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Posts Tagged ‘populism

“One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived”*…

Even if 2020 [and indeed, the events of January 6, 2021] felt apocalyptic, it is reasonable to think we have not yet hit rock bottom. The threat of climate disaster and resource wars, the building of walls and refugee camps, the exorbitant wealth of powerful oligarchs alongside poverty and precarity—these will not go away with vaccines or new presidents. Amidst all this, no wonder Niccolò Machiavelli has returned to our reading lists. In his new biography of the Florentine Secretary, Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching the People What to Fear, originally published in French in 2017, historian Patrick Boucheron reminds us that there is always interest in Machiavelli in turbulent times “because he’s the man to philosophize in heavy weather. If we’re reading him today, it means we should be worried. He’s back: wake up.”

Born in 1469 in Florence, Machiavelli is a central figure in the Western canon of political philosophy. Though he is best known in the popular imagination as the conniving mastermind behind The Prince (written in 1513), which so many think of as a kind of House of Cards how-to guide for seizing and maintaining political power, we miss what is crucial when we reduce his political thought to the simplistic thesis that the ends justify the means. It is not this misunderstood consequentialism that is noteworthy in Machiavelli’s philosophy; what really makes his writing so radically distinctive is his class-based, materialist outlook. He came from an impoverished household, and his philosophy disrupted naturalized hierarchies and the hegemonic ideas that reproduce them. John Adams would rightly describe him as the founder of a “plebeian philosophy” that marshaled strong arguments for embracing popular control over government…

The introduction to the English edition of The Art of Teaching the People What to Fear, written in June 2019 for readers in the United States, begins with the theme of fear in politics and an issue of Time magazine with Trump on the cover. Boucheron argues that the United States had entered a “Machiavellian moment”—“the dawning realization of the inadequacy of the republican ideal”—in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that today, under “Trumpian America,” a fusion of politics and fiction has allowed for techniques of domination to be perfected, setting “a general disregard for the ‘actual truth of the matter.’” Referencing George Orwell’s 1984, Boucheron sees the United States as captured by a propaganda machine that has undermined reality and common sense—“that sixth sense Machiavelli spoke of, the accessory knowledge that the people have of what is dominating them.” Given the pervasive lack of realism in U.S. politics today, it is clear that the republic would appear to Machiavelli as a corrupt order, not because the powerful few break the rules or because a faction attempts to undermine the integrity of elections, but because the people have been “either deceived or forced into decreeing their own ruin.” Perhaps the most important part of Machiavelli’s wisdom for our own time is that republics tend to become oligarchic, giving the powerful few indirect control over government…

Much maligned as a mere tactician of power, Machiavelli was in fact a philosopher of the people. His critique of oligarchic domination remains essential today: “Our Machiavellian Moment.”

* Niccolò Machiavelli

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As we ponder populism, we might recall that it was on this date in 1776 that Thomas Paine first published (albeit anonymously) his pamphlet “Common Sense.”  A scathing attack on “tyrant” King George III’s reign over the colonies and a call for complete independence, “Common Sense” advocated immediate action.  America, Paine argued, had a moral obligation to reject monarchy and declare independence.  An instant bestseller in both the colonies and Britain (over 120,000 copies in just a few months), it greatly affected public sentiment at a time when the question of independence was still undecided, and helped shape the deliberations of the Continental Congress leading up to the Declaration of Independence.

source

“We all know that an angry electorate is a voting electorate”*…

Further to yesterday’s post

The final vote tallies still aren’t known, but the media verdict of this presidential election is in: it’s 2016 all over again. Four years ago, in the hours after Donald Trump declared victory on the strength of 306 Electoral College votes and the ballots of nearly sixty-three million Americans, I wrote a column about the failures of the press throughout that campaign, and declared that “journalism’s moment of reckoning” had arrived. “Reporters’ eagerness first to ridicule Trump and his supporters, then to dismiss them, and finally to actively lobby and argue for their defeat have led us to a moment when the entire journalistic enterprise needs to be rethought and rebuilt,” I wrote then.

It is astonishing, today, how little we seem to have learned since. Once again, opinion polls were overhyped and under-scrutinized. Some of them were also wildly off—and, though that’s different from 2016, when the polls were largely accurate but widely misunderstood, it doesn’t let media organizations off the hook for their treatment of the numbers. Newsrooms leaned too heavily on polls as a substitute for on-the-ground reporting, and they were led astray. Journalists spent too much time talking to each other on Twitter, inhabiting an alternate algorithmic reality that bore little resemblance to the life of the country. And major media institutions made it all but impossible to envision that, despite the wealth of reporting on the president’s lies and his racism and his circus—nearly half the country remains beholden to the man and his beliefs. “We can’t go back to assuming, just because we think Donald Trump is an outlier, that he is not connecting to a lot of American people in ways that, frankly, a lot of us cannot understand,” Claire McCaskill, a former Missouri senator, said Wednesday morning on MSNBC. The feeling of déjà vu, and of lost journalistic opportunity, is inescapable…

Kyle Pope (@kylepope), editor of the Columbia Journalism Review on lessons unlearned: “What the polls show, and the press missed, again.”

