how not to talk about The People

Maria Bartiromo (Fox News): As the commander-in-chief, as the president of this great country, what can you do to bring us together?

Donald Trump: Our people are so incredible. …  Do you know, there’s probably never been a base in the history of politics in this country like my base. I hope the other side realizes that they better just take it easy.

As Jonathan Chait notes, Trump equates “us,” the people of America, with “the people who voted for him.”

This is the rhetorical move that Jan-Werner Müller, in his globally influential book (2016), uses as the definition of “populism.” Populists “claim that they and they alone represent the people. All other political competitors are essentially illegitimate, and anyone who does not support them is not properly part of the people. … Elites are immoral, whereas the people are a moral, homogeneous entity whose will cannot err.”

Müller has previously quoted Trump–“the only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything”–as evidence that the current president is a populist, in this bad sense of the word.

I agree that the slippage between Trump’s supporters and “the people” is a very bad sign. However, it is not straightforward to define populism (meaning a problematic phenomenon) in this way. Trump says many things and is inconsistent in his appeal to “the people.” Meanwhile, a wide variety of political actors also depict the public as a homogeneous entity that is on their side.

Some of them define “the people” in racial or ethno-national terms. That tendency seems more accurately described as racism or xenophobia than as populism, especially if anti-racists like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez count as populists (as Müller would suggest).

And sometimes it is the strongest champions of democratic institutions who use rhetoric that looks populist according to Müller’s definition. For instance, Jimmy Carter presented himself as an ordinary American (a peanut farmer and a Christian, not a Washington politician) who could best reflect the values shared by all Americans (Johnstone 1978). Carter invoked a unitary public and promised to connect directly to the people, unmediated by interests and organizations. His Inaugural Address could be coded as populist rhetoric, in Müller’s sense of the word. Yet Carter was committed to constitutional limits, respected his critics and the opposition, and made the promotion of democratic freedoms a centerpiece of his agenda.

Thus it is not clear that searching for Müller-style populist language will identify actors who are hostile to democratic institutions and processes. There is an upsurge of repression around the world—and it is not limited to racists and xenophobes—but there is a better word for it than “populism.” That word is “authoritarianism.”

For the purposes of empirical research, I would dispense with “populism” in the Müller sense and look instead for authoritarianism and racism as distinct but sometimes overlapping phenomena that are ascendant in our time.

Müller is, however, right that there are pitfalls to invoking a unitary public that is on one’s side–or defining one’s side as “the people.” This is an excuse for trampling on rights, whether your opponents are demographic minorities and immigrants (the right-wing variant), or corporations and the rich (the left-wing version), or extremists (the centrist version). It’s always better to recognize the legitimacy of the actual human beings who disagree with you and who vote for the other side.

Citations: Jan-Werner Müller, What Is Populism? (Philadelphia; Universoty of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), p. 101; Christopher Lyle Johnstone, “Electing Ourselves in 1976: Jimmy Carter and The American Faith,” Western Journal of Speech Communication, vol. 42  Issue 4, *Fall 1978), p. 241-249. See also Trump at the confluence of populism, chauvinism, and celebrityfighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populismseparating populism from anti-intellectualism and two kinds of populism.

coming soon: Democracy’s Discontent and Civic Learning

Now available for pre-ordering is Charles S. White (ed.), Democracy’s Discontent and Civic Learning: Multiple Perspectives. Chapters include:

  • “The Populist Moment,” by William A. Galston.
  • “Populism, Democracy, and the Education of Citizens,” by Thomas S. Vontz and J. Spencer Clark, (with Stephen L. Schechter).
  • “Are Europe’s Democracies in Danger? A View of the Populist Challenge,” by Karlheinz Duerr.
  • “Confronting a Global Democracy Recession: The Role of United States International Democracy Support Programs,” by Liza Prendergast
  • “Democracy’s Pharmakon: Technology as Remedy and Poison,” by Charles S. White.
  • “Judicial Legitimacy in the Age of Populism,” by Alison Staudinger.
  • “Fulfilling the Promise of Democracy: How Black Lives Matter Can Foster Empowered Civic Engagement,” by Amy J. Samuels and Gregory L. Samuels.
  • “Does P–12 Educational Research Ameliorate or Perpetuate Inequity?” by Jacob S. Bennett.
  • “Democracy’s Discontent and Teacher Education: Countering Populism and Cultivating Democracy,” by Stephanie Schroeder.
  • “A Primer on Trump Economics: Populist or Something Else?” by James E. Davis.
  • “Going for Depth in Civic Education: A Design Experiment,” by Walter C. Parker. With responses:
    • “What Public Philosophy Should We Teach? A Reply to Parker,” by Peter Levine
    • “Fidelity of Implementation: A Reply to Parker,” by James E. Davis
    • “Contrasting Landscapes: A Reply to Parker,” by Karlheinz Duerr

