What’s Not the Matter With Kansas

by Patrick J. Deneen on November 11, 2009 · 18 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Economics & Empire,Politics & Power

E2100Tonight I happened to attend a pair of extremely interesting, and strikingly juxtaposed, events. The first was a Bradley Lecture at AEI delivered by Peter Berkowitz entited “The New Progressivism.” According to the description of the lecture – which is a fairly accurate summation –

“The original Progressivism, the Progressivism that arose in the 1880s and 1890s and flourished during the first two decades of the twentieth century, was marked by a paradox. On the one hand, it sought to democratize American politics, reforming American political institutions to make them more responsive to the will of the people. On the other hand, Progressives favored the creation of an administrative elite that would exercise substantial state power but without traditional forms of political accountability. It is one of the virtues of Progressive era that writers gave both opinions clear and emphatic expression. Like the original Progressivism, the new Progressivism, which arose in post-1960s politics and has been refined and taken to a new level by President Barack Obama, seeks to democratize American political institutions by making them more responsive to the will of the people. And like the original Progressivism, it has great confidence in the ability of elites to administer the state on the people’s behalf.

“In contrast to the original Progressivism, the new Progressivism does not give clear expression to Progressivism’s awkward combination of egalitarianism and elitism. On the contrary, the new Progressivism strives to conceal Progressivism’s paradox–the new Progressivism’s academic wing has even developed a variety of theoretical and rhetorical approaches that conceal the paradox. Whereas the dependence on elites can be reconciled with self-government, this concealment has disquieting antidemocratic and illiberal implications.”

Thereafter, I was caught up in a general exodus to a book party a few floors below AEI in the offices of the Weekly Standard, where revelers were toasting the publication of Matthew Continetti’s latest title The Persecution of Sarah Palin.

Both of these events, serendipitously or not, were devoted to the exposure of Left elitism toward ordinary opinion. Both sought to highlight the close alignment of progressive elitism on the Left and populist sympathy on the part of the Right. Both partook of the longterm narrative that has defined the realignment of Populism from a Left anti-elite suspicion of economic concentration to a Right anti-elite suspicion of Statist concentration. And, both struck me – occuring as they were in the heart of the imperial metropole of Washington D.C., attended by the extremely well-heeled, cosmopolitan metropolites, that something was askew.

Peter Berkowitz’s talk turned out to be revelatory: what he was in fact attacking was NOT the elitism of the Left per se, but rather the obfuscation of a paradox at the heart of the Left that at once presents itself as the party of the working man while also advancing policies (e.g., Gay Marriage) to which the working man cannot subscribe. This dynamic was at the heart of my study of “democratic faith,” the belief that democracy could and should be embraced NOT because the lovers of democracy embrace the “people” as they are, but only as they should be. But this criticism of Left elitism does not one a populist make.

The modern Right has built itself on the exposure of this contradiction. However, it should not be confused that a criticism of this Left elite mistrust of the people translates into a Right elite embrace of the people. Berkowitz concluded his talk with praise for the “conservative liberal” position of the Framers and the Constitution, a conservatism of limited government and balanced powers. But this very accustomed invocation of the Founders should give pause, coming as it did in the midst of a lecture that implicitly excoriated the anti-democratic antipathies of the Left elite. For the Founders were no less fearful of the populist irrationalities of the populace as the contemporary elitist Left: pressed particularly on issues of economics, most of the audience in that lecture room at AEI would doubtless regard popular efforts to curb the excesses of Wall Street with no little horror and alarm It’s worth recalling that William Jennings Bryan was hardly a friend of big business, after all, and particularly not Wall Street. Bryan populism tended to be more sympathetic to the use of State authority to curb private concentrations of power than contemporary Right embraces of populism would suggest.

