Anti-Populism, Smug Centrism and the Defense of Elitism

Both the leadership of the Democratic Party and the “moderate” wing of the Republican Party seem obsessed with challenging Trumpism by calling for a return to a mythical political “center” and by elevating “elitism” as an antidote to “populism.” This while the political “center” under Trump means scapegoating our nation’s problems to Muslims, Mexicans and liberals while prosecuting leftists for confrontations against a rising tide of neo-fascism.

I am an absolutist on free speech issues, and don’t support violence by anyone at any political demonstrations, but centrist elitism is encouraging a wave of political repression against so-called “extremists” by the federal government under Trump. So far the targets are anti-fascist anarchists and political leftists.

The strategy of centrist elitism was criticized back in 2016 by London Guardian reporter Jason Wilson (2/23/16), based in Portland, Oregon:

There’s an easy confidence here in the persistence of liberal democracy as an institutionally robust fact that can only be undone by the decisive triumph of extremists. There’s a sense that politics is a binary — an on-off switch between democracy and tyranny — and not a complex, moving, historical system…. I don’t share these sentiments. I would even go so far as to say that they are complacent and potentially dangerous.

Boston Globe Magazine: If The Elites Go Down, We're All in Trouble

(Boston Globe Magazine, 10/5/17)

An example of the tendency is a major opinion essay by Neil Swidey, a featured story in the Boston Globe Magazine (10/5/17) under the headline: “If the Elites Go Down, We’re All in Trouble.” The lengthy subhead explains:

Self-Proclaimed Populists Love to Blame ‘Over-Educated Know-It-Alls’ for the Government’s Ills. Now the Scapegoating Has Taken a Dangerous Turn.

While the focus was “anti-elitism,” the essay was built around the race for the presidency by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders—both seen by centrists as political outsiders who use populist rhetoric and are threatening to the stability of democracy. As long as the Republicans field candidates who use nativist and exclusionist populist rhetoric, this issue needs some depth-charging.

Swidey’s core theme was that the anti-elitism of populist political movements poses a threat to civil society in the United States: “There are enormous consequences for us all when we can’t, or don’t, lean on tested people steeped in knowledge to guide the government.”

Wilson, writing on the Medium website, (2/23/16), counters that to “see that danger, you need to ditch the ‘centrist/extremist’ political model that is still common sense among liberals, and which arises from pessimistic liberal accounts of populism from the likes of Daniel Bell and Seymour Martin Lipset.” According to Wilson:

This model errs by taking it for granted that the existing political order delivers on its promises by embodying reason and democracy. It errs further by erasing the legitimate grievances that “fringe” groups co-opt [and] ignores the way in which a formal liberal democracy can be pushed and prodded into scapegoating particular groups, into illiberalism, and into reversing progressive gains.

Wilson notes that back in 2000, Matthew N. Lyons and I based our book Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort on this argument:

A standard premise is that the US political system has an essence of democracy and freedom—a vital center of pragmatism, rationality, and tolerance—but that this essence is threatened by extremists from the left and right. This centrist/extremist model, as we call it, obscures the rational choices and partially legitimate grievances that help to fuel right-wing populist movements, and hides the fact that right-wing bigotry and scapegoating are firmly rooted in the mainstream social and political order.

Richard Hofstadter

Richard Hofstadter

In his essay, the Globe’s Swidey cites as his expert the late Richard Hofstadter, a respected historian who wrote the 1962 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and the famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter, Swidey writes, “argued…that resentment against elites was an important driver behind the years of support that Senator Joe McCarthy enjoyed for his red-baiting witch hunts.”

Hofstadter had much of value to say, but he and his political-center cohorts of the 1960s made some assumptions that have been disputed or displaced by more recent research and a pile of critical analysis. Swidey’s discussion, however, pays no attention to most contemporary social science which dismisses the claim that it was populists who created the McCarthyist witch hunts.

That critique includes books like Michael Paul Rogin’s 1967 The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter, Margaret Canovan’s Populism in 1980, and Rogin’s 1987 Ronald Reagan, the Movie: and Other Episodes in Political Demonology. These and other books and studies argue that elites and political centrists’ focus on demonizing challenges from the left and right draws a false equivalence that serves to bolster the establishment.

In his lengthy treatise defending elitism, Swidey spends few words on the populism of Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, focusing overwhelmingly on Trump, as candidate and president. Swidey is offended that:

Trump managed to ride his rowdy, anti-elite rallies into the White House, despite being an Ivy League-educated son of privilege whose home bathroom has 24-karat-gold fixtures and who, as a child, sometimes relied on his chauffeur to drive him along his paper route.

