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Authentic populism, shadow populism, and Obama as a faux tribune of the people

I hate to quote the WSJ, but I guess, at this point, I'd rather a libertarian than, say, a neo-liberal of either legacy party. So... Jesse Walker:

The most useful approach builds on a distinction drawn by the historian Lawrence Goodwyn. In "Democratic Promise," his study of the 19th-century Populist Party, Mr. Goodwyn distinguishes the "authentic" and "shadow" faces of populism. The key difference here isn't ideology. It's the depth of a movement's roots.

For Mr. Goodwyn, the "authentic" populists were the farmers who formed cooperatives and then organized politically to create an environment in which those co-ops could thrive. The "shadow" populists were fledgling politicians who attached themselves to the Democratic Party and to Bryan's gimmicky crusade to coin silver money. The first group, Mr. Goodwyn argues, was constructing a "democratic culture." The second had "no institutional base, no collective identity, and no movement culture," just conventional "hierarchical politics." One emerged from popular discontent; the other attempted to exploit it.

It may be that the real effect of the Internet was to have enabled shadow populism on a mass basis; the way the access bloggers focus on the nuts and bolts of institutional politics as practiced in Versailles would certainly seem to argue for this.

But whether or not you accept all of Mr. Goodwyn's gloss on the Populist Party, he has hit on a handy tool for understanding the eruptions that have broken out since that party departed the scene. Working from his two categories, we can see the outlines of two populist traditions in the U.S. The first is the populism of grass-roots groups—some on the left, some on the right, some hard to classify—that are dominated by unpaid, part-time activists rather than professional political operatives. The second is the populism of the people's tribune, a fiery figure who acts, or claims to act, as a champion of the masses.

History doesn't repeat, but it rhymes... One might regard Obama as the people's tribune of the online shadow populists (the "creative class") -- and of a portion of the "unpaid, part-time activists." (Which is where, invisible to Versailles, creative ferment is going on right now.)

The elected tribune typically mixes elements of left and right, centralization and decentralization, self-aggrandizement and constituent service.

Which, again, partly fits Obama (especially if you regard his true constituents as the FIRE sector).

Besides Bryan, this type is represented by the likes of Louisiana's Huey Long and Oklahoma's "Alfalfa Bill" Murray, Depression-era governors (and, in Long's case, a senator) whose careers and views defy easy summary. Long's efforts to redistribute his state's wealth by any means necessary put him on the far left end of the political spectrum, but his critiques of the Federal Reserve, the National Recovery Administration, and military intervention abroad also overlapped considerably with the views of the populist right. Murray was both a champion of the Chickasaw and a fierce foe of blacks; he intervened freely in Oklahoma's economy, enforcing oil-production quotas and other orders via martial law, but he opposed Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. ...

Confronted with a specimen like Murray, who infamously campaigned against "the three Cs—corporations, carpetbaggers and coons," it's tempting to dismiss the tribunes as mere demagogues. But like entrepreneurs invading a complacent industry, the people's tribune succeeds by stressing topics his more respectable rivals prefer to ignore.

Which Obama definitely does not do. The post-partisan schtick prevents him from doing do. Which is why the legacy parties, in Versailles, are stronger than ever, and weaker than ever everywhere else.

When ordinary voters feel neglected by ordinary politics, the tribune will channel their resentments. And if that sometimes means that ugly sentiments that once were confined to whispers will spill out into public debate, it also means that legitimate anger about a host of arrogant policies, from urban renewal to police harassment to corporate bailouts, can be forced into the open as well.

Here again, Obama does not do this. That may be a miscalculation by his owners, owing to the fact that Versailles culture gives not expressing anger great value.

The tribune is traditionally a politician, but you needn't be an elected official to play the role. In 21st-century America, the natural place for the people's tribune is in front of a camera or a radio microphone. From consumer reporters to talk-show hosts, from Michael Moore and his calculatedly schlubby style to Glenn Beck and his anticonspiracy crusades, pop culture is filled with self-proclaimed paladins of the people who venture into the public arena to wage symbolic battles with the targets of popular resentment.

You could argue that these rootless radio and TV stars are the apotheosis of Mr. Goodwyn's shadow populism. Drawing power from the Nielsen meter instead of the ballot box, they may look like men and women with "no institutional base, no collective identity, and no movement culture."

Again, just like Obama.

But in another way, they indicate that there can be more to shadow populism than Mr. Goodwyn's dismissive description suggests. Call-in hosts in particular represent a species that has only recently emerged: the political leader whose power rests not in his constituents but in his fans.

Just like Obama. Obama's problem is that many of former fans are also citizens, who have been disappointed in his failure to live up to the hopes for change that they projected -- and were induced to project -- onto him.

