Monday, February 6, 2017
The REVOLT Against the ELITES
And the limits of populism
The election of 2016 was terrible because it wasn’t an election, it was a rebellion. America is having a civil war, or, to be more accurate, a War of Incivility. The war is not between Republicans and Democrats or between conservatives and progressives. The war is between the frightened and what they fear. It is being fought by the people who perceive themselves as controlling nothing. They are besieging the people they perceive as controlling everything. We are in the midst of a Perception Insurrection, or, depending on how you perceive it, a Loser Mutiny.
The revolt against the elites targets all manner of preeminence—political elites, business elites, media elites, institutional elites, and, kind reader, you. You're reading an article in a serious magazine, and the article is about a serious subject (however flippantly treated). This marks you as an elite.
We Are Not Alone
If it's any comfort, people all over the world are saying, "We're sick of the elites. We're tired of the experts. To hell with the deep thinkers who think they know what we should have better than we do and who—while they're at it—are grabbing everything we've got."
Great Britain's political, business, and trade union leaders were opposed to Brexit. That is, the people who supported the Iraq war plus the people who caused the 2008 global financial crisis plus the people who nationalized the British automobile industry were all in unprecedented agreement on one issue. Voters felt they couldn't go wrong betting against this trifecta.
A similar broad coalition of Colombia's good and great spent five years negotiating a peace treaty with a starving rabble of FARC guerrillas who had been marauding in the country's hinterlands since 1964. A plebiscite was held to ratify the peace agreement, causing voters to tacitly ask, "After 52 years of murder, kidnapping, pillage, theft, and trafficking in narcotics, FARC is being offered retirement benefits?" The plebiscite failed.
There can be a reactionary element to the revolt. Such supposedly MSNBC-philic places as Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands have seen the rise of nationalist, protectionist, anti-immigration, EU-skeptical political parties. Parties of this kind govern Poland and Hungary.
In France, Marine Le Pen's National Front is now the largest single political party, protesting an influx of foreigners and never mind that the French are foreigners.
However, antielitism can come from every political direction. Brazil is in the process of bringing indictments for corruption against practically every one of its politicians—left, right, and middle-of-the-road—for the simple reason that they're guilty of it.
Sometimes the antielitism seems to come from never-never land. Among the principal contenders in the 2016 Icelandic parliamentary elections was the Pirate party (symbol: a black sail), featuring a platform plank to give Edward Snowden Icelandic citizenship.
Not to be outdone, citizens of the Philippines gave themselves a dose of electoral homeopathy. Overwhelmed by violent lawbreaking, they elected a violent lawbreaker president. Rodrigo Duterte, former mayor of crime-plagued Davao City, is nicknamed "Duterte Harry."
Even the dull politics of Australia have been in turmoil. Politics in Australia are so dull that the name of the conservative party is the Liberal party. But Australia has had five prime ministers in six years. Its last election nearly resulted in a hung parliament. A hung parliament! What a tempting idea. Although I suppose hanging legislators is immoral. And it's illegal, except maybe in Queensland if parliamentarians are caught chasing sheep.
In staid Canada they now have a prime minister who's a completely inexperienced dashing young celeb named Justin. I haven't Googled "Canadian politics." (Who would?) But I'm assuming it's Bieber.
The Populism Pop Quiz
Among poli sci savants, such contrariness at the ballot box is defined as "populism." But it's a definition that does nothing to define the phenomenon. Populism is just a name for an opinion common in most democracies: There exists a large herd of the clueless, and running circles around them is a small pack of wiseacres. Populist opinion has an effect even in political systems where the opinion of the populace doesn't matter. Vladimir Putin harnessed populist outrage at the kleptomaniac incompetents who took possession of Russia after perestroika. Xi Jinping's neo-Maoism makes use of populist anger at the all-the-tea-in-China scale of corruption among the Chinese elites.
There are even populist aspects to Islamic terrorism. Fanatical interpretation of "jihad" is antielite. Islamic terrorists hate elites so much that they have suicide squads of elites who go around killing themselves.
Countries with strong democratic traditions—and let's hope we live in one—don't harbor the kind of populism that goes psycho, like ISIS. Americans don't appreciate being labeled as clueless, or as wiseacres either. Thus American populism has its limits. This does not keep American politicians from doing everything they can to provoke the alarums and excursions of populism. The most privileged politicians will give it a try. Hillary Clinton, wiseacre, toiled among clueless Latino, black, and millennial voters in hope of using the alarums of Donald Trump to promote her excursion to the White House.
The results of populism can be disastrous—a Hitler, a Mussolini, a Franco. In Europe, between the First and Second World Wars, the results of populism were more disastrous than anything since the Black Plague killed a third of the continent's population. At least the Black Plague didn't have popular support.