Great imagery: There often is an aspect of anti-elitism in populist rhetoric on both left and right. We clearly heard calls to “throw the bums out” in the shouts of Trump supporters, sparked in part by Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” that harbored DC’s career bureaucrats. But this promise from right-wing populists, including Trump, is a hypocritical dodge. As we have seen, Trump is replacing liberal “elites” and career government employees with right-wing elites and ideologues favored by his billionaire backers. This isn’t anti-elitism—it is a political purge.

Swidey does hit the mark when he writes:

Of course, the establishment elites are not blameless. Over the years, many of them made confident predictions, about everything from free trade agreements to Middle East strategy, that turned out to be disastrously wrong.

But Swidey pivots from noting legitimate critiques of elites to drawing a dubious equivalence between Trump and Sanders:

After all, it wasn’t just Trump who brilliantly tapped into anti-elite sentiment in the 2016 campaign and turned it into electoral success. So did Bernie Sanders, a septuagenarian socialist who managed to win 23 primaries and caucuses and 13.2 million votes.

Andrew Jackson

President Andrew Jackson: not educated, but a member of the elite nonetheless.

What Trump and Sanders have in common—as was widely reported in the news media—was not anti-intellectualism, but the use of populist rhetoric. Swidey acknowledges this when he reports that President-Elect Trump (1/18/17) compared himself to the historic populist President Andrew Jackson at a dinner held “not long after [Trump’s] own populist-fueled win.”

Anti-intellectualism, however, is not necessarily a core component of all types of populism. Swidey, describing the 1828 presidential race, identifies Jackson as “a coarse, uneducated war hero (and Indian tormenter) able to tar the incumbent president as an out-of-touch elite.” Jackson is better described as a pro-slavery white nationalist who got elected through the use of “nativist” populist rhetoric aimed at white voters.

John Nichols in The Nation (5/1/17) noted Jackson’s genocidal “Indian Removal Act” that targeted the “Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole nations.” Referring to Jackson as “coarse” and “uneducated” glosses over the fact that Jackson was a member of the South’s slavocracy elite. As Nichols reports, “At the time of his death in 1845, Jackson owned approximately 150 people who lived and worked on the property.”

Somehow in the course of Swidey’s article, the concepts of “elite” and “expert” and “populism” and “anti-intellectualism” are commingled in an inappropriate suggestive tangle. This is a rhetorical bait-and-switch. He observes that “Trump appointed the richest Cabinet in history, featuring many [Cabinet] secretaries who have absolutely no experience with the departments he has asked them to run.” This would make them privileged “elites” by common standards, but acknowledging them as such wouldn’t serve Swidey’s purposes.

Swidey swipes at Trump’ early appointees, arguing that “while the word elite had once connoted wealth and breeding, the right-leaning agitators behind this crusade — many of whom were wealthy themselves — worked to redefine it.”

True again, but Swidey joins in the redefinition by treating the term “elite” as if it had the same meaning as people with “expertise.” And experts are good for governance, therefore appointing elites is good. Nowhere does Swidey mention that in the real world, “elites” generally have wealth and power—but do not necessarily have any expertise. But in Swidey’s view, experts are good for the nation (often true), therefore elites are good for the nation (often false). Trump and his appointees prove the latter is a ludicrous claim.

Swidey then complains:

While most of us were ignoring the long anti-elite crusade that began as a cynical attempt to paint opposing politicians as arrogant East Coast dilettantes, it morphed into a far more dangerous jihad against expertise at any level of government.

I’m no fan of the Trump administration purging federal agencies of experienced staff, but similar purges were carried out during the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush and George W. Bush. Administrators and staff were squeezed out, replaced with ideologically conservative and libertarian appointees. Why is it now “dangerous” under Trump? Is it because Trump is an “outsider” and not part of what Bostonians recognize as the “proper” elites trained in prestigious ivory towers and being groomed for centrist political power?

Swidey suggests:

None of this would have been cause for alarm if these [Trump] appointees had followed the lead of inexperienced Cabinet secretaries in previous administrations and leaned heavily on the deep bench of experts within their departments. Administrations come and go, but the government has always relied on career people with expertise in their subject areas, thanks to their extensive education, training, and hands-on experience.

The problem for Swidey, apparently, is that Trump is appointing Cabinet secretaries and agency administrators and staff who do not come from the ranks of elite universities—as the “new proxies for elitism” established by the right “notably” included “education at liberal Ivy League colleges”—and who fall outside the ideological boundaries established by centrist Democrats and centrist Republicans. Furthermore, the subtext of the entire article is that only centrist elites preserve “expertise” in government and defend democracy from the rabble.

