
Given this stance, it’s little wonder that populism must have seemed to Mr. Bannon a welcome sigh of relief, especially when contrasted with what had become in effect a rule by the professional/technocratic elites, America’s presumptive visionaries.
In this connection, Thomas Frank’s recent book, Listen, Liberal, is highly instructive. Mr. Frank argues that the Democratic Party’s virtual abandonment of the middle class and its realignment with professional elites is the most critical determinant of its present-day ineptitude. (See, for instance, his video presentation on the subject.)
So where, then, does Mr. Bannon go wrong?
Simply put, it’s in failing to distinguish between the kinds of populist movements that may ensue. Some of them may be entirely in line with Mr. Bannon’s somewhat indiscriminate definition; in contrast, others may be quite harmful to the body politic at large and the general well-being of civil society.
Indeed, just because any given sentiment is a populist one, it doesn’t make it right for the fact. Nor does it make it democratic, as the example of the old South, keen as it was on preserving the institution of slavery even at the risk of incurring civil war, clearly demonstrates. And the same goes, naturally, for any white-supremacist movement, past or present.
How can we improve then on Mr. Bannon’s rather footloose definition of populism without endangering its desirable status as an expression of democracy pure and simple – its voice or will if you like?
First, it would seem that we must avail ourselves here of some independent standard by which to judge the underlying intent of the populist movement under scrutiny. And second, that intent must align itself somehow with the idea of benefitting the entire body politic and the civil society at large if we’re to regard its public expression as bona fide democratic.
For lack of a better term, the standard in question has got to be a moral standard, and a universal one at that, if possible, suggesting thus a rather intricate connection between genuine democracy and (universal) morality. And the intent or the motive underlying a truly democratic populist movement can, therefore, be none other than moral itself. It cannot be whatever’s merely reasonable or prudent, and it definitely cannot be self-serving!
These deliberations only underscore another essential point of note, namely that democracy is an aspirational concept, a concept towards the realization of which we can only aspire – democracy itself representing the ideal. Which, in turn, doesn’t detract any from the authenticity of the democratic practice for being less-than-perfect, since no democracy has ever been perfect; to the contrary, it should only encourage the quest.
What are the preconditions for a genuine democratic practice to unfold and prosper, imperfect as we may find it? To answer this question, we can do no better than go to the source itself, the very cradle of democracy both as a concept and as a practice – pre-Periclean Greece.
Granted, the conditions in Athens and the lesser Greek city-states — e.g., in terms of the demographics, the density of the population residing for the most part in the cities as cultural, semi-industrial and eventually political centers, surrounded by the less well-populated suburbs with agrarian economies to provide the former with material sustenance, etc. — were indeed unique and most conducive to the emergence of direct, which is to say, participatory democracy. And those conditions are unlikely to be replicated ever again. Even so, the Athenian experiment is instructive irrespective of whether participatory or representative democracy is our object of interest.
As part of that experiment, the polis (a city-state) and the citizen (the rightful resident of a city-state) acquire central importance.
(As an important aside, “polis” itself comes from hoi polloi, meaning “the many” or “the people,” while demos are “the people in its most radical, political moment.” Oddly enough, the term “citizen” is of Latin origin, though its content, which is to say its meaning or significance, derived from Greek political practice.)
So here is the crux. The most critical characteristic of a model citizen, aside from having first and foremost the interests of the polis at heart, is that he’ll have become educated or well-informed enough in the course of being engaged in a democratic process to make the right kind of decisions.
Informed and well-meaning citizenry emerges thus as the very foundation of any authentic democratic practice, whether direct or indirect. It’s a foundation in the absence of which any purportedly democratic praxis should be rightly critiqued not just for being imperfect (since no democracy has ever been perfect) but, most importantly, for being a pretense, make-believe. We must regard the “well-meaning” aspect as a given, which brings us to the “informed” part.
And here we must ask: How exactly does a general citizenry become sufficiently educated, or well-informed, if you like, in stately affairs?
Regarding this, we can only surmise. Consider, however, that even at its peak, the Athenian democracy was only 5,000-men tops. It excluded women, non-Greeks, and slaves, of course, from participation in the polis’ affairs. It was a club, a club, to be sure, in which every member was equal to every other member, but a club nonetheless – an elitist club, if you like. That was the fault-line!
What follows is that a great many members of the demos were men of sufficient means and, thus, of considerable leisure, too. Undoubtedly, many may have sought a more formal kind of training, whether in the Lyceum or the Academy, but that’s less important than the type of education we’re talking about, namely civic education. In this respect, the ancient Greeks were dead-right to take it for granted that civic education and well-informed citizenry were bound to result from active participation and engagement in the polis’ affairs.
As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Rousseau’s notion of the general will, the cornerstone of his political philosophy, makes use of the same, perfectly reasonable assumption: that civic education is the direct result of active participation and ongoing engagement on the part of the citizenry in state affairs.
Interestingly, the notion also addresses, however obliquely, the question of the well-intentioned electorate, with its eyes first and foremost on the polis’ well-being.
In so doing, Rousseau hints at some real though highly-elusive connection between genuine democracy and a kind of morality that aspires to universality.
A comparison with Kant, very much influenced by Rousseau’s thought, is instructive as well. Although Kant lends support to universal morality as based on “pure reason” — in that “a reason for one is a reason for all” — he hesitates to apply it to Rousseau’s concept of the general will. He thought Rousseau’s concept self-contradictory and direct democracy as the proper context for its exercise.
(Kant regarded direct democracy as a form of “despotism because it establishes an executive power in which ‘all’ decide for or even against one who does not agree.”)