The contemporary Right can trace its roots to the original American mistrust of the people, particularly seen in the frequent invocation of the wisdom of the Founders. The Framers were just as afraid of popular discontents and governance as the elites on the contemporary Left. The Federalist Papers – the official document that describes and defends the Constitutional order – is rife with condemnations of popular rule, particularly “democracy” that was pervasive in ancient settings. The Framers held the view that human irrationality came to the fore in group or crowd settings. As Madison argued in Federalist 55, “Had every Athenian been a Socrates, the Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” That is, even if every citizen of Athens had been a reasonable and philosophic soul, the fact that they came together in a crowd would naturally lead to the overcoming of reason in favor of irrational mob mentality. The Constitutional order aims to circumvent the creation of a widespread popular will.

Representation was to elicit in the leadership by a select class of distinguished individuals. Even as the contemporary Right condemns the elitism of the progressive Left – embracing instead the Founders for their rejection of basic principles of progressivism – it was Madison who declared that a properly constituted government would give rise to leaders who would rule in a manner wiser and better than the common mass of humanity. As Madison wrote in Federalist 10, ideal representation would “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.”

A populist suspicion of the elitist orientation of the new Constitution had motivated opposition by a number of the Anti-federalists, and was largely manifested in an anti-Federalist, anti-Whig, and eventually anti-Republican opposition party (Jeffersonianism, Jacksonianism, and the populism that motivated the candidacy of William Jennings Bryan). In the 1960s, the Democratic Party – increasingly a party of establishment Washington and educated elites – threw off their traditional blue-collar (and largely Catholic) electoral base in favor of a new coalition of anti-war activists, the college-educated, and feminists. The result was a political vacuum in which the “populist” wing of the Democratic party was without representation – until Nixon developed a strategy to bring them into the Republican fold. While old habits died hard – many still continued to vote Democratic – by the time of the candidacy of Ronald Reagan, many overcame old habits and thus became “Reagan Democrats.” The transformation of Republicans as the party of the Northeast and financial elites to that of Joe the Plumber was complete.

But this accretion of populists into the Republican fold was never altogether comfortable: Republicans – the heirs of the old Federalist and Whig parties – had been, and remain, mistrustful of the unwashed masses. The masses were historically the great threat to the sanctity of PROPERTY, the very manifestation of the “diverse faculties of men” that Madison argued was in need of protection in the new Constitutional order. Republicans successfully adopted the old populist strain of American politics by turning its ire toward the pointy-headed professoriate and their dreams of a utopian political order, all the while pretending that the economic policies of Reaganism were friendly to the common man. Even as jobs were being shipped overseas under the new orthodoxy of Free Markets, Reagan cleared brush, George Herbert Walker ate pork rinds, and the Texan yahoo George Walker Bush (Andover, Yale, Harvard MBA) said “nucylar.”

Inviting the populist elements of the American electorate was – to use the Jeffersonian metaphor – a bit like having a wolf by the ears: they didn’t dare to let go, but they knew the longer they held on, the more dangerous the beast. Even now efforts are afoot to keep the incendiary potential of a populist rage in control. This, I take it, is in part the purpose of Matthew Continetti’s recent book on Sarah Palin – to “enlarge and refine” populism for the purposes of the Republican party. Thus he writes (in an excerpt published in the most recent issue of The Weekly Standard), that there is a need of a new political leader who can separate “good” populism from “bad” populism. “The left-wing populists rail against CEO compensation, bank bailouts, and lobbyist influence in government. The right-wing populists attack the auto bailouts, government spending, and Obamacare. There is no central authority directing the tea party protestors…. All of which creates an opportunity for a figure who will separate the good populism (championing free-enterprising individuals) from the bad (concocting loony theories and vilifying “enemies of the people”).” That is, populism must be purified of its hostility to economic elites and instead directed at Left political elites. The way to do this is to assume the pose of sympathetic populist and denounce at the elitism of the Left. Even as one embraces policies which encourage “too big to fail” economic entities that should be largely unsupervised by a pared down government.

There is one quite revealing datum in Continetti’s essay: “About twice as many people call themselves “conservative” as “Republican,” which means that a large chunk of potential Republican voters are alienated from the national party.” Perhaps this is another way of saying “We Won’t Be Fooled Again.” Not that Washington D.C.’s smart set won’t try. Let’s hope Kansas isn’t buying.

