Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Historical Perspective on Right-Wing Populism

By Mike Dorf

One of the fascinations of studying history is the discovery that what one regards as fixed constellations of policy positions were previously aligned very differently.  For example, modern-day liberals like myself have a hard time figuring out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in the political fight at the turn of the 18th to 19th centuries between Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans and Federalists. On one hand, Jefferson's party (and later Andrew Jackson's) was clearly the small-d democratic force, as against the elitism of Adams and the Federalists. On the other hand, the Jeffersonians were based in the South and their states' rights positions were tied to the preservation of slavery. Jeffersonian/Jacksonian populism was the populism of white men.

To be sure, one might try to see the past as it appeared to the the people of the time, without viewing it through the lens of contemporary concerns. But it is hardly clear that this is even possible. Moreover, ideas have lineages, and so tracing modern debates to their predecessors may shed light on our current circumstances.

Consider William Jennings Bryan. He was a populist who articulated the interests of the sorts of people who, two generations earlier, would have supported Andrew Jackson. In attacking the gold standard (for example, in his famous "Cross of Gold" speech), Bryan argued that by artificially restraining the money supply, it favored the interests of creditors over debtors. Looser money (as would arise from permitting the minting of silver as well as gold) would be expansionary, but would also pose a risk of inflation, which would favor debtors. The "little guys" who supported Bryan were more likely to be debtors than creditors, in part because they were more likely to be farmers than urbanites. (The Cross of Gold speech invoked both Jefferson and Jackson.)

Bryan attacked the banks and gilded-age industrialists. His populism was mostly continuous, although not completely co-extensive, with progressivism of roughly the same era, as most famously explained in Richard Hofstadter's classic, The Age of Reform. But whereas thinkers on the contemporary liberal/left side of American policy debate can look back fondly at progressives like Robert La Follette, Bryan is routinely held at arms' length because of his opposition to evolution (most famously in the Scopes "Monkey Trial") and the association of Bryan's band of populism with racism and nativism. Whereas La Follette was way ahead of his time on race, Bryan's populism appealed especially strongly to the remnants of the racist, nativist, and anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party.

Seen in historical perspective, the modern conservative movement is an amalgam of, on one hand, the reactionary social conservatism of past populism (now expressed as anti-immigration, anti-gay, and still anti-evolution, with efforts to minimize public statements that are overtly racist), and, on the other hand, traditional economic conservatism. It combines the worst elements of Bryan's social legacy with the anti-regulatory attitudes of those who opposed Bryan.

The picture is complicated by the somewhat hostile attitude of the populist right towards the financial industry. Recall that the Tea Party began partly in reaction against the Bush/Obama bank bailouts of 2008/2009. Moreover, in recent months we have seen open political conflict between the Tea Party and traditional, read pro-business, Republicans--especially over the government shutdown and the question of whether and how to use the debt ceiling as leverage in fiscal negotiations. These conflicts might give the appearance that the contemporary populist right is more closely aligned with Bryan-style opposition to the banks than I have indicated.

But I think that would be a mistaken inference. For one thing, the rift that has opened between the Tea Party and establishment Republicans is largely over tactics, not goals. Both wings (the far right and the extremely far right) of the GOP favor fiscal austerity, but the establishment wing includes more pragmatists who are willing to compromise on principles in order to stay in power and thus to prevent otherwise winnable seats from going to Democrats who will be more pro-regulatory and less fiscally conservative.

Still, there may also be substantive divisions here. The Tea Party types tend to be more ideological than establishment Republicans. Put differently, the Tea Partiers oppose "crony capitalism" on principled grounds.

But it would be a mistake to code the Tea Party as anything but conservative as a result. The mugwumps--who were rightly regarded as fiscal conservatives in their day for their opposition to Bryan on the money question--also took shots at crony capitalism and gilded age bankers.

Finally, I want to be clear that in seeing the Tea Party as combining the worst views of past populists and past conservatives, I don't mean to be making any sort of claim about everyone who identifies with the Tea Party. Part of the Tea Party's early success resulted from its ability to deemphasize social issues, and thus to appeal to across-the-board libertarians, and I don't doubt that many across-the-board libertarians still support the Tea Party. But overall, the Tea Party is socially conservative as well as extremely conservative on fiscal policy.

8 comments:

Peter Gerdes said...

I'd argue that both forms of populism have little directly to do with money and mainly to do with moral attitudes.

The fundamental divide comes down to whether pleasure (social welfare) is an unalloyed good or whether unearned pleasure is somehow immoral or bad.

Of course the division isn't perfect but ask people how they would feel about a euphoriant with now side effects, no change in personality just a drug that made things more cheery. The exact same way that many people today are born with higher happiness set points.