It should be clear by now where exactly Mr. Bannon’s near-total and unqualified identification of a populist movement with democratic impulse falls short of the mark: The analysis fails to distinguish between the kinds of the populace at hand, in particular between, generally speaking, a well-informed and well-meaning citizenry and that part of the general electorate which is clearly not.
If you think these distinctions purely subjective or arbitrary, think again: In whose interest was it to maintain the institution of slavery? The South, the North, the Union?
Of course, there is the economic argument that North’s interest in abolition stemmed mostly from its need to procure an easily accessible labor pool to man its rapidly growing industrial base, and there may be some truth to that. But there was also another matter at hand, a matter concerning human equality and social justice, and for most abolitionists, that was what mattered the most.
The same goes for any supremacy group, whether white, black, or yellow, in that the interests that are served by such a movement are strictly parochial or tribal, and they’re most definitely self-serving.
Without passing an offhand judgment on whether strictly parochial or tribal concerns are in themselves worthy of pursuit, we might contrast them with interests that are more inclusive in scope in that that they take into account the polity’s general well-being at large. And when subjected to this litmus test, the former do fall short off the mark.
Mr. Bannon’s apparent aversion to all forms of elitism and rule by a technocratic/professional class — indeed, his very opposition to representative democracy as it’s currently practiced – is well taken. And that aversion includes the political class, the de facto representatives of the elites. All are an affront to the spirit of democracy, and he’s right in that.
Naturally, Mr. Bannon seeks a remedy in the emergence of a pervasive populist movement, a movement from the ground up and potential, besides, to become widespread.
That’s his idea of an antidote, an antidote that would set things aright and restore political power to the people, the only apt repository of political power.
Unfortunately, Mr. Bannon embraces the wrong kind of populism to serve his purposes, since a movement that is based almost entirely on a deep-seated anti-immigration sentiment is, as I argued all along, anti-democratic at its core.
For in espousing the politics of resentment and in expressing utter disdain, if not hatred, for all “otherness,” not only does it subvert any authentic democratic practice. What’s far worse, its voice only anticipates what the founders feared the most, the voice of a mob, and its rule mob-rule.
What are we to say concerning the state of the union and of democracy and, generally speaking, the business of governing under present conditions?
In the final analysis, it all comes down to the composition and character of the voting public. It alone is the accurate barometer of the kind of government that ensues. But what do we find when we look at the general electorate circa 2020 if not a seemingly irreconcilable rift and such fundamental questions as our most basic values as a people and a nation. Can we possibly bridge this divide somewhat and restore the fractured demos to a quasi-functional condition, or must we resign ourselves to the present as the new status quo? What are our options?
Let us state at the outset that denouncing one side or the other as “deplorable” is no kind of solution at all, for it precludes any future dialogue and only reinforces the gap. Besides, we’re not talking here about some crazed fringe we could readily ignore, but a significant percentage of the voting public – at least a third by all known accounts. A regime change at both the executive and the legislative levels is also unlikely to produce any immediate results, since rarely can you legislate morality or mandate a change of heart from the top down.
What remains is time itself as the healing factor, and education of course – education prompted by a generational change perhaps – but we’ve already seen that this, too, is no foolproof formula that’s bound to produce the desired outcome. Since the end of the Civil War, the South could have mended its ways, but it’s still up to its old tricks to this very day.
All considering, the best that we can hope for is a gradual change of hearts and minds, a change that would hopefully reduce the ranks of the opposition, fanatical as it may be, to a near fringe, but that’s a long time in waiting. And meanwhile?
Meanwhile, it would seem that we’re stuck with a hopelessly bifurcated electorate, two parts roughly equal in size. Such an electorate can’t even agree on what the facts are, let alone on any matter of substance.
But an electorate that’s bifurcated to this extent can mean only one thing and one thing only – namely, that that there’s no longer “the public” or “We the People” as such. That there’s no longer a common ground or common denominator to which we can appeal. That there is no longer public opinion that would be formidable enough to prevail on the powers-that-be to respond to the electorate’s will.
And in light of this, there is no longer a representative democracy either, nor is there a republic. Instead, there’s only a power elite – the ghost of C. Wright Mills come alive – a dynasty whose reign is likely to be perpetuated election after election, ad infinitum.
Two items deserve mention before I close.
First, our up-to-date analysis doesn’t reference African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, etc. All are people of color, and in the eyes of the white-supremacist/anti-immigration coalition, all constitute “the other.”
Interestingly, only the Jews have been singled out by that cohort during the infamous Charlottesville march. The anti-immigration folk, quite smartly perhaps, had stuck to its guns and targeted only the migrants and the asylum seekers.
Perhaps better sense had prevailed in that the said minorities were already citizens, so there was no use crying over spilled milk. But make no mistake about it: Latent racism is part of the nativist’s mindset.
Antisemitism, for one thing, is but a particular case of racism.
As to some of the “gentler folk,” well, one needs only be reminded here of our president’s references to African nations as “shithole countries.” Or of his call to “The Squad” “to go back to where they came from.” Interestingly, all were women of color and, excepting one, natural-born citizens. Not surprisingly, the call was enthusiastically picked up in the course of Mr. Trump’s subsequent rallies, culminating in an endearing chant to the general merriment of all.
And second, we have limited our analysis thus far to conditions and circumstances peculiar to the United States. Whether these conditions and circumstances are indeed proprietary or merely accidental, whether they’re unique to the US or whether they are to some extent prevalent in other parts of the world – these questions remain to be addressed. Endowed with a global perspective, we may be better able to understand not only what’s going on in our backyard but also the kind of future we’re all likely to face.
I intend to do it in a follow-up article.