Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Thoughts on the Hudson Institute Symposium on Conservative Populism, Vol. 1

The Hudson Institute, a conservative leaning think tank, hosted a symposium on the prospects for a conservative populism in America. As you might well imagine, this was like Christmas in June for me, and the transcript is finally out. So hopefully in my next few blog posts I will go through the transcript of this report and see what I can see. First, we begin with something of a benediction from Jonah Goldberg, National Review editor and columnist, as he reflects on the possibilities of a populist conservatism:

"Now, it is true that it’s a difficult position for me to take, because for a long time I have been very anti-populist. I think populism as a historical phenomenon is fairly anti-conservative. It is rooted in this idea that the people can demand whatever they want right now. William Jennings Bryan had this great line where he said, “The people of Nebraska are for free silver, so I am for free silver. I’ll look up the arguments later.” Conservatism is supposed to be, as Chesterton would say, democracy for the dead. There is this idea that we are bound by constitutional order; we are bound by tradition; we are bound by certain eternal truths and eternal verities and conceptions of how things should be done. And populism tends to just want to sweep all of that aside. But I don’t think that that’s the populism that we have today. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a contradiction that conservatives embrace the populism that we have today. The populism that we have today, as Mr. Armey was saying moments ago, is dedicated to not demanding that their immediate passions be satisfied by government, but they’re in fact demanding that government be reoriented back to its proper role and scope. And that is a very different thing than the populism that we saw lead to national socialism or fascism in Europe. It’s very different, in fact, from the American populist movements that began in 1870s and moved on. It is in many ways a weirdly anti-populist populism, sort of saying that the government should get out of the people’s business and stop trying to satisfy their immediate passionate desires and instead go back into the proper oriented role. "

Goldberg's read here seems fairly spot on. He positions the current wave of conservative populism in opposition to the traditional populism of say, William Jennings Bryan, noting that the character of previous populist movements in America was of a sort where the movement understood that the government was to engage in a sort of mimetic play with the will of "the people". Following Goldberg, traditional populism arises from a disjuncture between what the people want and the government is doing. Typical and straightforward--populist movements arise when popular sentiment wants the government to do something different. Nothing rocket sciencey there, although Goldberg is properly associating populism with the Left.

Indeed, one need only look back to our friend Richard Weaver to see that Jonah Goldberg, unknowingly, agrees with Weaver on the characteristics of conservative vs. liberal arguments--that the conservative argues from eternal values while the liberal argues from circumstance. This is why Goldberg, borrowing a neat formulation with which I was unfamiliar, notes that conservatism is a "democracy for the dead", a structure that enables the people that have come before to perform in the same manner as the people who currently exist. In this manner, the conservative populism we see today is no contradiction, to Goldberg, because, as he implies, what these new populists are arguing for is merely a return to the old state of affairs rather than a radical change from some long established understanding.

Whats important to secure the persuasive force of Goldberg's arguments is that the conservative populism have a monopoly on the true story of American history, and their relationship to as its avatars or vanguard. The idea is that we need to return to a truly imited government. In the abstract, I could see Goldberg's argument developing in some pretty interesting ways (indeed, elsewhere in the piece he name drops Rand Paul as a figure whose actual conservatism is rather threatening when it appears in public). The problem, of course, is that even a charitable reading of Goldberg falls apart when we try and square it with much of the actual content of the Tea Party movements rallies and demands. The generic demands (less government, fewer taxes, more freedom) can only be understand as "conservative" if one uses an especially literal interpretation or understanding of time to argue that the things which came before should be privelged simply because they came before. In this way, something like the New Deal can be sidestepped when its existence proves that the body of history is somewhat less than friendly to the most polemical aspects of the Tea Party cause.

One of course need only refer to something like Arendt's understanding of the political to see that its not the linear march of time that most important maps existing political hegemony, but rather it is seeing what deeds continue to live on in the works of humanity that testifies to what tradition really is. After all, in On Revolution Arendt is saddened that America has lost the revolutionary spirit, and what she means by this is not that we have lost the literal notions produced for us by the founders but rather we have lost the sense of comic humility that accompanies the possibility for constant criticism that ought to be attached to all foundings, and was found at the time of the American revolution.

To me, what's interesting is not to differentiate this current wave of conservatism populism from previous "leftist" populist movements in the U.S. Instead, I think its more interesting to read them for their similarities, for the way that both sets of movements register a sort of discomfort with the existing political landscape, for how the positions of the aggrieved are not naturally occupied by one class or sort of people but can instead be taken up by whomever want them if they are willing to fashion an argument about being on the wrong end of a political hegemony.

