JEFFERSON COUNTY, KS. In light of Rod Dreher’s kind “shout out”—that is, I believe, the proper blog parlance—it seems appropriate to re-run this essay that appeared in Rod’s paper three years ago under the title “Populism Now!”
In the 1980s, the historian and social critic Christopher Lasch pronounced dead the conventional political categories of right and left and argued for a revitalization of politics through a redefinition of terms.
“The idea of a ‘left’ has outlived its historical time and needs to be decently buried, along with the false conservatism that merely clothes an older liberal tradition in conservative rhetoric.”
Since that time, a number of third-party candidates have tried to do just that – from Pat Buchanan to Ross Perot to the perpetual candidacy of Ralph Nader – with a mixed record of success and virtually no electoral victories.Yet there remains a growing sense that the times finally have caught up with the prophetic Mr. Lasch. Could it be that the old political stereotypes and national parties are no longer capable of addressing the needs of the nation? Could we be on the verge of a tectonic shift in American politics?
There are signs. Peggy Noonan recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal that due to popular discontent with the widening gulf “between those in power and those who put them there,” the time is here for a successful third-party run in American politics.
A few days later, writing in The New York Times, Charles Morris explicitly confirmed Ms. Noonan’s populist suspicions by likening current widespread uneasiness during a growing economy to what historians call the “great depression” of the 1870s – which, it turns out, wasn’t a depression at all. In fact, production, consumption and employment all rose sharply, and economic indicators were uniformly good. “By the end of the decade,” writes Mr. Morris, “people were better housed, better clothed and lived on bigger farms. Department stores were popping up even in medium-sized cities. America was transforming into the world’s first mass consumer society.”
Yet most people in the Gilded Age seemed desperate. A growing disparity between the haves and have-nots brought on by “unbridled entrepreneurialism,” a dramatic increase in both social and geographic mobility, the spread of centralized corporate control over consumer goods and globalizing markets vulnerable to forces far, far away all contributed to a sense of unease and insecurity. Populist fervor swept the middle and lower classes as they felt their livelihood and way of life threatened by collusion between their government and rapidly expanding commerce, industry and mass cultures of transportation and communication.
And so it is today. Midwestern towns are drying up and blowing away like so much tumbleweed. Our inner cities too often function as prisons without bars; suburbia is a blighted, soulless landscape of nowhere; and the yeoman freeholder who was once the backbone of rural America is virtually extinct. Pollsters wonder why George W. Bush isn’t getting more credit for strong economic numbers. Perhaps it is because what are signs of health driven by rampant consumerism are experienced by most Americans as symptoms of economic and spiritual rot – their own and their country’s.
Americans, many of them at least, are awakening to the truth articulated more than 50 years ago by writer Whittaker Chambers: that the modern world’s “vision of comfort without effort, pleasure without the pain of creation, life sterilized against even the thought of death, rationalized so that every intrusion of mystery is felt as a betrayal of the mind, life mechanized and standardized” does not “make for happiness from day to day” – and further, that it may mean “catastrophe in the end.”
My guess is that what all the commentators are sensing is something real. Could it be that unconstrained growth, hypermobility and global markets actually produce social and political instability?
In the mid-20th century, economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that capitalism – the acknowledged world-historical champion in terms of producing wealth and prosperity – would, by a process he called “creative destruction,” eventually undermine the very social institutions that gave it birth and guarded its existence. He pointed out that market capitalism exposed more natural ordering structures – the “ties that bind” – to a brutal new calculus. Commitment to kin, community and place entail making heavy economic sacrifices and provide benefits not easily entered on a balance sheet. The more cost-efficient process of market economics fomented an ongoing progressive revolution that eventually rendered those social and family ties largely superfluous. Lord Acton observed that “every institution tends to perish by an excess of its own basic principle.”
This tendency of our political and economic culture toward a state of permanent revolution is the hallmark of any modern progressive society. And if there is one deity today to which every politician, right and left, will pay obeisance, it is the god of progress.
Progressives of all political stripes learn early and often that to get on, they better get out, move on, follow every rainbow. “Oh, the places you’ll go,” crooned Dr. Seuss, and Americans went and went and went until we became a rootless itinerant people – which, it turns out, is exactly the kind of workers required by an economy built on creative destruction. Nanny-state leftists and corporate-state rightists have long been in bed together promoting the wage-entitlement economy with its instantly mobile and fetter-free worker and 100 percent out-of-the-home servitude.
There is a tremendous cost to the health of the republic, to the common good, that comes with the creative yet destructive power of unlimited economic and political progressivism. The vital role property-owning and self-sufficient families, small towns and regional governments play in a free republic has been recognized for centuries. The civic virtues associated with widespread ownership of land, decentralized systems of trade, commitment to the common good of one’s tribe and the moral sturdiness of belonging to a tradition are necessary to the continued independence of a free people.
And the loss of these goods will always strike the middle classes first and hardest. When they are lost, they are felt as loss – loss of an entire way of life. And just as the masses of dispossessed and alienated fought back during the Gilded Age, they are likely to again.
At the 1896 Democratic Convention, the populist lion William Jennings Bryan roared against the elite and monied interests controlling America: “We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked … We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!”
And now we are on the cusp of a new wave of populism in search of its own Bryan to rise up on behalf of the people and defy their progressive masters.