This self-aggrandizing claim favored by political centrists was the main motif of a series of books and essays appearing in the late 1950s and early 1960s, analyzing the growth of social and political movements on the left and right. Many of these explorations took a position critical of the progressive People’s Party populist movement of the late 1800s. Others analyzed the failed 1964 presidential campaign of uber-conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater and his supporters in the John Birch Society. Hofstadter was the best of the lot, yet coming out of this research overall was the idea that American democracy was besieged by “extremists of the left and right,” who were incapable of working within civil society in a democracy that was best guarded by educated elites in the political center.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King

The thesis of the ideal political center gave a veil of legitimacy to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies that spied on, infiltrated and disrupted groups labeled as “extremist.” Just as the Ku Klux Klan of the 1960s was labelled an “extremist” group, so were the more militant civil rights groups, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Martin Luther King responded to the charge that he was an “extremist” in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (4/16/63), chastising other religious leaders who cautioned him to not be so confrontational.

The concept of “extremism” was a construct of scholars comfortable in their self-perception as being in an idealized political center (Huffington Post, 5/25/17). Where is the political center in the United States today? The political center is a moveable beast.

Jerome L. Himmelstein, an Amherst sociology professor and author of To the Right: The Transformation of American Conservatism (1992), argues the term “extremism” is at best a characterization that “tells us nothing substantive about the people it labels,” and at worst “paints a false picture.”

So there are two intertwined assertions in Swidey’s unstated reliance on centrist/extremist theory. One is that anti-intellectualism is a key aspect of populism; and the second is that populism inherently disrupts civil society in a “dangerous” way. Cas Mudde, a leading contemporary scholar of populism in the United States and Europe, challenges the claims of Hofstadter and his colleagues that characterize populism as a “pathology of democracy,” especially Hofstadter’s characterization of populism as a “paranoid style” of politics.

Too much current journalism on Trump and populism is just lazy, and doesn’t reflect evolving understandings of the phenomenon. Michael Kazin’s The Populist Persuasion (1995) reframed populism as a rhetorical style. Hans Georg Betz (1994) explored the growth of populism in Europe. Roger Griffin included populist aspects in his highly regarded redefinition of fascism.

The University of Georgia’s Mudde, now the leading scholar of populism, defines it (Guardian, 2/17/15) as a Manichean ideology that divides society into “two homogeneous and antagonistic groups: ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite,’ and argues that politics should represent the general will of ‘the people’”:

The relationship between populism and liberal democracy is complex and includes the good, the bad and the ugly. The main good is that populism brings to the fore issues that large parts of the population care about, but that the political elites want to avoid discussing; think about immigration for the populist right or austerity for the populist left. The main bad is that populism is a…moralist ideology, which denies the existence of divisions of interests and opinions within “the people” and rejects the legitimacy of political opponents.

Mudde (Huffington Post, 3/20/17) notes that the term populism is “used in many different ways, mostly devoid of any clear definition.” He suggests that it today the term “populism” is generally used to refer to irresponsible or untraditional politics, such as promising everything to everyone or speaking in a folksy way. Neither is specific to populism, and both are in fact rather widespread in political campaigning more generally.

Nativist populism (or exclusionary populism, as it is sometimes called) is promoting white and Christian ethnic states in Europe, and is the reigning theory of some of President Trump’s early team of advisors, such as Steve Bannon and his allies in the alt-right networks (Political Research Associates, 1/20/17).

As Lyons and I warned in our book, the “danger associated with right-wing populism comes not from its real or potential bids for power, or even from its day-to-day violence and bigotry, but from its interactions with other political forces and the government.” Our current dangerous political crisis was crafted by the wealthy neoliberal elites controlling both major political parties. They designed the current tax system to be their personal cash machine. Swidey wants to blame the grassroots victims of this theft for their anger, which Trump exploited with his right-wing populist rhetoric that shifts the blame away from the centers of power to traditionally scapegoated groups in the United States, including blacks, immigrants, Jews, leftists and feminists—and now add Muslims and Mexicans.

The solution is not to flock toward elites who defend the political center against needed reforms. Mudde puts it like this:

If we want to truly understand contemporary politics, and protect liberal democracy, it is time we focus on all aspects of the populist radical right challenge, including from inside the political establishment, not just on the populism of the outsiders. Because under the cover of fighting off the “populists,” the political establishment is slowly but steadily hollowing out the liberal democratic system.

Swidey is on target when noting Trump is undermining the need for expertise in our nation’s capital, especially inside government agencies. But the problem is neither anti-elitism nor populism. The problem is the elite “experts” project to gut government regulatory and tax powers in pursuit of greedster free-market profits.


This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.