The Perils of Populism

By Markovits, Elizabeth | National Catholic Reporter, September 7, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Perils of Populism


Markovits, Elizabeth, National Catholic Reporter


DEMOCRACY AND POPULISM: FEAR AND HATRED By John Lukacs Yale University Press, 256 pages, $16

DOES AMERICAN DEMOCRACY STILL WORK? By Alan Wolfe Yale University Press, 224 pages, $22

The right can't catch a break these days. Republicans lost the midterm elections; the war in Iraq is going badly; Democrats are investigating politically motivated firings within the Department of Justice. This string of bad news extends to the world of letters, with a growing list of authors taking issue with Republican rule in the United States. The two authors here come from each side of the political spectrum to argue that the Republican Party has become frighteningly populist, manipulating the worst of American intolerance and ignorance to maintain its own power at the expense of the common good. John Lukacs' book, Democracy and Populism, is a bracing jeremiad from a well-regarded "paleoconservative" historian with more than 25 books to his credit; it is a whirlwind of insight and provocation and the widely read reader will find much to grapple with. Alan Wolfe's contribution, Does American Democracy Still Work?, is a crisply argued study of contemporary U.S. politics from a liberal perspective, drawing on the major insights of contemporary political science research. Taken together, the two books provide readers with complementary perspectives on the history, current shape and possible future of American democracy.

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Dr. Wolfe undertakes two projects in Does American Democracy Still Work? The first is a study of how Americans (mis)practice democracy, while the second pertains more specifically to the direction unified GOP government has taken the country. According to Dr. Wolfe, the "new politics of democracy" is stuck in a culture war in which the winner is the side "that best frames its appeals in the language of populism." Although the left was largely responsible for the expansion of democracy that enabled populism, the right has been more successful with this style of politics.

This argument is then coupled with Dr. Wolfe's analysis of the problems with American democracy more generally: lack of voter information, the advantages of incumbency and lack of accountability, the primacy of individualism over political institutions, the decline of such disinterested referees as the media, the judiciary, social science and traditional elites, and the lack of a commitment to either domestic or global social justice.

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This presentation of political science research is the strongest part of the book. Dr. Wolfe makes these insights accessible to a wide audience and demonstrates their implications for the actual practice of politics. Taken alongside the analysis of Republican populism, we find that the liberal democratic foundation of the United States is eroding, victim to those Who would deny Enlightenment principles and who lack the fear of radicalism that had characterized such earlier conservatives as Edmund Burke.

Stories of decline often rest on rosy pictures of the past and Dr. Wolfe's historical interpretations sometimes fall into this unfortunate mode. I think that many others will disagree that the United States experienced a "closing off of the politics around civil rights a generation ago." Contrary to his argument, the unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education did not end racial conflict in this country. Perhaps some of these dynamics--the old battles of the 1960s and the new culture wars--are in fact related and so require an analysis that can acknowledge these connections rather than one that laments the passing of an ideal era that never actually existed.

Another problem arises with Dr. Wolfe's use of "conservatism." Although he differentiates between historical conservatism and contemporary "conservative" radicals, the distinction sometimes collapses. "[The contemporary conservative worldview] flourishes without Enlightenment-inspired commitments to fairness, impartiality, tolerance and reason, which is what makes it conservative. …

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