Populism, Politics and Governance

A necessary and fascinating debate is now beginning to emerge in the Left blogs about the role of populism in politics and governance. Max Sawicky, Matt Yglesias and atrios have interesting thoughts on this. But I really like Stirling Newberry's take:

Populism is the easiest to make the case for, we would all like to believe that what we do is for "the people". But history . . . shows - it is far from easy to separate out what is good for "the people" from what is good for "my people", who are not "your people". . . The reason for this is that populism desires, even demands, that actions taken be consonant with the emotional logic of the public at large. . . .

I have argued the following on populism and governance:

A few weeks ago in my post What Obama Needs To Learn, I wrote:

[T]hat is FDR's lesson for Obama. Politics is not a battle for the middle. It is a battle for defining the terms of the political debate. It is a battle to be able to say what is the middle. . . . FDR governed as a liberal but politicked like a populist. When LBJ rightly and to his everlasting credit removed one of the Dem pillars of paranoia - racism, the GOP co-opted populist racism, added the Jeffersonian notion of government and institutional hatred, throw in a dash of paranoid Red scare, now terrorism scare, and you get political victories. The lesson of Hofstadter is to embrace liberal governance and understand populist politics. It may sound cynical, but you must get through the door to govern. Lincoln knew this. FDR knew this. Hofstadter knew this. I hope Obama can learn this.

A debate about populism has been ongoing among some very smart folks. Brad DeLong has been in the middle of it, in particular in debate with Paul Krugman:

. . . DeLong describes one of his disagreements with Krugman as follows:

Right now Paul Krugman and I seem to have two disagreements. . . . Second, while I am profoundly, profoundly disappointed and disgusted by the surrender of the reality-based wing of the Republican policy community to the gang of Republican political spivs who currently hold the levers of power, I do think that there is hope that they will come to their senses and that building pragmatic technocratic policy coalitions from the center outward will be possible and is our best chance.

Paul, I think, believes otherwise: The events of the past decade and a half have convinced him, I think, that people like me are hopelessly naive, and that the Democratic coalition is the only place where reality-based discourse is possible. Thus, in his view, the best road forward to (a) make the Democratic coalition politically dominant through aggressive populism, and then (b) to argue for pragmatic reality-based technocratic rather than idealistic fantasy-based ideological policies within the Democratic coalition.

He may well be right.

It is not clear to me that the idea that the Republican Party may return to its senses is incompatible with the political prescription Krugman advances. Indeed, as I described earlier, the political prescription Krugman advances is, in my view, FDR liberalism, both as to policy and politics.

I have previously argued that Richard Hofstadter has provided us a roadmap for the political psyche of our nation. With this insight, like Digby, I argue for a politics of contrast that not only highlights what Dems are about, but also highlights what Republicans are about. This view has placed me in conflict with the Lakoffian view of outreach to conservatives, as I advocate an agressive negative branding of conservatism and Republicanism - to wit, to an attempt to redefine the political middle.

Democrats are reclaiming their common man populist brand. But governance, as Stirling points out, can not be pure populism. Because "populism desires, even demands, that actions taken be consonant with the emotional logic of the public at large." But that does not lead to the right policies. The values of populism we must embrace but not necessarily the kneejerk policy prescription that populism, in its emotional logic, leads to. Populism identifies the goals, not the prescriptions.

I point to FDR's political use of populism coupled with his pragmatic problem solving approach to reaching the goals and values of populism without the kneejerk embrace of its emotional logic:

[O]ne overlooked insight of Hofstadter that is highlighted and yet curiously devalued by Professor Wilentz. To me it holds one of the central principles of a triumphant liberalism, one that even today's conservatives can not challenge:

The Age of Reform's greatest achievement, often overlooked, is in its reappraisal of the New Deal, reviving and reinforcing the more positive passages in The American Political Tradition. Whereas most historians (and many New Dealers) saw Roosevelt's reforms as a continuation of Populism and Progressivism, Hofstadter affirmed the New Deal as a sharp break with the past. The old sentimental, quixotic, and self-deluding forays against capitalism gave way to Keynesian policy and the provision of social welfare. Nineteenth-century individualism and anti-monopolism fell before a fuller appreciation of the inevitable size and scope of American business. Cities and urban life, including the party political machines, which had been the bane of Jeffersonian liberalism, became an accepted, even vaunted element in the New Deal coalition. Under FDR, in short, American liberalism came of age.

Following the long-term abandonment, at least philosophically, of New Deal liberalism by both major political parties, Hofstadter's account of the New Deal's spirit repays a new look--not as an exercise in nostalgia but in order to help recover and refurbish a suppressed but still essential American political tradition. . . . Hofstadter called the New Deal's "chaos of experimentation" as a sign of vibrancy, not weakness . . . For that, apart from everything else, Hofstadter's book retains some of its old luster--and has even acquired a new urgency.