Trump at the confluence of populism, chauvinism, and celebrity

Donald Trump says many things. Some are innocuous and banal. Quite a few are inconsistent. And some provide evidence that he belongs in these three categories:

  1. A “populist” in the particular sense proposed by Jan-Werner Müller. (I also like to retain more positive definitions of the same word.) For Müller, a populist is someone who believes that the whole authentic people is unified behind a set of values that the populist leader explicitly expresses. Therefore, the opposition is illegitimate. Elections that favor the populist leader are sacrosanct, and anyone who criticizes or strives to reverse these results is an enemy of the people. But elections that challenge the populist must have been rigged or stolen. “A los amigos, justicia y gracia. A los enemigos, la ley a secas.”
  2. A chauvinist, meaning someone who explicitly and apologetically favors an in-group and disparages an out-group. In the United States, racism is a major variety. But in some other countries, the leading chauvinists are inspired by religion or nationality instead of race.
  3. A media personality who projects a combative personality, who disparages opponents, who cultivates “outrage,” who “seem[s] to always react to controversy and even aversion by leaning into it,” and who claims honesty or authenticity on the basis that he says things that give offense or cause pain–except not to his core audience. This style is prevalent on talk radio, certain reaches of cable news–but equally important, in supermarket tabloids, WWF, and reality TV shows like The Apprentice.

These three categories need not intersect. You can be an outrageous media personality who isn’t a populist or a chauvinist, a chauvinist who isn’t a celebrity, etc.

None of these categories is new. White Supremacy has been near the center of American politics since the beginning. Various forms of populism and chauvinism were much more extreme around the world in 1939 than today. But there does seem to be a global boom of unapologetic chauvinist populists who use media effectively.

The right doesn’t own these categories, and the left doesn’t consistently avoid them. I know plenty of people who believe that the Tea Party is pure Astroturf, a creature of right-wing billionaires. That is a populist move in Müller’s sense: it declares a large number of actual Americans to be illegitimate participants in politics. By the way, it’s different if you hate and fear your political opponents. That is partisanship, but not populism, so long as you acknowledge that your opponents are fellow citizens and you must share politics with them.

We’ve seen plenty of examples of these categories, but we have never had a president who fits all three. The combination poses a severe threat to our institutions and world peace.

Insofar as the problem is populism (in Müller’s sense), then I think an electoral shellacking will be the best remedy. Even if Republicans lose the 2018 election badly, the strongest Trump supporters (30-40% of the population) will continue to think that he speaks for the whole genuine American public and the election was rigged. However, Trump can’t govern without conservative and business elites. I think they will abandon him if they see that he is dragging them into the minority.

By the same token, if Republicans do better than expected in ’18, and/or Trump is reelected, we are in for much more populism. And if Trump’s presidency ends for a relatively extraneous reason, such as personal criminality, then the picture will be muddy enough that populism will remain an attractive option. (I often think that we are fortunate in our populist; if he were smarter and more disciplined, we would really be in trouble.)

Apart from elections, we have two other assets in the struggle against Müller-style populism. One is pluralist populism , which portrays “the people” as highly diverse (I discuss that rich tradition here).

The other is genuine conservatism. Real conservative thought is diametrically opposed–in principle–to the idea that any government can ever be authorized by a unitary public. The left/right spectrum originated in the French Revolution, and the Jacobin left was the populist side, in Müller’s sense. Conservatism emerged in reaction to the revolutionaries’ claim to a popular mandate, and great conservative thinkers have always opposed such claims. Many Republican politicians will go along with Trumpian populism as long as it wins elections; but conservatives will denounce it from the rooftops. The question is how many conservatives actually exist.

Insofar as the problem is chauvinism (meaning, in the USA, racism, religious bigotry, and sexism), then it’s the next chapter in a basic American story. Progress is hard-won and tends to have a zigzag pattern. I am a fan of Barack Obama for other reasons than his race, but it is significant that he was the first leader of a majority-white nation to have modern African ancestors–and the first US president in modern times to have a foreign father. That was the zig; Trump is the zag. The struggle continues.