Or ask how people would feel about windfalls that benefited the lazy and industrious alike, aliens who gifted us with robot servants and the like.

I know none of this captures it perfectly but I suspect there is a deep seated difference as javascript:void(0)to whether people feel that a good life must be earned or the cost of earning it is a necessary evil.

Jimmyd said...


What is at stake here is less "moral" in a traditional sense of morality and pleasure (as Peter frames it) and more the amalgamation of morality and labor-based self-sufficiency we American's call the Protestant Work Ethic.

There is a fundamental division on economic matters in the American political scene today. (A) those who embrace the legacy of the protestant work ethic and subscribe to the belief that work is an inherent moral good. The second (B) is the "post-scarcity" crowd that view work--or at least the majority of work--as a relic of the past; technology has freed us.

Most of the Tea Party anti-corporatism is driven by the intuition that most big-money capitalism is driven by a alien-robot alliance--Peter isn't for off on that score. But the underlying fear, as it is with gun control, is a removal by the state of the individual's self-sufficiency.

This division is most clear in the response to the ACA. The liberal view of the ACA is that in the long-run it is an advance in human freedom. It will reduce the chilling effect that fears about health care have on the free movement of labor and will allow the creative potential of the population to be further unlocked. In the Tea Party view the ACA will rob people of their initiative and reduce their self-sufficiency by increasing their dependence on "government". In their view the ACA is a reduction in human freedom--a point Ron Paul often harps on.

On of the oddities of the current debate is that both sides embrace the discourse of freedom. For liberals freedom is found in the freedom from fear (ACA) and freedom from want (minimum wage) that can only be achieved by group solidarity (taxes and wealth redistribution). For conservatives freedom is found in freedom from dependency on others (small government) and freedom from abuses of power (pro-gun).

The result is that superficially--sometimes--liberals and conservatives can appear equally hostile to corporations and "big money." But their critique is different. Liberals tend to view corporations as interest groups who are trying to avoid paying their fair share—they object to the “money” part of big money. On the other hand conservatives tend to object to the “big” part of big money, they like their own money well enough.

/sorry this came out much longer than I intended.

David Ricardo said...

One of the problems here is that this post seems to take the position that individuals, particularly those on the right, adopt an ideology and that their positions on policy then flow from that ideology. Actually the reverse is true, individuals across the political spectrum take policy positions based largely on qualitative views and then adopt the ideology that best fits their previously determined position.

The reason for the perplexities that Mr. Dorf observes is that the result of adopting an ideology based on personal likes and dislikes on policy is that sooner or later ideology conflicts with personal likes and dislikes. This has been true from the beginning of the nation, and no one can ever reconcile the incredibly passionate words of Thomas Jefferson on freedom with his personal holding of slaves. But recently the dichotomy between policy prescription of ideology and of personal preference on the right have grown so much that Conservatism in the 21st century cannot be taken seriously as a governing philosophy. To wit.

1. The recent enactment of the Farm Bill saw conservatives greedily fighting to feed at the trough of government support and subsidies, in large part because those same conservatives mostly inhabit states that obtain huge benefits from those government programs. True Conservatism would have been adamantly opposed to government agriculture welfare.

2. Conservatives proclaim freedom of religion as a near absolute right, but when there was a proposed mosque near the site of the World Trade Towers (which was neither a mosque nor exactly next to the World Trade Towers) conservatives led the opposition. The anti-Muslim feelings in this nation emanate largely from the Conservative movement.

3. In economics Conservatives proclaim that government deficits caused by increases in government spending are highly damaging to the economy and that deficits caused by cutting taxes are beneficial. In Economics this is pure nonsense.

4. Conservatives decry the involvement of government in health care as it affects individuals, but it is conservatives that want government to interfere in the health care decisions of women, want government to insert itself into the most intimate issues involving a woman and her physician and want government to dictate to physicians what they can and cannot say in providing treatment.

One could go on and one, but the true test, the indisputable evidence that conservatives abandon their ideology when it conflicts with personal opinions is their position on physician assisted suicide. If an individual, with the support of the medical profession want to end his or her life then surely Conservatism would argue that government has no role to play here other than making certain that this is done in a voluntary manner. Yet conservatives are adamant in trying to use the power of government to interfere in the private life of such an individual and prevent him or her from doing what they want to do of their own free will. Physician assisted suicide is an act which has no impact whatsoever on the lives of those who would use the power of government to prohibit it. This makes them hypocrites, not conservatives.

Bill Walton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Walton said...

Most of the Tea Party anti-corporatism is driven by the intuition that most big-money capitalism is driven by a alien-robot alliance--Peter isn't for off on that score. But the underlying fear, as it is with gun control, is a removal by the state of the individual's self-sufficiency. Fifa 14 Ultimate Team Coins
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