More: let’s hope that some cagey political leaders understand that the way to harness this populist anger is not by purging its Left or Right elements, but understanding its consistency – the anger toward private and public concentrations of power, the elimination of a dignified role for the citizen, the infantilization of the American freeman, and the looting of the Republic by power elites of all stripe, is cause for righteous and fervent anger. Inchoate and ill-directed, the Glenn Beck, “tea-party” movement reveals a justified anger toward both K Street and Wall Street. What good sense and manly indignation have put together, let no political maneuvering put asunder. It is high time for “a true and defensible populism.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Russell Arben Fox November 11, 2009 at 7:57 am

A typically fine contribution, Patrick; thanks very much for writing it, and for synthesizing two otherwise disparate events, to give some insight into where populism has come from, and where it hopefully ought to be able to go. It puts me in mind of the old discussion we had, back when you first brought up the “true and defensible populism” label.

It is also worth noting that the paradox which Berkowitz sees in the Progressive movement of the early 20th-century was what it was exactly because those Progressives had, to a great extent, absorbed and built upon earlier Populist critiques of American capitalism; it was not pure managerialism, through and through, because at least some of its roots were democratic and participatory. Thus does the early Progressive paradox rightly connect us with a central complication of self-government in a era when technology, mobility, and wealth have granted great power to individual lives: how can democratic self-rule–which requires individuals as citizens to be committed to and take general responsibility for a community–be balanced with the reality that ordinary individuals (including, I warrant, just about everyone reading this blog!) will almost invariably choose to attend to, specialize in, and pursue their own and their family’s immediate needs, and thus hand over political responsibilities to some other–presumably “elite”–group of individuals? There is no easy answer, I think; just continual compromising around the edges of a very deep divide.

avatar Caleb Stegall November 11, 2009 at 8:53 am

did you plant some bugs in kristols office?

avatar Caleb Stegall November 11, 2009 at 9:21 am

“There is no central authority directing the tea party protestors…. All of which creates an opportunity for a figure who will separate the good populism … from the bad.”

This, I think, is very true.

And this: “let’s hope that some cagey political leaders understand that the way to harness this populist anger is not by purging its Left or Right elements, but understanding its consistency – the anger toward private and public concentrations of power, the elimination of a dignified role for the citizen, the infantilization of the American freeman, and the looting of the Republic by power elites of all stripe, is cause for righteous and fervent anger.”

Amen.

Is Kansas buying? There are two stories I tell when I go around my fair country talking about this stuff, which I have discussed here:

First, I am a Trustee for Kansas Audubon, which is the chief conservationist and advocate of the world’s largest remaining reserves of tallgrass prairie in the world in Kansas’s Flint Hills. One of our biggest enemies is the Sierra Club, whose aggressive environmentalist agitation against global warming causes them to advocate for turning Kansas prairies into a massive wind farming system. Confronted with the fact that this would destroy an actual environment, the president of Sierra commented wryly: “There’s no place in Kansas worth preserving.”

Similarly, at a Club for Growth dinner I attended with Steve Moore, Moore talked about the need for Kansas to eliminate its income tax. I cheered. With his next breath, Moore said that this would clear the way for skyscrapers to rise across the prairie from end to end. I was sick.

This is what unites the enemy, as far as I’m concerned. They want to kill what I love. Giant deadly industrial windmills or hideous corporate idols of “growth.” Both represent the abominable phallus of distant overlords set on rape and pillage and enslavement.

avatar Russell Arben Fox November 11, 2009 at 10:34 am

Confronted with the fact that this would destroy an actual environment, the president of Sierra commented wryly: “There’s no place in Kansas worth preserving.”

I haven’t been a fan of the Sierra Club for a while, but that astonishes me. Did he really say that, Caleb? Cripes, what a fool.

avatar Adam Nicholson November 11, 2009 at 11:35 am

Dr. Deneen: this is a fascinating post and I think more people on both sides of the aisle, but particularly my conservative friends, need to better understand the implications of populist fervor.