More often, however, the results of populism are a confused mess—for example, the mess that Andrew Jackson's unwashed supporters left in the White House after his inaugural ball, and the confusion Jackson himself created by vetoing the charter of the Second Bank of the United States, causing the Panic-of-1837 bank run and a collapse in the frontier land speculations of his own supporters.
Blogger alarums and excursions to the contrary, America in 2016 had no Hitler, no Mussolini, no Franco. We didn't even have an Andrew Jackson. (Though Trump promised an immigrant Trail of Tears.) What we had was more like a Perón, and not even the Argentine dictator Juan, but a mixed-doubles, gender equity pair of Evitas.
Don't cry for me, mainstream media . . .
As a method of replacing the sophistry of the wiseacres with the wisdom of the clueless, populism doesn't work. Populism usually doesn't work for the leaders of populist movements, either. The most notable populist in American political history was William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925). His populist appeal was based on an easy fix for the problems of Americans who didn't have much money: Print more.
Bryan ran for president three times on the Democratic ticket, and lost in 1896, 1900, and 1908. Woodrow Wilson appointed him secretary of state. Bryan announced a policy of strict pacifism. The United States went to war with Germany anyway. Bryan attempted to gain the Democratic presidential nomination for a fourth time in 1924, and lost. He ended his days making a monkey out of himself at the Scopes trial, defending Tennessee's law against teaching evolution.
The most notable populist in history was Julius Caesar. He—N.B., those who've been saying the 2016 election "had a sharp edge"—was stabbed to death by dozens of senators. The conspiracy was a confused mess. Some of the senators ended up stabbing each other. And the political aftermath was so much of a confused mess that it took Edward Gibbon 3,589 pages to describe it in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Why Are We So Revolting?
The early 21st century seems like an odd time to be having a wave of populist rebellions, especially in countries where things are going fairly well—except for the wave of populist rebellions.
We're not in desperate financial straits. The Great Recession of 2008 was painful, with a certain amount of waking up on friends' couches after somebody took the house. But these days practically everyone in America has had a divorce. So we'd been through that before. And if there were any bread lines, they weren't handing out loaves of Love-the-Taste low-carb ThinSlim. America's obesity crisis abides.
We are embroiled in a long war. More than 7,000 American combatants have died during the 15 years of the war on terror. But more than 7,800 American combatants died at the Battle of Gettysburg. Streets are not filled with protesters against the war we're in now. Hippies aren't sticking daisies in drones.
We're culturally and politically polarized, but not in a way that would startle an old-school history professor and jolt him awake from his nap in the faculty lounge. The year 1861—that was polarized. Fort Sumter isn't taking any incoming.
Yet people are fearful, and they blame their fears on the leadership elite.
Partly this is because the leadership elite haven't done a very good job. Take the Middle East, for example. Demons have been unleashed in the Middle East. Elites failed to address the problems that caused the demons to be unleashed. Indeed, the elites seem to have been breeding demons, in the kennels of elite diplomacy, elite geopolitics, and elite military strategy. Then the elites turned those demons loose in the Middle East as if demons had ever been an endangered species in the region, as if elites were trying to reintroduce them.
One result is murder all over the world. How much farther away from the quarrels and hatreds of the Middle East could a person get than to be at "Latin Night" in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida?
Another result is the European refugee crisis. What do the elites care? The refugees aren't crowding the halls and jostling the elites in the corridors of the European parliament in Brussels. The refugees aren't building shantytowns on the tennis courts at the elites' country clubs.
Young refugee men commit assaults in public places, like the Cologne train station, on public occasions, like New Year's Eve. That's the public's problem. These things don't happen at the private parties elites give.
The elites fail and don't suffer any consequences from their failures. As it is with elite carelessness about refugees, so it is with elite carelessness about immigration. To elites immigration means nannies, household staff, and fun new ethnic restaurants. Elites don't see any similarity between Trump's border wall and the gated communities where they live.
To be fair to elites, quick changes in social mores, economic norms, and political givens confuse everyone, especially those who thought they were leading the Mores, Norms, and Givens Parade.
We don't have to march in lockstep anymore. People are becoming persons, not masses. This is progress. But difficulties arise after the stride is broken. When the band breaks up, it can leave the tubas to be turned into beer bongs; the fellow with the bass drum sitting on the curb playing the solo from "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"; the trombonist using his slide to goose the cornet player; and nobody left who can spell "glockenspiel." Meanwhile, the elite drum major is just some dork standing in the middle of the street wearing a goofy hat and waving a stick.
Swift improvements in transport, communication, and technical capacities have combined with international trade to produce what is called "globalization"—a big word meaning the Earth has shrunk to a Pluto-sized planetoid.
We love to have everything from everywhere brought right to our door. Except when we don't. We love going to Yellowstone Park. But do we love having the herds of bison, geysers, trees, mountains, tourists, and bears in our rec room? We'll need to clean the carpet. Then we go to work in the morning and find out a bear ate our job.
