Populism's Gain Evinces Growing Distrust of Elites: Liberal/conservative Distinctions Are Becoming Irrelevant for Analyzing Political Culture

By Gottfried, Paul | Insight on the News, February 9, 1998 | Go to article overview

Populism's Gain Evinces Growing Distrust of Elites: Liberal/conservative Distinctions Are Becoming Irrelevant for Analyzing Political Culture


Gottfried, Paul, Insight on the News


How significant is it that former California governor Jerry Brown seems to be the front-runner in the race for mayor of Oakland, a majority black city? A national trend may be in evidence there (see "Oakland's Mayor Moonbeam?", Feb. 2). Brown, a champion of affirmative action and environmental issues, has combined this record with a populist image, holding forth on the danger of greenhouse-gas effects from a low-income neighborhood into which he moved, as head of an organization called We the People.

Despite the big-government substance of Brown's politics, he nonetheless has adopted a clearly antiestablishment style. Brown's admirers include Bill Kauffman, author of America First, a defense of American isolationism, as well as an intermittent supporter of Pat Buchanan. Kaufman believes that leftists Brown and Ralph Nader are useful for pushing the political conversation away from international entanglements and toward communal issues. The attacks of Brown and Nader on meddlesome multinationals also play well on the populist right. Right populist intellectual Sam Francis effervesces at the mention of Nader, the would-be NAFTA-killer, whose courage in this matter he compares to that of Buchanan. Meanwhile, two self-proclaimed populists of the left, Thomas H. Naylor and William H. Willimon, illustrate further the apparent convergence of opposites. In a book-length manifesto, Downsizing the U.S.A., the two authors defend new-left communitarianism, environmentalist politics, decentralized government and the constitutionality of Southern secession in 1861.

While not all self-described populists hold exactly the same views, populism does represent a point of opposition to administrative democracy within a transformed political spectrum. As the late intellectual historian Christopher Lasch argued, liberal-conservative distinctions are becoming irrelevant for analyzing our political culture. The conventional distinctions, in which the media have a particularly large investment, involve almost meaningless litmus tests for example, whether one is for the present federal efforts at eliminating discrimination plus affirmative action or for these efforts minus outright quotas, or whether one favors a bigger Medicare budget.

Such policy differences are at bottom expediential and, except for the failed presidential campaigns of Buchanan, political avoid taking aggressive social stands from the right, lest they be declared insensitive and unfit for office. Moreover, the conservative-liberal polarity, as represented on the right by Newt Gingrich an Bill Kristol and on the left by Ted Kennedy and Eleanor Clift, are made up of establishment figures: whose who associate democratic government with public administration and with the imposition of policies from above. Conservatives and liberals may differ on the contours of the tax curve or on the amounts of revenue to be given to various federal programs, but they do not differ significantly on the way government is practiced.

On this point the populists do make a difference. For them, democracy does not mean scientific administration or having things done to largely passive citizens. Populists in Europe and in the United States insist that democracy is about meaningful self-government, and where they have made waves, as with a movement for regional independence in Northern Italy, they have played havoc with central bureaucracies and established parties. …

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