Finally, insofar as the problem is celebrity politics, I am actually optimistic. I believe that Trump came first in a crowded and splintered Republican primary field because his persona appealed to a minority of the US population. He then beat Clinton in the Electoral College because partisan polarization gave him most Republican votes in key states, and she was deeply unpopular. Compared to a generic incumbent president who enjoys a strong economy and who hasn’t actually passed any controversial legislation (other than a tax cut), Trump is remarkably unpopular. And a key reason is his style. So I think acting like a reality TV star exacts a political cost and is not likely to be replicated.

Building Civic Capacity in an Era of Democratic Crisis by Hollie Russon-Gilman and K. Sabeel Rahman

About $3 billion was contributed to influence 2016 federal campaigns. In a new paper entitled “Building Civic Capacity in an Era of Democratic Crisis,” Hollie Russon-Gilman and K. Sabeel Rahman suggest a much better way to spend some of that money.

I realize, by the way, that political donors want candidates to notice their support. It would nevertheless make all the difference if they gave one percent of their $3 billion to activities that strengthen democracy–compensating for irradiating the body politic with polarizing and demoralizing messages. Progressive donors would also build the base for more progressive policy by investing for the longer term.

Russon-Gilman and Rahman argue “that today’s populist moment emphasizes the need to create a genuinely responsive, participatory form of democratic politics in which communities are empowered, rather than alienated.” They advocate investments that “self-consciously strive to build constituencies and identities that are more inclusive and accommodating. Think of this as ‘us’ populism, as opposed to ‘them’ populism.”

That basic stance supports two strategies:

  1. More investment in community organizing, especially the types that build “new bridges across racial, gender, and geographic divides.” Russon-Gilman and Rahman advocate broad-based, long-term organizing instead of mobilizing people around specific issues.
  2. “Reforming our institutions of governance” so that agencies offer citizens more “hooks and levers” to influence power, and so that public sector workers have skills and incentives to engage the public better.

These strategies imply (as the authors note) a broad understanding of democracy. It is not all about elections, nor even about the official government. It’s about how people come together and exercise power.

The paper offers valuable case studies. For instance, under the heading of organizing:

  • “The Center for Rural Strategies (CRS) … based in Whitesburg, Ky. in the central Appalachian coalfields, provides rural communities and nonprofit organizations with resources on innovative media and communications strategies in order to strengthen their work.” CRS provides information, challenges stereotypes about its communities, and lobbies for better access to the physical infrastructure for communications, because both content and conduit matter. (See “Building Democracy in ‘Trump Country’” by Ben Fink for a similar case.)
  • “Coworker.org (Coworker) is a digital platform for workers’ voices founded in response to the decline of formal institutions organizing workers and geared towards building a twenty-first century model of worker power. The organization provides tools directly to workers to self-advocate within the workplace, usually where no labor structure or organizing already exists.” Like CRS, Coworker invests in people who develop as leaders.

Examples under the heading of institutions include:

  • “The Office of Community Wealth Building (OCWB) was established as a permanent city agency in Richmond, Va., in 2015 to provide anti-poverty strategy and policy advice to the mayor and to implement municipal poverty reduction initiatives and systemic changes around housing, education, and economic development.”
  • “The Public Engagement Unit (PEU) is a division in New York’s city government started in 2015 [is] devoted to knocking on doors and making calls to hard-to-reach constituents to enroll them in city services, as well as foster long-term individual relationships with city staff.”

Overall, “Building Civic Capacity in an Era of Democratic Crisis” helps make the case for investments that are less short-term, less oriented to immediate efficiency, less split between government and civil society, but more experimental, more open-ended, and more truly inclusive than we normally see (especially, I would say, on the left).

See also: why the white working class must organizeto beat Trump, invest in organizingfighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism; and community organizing between Athens and Jerusalem.

Democrats as technocrats

This web search takes you to a whole stack of good recent writing about the Democratic Party as the technocratic party, with headlines ranging from Twilight of the Technocrats? to The Triumph of the Technocrats. In lieu of a critical review, I’d pose these questions:

  1. What would a technocrat support and do in our context? It’s possible to be a socialist technocrat or a technocrat who works for a huge, for-profit company. I presume that a technocratic Democrat today is someone who believes in optimizing GDP growth, environmental sustainability, and reductions in tangible human distress (e.g., disease, homicide) through efficient governmental policies. These desired outcomes often conflict, and then technocrats are fine with compromise. To qualify as a technocrat, you can’t be too enthusiastic about working with ordinary citizens on public issues, and you can’t base your agenda on controversial, challenging moral ideals.
  2. Do Democrats present themselves as technocrats, in this sense? Some do and some don’t. It seems fair to read the positive agenda of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign as largely technocratic (she promised to govern competently and continue the balanced progress of her predecessor), although her critique of Donald Trump was ethical rather than technical. I also think that Clinton was in a tough spot because she didn’t believe that she could accomplish transformative change with a Republican Congress; thus managerial competence seemed a workable alternative. The 2016 campaign does not demonstrate that she–let alone all Democrats–are fully technocratic. However, consider a different case that is pretty revealing: the Josiah Bartlet Administration. This is an informative example just because it is idealized and fictional, free of any necessary constraints. The Bartlet White House is staffed with hard-working, highly-educated, unrealistically competent, smartest-guy-in-the-room, ethical people who strive to balance the budget while making incremental progress on social issues. Hollywood’s idealized Democrats are technocrats in full.
  3. Do Democrats choose technocratic policies? Again, I’d say “sometimes.” Both the Clinton and Obama Administrations definitely showed some predilection for measurable, testable outcomes; for behavioral economics; and for models that were consistent with academic research about the economy and the climate. They weren’t particularly good at empowering citizens to govern themselves or collaborating with social movements. On the other hand, the Affordable Care Act has a moral core (aiming to cover people without health insurance), even if many of its tools and strategies are best defined as technocratic.
  4. Are Democrats good technocrats? There has been more economic growth under Democratic than Republican presidents. But the sample is small, several Democratic presidents faced conservative congresses, and any correlation with a small “n” can easily be spurious. A deeper point is that Democrats are currently more committed to the mainstream findings of climate science, social policy research, and academic economics than Republicans are. Their accomplishments may be affected by sheer chance, but their strategies tend to be consistent with positivist, empirical research.
  5. Is Democratic technocracy consistent with justice? No. Almost any theory of justice, from libertarian to strongly egalitarian, would demand fundamental shifts from the status quo. Certainly, I would favor deeper changes in our basic social contract. On the other hand, compared to what? Managing our existing social policies in a competent way delivers substantial, if inadequate, justice. It beats incompetence or deliberate assaults on existing social institutions. In a multi-party parliamentary democracy, a center-left technocratic party would play an important role. I would be open to voting for it, depending on the circumstances and the alternatives. In our two-party system, a technocratic and centrist component competes for control of the Democratic Party. It shouldn’t be surprising that this component receives constant criticism from within the Party, because the Democrats represent a broader coalition, and there is plenty of room to the left of someone like Hillary Clinton. Whatever you think of her, I don’t think you can complain that she was criticized from her left.
  6. Is Democratic technocracy good politics? That’s not a question that will be settled to everyone’s satisfaction any time soon. Clinton lost to Trump but also won the popular vote. She was technocratic but not completely so. She faced many contingencies, from Fox News to Bernie to Comey, and handled them in ways that we can debate for the next decade. Again, the answer has to be: Compared to what? A compelling new vision of America’s social contract would beat competent management at the polls. But competent management may beat incompetence or a deeply unpopular vision (from either right or left).
  7. What’s driving the Democratic Party’s drift to technocracy? One could explain it in class terms: the Democratic coalition is now highly educated, including many people who make a living by demonstrating expertise. But I would propose a deeper thesis. Modernity itself is defined by constant increases in specialization and differentiation, plus radical doubts about our ability to know which ends are moral or just. In that context, people prosper who are good at applying technical reasoning to complex problems without worrying too much about whether the ultimate ends are right. Modernity has generated a white-collar governing class that is currently aligned with the Democrats, but more than that, it has generated a very high estimation of expertise combined with a leeriness about moral discourse. Religious conservatives monopolize the opposition to both of these trends. Getting out of this trap requires more than new messages and policies. It is a fundamental cultural problem.

See also: the rise of an expert class and its implications for democracyvarieties of neoliberalismthe big lessons of Obamacarethe new manipulative politics: behavioral economics, microtargeting, and the choice confronting Organizing for Action; and why the white working class must organize.

the New Social Movements of the seventies, eighties, and today

(Oxford, OH) By the 1980s, a large literature distinguished the “New Social Movements” from older strands of politics. Jürgen Habermas chose to list the following New Social Movements then active in Germany: “the anti-nuclear and environmental movements,” “the peace movement”; “the citizens’ action movement”; the “alternative” movement that included urban squatters and new rural communities; movements of “minorities (the elderly, homosexuals, disabled people, etc)”; support groups and youth sects; “religious fundamentalism”; the “tax protest movement”; “school protests” by parent associations; “resistance to modernist reforms”; and “the women’s movement” (1981, p. 34).