Wilentz is both incisive and dull in this passage. Incisive in recognizing the sharp break that the New Deal represented and dull in misunderstanding that while the ideals of the progressive movements that predated The New Deal nourished it, the fundamental rethinking of the role of government, particularly the federal government was, in many ways, revolutionary. . . .

How did FDR do it and can Democrats defend FDR liberalism today? Maybe not by calling it FDR liberalism but they surely can and do when they have the courage of their convictions. The most prominent of these instances was the fight to save Social Security Faced with Media hostility, Republican demagogy and flat out lies, Democrats rallied to the FDR liberalism banner and crushed the Republican attempts to roll back the clock. FDR would have been proud of Democrats in that fight. No triangulation. Good old fashioned political populism won the day.

Yglesias views populism as a bargaining chip. This is completely wrong. Populism is the political device by which Democrats proclaim their values, their brand. It can not be the basis of the mechanics of policymaking - rather it tells us what we are, what we believe in and what we want. Hardheaded pragmatism and fact based analysis then lead us to the policies that best forward those values. Max Sawicky invests populism with an intellectual vigor that it does not possess in my view. I think they are both wrong and that FDR got it right. I think Stirling gets it right too.

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    Tough call... (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by Edger on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 01:08:35 PM EST
    populism desires, even demands, that actions taken be consonant with the emotional logic of the public at large. . . .

    Who decides what the greatest good for the greatest number is? How would you go about giving the population what they want instead of what they think they want without seeming or being arrogant and being out of touch with what they actually want. Would you not end up treating them like children by trying not to treat them as children, IOW?

    Oooh, oooh (4.50 / 2) (#3)
    by aw on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 01:40:50 PM EST
    I think I want more fake journalists on tv, more theme parks and fake cities, fat-free junk food, a heated/cooled cup holder in my new minvan, and a pony.

    Seriously, we need better information.  Real journalism, the kind that teaches.  How else can most people know what the possibilities are?  When science teachers turn down free copies of An Inconvenient Truth because they don't want to offend their sponsor, ExxonMobil, we need to first break through the censorship.  We need better educated citizens.  So, okay, I guess that would be one of my populist wishes.  Better schools producing educated citizens who know how government is supposed to work.


    Yes (4.00 / 1) (#5)
    by JSN on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 02:21:55 PM EST
    Local news is disappearing as we speak. To increase profits they have converted new space to advertising and have cut their local new staff to the bone. The get the state, national and other news from the web or wire services.

    Even worse, JSN, is that many... (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by Bill Arnett on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 02:39:56 PM EST
    ...stations buy "pre-packaged news" which is used by our government to spread bush propaganda while making it appear as a genuine "news" item.  bush spent about 2.9 BILLION dollars last year for propaganda for both the American market and for overseas consumption.

    Big pharma and other corporations use the same technique, so the hapless TV station owner can either pay for more real reporting, or just write an intro into the "prepared" news to make it seem as if the station developed the report.

    Dishonest at best, eh?


    Critical misunderstanding (1.00 / 1) (#7)
    by Gabriel Malor on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 02:57:39 PM EST
    You miss a critical point. The government does not sell video news releases and consequently, news organizations do not buy them. It gives them away (just like live press conferences and paper news releases and talking points releases). The same goes for "Big pharma and other corporations."

    So-called "hapless TV station owners" are free to choose whether to publish such releases or not. Generally, the government is required to disclose that it is the source of the release. In fact, two government agencies got in trouble for failing to make clear in the actual release itself (rather than simply telling the television-distributor) that they were the source.

    As far as corporate releases go, TV news also has the ability to choose. And I'm certain that a paragon of civil rights such as yourself wouldn't dare ignore the free speech rights implications of prohibiting corporate press releases.

    As far as actual buying and selling of news, sounds to me like a pretty good description of the relationship between TV news, newspapers, and internet news sources and AP and Routers. Neither of which could under any stretch of the imagination be said to "spread bush propaganda."


    So-called... (5.00 / 2) (#8)
    by Edger on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 03:09:03 PM EST
    ..."hapless TV station owners" are free to choose whether to publish such releases or not.

    Of course they are. Free to cut themselves off from future news releases from the government by refusing to publish or air them. Free to give competitive advantage to news organizations that play along with the government.

    Freedom is slavery. Right. I get it.


    edger...that's really funny.... (none / 0) (#17)
    by jimakaPPJ on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 05:39:51 PM EST
    how can you stop laughing long enough to type such a claim??