That said, I have a bone to pick with your complaint that many on the right (implicitly the DC conservative policy crowd) are just as supportive of the rise of an economic elite as the left is of a political elite. Leaving aside the fact that conservatism is a disparate label, representing quite a few approaches to economic policy, I do not think this argument holds much water.

In fact, I think the neo-con right represented by AEI and the Weekly Standard is especially illustrative. Many scholars and writers from these institutions railed against the Bush administration’s creation of a new prescription drug entitlement (a benefit for the pharmaceutical companies but not so much for most grandparents and certainly not their grandkids); corporate welfare that rewards DC-rent seekers but not mainstreet small businesses or taxpayers; forced unionization that benefits union bosses at the expense of small business and most workers; and high income, capital gains, and estate taxes that punish entrepreneurs, small business owners, and the investors that fuel their success.

I could list further examples, but I think these are sufficient. The right, for all its faults, is not a champion of economic elitism. Most on the right champion a wide-spread economic decentralization in which local entrepreneurs can more easily compete against large, established corporations. Complaints that the right favors economic elitism seem to blatantly ignore the facts on the ground.

Now, it is possible to refute my argument if you conflate the “big business” trade associations (many of whom support policies that narrowly benefit their larger members) with “conservatism.” While some purported conservatives have certainly become excessively cozy with the business community, I don’t seem evidence of this among conservatives in general.

Perhaps you mean something different with “economic elitism” or I have otherwise misunderstood your argument. If so, I definitely would appreciate clarification.

avatar Patrick J. Deneen November 11, 2009 at 12:05 pm

Adam,
Fair enough – and one can indeed find evidence of such arguments among some (if perhaps not as many as you suggest) in the broader conservative movement. But let me offer a “Frankian” riposte (Thomas Frank, that is): if there were dedication to “wide-spread economic decentralization in which local entrepreneurs can more easily compete against large, established corporations,” where have been the corresponding policies and sustained activities among conservatives who governed Washington for a substantial portion of the past 30 years? Where we have seen a flourishing of such economic decentralization and relative advantages given to smaller players? I wonder if such arguments aren’t, in their own way, a bit like the conservative stances on “moral” issues – strong verbal defense with relatively little corresponding sustained activity in their defense (other than the occasional Supreme Court nomination – necessary, but not sufficient, in my view). Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that the Left is any better on this score (they clearly are not) – but that both national parties, given the opportunity to control legislation and the tenor of our public policy, behave in this realm in ways that continue to offer significant advantages to large-scale enterprises, and which have not pursued sustained policies of decentralization in either the political or economic realms. One case in point: under the previous several administrations (Republican or Democratic), there has been an ongoing policy of condoning bank, media and agricultural consolidation. Hardly evidence of policies that “decentralize” economic activity, in my view. If anything, on this score it’s the “conservatives” who may be talking a good game (like the Progressives in their claims to be “friends of the people”), while something else is being done altogether in contradistinction to what is being said.

avatar Adam Nicholson November 11, 2009 at 5:22 pm

ok, if you are talking about the actions of Members of Congress, I largely agree. In reading your statement, I took it that you were directing criticism towards the think-tanks and publications on the right.

I share your dissapointment with the failure of so-called conservatives do make any substantial headway in the area of economic decentralization.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins November 11, 2009 at 9:45 pm

There is a lot of truth to that analysis, and as someone who generally votes by default for liberal Democrats, because the Republican alternative to date has been so uniniviting, I am definitely disturbed by the notion that “experts” will “know what is good for us” and because an “expert says so” or “its in my handbook” therefore it is true. That’s what is really behind the Willingham case in Texas: guilty or innocent, he was convicted by “expert testimony” that has been commonly understood to be true, among a body of experts, but turns out to have no factual or scientific basis whatsoever. Ditto the commercials a few years ago that children up to 4′ 10″ needed a “booster seat” with some .gov url. I just knew the next step was suddenly all the state legislatures would be stampeding to make that a law! Its ridiculous.