[T]he innate intimacy of radio, especially call-in radio, gives the tribune a connection with his followers that's rather different from the relations enjoyed by ordinary politicians and pundits. That really is an institutional base, it can create a collective identity, and if it isn't a movement culture then at least it's a fan culture.

The result is an era in which the lines have blurred between popular culture and populist politics. We not only have Al Franken moving from a comedy career and a call-in show into the U.S. Senate, we have Sarah Palin leaving a governor's mansion because she felt she could be more influential as a media icon than as an elected official.

Here is what I see as the money quote:

Government is rarely as unpredictable as it is when members of the establishment attempt to corral these insurgent energies for their own agenda. See, for example, the unpredictable dance going on between the Tea Party movement and the Republican regulars. Look under that big Tea Party umbrella and you'll find both a grass-roots revolt against the people who run the Republican Party and a sustained effort to turn the Tea Parties into a get-out-the-vote drive for the GOP.

President Obama is an indirect beneficiary of the work done by the netroots, the decentralized online army of activists that is the closest there is to a left-wing equivalent of the Tea Parties.

Because Walker hasn't immersed himself in the netroots (so-called) he doesn't see the access blogger phenomenon, where the Dems have successfully done to the left exactly what the Republicans hope to do with their won grassroots populism: Turn them into GOTV operations. (Have they considered using money as a tool?)

But in his years as a national figure, [Obama] has no history of trying to hop on the populist tiger himself. If he intends for this dalliance to be more than a short-lived posture, he'll be in for quite a ride.

Yep. Obama's a shadow of a shadow: A faux shadow populist.

NOTE It's at the local level, I feel, that the commonalities between all forms of grass-roots populism become more clear. Both grass-roots libertarians and lefties (for want of a better term) can agree that Versailles needs to be short-circuited and the empire ended, for example. The only differences come in their respective views of human nature (altruism considered illusory or real), the role of the state (true enemy or facade), and the nature of markets. (Other than that....) Those differences, however, may fall into the background when defending a watershed, for example, against an attack by a corporation allied with a captured state agency. So...

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Jesse's picture
Submitted by Jesse on

Thanks for the link. The GOTV elements of the netroots were actually one of the parallels I had in mind. But I'm not sure what you mean by "access blogger" - could you explain?

Submitted by lambert on

An access blogger is a high-traffic blogger who makes trading on "access" -- in the classic journo sense* -- to one or several Versailles factions part of their funding and business model. OpenLeft, TPM, Kos, and FDL spring to this outsider's mind.** In the best case, you get blogs acting as "meme laundries" for talking points developed by partisan operatives; that is, they use their putative independence as a way of giving credibility to what is, in fact, a manufactured discourse that "strategists" and consultants are billing to create. (This was especially evident during the 2008 primaries.) In the worst case, you get coverage that's outright dictated by funding. (HCAN's Jason Rosenbaum at FDL was, after pressure from outraged readers, disclosed, and as an HCAN employee, it's entirely natural that Rosenbaum would censor all single payer stories in the FDL silo that Hamsher provided him. However, given lack of transparency, one must assume that there are other "cognitive infiltrators" that are not disclosed.)

Now, one can argue this is the way of the world; however, back, say, in 2003, the idea was that the blogs would replace the corrupt press, not become it.

NOTE * Much as I hate to quote Hitchens, his sad decline had not begun, or was not so evident, back in the 90s.

NOTE ** I should say that not all high traffic blogs are "access blogs" -- though funders would, naturally, like to buy them all. (The Obama 527 Formerly Known As Daily Kos has, after all, the reach of a cable channel.) Bloggers from academe (Atrios) or the entertainment industry (C&L) or the professions (TalkLeft) tend to have different, non-access based, business models. IOW, not all bloggers with access (due to high traffic) are access bloggers. They're as susceptible to a corrupt zeitgeist and manufactured talking points as anyone else, but the vector of infection is different, and their immune system is more resilient, if that makes sense. For whatever reason, the econobloggers (see Silber here) seem to be far less susceptible to infection than the political bloggers. It may be that, well, they've got money. It may also be that they simply understand the stakes better.

vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

To expand on your point about the zeitgeist, there is a presumption of good faith and good policy among the top echelon of the bloggers.

If just a couple that style themselves as experts in a particular area (and who gain access to impressively credentialed insiders) are fooled and/or co-opted, there goes the whole bushel (if I may wax apple-ish again). Thus non-access bloggers dance to the tune set by their access-oriented colleagues.

At that point, there is a power tribal imperative associated with protecting the laundered memes and those who are most associated with them.