A Different Reading of Populism

To possess an ideology requires a strong sense of morality and a commitment to an analytical process that is indefatigable, both in the regard that it questions values and assumptions universally, without regard for personal prejudice, and in the regard that its questioning is all-encompassing; it does not waver to account for fatigue or a lack of interest in a particular subject.

In other words, to be an ideologue is a laborious and time-consuming process. The fact that ideology is developed through a process, and is not formed by spur of the moment reactions, ought to be underscored.

These things, though, are antithetical to the turbid emotionalistic fervor that drives the spasms of populism which from time to time convulse the body politic.

But if populism is not an ideology, what is it? And how is its potency to be understood, given that past populist movements have been little more than episodic flare ups of fever, which have dissipated as rapidly as they materialized?

The crux of the issue involves recognizing that populism, though it is understood primarily as an exercise in democratic expression, has nothing whatever to do with politics. Populism is better understood as a reflexive instinct to a perceived threat. It is the modern manifestation of a primeval drive which is fundamental to the nature of man: survival.

The most fundamental characteristic of populist episodes, whenever and wherever they are found, is a moral binary between the aggrieved everyman and the elite aggressor. The aggressor is always malevolent and his actions pose a direct threat to the aggrieved. Populism adopts its inimitable brand of histrionic sophistry from this dichotomy. Its alarmist exigency is driven by the common understanding that to fail to act is to be eradicated, which accounts for the raw emotionalism that makes populism such a potent force.

To understand populism as an innate reflex rather than as a quasi-political form of civic expression is to emphasize the role individuals play in its success. There are many contradictions inherent to populism, not the least of which is that though the very name implies broad, concentrated support amongst the populace of a limited area, its success ultimately hinges on individuals.

Populism cannot occur unless individuals rise up in concert because they perceive the same threat to their existence and anticipate it having similar deleterious effects on their livelihood. It is the individual mind which is then of supreme importance, which is only logical if populism is the handmaiden of self-preservation.

But though populism has an individuated impetus, it is the emphasis this places on localism that is important. Populism, if it is rooted in self-preservation, implies a strong sense of personal autonomy. The only explanation for individuals perceiving the same threat affecting the unique circumstances of their lives in similar manners is many overarching similarities between their situations, and this can only be provided by community.

Localism gives populism the little formal organization it possesses. The intricate relationships which give community its form provide a framework against which change is measured. To threaten the organism of local civic life is to plunge the individuals inhabiting it to the threat of the unknown, wherein lie risks with incalculable power to do harm. Civic and social organizations which bind men together; they are formed by the relationships individuals need in order to procure the means that sustain them. Any change upends the balance of society and therefore potentially removes a staple of local life, thus representing a threat to individual welfare.

Populism loses its individual focus and becomes a more communally-oriented endeavor to preserve a way of life, and this is when politics enters the framework. The desire to preserve has expanded beyond the individual to include the environment upon which the individual depends for survival. Personal wellbeing becomes entangled with the welfare of the community, and more specifically, with civic organizations.

Since the threat against which populism revolts evolves to become primarily civic, it is through the same channel that those who feel threatened fight back. Thus, populist movements ultimately become political, and to their detriment.

The fear of agents external to the community, and what they in their ignorance of its modes of behavior might do to undermine local culture, drives populism. Yet, political populist movements ultimately trends towards becoming cults of personality. Certainly, they rely on figureheads whose colloquial rhetoric and tear-choked exhortations on behalf of the forgotten people contribute to the histrionic tone which defines populist movements. Those most notable include William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, George Wallace and Donald Trump. For the most successful of these people’s champions, the movement becomes subsumed by their advocacy for its members.

And it is this which ultimately dooms populism. Lacking substance to begin with, the loss of focus on local politics strips the center of the movement. Local identity is the heart of populism, but it is impossible for this to continue to be so under a figurehead.

Paradoxically, it is the fear of a loss of agency which catalyzes populist backlash, but ultimately adherents of populist movements sell themselves into bondage. They exchange their autonomy and voice for a champion, a politician who represents their interest among the elites.

Ultimately, populism is not about real independence. It is about security in having a leader whose sympathies are with those accustomed to a certain way of living, in whom the populace places faith to promote their interests above all else.

And this says something about social judgments: they are subjective. At its most fundamental level, individual judgment is objective, if somewhat didactic. The “good” and “bad” dichotomous worldview is the product of man’s ability to progress but inability to shirk his survival instinct. Anything that promotes his survival is “good,” and vice versa. But there are murky lines of demarcation in society. In social and political interactions, it is often difficult to tell where one man’s interests run into another’s; it can be even more difficult to distinguish between rights and interest. Values held in common are therefore best based in more absolute matters, those which relate to the welfare of the community.

But this requires seeing society, which is nothing more than the sum total of the interaction of its members, as a self-encompassing entity which functions much like an individual, hence the propensity towards leaders with strong-qualities. These speak well to the primitive instinct of survival.

In Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli outlined a similar phenomenon, positing that:

“variations in government among men are born by chance, for at the beginning of the world the inhabitants were few, and lived for a time dispersed and like beasts: later as the generations multiplied they gathered together, and in order to be able better to defend themselves they began to seek among themselves the one who was most robust and of greater courage, and made him their head and obeyed him. From this there arose the knowledge of honest and good things; differentiating them from the pernicious and evil; for seeing one man harm his benefactor there arose hate and compassion between men, censuring the ingrates and honoring those who were grateful, and believing also that these same injuries could be done to them, to avoid like evils they were led to make laws, and institute punishments for those who should contravene them; whence came the cognition of justice.”

There are obvious parallels between this behavior and that of populist movements. Individual identity is tied less to values and more to the ability to survive. This comes to be understood through the goods and services available to communal living; survival becomes redefined; it is not literal bodily survival which is of primary concern, but the ability to “thrive,” to live at a certain level of comfort. But some sense of individual agency is lost in translation, and it is further eroded by populist’s adoption of a figurehead whose character is selected as the best representative of those values which the community feels are integral to its existence. The individual, though it is the impetus of populism, is ultimately subsumed by it.


Originally published at The Politics of Discretion.