The world is a smaller place. Did the elites think this would make everyone get along? Try it with your kids. Put them in a small place, such as the backseat of your car. Now take them to see the world. Take them to, for example, Yellowstone Park from, say, Boca Raton. How are your kids getting along? I guess elites don't take family car trips. I guess elites don't even fly economy class.
Then there's the Internet, which, I'm told, will change everything, and for all I know has done so already. Didn't there used to be a bookstore next to the . . . Hey, where'd the Sears go?
I'm glad I can comparison-shop for a refrigerator online and buy any brand that exists and have it delivered the next day with free shipping. But the Kenmore repairman at Sears has now enlisted as a foot soldier in America's opioid addiction attack. How do I get my refrigerator into the FedEx drop box when the icemaker quits working?
Let me say, with the magnificent grasp of the obvious that is professional journalism's hallmark, that all technological advances are disruptive.
The Industrial Revolution was famously disruptive. The poet William Blake made a plaintive query about the resulting air pollution and poor conditions in the workplace:
Of course, this ignores the dark satanic barns people escaped from to go work in the mills. The barns didn't smell very nice either. The Industrial Revolution was a net economic good. But people don't live largely in a world of net economic good. We live in our own little worlds, often practicing gross economies.
The Digital Revolution is also, no doubt, a net economic good. But a messy one. At least the Industrial Revolution was linear. Once you'd seen a railroad, how surprised could you be by an automobile? The rails and the roads went somewhere you'd heard of. The Internet, definitionally, is all over the place. And whose bright idea was it to make sure every idiot in the world is in communication with every other idiot?
Therefore all of us idiots, we the people, who make up the populace, which leads to populism, are alarmed by our circumstances and are angry at our leadership elite for not being able to change them.
Alas, This Is Not a Teachable Moment
The leadership elite don't know what to do. And Donald Trump, whether we—or he—like it or not, has just become a member. The conundrum of failure in every revolt against the elites is that when you succeed in overthrowing them you become them. You cease to be a solution and start to be a problem.
A person of libertarian inclinations can understand and sympathize with the revolt against the elites. But, so far, the revolt is not promoting an increase in individual dignity, individual freedom, and individual responsibility. It's doing the opposite—Trump vowing to build a wall between individual dignity and the United States.
To soothe populist discontents politicians have only one piece of equipment—politics. In an attempt to get enough popular support to achieve or retain their elite status, politicians keep making the machinery of politics larger.
It is over when the fat lady sings. Politics has become an obese operatic performer, warbling so loudly that none of us bit players can be heard, and so fat that we're shoved into the orchestra pit.
Political power has grown in expense. One-third of the world's GDP is now spent by the politicians in governments. One out of every three things you make is grabbed by governments. If your cat has three kittens, one of them is a government agent.
Political power has grown in scope. Politics cast their net over every little aspect of life. Nothing is so private that it isn't tangled up in politics. Transgender bathrooms! We all knew politics were crap. Now we discover that where we take one is a political issue.
When are voters in both political parties going to realize that politics is a two-way street? The politician creates a powerful, huge, heavy, and unstoppable Monster Truck of a government. Then supporters of that politician become shocked and weepy when another politician, whom they detest, gets behind the wheel, turns the truck around, and runs them over.
Make the truck smaller! Yank the engine and install foot pedals. Make it into a Kiddie Kar so that the worst it can do is smack you in the shin.
Populism is a libertarian tragedy. Since the beginning of democracy in fifth-century-b.c. Athens, the greatest danger to democratic institutions has been the demos, the people themselves. Democracy doesn't just contain the seeds of its own destruction, it contains the roots, the fruits, and the whole damn tree.
Each person in a democracy is an individual. But when the persons become "the people" and "the people" become "populists," watch out.
What would have happened if that charming old duffer Socrates—lovably eccentric, full of silly questions—had gone around Athens personally asking each Athenian, "Should I be condemned to death?"
Individuals would never have killed Socrates. They had to become a mob first.
And what defines a mob? Mobsters. That Cosa Nostra with its code of omertà at the Clinton Foundation. Those "Make America Great Again" Crips and Bloods wearing their colors on their baseball caps with brims bumped to the right.
We should be learning the value of individual liberty from the failure of the elites and the fiasco of their vast political power. Good things are made by free individuals in free association with other individuals. Notice that that's how we make babies.
Individual freedom is about bringing things together.
Politics is about dividing things up.
Elites would have us make babies by putting the woman on this side of the room and the man on that side of the room while the elites stand in the middle taxing sperm and eggs.
But we aren't learning lessons in individual liberty, because we're too scared. We're daunted at the pace of material change, unnerved over social transfigurations, fretful about economic instability, and terrified by terrorism. Fear is a bad schoolmarm. We've got a monster at the blackboard. How can we learn even 1+1 when all we can think is, "EEEEK! Teacher is huge and slimy and has tentacles and two ugly heads!"
So we turn for help to the big, stupid bully at the back of the classroom.