Some of these might be classified with the left, and others (notably, tax protests and religious fundamentalism), with the right. In retrospect, it is debatable whether they formed a meaningful category or could be distinguished sharply from the “Old” social movements, such as labor unionism and civil rights in the USA.

My view is that these movements did represent a new stage of politics in the wealthy democracies. That stage has passed, however, as new problems have come to the fore and as the social movements of ca. 1968-1985 have become institutionalized in the nonprofit sector, thus losing their emancipatory role. These changes mean that it’s important to compare our time with the 1970s and early 1980s and to envision productive combinations of the Old and New Social Movement forms.

One way to summarize the story is that zero-sum struggles over scarce goods and basic rights (civil, political, and economic) were essential to politics up until the 1960s. However, changes in the political economy of the richest nations and the most advanced US states had moved those struggles into the background by ca. 1970. Strong economic growth made possible the elimination of absolute poverty in countries like the Federal Republic of Germany. Thanks to labor’s unusually high share of income, the power of unions and parties, and the disruptions of World War II, working people exercised considerable political power through the state. That meant that even as pre-tax incomes became unusually equal, incomes after taxes and welfare payments grew even more equal. Also, thanks to constitutional reforms, most citizens could count on fairly equal legal rights.

“Income Inequality in Germany Measured by the GINI-Coefficient” (Top line is before redistribution; bottom line is after. Zero would be complete equality.)

At the time, many American liberals and European social democrats felt that the success of the democratic welfare state should simply be consolidated. The emerging neoliberal movement of Thatcher and Reagan argued that the welfare state was inefficient and illiberal and needed to be rolled back; their ideas gained momentum with the stagflation of the 1970s. But thinkers like Habermas, Offe, Mansbridge, Beck and (in a different vein) Foucault adopted more positive views of the New Social Movements.

Writing in 1985, Offe observed that European capital and labor had reached a postwar agreement.Unionized, private-sector employment would deliver prosperity, and workers would be free to develop identities, interests, and memberships during their youth and student years, their growing leisure time, and their lengthy retirements. The issues for politics were growth, economic distribution and security. These were contested within narrow constraints (for instance, everyone was a Keynesian) and not expected to occupy much public attention.

The New Social Movements then arose when people critically assessed the patterns that prevailed in the domains that were supposed to be left private, such as childhood, marriage, church, and nature. Activists demanded large-scale change in these domains, but not via direct state action, because they opposed “manipulation, control, dependence, bureaucratization, regulation, etc.” (Offe, 1985, p. 829).

Offe argued that “middle-class radicals” played a disproportionate role in these New Movements. Traditionally, workers and the poor had struggled against bourgeois notions of propriety and normality. However, the organized post-War working class had traded cultural conventionality for prosperity, leaving affluent students, public sector workers, and professionals to demand room for “alternative” ways of life (pp. 823-5).

Habermas drew a distinction between System and Lifeworld. A System is governed by instrumental rationality: it treats individuals as means to a given end. Both state bureaucracies and capitalist markets are Systems. As a democratic socialist, Habermas favored a relatively large state bureaucracy controlled by a popularly elected legislature. But both governmental and market Systems were problematic when they extended into the Lifeworld composed of authentic human relationships. Thus, even as a welfare state like the Federal Republic of Germany neared success at the “old” goals of eliminating poverty and narrowing gaps of wealth and power, it risked colonizing the Lifeworld by turning everyone into a consumer and an employee, employer, or welfare client and then regulating their behavior accordingly. Habermas wrote in 1981:

Precisely these roles are the target of protest. Alternative praxis is opposed to the profit-oriented instrumentalization of professional labor, the market-dependent mobilization of labor, the extension of competitiveness and performance pressure into elementary school. It is also directed against the process whereby services, relations and time become monetary values, against the consumerist redefinition of private life spheres and personal life styles. Furthermore, the clients’ relation to public service agencies is intended to be broken and restructured according to the participatory model of self-help organizations (p. 36).

He proposed, “at least cursorily,” that all the New Social Movements represented “resistance to tendencies to colonize the lifeworld (p. 35). That was true, he thought, of the conservative movements as well as the radical ones. To apply his thinking to the US context, we might say: Whether you moved to Vermont to go back to nature or to New Hampshire to live free or die, you were opting out of systems seen as instrumental. Habermas concluded that even if the New Social Movements were “unrealistic,” they offered symbols of resistance to the “colonization of the life-world” (p. 37). 

