Against Populism ?

Photograph Source: Kevin Dooley – CC By 2.0

American politics is on dangerous turf. With or without Donald Trump holding the office of the Presidency, the efforts by elites to replace democracy with populism will continue. The problem with populism is that it acts as a replacement for democracy. Rather than human beings having rights or power they instead are granted cultural representation.

Indeed Donald Trump has captured the American media precisely because he has shifted discourse completely out of politics and completely into culture. The end result of such a game is the media calling Donald Trump a populist while he refuses to engage in democracy.

One of the problems with populism is that unlike democracy it does not rely on direct representation by law but rather with a loose definition of class interests. In just about all analysis of populism the interests of “working people” are confused with the interests of the anti-intellectual. Donald Trump is a good case study of how populism is too loose to be held down by facts, much like Trump himself.

An NYU study by Jeff Manza and Ned Crowley made vastly different conclusions than the media has after an extensive study of who voted for Trump in 2016: “We conclude with a reminder that assertions about “authoritarian” tendencies among less affluent or educated citizens is often overblown. In his classical examination of the social bases of McCarthyism, Rogin (1967) noted that political sociological accounts of right-wing movements have sometimes been overly willing (given mixed evidence) to place the onus for “irrational” beliefs on the working class, even as authoritarian populism generally finds support across a wide-range of the public in those critical junctures where it explodes on the scene. The case of Trumpism may well reflect this larger pattern. Disbelief on the part of media commentators in the possibility that Trump’s voters are not just the downtrodden and poorly educated motivated the dominant line of commentary about the 2016 primary campaign. It is time to put those views to rest.”

2020 followed the same pattern as 2016. According to a an Economist/YouGov poll, Biden was the preference to Trump in union households as well as those making under 50,000 dollars. The question is why does this narrative of Trump as working class persist, not just on Fox News, but with commentators such as Matt Taibbi on the left and a recent article from the more centrist Guardian making the same claim.

The question is more complicated than it appears. For one thing media outlets tended to isolate white working class as a segment of the working class population voting their class interest rather than a segment of the white population voting their race interest. It would have made more sense to isolate race here, as working class people of color went against Trump, while rich white people were for him. Another problem arises here as commentators often see white males as being working class while other poor people are categorically defined as something other than their class. For example Taibbi recently was so impressed Trump got 8% of black women to vote for him that he dubbed him a representative of the working class. Surely Taibbi doesn’t think 92% of black women are high rise liberals.

Still, it’s shaky ground to be making these sorts of categorizations at all. In Trump world, up is down and down is up. So rich people saying poor people like Trump makes sense. The bigger question is why would this be the substitution for politics?

As America loses its institutional democracy, democracy is fetishized on the way out. The paradox of our vote being taken away is that we are increasingly told to vote. A vote on whether we can vote isn’t on the table. Populism doesn’t want to expand the vote it just wants to problematize it.

Defining representation of a people in an oligarchy cannot be related to politics. To a certain extent voting can be used as much of our voting system isn’t geographically representative and our two party system narrows the choices on the ballot. Increasingly money is used in elections to confuse, lie and distort. But in terms of politics, how the government, the law and the economy are run, populism doesn’t factor in at all.

One of the problems with the claim to populism is that is that it’s suspiciously neither left nor right. For the populist, the populist interest replaces the political interest. This manifests itself with a stance against “the establishment” but that is merely a rhetorical slight of hand aimed to push past a set of norms and into a politics of force.

Trumpism has gained power precisely though this mechanism. It claims to be the true force of democracy but can only win when the vote is not counted. It claims to be the voice of the people but can only govern when the people are brutally assaulted by police and immigration agents. It claims to be the vanguard in cultural liberation but it celebrates violence against women, and violence against their rights.

Now the obvious counter to this is that populism need not call itself that. A conspiracy that the elites run the world does not need to be a conspiracy because it’s true and self-evident. If the goal of Trumpism is to destroy every institution, democratic, political, environmental, and otherwise, then the goal is not about the will of the people asserting their interest against the intuitional elite but rather the tyranny of the few jumping ship on failing institutions under neoliberalism.

Indeed populists often seek to simply privatize what they claim to be suspicious of. It’s not that they don’t have facts, they aren’t in divine philosophical territory, they simply have their own facts. It’s not that they don’t want political rights, they just don’t want to share those rights with immigrants. It’s not that they don’t want clean water to drink, it’s just that they want to hand over this responsibility to a government who will try to do this for everyone. It’s not that they don’t want to have sex, it’s just that everyone else is a pedophile.

In 2017 the word populism became the word of the year by Cambridge Dictionary. This was largely because of two opt outs of society: Donald Trump and Brexit. Responsible academics have found so much disagreement about the use of the word that some academics have argued it should be abandoned. In general populism is used with a sort of class consciousness that acknowledges an antagonism between classes, just as Marxism does.

However Marxism focuses on the political and economic war between people while populism obscures this antagonism into a post-modern moral debate. For populists there is a specific attitude that is natural to working class people and this is almost genetic or religious in nature. When politics and economics are taken out there isn’t much left except the concept of natural or God given differences. Taking aside the general concept of working people as an idea that may cause its own harm we can see that when class is abstracted into the naturalistic it ceases to make organizational demands on the political and economic system.

Additionally we see the narrative of populism continuing to be an abstraction in the era of fake news. For populists there is always an interest working against the people and therefore facts must always be weighed against a bias or narrative. For the populists there is a grand narrative, for many people this is defined exactly by what Trump and Fox News says but for others there is a further abstraction.

Populism calls on the people not to organize as a collective unit for rights such as a union or organizing group might. Rather it demands that a narrative be upheld. It presents an antagonism but it is far too general to situate a specific conflicting interest of the classes that can be solved politically. Rather a retreat into the private sphere is encouraged.

Rather than strengthening institutions as a liberal might advocate let alone seizing control of them as a Marxist might advocate we are supposed to destroy them as a capitalist does. For the populist the real threat is those who need the system. This is the irregularity. The goal of the populist is to awaken the people not into class consciousness but into a paranoid state of supreme alienation.

For the populist there is always an enemy getting treated to brunch while you the worthy one suffers. Any solidarity is seen as naivety. Thinking itself is discouraged as it questions the direction of the righteousness. The people becomes a term of purity which cleanses those who don’t fit. Populism often explicitly calls for violence but at the very least calls for people to take matters into their own hands against the system.

As a result people become overloaded with false information on the internet, spend more time alone during a pandemic, and begin to personalize a commonality. It’s a narrative most appealing to those with access to capital’s private markets. Those privileged enough to have socialist rights under a specific capital market begin to see the people themselves as elites who want to take away a way of life.

We have found ourselves in the position where the majority of the population is boxed out of democracy along racial, gender, and class lines while elites claim to represent the people through populism. It’s obvious why the elites in both the mainstream corporate and alternative corporate media would like to substitute democracy with populism. Rather than have rights, people can express their unruly poor selves. For the rich, this is the attitude that excuses a bypass of democracy. For the poor, organizing a democracy is the necessary step to counter populism.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at