But, the analysis of Populism is incomplete, and the transformation of the Democratic and Republican parties in the 1960s far too simple. William Jennings Bryan was accepted, barely, by the People’s Party in a fusion with the Democratic Party, with a lot of tension. First, Bryan had a Wall Street banker, Sewell, as his running mate. The Populists tried to nominate Bryan and Tom Watson, the Populist from Georgia, but Bryan said my whole ticket or nothing. This was fatal to the Populists, because the whole point of turning the Farmer’s Alliances into a political party was a need for national Treasury policies to extend credit without going to “The Man” (or the Furnishing Man) at exorbitant interest — and Bryan wasn’t doing beans about that. Populism is not equivalent to a liberal caricature of neanderthal ignoramuses, nor does it match the caricature of Nixon’s “Silent Majority.” A good conservative position would recognize, individuals are ornery and different and don’t fit into neat little holes in a matrix.

In the 1960′s, the Democratic Party was dominated by cold war liberals and aging trade union leaders challenged from many directions. The McCarthy and McGovern campaigns mobilized more of the rank and file working class than most histories give credit for — I know because I was knocking on doors in working class districts, and the ward by ward election returns show it too. But, those who had been sort of trendy radicals who came from “good families” all moved on to prosperous middle class positions and became a kind of intellectual elite rather distasteful to just about everyone. They like to think that they are “the progressives” — but they are all wrapped up in stereotypes and assumptions that “the way we think is the RIGHT way to think.” Oh, the Republicans? They absorbed those former Democrats who couldn’t stand the civil rights acts — which were opposed by more Democratic votes than Republican votes at the time they were passed. Anyone who claims to speak for “The People” is a liar, because “The People” have 300 million ideas of their own. We all like to think that “the will of the People” just happens to agree with us. Sarah Palin is merely the latest and most aggressive to show that self-delusion.

avatar Junker November 12, 2009 at 3:28 pm
avatar Sean Scallon November 12, 2009 at 4:07 pm

This is a very good article by Deenan. It’s not surprising that neocons want to co-opt populism or steer in in their own direction. They’ve trying to do this for the past 30 years. And even going back before then one Bill Buckley said that conservatives neeeded “refine the Wallace voter.” Elities have always tried to collar the masses for their own motives. That’s why the Standard shows an unusual amount of interest in Palin, because they see in her template for a right populist that they can control, because her knowledge of broader word and broader politics is limited. Since doesn’t know what a neocon is, she’s perfect!

“the 1960s, the Democratic Party – increasingly a party of establishment Washington and educated elites – threw off their traditional blue-collar (and largely Catholic) electoral base in favor of a new coalition of anti-war activists, the college-educated, and feminists. The result was a political vacuum in which the “populist” wing of the Democratic party was without representation – until Nixon developed a strategy to bring them into the Republican fold.

I’ve seen this written so many times in so many political tracts that I think it deserves someone asking: “Why would they do this?” Why change your political base something completely difference and suffer defeat for it? The answer is: It wasn’t exactly planned this way. Someone once asked one of the protesters at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention why didn’t they protest the Republicans and the answer was “Because we were the children of the Democratic Party.” The Vietnam War and the changing economics structure of the country changed the nature of the Democratic Party, which has always been the most broad-based and divers of our two parties. As a result, that’s why the Democrats changes, not because they suddenly woke up one morning and decided to dump their Catholic wing for the hell of it. The Republicans have inherited something they feel they have to manipulate instead of embrace or at least lead towards path that can benefit it through better policies.

avatar D.W. Sabin November 12, 2009 at 4:16 pm

While the various Think Tanks may include folks in their stable who espouse more chaste views of centralized government and more supportive views of small business, the reality of it is simply their location within the Imperial Seat. Granted, they could not do much within government if they were located in Winnemucca, Nevada but once they begin to fill out their dance card in our Babylon on the Potomac, the sycophants to Empire come to the fore…particularly those elements within the major think tanks who are partisans of the War Party. There is nothing evil or pre-determinably malign here, it is simply human nature. Power likes powerful expression. The Shark is loathe to stop swimming with powerful strokes.