For both Habermas and Offe, the New Social Movements were different from the Old because they no longer addressed issues that could be resolved with money or rights. Instead, these movements asked “how to defend or reinstate endangered life styles, or how to put reformed life styles into practice” (Habermas, p. 33).

One could debate whether feminism and gay liberation were really “life style” movements as opposed to struggles for basic equality (thus continuous with the “Old” social movements), but they certainly highlighted informal, interpersonal, and attitudinal issues more than older movements had. Habermas observed that “High value is placed on the particular, the provincial, small social spaces, decentralized forms of interaction and de-specialized activities, simple interaction and non-differentiated public spheres. This is all intended to promote the revitalization of buried possibilities for expression and communication. Resistance to reformist intervention also belongs here” (p. 36).

Similarly, Jenny Mansbridge observed that during the ferment of the late 1960s and 1970s, small groups “appeared everywhere like fragile bubbles.” These groups shared certain features. Decisions were made in face-to-face meetings, after much discussion, when someone expressed the consensus of the group. There were no formal distinctions among participants or offices. And there was a strong norm against making self-interested statements. Face-to-face, consensual democracy was meant as an alternative to what Mansbridge called “adversary democracy,” which presumes that interests conflict and that decisions must always have winners and losers (Mansbridge, 1983).

Foucault, meanwhile, regarded the welfare state as a particularly efficient and all-encompassing instrument of “discipline.” Not only was he supportive of the New Social Movements, but this great radical “was highly attracted to economic liberalism: he saw in it the possibility of a form of governmentality that was much less normative and authoritarian than the socialist and communist left, which he saw as totally obsolete. He especially saw in neoliberalism a ‘much less bureaucratic’ and ‘much less disciplinarian’ form of politics than that offered by the postwar welfare state. He seemed to imagine a neoliberalism that wouldn’t project its anthropological models on the individual, that would offer individuals greater autonomy vis-à-vis the state” (Zamora, 2014).

Ulrich Beck, evidently drawing on Habermas, offered the perspective that the core social problem had shifted from the distribution of wealth and power to the distribution of risk. Human beings had always faced risks, but new dangers (e.g., nuclear power plants melting down, chemicals in one’s food) were harder to diagnose and prevent, less a matter of individuals’ negligence than outputs of Habermasian Systems, and not necessarily correlated with wealth. “Risk positions are not class positions,” he wrote, because people with money may sometimes face more risk, and risk can spread contagiously (Beck 1986; English translation 1992, pp. 39, 44). This is one reason that Offe’s middle-class radicals were so prominent in the New Social Movements, all of which were “environmentalist” in the broadest sense of that term.

It is important to note that in the other half of Europe, movements were also struggling against a System–in their case, the single-headed System of state communism. Like the Western New Social Movements, they built up alternative spaces meant to be authentic (“Living in Truth”) and voluntary. “The mainstream of the [Polish] opposition was deliberately and profoundly anti-political,” writes Aleksander Smolar. “Faced with the strategic choice described by Adam Michnik in his letter from prison, the answer of the opposition was clear. The objective was not to defeat the ruling power but to progressively liberate society from its control” (Smolar, 2009) by building a better alternative in civil society.

Four decades later, the basic achievements of the welfare state seem fragile, its objective of ending absolute poverty receding. That breathes some new life into the “Old” social movements’ objective or demanding redistribution from the state. In that light, Occupy Wall Street represents an interesting development. Its modes of interaction come straight from the New Social Movements. So does its refusal to make highly concrete demands on institutions. Offe wrote, “Movements are incapable of negotiating because they do not have anything to offer in return for any concessions made to their demands. … Movements are also unwilling to negotiate because they often consider their central concern of such high and universal priority that no part of it can be meaningfully sacrificed” (Offe, pp. 830-1). I think there was some of that spirit in Occupy. On the other hand, Occupy’s evocation of “The 99%” made it universalistic in a way reminiscent of the Old Left instead of the New Social Movements, and it returned to questions of economic redistribution. It pursued an Old Left agenda in New Social Movement form–not successfully as such, but perhaps subject to improvement.

Meanwhile, the norms that distinguished the “New” social movements have found lasting and quasi-secure places within institutions, particularly in nonprofits and universities. Many people who work full-time for service-learning centers, community development corporations, youth programs, and other NGOs combat explicit and implicit biases, prize authentic local communities and traditions, emphasize dialog and deliberation, work in (or emulate) voluntary associations, try to create zones of consensus and relational ethics, and stay clear of both state bureaucracies and corporations. Many a young graduate of these programs wants to start an urban agriculture nonprofit or develop curricular materials, but would never think of working for the government or running for office.