Also striking, of course, is Goldberg's argument about how the government needs to stop kowtowing to the passions of the people. All well and good, I think, theoretically. But of course one cannot deny that the Tea Party movement is very passionate, and that signifiers of the Revolution carry with them a certain emotional or affective charge that seems rather disinterested in depoliticizing the public. What I mean is: with limited government, the passions of some people will still be allowed to make hay, because the government will still remain responsive to those of "the people" who want the government to do less rather than more. So I guess my open question to Jonah would be: if the proper role of government is to do less, how much "less" is enough" Tax rollbacks? Ending social security? Eviscerating infrastructure programs? No more stimulus packages? At what point do major chunks of America's history need to be read as "improper" and at what point are they justified?


  1. Unfortunately, Zizek seems to be of use when talking about the structure of the Tea Party's logic: what he talks about as a Hegelian 'negation of the negation,' (or what I'm a little more comfortable calling a recursive logic, a folding of desire back on itself). Let me recap on what it is that I hear Goldberg saying when he calls contemporary populism 'anti-populist': Contemporary populism is anti-populist because it is not about the immediate needs of the people that require satisfaction, or the particularity of a felt need which must be met. On the contrary, the felt need requiring immediate satisfaction is for the government to maintain a distance from the peoples' needs - to "stop trying to satisfy their immediate passionate desires and instead go back into the proper oriented role." This sounds like a double negation: desire folds back on itself, taking account of the undesirability of the satisfaction of individuated desire. Alternatively, the 'felt need' is the elimination of the attentiveness to 'felt needs'.

    The way that Zizek puts it, the Hegelian dialectic operates through the radicalization of an initial position - itself a product of a previous dialectic. These new populist movements are not 'anti-populist,' they are a radicalization of the normalized history of populist movements. What is new about them is their taking aim at what is being framed as an antiquated structure of populist desire. The fact that [the demand for governmental response to felt needs] is being 'negated' does not undo the fact that felt needs exist. Populism still operates by virtue of the desire of a particular group. However, this new desire, the new felt need is the undoing of a squo wherein the government responds to the particularity of citizens' felt needs.

  2. I'm not putting this well, so here's a quotation: "In States of Injury, Wendy Brown refers to the same logic of the dialectical process when she emphasizes how the first reaction of the oppressed to their oppression is that they imagine a world simply deprived of the Other that exerts oppression on them - women imagine a world without men; African Americans a world without whites; workers a world without capitalists... The mistake of such an attitude is not that it is too radical, that it wants to annihilate the Other instead of merely changing it; but, on the contrary, that it is not radical enough: it fails to examine the way the identity of its own position (that of a worker, a woman, an African American) is 'mediated' by the Other (there is no worker without a capitalist organizing the production process, etc.), so that if one is to get rid of the oppressive Other, one has substantially to transform the content of one's own position."

    If the position of the 'self' is these new populist movements, juxtaposed against an 'Other' characterized by a structure of desire where government responds to the felt needs of the people, then these new Populist movements simply appropriate the Other's desire as the foundational structure which requires negation. What it fails to realize in its antipopulism is that it becomes a perfection of populism, and sets out to supercede the existing logic by supplanting it with a hyperbolized version of itself.

    Let me go to something you paraphrase from Goldberg that seems strange to me: "what these new populists are arguing for is merely a return to the old state of affairs rather than a radical change from some long established understanding." This is a fiction. The narrative of a conservative past is being used as a rhetorical topos to justify the way that a conservative future might be built. I think that the rhetorical construction of a conservative monopoly on the past is worth pursuing because it is the warrant for the tea party movement's conservative adherance. However, what is important (to me at least) in constructing criticism in response to this rhetoric is to be attentive to that last part of Goldberg's statement: "the proper oriented role" of government. The rhetorical framing of a 'return' is a red herring; it masks the impossibility of a return. For these movements, the past can only ever be a rhetorical resource, a selective topos for a future iteration which has never been. This 'anti-populist populism' hearkens back selectively to values framed as eternal to secure a more replete vision of the future.

    I hope some of this makes sense.


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  5. I think your post makes sense. I would phrase my agreement with you thusly: the causes and principles of the Tea Party must seem eternal in order to buy off the encounter with what amounts to an "emptiness" at the center of politics: that in a postmodern epoch of no guarantees, the coherence of the political cannot be secured by external political reference but rather through repeated performative iterations that insist on a coherence that is belied by the fragmented and fractured notion of a postmodern political life.