On the problem(s) with polls, pair with “Of course Trump’s voters lie to pollsters. You call us all racists” (with an eye to the phenomenon it addresses– and the questions raised by the rationale it offers…)

For one (very compelling) account of why Pope’s project matters, see Fintan O’Toole’s “Democracy’s Afterlife.” (For more, see also Ron Brownstein, Roxane Gay, and George Packer on the same family of issues… there are lots of diagnoses abroad in the infosphere at the moment; these are among the best your correspondent has found.)

And for a resonant but different take on the necessary role of “honest journalism” going forward, see also Jay Rosen’s “America’s Press and the Asymmetric War for Truth.”

* Donna Brazile

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As we look more deeply, we might recall that it was on this date (18 Brumaire in the French Republican Calendar) in 1799 that thirty-year-old Corsican General Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the Directory in France and established the Consulate, ending the power of the revolutionary oligarchy and creating himself as First Consul… or dictator.

Napoleon in the Coup de 18 Brumaire (detail of an oleo by Bouchot)

Written by LW

November 9, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Authoritarian populism can be seen as a pushback of elements of human nature—tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, zero-sum thinking—against the Enlightenment institutions that were designed to circumvent them”*…

 

Populists

 

We live in the age of charismatic elected would-be despots. His — it is almost always a “he” — are the politics of fear and rage. It takes a certain sort of personality to be a master of such politics. In the right — that is, the wrong — circumstances, such leaders emerge naturally. That is not surprising after a violent revolution. What is far more so is that such leaders have been emerging in well-established democracies.

We now see elected “strongmen” — actual and would-be — everywhere. Leading examples are Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Matteo Salvini in Italy and Donald Trump in the US. These leaders differ in degrees of sophistication. The countries in which they operate also differ. Some are economically developed, while others are not. Some are longstanding democracies; others, again, are not.

Yet these men are all characters in a story powerfully told by the independent US watchdog Freedom House. Freedom in the World 2019, published in February, reported a 13th consecutive year of decline in the global health of democracy. This decline occurred in all regions of the world, notably in the democracies that emerged after the cold war. Above all, it occurred in western democracies, with the US — the most influential upholder of democratic values — leading the way…

People want to believe a powerful and charismatic leader is on their side in an unjust world.  The estimable Martin Wolf unpacks the mechanism of “strong man” rule: “The age of the elected despot is here.”

For a different angle on the phenomenon the Wolf unpacks, one that speaks directly to Steven’s Pinker’s quote in the title of this post, see “Dialectics of Enlightenment.”

*”A very different threat to human progress is a political movement that seeks to undermine its Enlightenment foundations.

The second decade of the 21st century has seen the rise of a counter-Enlightenment movement called populism, more accurately, authoritarian populism. Populism calls for the direct sovereignty of a country’s “people” (usually an ethnic group, sometimes a class), embodied in a strong leader who directly channels their authentic virtue and experience.

Authoritarian populism can be seen as a pushback of elements of human nature—tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, zero-sum thinking—against the Enlightenment institutions that were designed to circumvent them. By focusing on the tribe rather than the individual, it has no place for the protection of minority rights or the promotion of human welfare worldwide. By failing to acknowledge that hard-won knowledge is the key to societal improvement, it denigrates “elites” and “experts” and downplays the marketplace of ideas, including freedom of speech, diversity of opinion, and the fact-checking of self-serving claims. By valorizing a strong leader, populism overlooks the limitations in human nature, and disdains the rule-governed institutions and constitutional checks that constrain the power of flawed human actors.

Populism comes in left-wing and right-wing varieties, which share a folk theory of economics as zero-sum competition: between economic classes in the case of the left, between nations or ethnic groups in the case of the right. Problems are seen not as challenges that are inevitable in an indifferent universe but as the malevolent designs of insidious elites, minorities, or foreigners. As for progress, forget about it: populism looks backward to an age in which the nation was ethnically homogeneous, orthodox cultural and religious values prevailed, and economies were powered by farming and manufacturing, which produced tangible goods for local consumption and for export.”

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Consider also:

“Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction.”

– Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”, New York Review of Books (June 22, 1995)

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As we think for ourselves, we might recall that it was on this date in 1945 that Joseph Goebbels died.  One of Adolf Hitler’s closest and most devoted associates, Goebbels was a student of the shaping of public opinion; he served as Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945.  He was  a gifted public speaker, who was particularly adept at using the relatively new media of radio and film for propaganda purposes, emphasizing antisemitism, attacks on the Christian churches, and (after the start of World War II) the boosting of public morale.

Hitler committed suicide in his bunker on April 30, 1945. In accordance with his will, Goebbels succeeded him as Chancellor of Germany, serving one day in this post.  The following day, Goebbels and his wife committed suicide, after poisoning their six children with cyanide.

220px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1968-101-20A,_Joseph_Goebbels source

 

Written by LW

May 1, 2019 at 1:01 am

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