I’ve previously described these programs as the home of the most authentically conservative politics in the US today, if “conservative” means localism, sustainability, deference to indigenous traditions, humility and skepticism about expertise, and a resistance to state power.

One view is that the New Social Movements were conservative (in this sense) from the start, and that was always bad news. The left, wrote Todd Gitlin in 1993, is the tradition of explicitly universalistic values, whether those are liberal, Marxist, or Christian-inflected (e.g., in the Civil Rights Movement). “Universal human emancipation,” he argued, is the core of all authentically revolutionary and reformist politics. Its enemy is the kind of conservatism embodied in the New Social Movements and in many of today’s NGOs. Yes, progressive movements must address injustices related to sexuality, gender and color–not merely economics–but always in the explicit pursuit of a common good.

A related critique is that the New Social Movements have depicted “the oppressed [as] innocent selves defined by the wrongs done to them” and have demanded protection. Once former participants in New Social Movements take up roles inside institutions, they start to manage and administer fairness, understood as a set of rules and regulations that protect the disadvantaged (see Bickford 1997 for a useful summary of a position that she doesn’t hold). In contrast, real social movements emancipate.

In 1985, Offe judged that the New Social Movements held a “presently marginal, though highly visible power position.” The question was whether they would “transcend” that situation, which would require forming alliances. They could align with the traditional institutional left (socialist parties and unions), or with traditionalist conservative movements. Or the traditional conservatives and the institutional left might unite to marginalize the New Social Movements. Offe thought all three scenarios were possible

Right now, the nascent movement of resistance to Trump–and kindred developments in countries like Hungary–again look “marginal, though highly visible.” These movements are defending fundamental and universal rights in a way that was typical of the Old Social Movements. They draw on the New Social Movements for some of their modes of political engagement, but they are beginning to connect to political parties and campaigns. So far their rhetoric is mostly defensive, which was typical of the New Social Movements as a whole. Offe observed that the “positive aspects” of these movements were “mostly articulated in negative logical and grammatical forms, as indicated by key words such as ‘never,’ ‘ nowhere,’ ‘end,’ ‘stop,’ frieze,’ ‘ban.’ etc.” (Offe, p. 830).

We will see whether today’s incipient movements begin to develop more expansive positive agendas and shift from merely opposing Trump (and his like) to envisioning and demanding a substantially different political economy and a new social contract. That would also require alliances, I think, with what remains of the institutionalized left, including the Democratic Party.

See also: what is a social movement?;  what activist movements will look like in the Trump eraquestions for the social movement post FergusonHabermas and critical theory (a primer); and perspectives on identity politics.

References

  • Beck, Ulrich. Risk society: Towards a New Modernity. Vol. 17. Sage, 1992.
  • Bickford, Susan, “Anti-Anti-Identity Politics: Feminism, Democracy, and the Complexities of Citizenship,” Hypatia, vol. 12, no. 4 (1997).
  • Gitlin, Todd, “The Left, Lost in the Politics of Identity,” Harper’s Magazine, 1993
  • Habermas, Jürgen, “New Social Movements,” Telos, September 21, vol. 1981, no. 49 (1981) pp. 33-37
  • Mansbridge, Jane J. Beyond Adversary Democracy. University of Chicago Press, 1983.
    APA
  • Offe, Claus, “New Social Movements: Challenging the Boundaries of Institutional Politics,” Social Research, vol. 52, no. 1 (Winter 1985), pp. 817-68.
  • Smolar, Aleksander. “Toward ‘Self-Limiting Revolution’: Poland, 1970-1989.” in Adam Roberts and Timothy Garten Ash, eds., Civil Resistance and Power: The Experience of Non-Violent Action from Gandhi to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)
  • Zamora, Daniel, “Can we Criticize Foucault?The Jacobin, December 2014.

three views of the Democratic Party when democracy is at risk

View #1: The same two parties have alternated power since 1854 and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Today, the most serious threat to small-d democratic norms and institutions comes from the Trump Administration, and the Democratic opposition is an essential counterweight. A Democratic House in 2018 could begin serious investigations; a Democratic president in 2010 2020 would end the Trump era. You may or may not agree with the platform of the Party, but it’s a big tent, and you have your choice of intraparty factions to back, from Sen. Manchin to Sen. Warren. Moreover, any Democrat would endorse positions on some issues that are preferable to those of the Trump Administration. The Party is accountable to communities most threatened by Trump: for instance, half the voting delegates at the Democratic National Convention were people of color. That fact pushes the Party to defend basic rights for all. The Democratic Party is a bulwark of democracy; it must win the elections of 2018 and 2020.