Just as there is no support for labor by either party, there will not be any retreat from Empire, by either party…from within the beltway. Meanwhile, back at the Colosseum, the Reds and Greens will fight their populist fights while Empire bleeds the patient to expiration. It is an old script, older than the colosseum itself and the cast is following it to perfection.

That a Sierra Club Swell might deny that there is great beauty to be found along the ridges and hollows of the Flint Hills south of Cottonwood Falls is completely unsurprising. The Nature 500 likes their spectacular landscapes because they are the only thing that can draw the attention and donations of our busily distracted consumers. The bulk of the landscape might be treated like a dirty dishtowel but this is of no material interest to the Nature 500 because their cocktail circuit revolves around star power…the spectacular locale, distant and hence, like a prize in a cabinet they “protect”. This is, in a way, much like the parsing of the various Think Tanks of Washington where a general premise may be put forth : Conservative principles, support of small business, environmental aims etc etc…but in reality, these aims are window dressing to a degree, subservient to the larger show …..The Spectacular Event, with high production values and an easily controlled story line. Little human interest stories may be charming but only as an occasional punctuation…a minor grace point within the bigger extravaganza.

Watching Ms. Palin’s bus tour of Maverick Malarkey next week should sum up the populist potentials quite nicely.

avatar Bob Cheeks November 12, 2009 at 4:35 pm

I know you, secretly, think Ms. Palin’s hot! You just don’t want the concept to find out…or maybe that water’s already over the dam?

avatar Siarlys Jenkins November 12, 2009 at 4:58 pm

Caleb, one of the most memorable days of my life was crossing Kansas on a Greyhound, just staring out the window and watching the landscape. Someone said this already, but it can’t be said too many times: subjecting tallgrass prairie to industrially dense wind farms so California elites can feel good about reducing their carbon footprint isn’t a prescription for saving the planet. (They probably also want to take down some dams in the Sierras, and hope Kansas will pay the price for keeping up the flow of electricity after the hydropower is gone). I would guess there is probably somewhere in Kansas where some windfarms could be acceptable, there are some in my state, and might help reduce the coal-fired plants needed in Kansas, but its not an ecological colony of California. They can experiment with tides for their power out on the coast.

avatar cecelia November 13, 2009 at 1:08 am

someone might remind the Sierra Cliub that tallgrass prairie sequesters that greenhouse gas – carbon dioxide – and that when you dig the hole for the wind turbine – you release all that sequestered carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

avatar Rob G November 13, 2009 at 11:13 am

Sam Francis’s essay “Beautiful Losers” might be helpful here. Francis argued (this is my own very brief paraphrase) that the middle class realizes that it’s being hosed by both Wall St. and K St., but doesn’t have much of an idea what to do about it. The key for conservatives is to concentrate on those issues that have meaning for the middle-class voter, and to work on them culturally, from the bottom up, and not primarily politically. In other words, attempt to make the middle class see that it CAN do something about the situation, although it may take awhile.

The tricks are to first find out what those primary issues are, then to go at them in the right way with the right people. There are places where traditional conservatism of the FPR variety and populism, loosely understood, overlap one another. Seems to me that those areas of commonality would be good places to start talking.

avatar D.W. Sabin November 13, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Now Cheeks,
I tend to like woman, authentic broads, not the methodically screaming banshee types represented by this strange bird. Not to mention, habitual winkers and clickers make me want to reach for my knife.

avatar Bob Cheeks November 16, 2009 at 2:22 pm

Sabinski,

The very fact that Ms. Palin makes libruls soil their knickers makes me love the high cheek-boned, long legged, multi-racial looking beauty regardless of her obvious flaws.
If she’d spend a month with me in the Alaska wilderness, with the wife’s permission of course, I could break her of those habits to the point where even you’d be hollerin’…Sara, Sara, Sara!!!!

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