    You do like to seize on molehills (5.00 / 2) (#9)
    by aw on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 03:12:20 PM EST
    and make them into mountains, Gabriel.  The discussion (at least the little one we've been having here in comments) is about populism and propaganda and censorship.  We don't really care how the video news releases get distributed, only that they do, and that they are used to misinform or to selectively inform viewers/citizens.  They are one more tool for those who want our thinking to go in the direction desired by the powers that be, whether they own or sponsor or benefit from the medium.  

    aw writes: (1.00 / 1) (#18)
    by jimakaPPJ on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 05:43:27 PM EST
    We don't really care how the video news releases get distributed,

    And that's the problem. Your basic approach on everything is, let someone else do it.

    Got a war fight... don't draft me!

    The ultimate consumer.


    Huh? (5.00 / 1) (#20)
    by aw on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 06:08:37 PM EST
    [aw scratches head, picks up glass, moves down to the other end of the bar.]

    Oh, yeah, the fact that they are GIVEN... (5.00 / 2) (#11)
    by Bill Arnett on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 03:35:42 PM EST
    ...to a station and the station uncritically uses them makes it MUCH MORE HONEST than if they paid, huh?

    And you really should keep away from personal attacks such as this, which are sarcastically inept ways of offering insult:

    And I'm certain that a paragon of civil rights such as yourself wouldn't dare ignore the free speech rights implications of prohibiting corporate press releases.

    Very puerile in a "not so clever" way as I have never held myself forth as a "paragon" of anything, lacking your ego and propensity to over value your own opinions

    Propaganda spread in this fashion is just as disgusting as any other.

    And your naivete regarding the "spread[ing] of bush propaganda" is really amusing. No agency "got in trouble" for spreading bush propaganda as they continue to do so with impunity after being warned it was illegal, the illegality of which the bush maladministration strongly questions. No regulatory agency has enforced any kind of penalty whatever against any station or entity for the spreading of bush propaganda.

    Go read this for a list of fifty "propaganda/disinformation" campaigns pursued by this maladministration and the offices set up in the Pentagon to help spread bush garbage. And try using "the google" before spouting off.


    He's just... (5.00 / 1) (#12)
    by Edger on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 03:43:12 PM EST
    ...trolling. Not very well, either.

    I know. I think he has assumed an... (none / 0) (#13)
    by Bill Arnett on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 05:00:21 PM EST
    ...undeserved superiority 'cause he's a law student (I've been there, done that) as exhibited


    I responded Here.

    No biggie.


    and for some reason the links don't work. (none / 0) (#14)
    by Bill Arnett on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 05:02:08 PM EST
    Because you took them from... (none / 0) (#15)
    by Edger on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 05:09:49 PM EST
    ...his name and your name. You need to take them from the comment numbers ate the end of the subject lines. e.g.(#14)

    Fortunately... (4.00 / 1) (#10)
    by Edger on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 03:19:19 PM EST
    ...Not All White House Reporters Are Pushovers:
    At 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., reporters usually shuffle along to a snoozy beat. But anyone who denigrates the mainstream media in general, or the White House press corps in particular, should acknowledge that exceptional journalists do strive to ask deeper questions while most colleagues go through the motions.
    ome people like to play "Hail to the Chief." I would prefer to say "Hail to the dean of the Washington press corps -- Helen Thomas." She knows that asking truly tough questions involves a lot more than echoing partisan ping-pong.
    In a speech at MIT a couple of months ago, Helen Thomas told the audience: "I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter." Media professionals are frequently unwilling to say in public what they know in private. When a mainstream journalist breaks out of self-censorship, the public benefits.

    --January 9, 2003  

    Helen Thomas (1.00 / 1) (#19)
    by jimakaPPJ on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 05:44:44 PM EST
    was a reporter? Who knew?

    Helen Thomas (5.00 / 2) (#21)
    by Repack Rider on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 06:28:00 PM EST
    Helen Thomas has more cojones, of a higher quality copper-tin-nickel alloy, than any five male press corpse members.  If she and Stephen Colbert could ask all the questions, the rest could go home.

    If we had more like her we would have fewer like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, etc. and the world would be a better place.

    Do you think that it is RUDE of a reporter to ask a tough question?   Isn't that supposed to be the reporter's DUTY?


    Falling ratings (none / 0) (#16)
    by jimakaPPJ on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 05:37:55 PM EST
    Did you ever stop to think that the Internet and falling ratings might have something to do with that?

    YES!!!!!!!!!!!! (none / 0) (#4)
    by Edger on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 01:52:36 PM EST
    Real journalism, the kind that teaches... better educated citizens... Better schools...

    Way to go, aw!!!


    It's definitional. (none / 0) (#2)
    by Gabriel Malor on Mon Nov 27, 2006 at 01:29:28 PM EST
    I think Edger's getting at the mechanics of populist government. If we get populist leaders, we will need to answer those questions.

    However, I think what BTD is saying is that he doesn't want to see the "knee-jerk policy prescriptions" of populist government. Which leads me wondering why he's interested in claiming the "political device" of the populist "brand."