View #2: At the root of our problems is partisanship. Most of us (including me) use partisan labels as heuristics for assessing policies, candidates, news sources, and opinions. As a result, we are prone to misunderstanding the situation and demonizing half of our fellow Americans. “Partisanship is a helluva drug.” What we need is less reliance on party labels and more cross-partisan or non-partisan dialogue. Maybe it would be better if more Democrats won elections, but that is up to the Party apparatus and should not be our focus as concerned citizens.

View #3: The party duopoly stands in the way of progress, for reasons specific to our moment. Once industrial unions declined and working-class whites migrated to the GOP, we were left with two parties controlled by economic elites. Main Street business interests and extractive industries like coal and oil control the GOP, drawing votes from working-class whites who are not likely to see their interests served. Highly educated coastal elites control the Democratic Party, with votes from people of color who have no better choice. The result is hard-wired neoliberalism, with modest distinctions between the parties on civil rights and environmental regulation. Democracy (in the sense of government that responds to mass economic needs) requires a major reorientation of the whole duopoly. Trump actually enables that in a way that Hillary Clinton could not, in part because of his potential to blow up his own party.

For those keeping score, these three views are most consistent with the first, sixth, and second boxes in my flowchart (below). They can be posed as stark alternatives, demanding a debate. But it’s possible that they all contain truths and that we need people working on all three.

hearing the faint music of democracy

Democracy has many inherent flaws. This is just the start of a comprehensive list:

  1. Majority tyranny: the many may oppress the few.
  2. Free-riding: it doesn’t pay to be informed or active when you can let others engage instead.
  3. Propaganda: it works.
  4.  Motivated reasoning: people pick information to reinforce existing beliefs.
  5. Boundary problems: many political issues are about who belongs within a given polity, so how can a polity legitimately decide where to draw that line?
  6. The Iron Law of Oligarchy: even in organizations fundamentally committed to equality, a few come to dominate because bureaucracy rewards specialized expertise.
  7. The privileged position of business: because communities need investment, capital will be advantaged even if businesses don’t actively lobby.

Most of these issues have been understood for centuries, yet the scholarly evidence for them accumulates. Then along comes an actual fiasco like the 2016 election, and it’s tempting to give up on the whole idea. Democracy seems to be that system that places a racist fool in the White House.

Yet people have constructed rather remarkable “patches” to keep democracy going. Just for instance, it seems implausible that many citizens would purchase and consume a daily source of fairly independent and well-sourced news that focuses on matters of public importance. But for about a century, most Americans did buy a metropolitan newspaper every day, and the proceeds funded shoe-leather journalism. The newspaper’s financial model worked because people paid for classified ads, comics, and sports as well as news, but they saw the daily headlines on the front page. Although the model was profitable–hence sustainable–it couldn’t have existed without the dedication of the people we call “the press”: professional reporters, editors, publishers, journalism educators (k-16), and some newspaper owners, who were motivated in part by the public interest.

That’s just one example. I would add broad-based political parties, civil rights organizations, public-interest lobbies, responsive government agencies, civic education courses, civic forums, community organizing efforts, the DREAMer movement, and many more.

Why have people worked so hard to create and sustain these efforts, when the flaws of democracy seem intrinsic and intractable? They’ve heard the democratic music as well as the everyday prose.

The music is there if you listen for it. Whitman heard it: “Though it is no doubt important who is elected governor, mayor, or legislator, (and full of dismay when incompetent or vile ones get elected, as they sometimes do,) there are other, quieter contingencies, infinitely more important.” Alexander Hamilton, in most ways so unlike Whitman, heard similar chords. He started the Federalist Papers asking whether we can live together by “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force.” These authors saw republican self-rule not only as a way of making decisions by choice but also as a path to cultural and spiritual development. For Whitman, it meant being able to stand up “without humiliation, and equal with the rest” and starting that “grand experiment of development, whose end, (perhaps requiring several generations,) may be the forming of a full-grown man or woman.”

If we’re smart, we’ll focus on the prose: the catalog of serious and enduring flaws that beset democracy. But if we’re wise, we’ll also hear the music, and that will keep us working on a new generation of solutions.

fighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism

In lieu of a substantive new post here today, I’ll link to an essay of mine on the Oxford University Press blog, “Fighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populism.” It concludes, “We need a dose of populism that neither delivers power to a leader nor merely promises fair economic outcomes to citizens as beneficiaries. In this form of populism, diverse people create actual power that they use to change the world together.”