Whoever he is, however, he ought to take a close look at the first generation of American populists who often identified themselves as progressives. When Bryan fought for home, family and posterity, he tapped directly into the heart of the American middle classes. But the populist reforms intended to return political and economic power to the ordinary American were fatally flawed.
The introduction of the federal income tax, the nationalization of the railroads and the direct election of U.S. senators were all major reforms accomplished by the progressive populists of Bryan’s day. But rather than putting a hedge of protection around home, family and posterity, each exposed the institutions of middle America to further exploitation. By empowering centralized planning authorities to directly control Americans’ income, mobility and elections via taxation, bureaucratic infrastructure and national political parties, the populists ended up giving the elites far greater control of the people than they had previously had.
There’s an irony inherent in a system like our own that identifies the individual as the fundamental unit of political, social and economic order. Because it shears the individual of the republican virtues cultivated within communities of tradition in the name of empowering him, it actually makes the individual subject to tyranny. Limitless emancipation in the name of progress is, it turns out, the final and most binding mechanism of control.
When the oldest sources of order – which are at root religious – are abandoned along with their traditions and taboos, the resulting void of meaning is by necessity filled with some ideology promising one form or another of perfect happiness in the here and now. And these systems of self-salvation creep not toward liberation, but toward total control.
Populism in its progressive form is not immune from this utopian yearning, which must always end in disaster. So our neopopulist moment ought to be approached with sober awareness that an angry mob is probably worse than a corrupt bureaucrat. The same bureaucrat who has harnessed the anger of the mob with progressive dreams is far more terrible than both.
What is called for is an anti-progressive populism; an anti-movement movement; a return to what is near, known and particular. What is called for is what I think of as regional populism. Its first political task will be to rediscover the ways citizens of the old American republic used to think and talk.
To begin with, we ought to look to the rich heritage of regional populism left by the somewhat misnamed “Anti-Federalists” at the time of America’s founding. While the Anti-Federalists lost the constitutional debate to the centralizers, their principles endured in the emergence of the old Republican Party under Thomas Jefferson (not to be confused with Lincoln’s Republicans). The Jeffersonians advocated for popular and rural rights of yeoman over and against the aristocratic, citified and industrializing prerogatives of the Federalists.
Because of this primary commitment to local and regional interests, culture and norms over national ideologies, this “folk” populism will not look like any one thing in particular, but rather like many things. It requires people who are rooted by a love of what T.S. Eliot called the “permanent things” and who are loyal above all to the tradition and membership of their “little platoons” – Edmund Burke’s term for the small groups and associations to which each person belongs and which, in Burke’s view, hold society together.
Folk populism requires people willing to make sacrifices to defend what they love from encroaching destruction via spaghetti-like superhighways, foreign entanglements, megacorporations and megachurches, technological developments, mass media and hypermobility.
All of these features of modernity are systems of control by other, less violent means. As Mr. Lasch cogently argued, they have the effect of harnessing and neutralizing populist discontent. How? By creating a cycle of dependence whereby local goods – intellectual, fiscal, cultural and generational capital (in the form of children) – are drawn into the maw of the centralized corporate-state. They are returned in the form of processed “goods” – products and services that prove to be remarkably habit-forming in a culture of dependency.
Here’s how it works. Midwestern wheat farms are largely owned by massive agribusinesses that function as industrialized, oil-dependent factories dedicated to efficient mass production of their widget, which happens to be the wheat berry. The wheat berry is shipped to other factories for processing and packaging, shipped again to Wonder Bread Inc. for further refinement into a “bread product.” This, in turn, is shipped to stadium-size retail “food outlets,” purchased by the hurried and haggard farm laborer (who used to own the land the wheat was grown on) and taken home to make sandwiches for the kids to eat in front of the TV.
There’s something profoundly unnatural, indeed fundamentally wrong with a consumer-driven system that alienates people from their land, their neighbors and their traditions for the sake of satisfying consumer desire. We’ve got to break the cycle that turns self-sufficient yeomen into docile consumers who, in the immortal words of Samuel Adams, “crouch down and lick the hands which feed them.” This is the only way we will realize Bryan’s dream of defending our homes, our families and our posterity.
What would this kind of regional populism look like in an actual political platform? Broadly speaking, it would seek at every turn to end the dependence of its constituents on elites. It would oppose, for example, the nationalization of any sector of our economy, from health care to agriculture. Instead, it would seek creative ways to open regional markets for regional goods.
It would seek to permit regional cultural and religious particularities to emerge from the fog of federalized regulation and be made manifest in our schools, courthouses, businesses and civic organizations. And it would provide incentives to keep cultural capital local. It would encourage people to work, study and raise families close to where they grew up. It would seek ways to promote local culture and would cultivate loyalty to our neighbors and a fierce love for our own places.
But in the end, what this kind of vibrant regionalism requires is something much more difficult to obtain than a slogan. It is a renewed appreciation for society over and against both the individual and the state. Society defined by what the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry calls “membership” – a network of social interconnectedness and shared obligation. To be a member of this kind of social order is the best hedge against manipulation by the central planning committee for “growth” and “prosperity.” It is, to put it plainly, to be free.
It may be too late, things too far gone, for the kind of Anti-Federalist regional populism I am describing to become politically viable in our day. If so, we will likely be tossed between the tyranny of a militantly nationalist populism and the stifling bureaucratic rule of a progressively universalizing liberalism. Neither is a welcome alternative.