The Atlantic has a thoughtful piece on the decline of “populism” in the post-reform House, a topic of much interest to me, obviously. However, I suspect that the author is using the term “populism” in a loosey-goosey way that is a bit too vague.
The kind of politics that, according to the article, Wright Patman subscribed to is not exactly “populism” per se, but the personal style of representation that Richard Fenno described. At the heart of personal representation, in turn, was a relationship between the elected official and the voters that went beyond “ideology” and “partisanship” and was centered around mutually intelligible communication. The politician came to the voter and listened to what the voters had to say about the major problems they faced, and in turn, brought back solutions to these problems in terms that made sense to the voters. The kind of accomplishments that people like Putman and other New Dealers could point to to their voters were neither abstract nor ideological, but answers to practical problems that the voters did not need much, if any, further explanation: “Electricity. Telephone. Roads. Social Security. Soil conservation. Price supports. Foreclosure prevention.” Voters knew what these meant and liked them. Anyone who was against them could not be decent people.
Fast forward 60 years, what are the “solutions” that either party is proposing to the practical problems facing the common folk now? Almost all the issues that the parties are supposedly polarized around are, in fact, abstract. People might talk about civil rights, human rights, and environment. But nobody is against the basic civil rights. While there is widespread belief, justified by facts, that there are serious abuses taking place towards all manner of people, the solutions to these problems are not so obvious as building new power lines and turning on electric lights. Most obvious and patently unfair barriers to minority voting, for example, have been removed. While the less obvious and informal barriers remain, how to deal with them is hardly obvious even to those who are directly affected by them, let alone people to whom those challenges are distant, abstract, and “unreal.”
This is not to say that the working class whites who were the backbone of the New Deal coalition are necessarily against these things: if anything, the strong show of support among many of these voters for Sanders candidacy shows that there is a significant potential electorate among them for a liberal agenda. But that liberal agenda has to offer them something that they can see benefits them, in addition to whatever else they want to do to change the world.
In a sense, this is something that was understood by the Cold War generation: people like Hubert Humphrey, Scoop Jackson, and Richard Nixon offered the voters a continuation of the New Deal, but this offer was bundled with Cold War international politics–of the war in Vietnam and other misadventures. The international conflict against communism, taking place in faraway lands, made little or no sense to the folks back home. But New Deal and its benefits, they could understand. In a sense, what made Robert Kennedy and his candidacy, cut short by his assassination, stand out was that he understood the artificial nature of the tie between aggressive internationalism and the continuation of the New Deal domestic politics: it was perfectly possible to turn great many of these voters around behind a peace platform if it was explained in simple enough terms that made sense to them and accompanied by a guarantee of the continuity of the New Deal. Unfortunately, without an independent reputation, in the form of a Kennedy name, to be a big enough symbol, nobody could break through the consensus on Cold War internationalism internationalism in Washington so that he could make a pitch to the voters. If the New Deal is what drew the voters to a Democrat on the main street, Cold War internationalism (and other policy consensus among the elites) is what drew in the political insiders inside the Beltway. A successful candidate needed both.
The arrival of the “Watergate babies” might have broken the stranglehold among the incumbent elites, but in so doing, it also broke the bonds of trust that maintained the linkage between voters and politicians. The insights that propelled Robert Kennedy’s candidacy, that good relationship with the voters exists on a separate plain from Washington policymaking, were lost. Or, were they? In a sense, these Watergate babies did not capture power by drawing on the voters on the main street, but by enlisting support among the “marginalized” elites–particularly the policy wonks and the big businesses, particularly the financial sector, that had been restrained for the benefit of the masses. It was, in a sense, a palace coup, not unlike the coup that brought down the Brazilian monarchy that was popular enough but did not command any love among the players–not even the emperor himself tried to defend the monarchy when it was overthrown. The masses were interested in preserving the fruits of New Deal, not in defending Cold War internationalism or Jim Crow or whatever other schemes that the incumbent elites had in mind. Once the machinery that kept the old elites in place were subverted in 1975, through the House reforms, the New Order could take charge unchallenged.
The caveat, however, was that the changes in policy that the New Democrats sought did not necessarily require renunciation of the New Deal. They were interested in changing policy at the national scale. They did not care whether the voters got government subsidized electricity or not. In this sense, they were not so different from the Cold War Democrats whom they supplanted, who, after all, were interested in beating commies or maintaining Jim Crow, not especially whether there were enough bridges for their supporters back home. As long as the support from the voters could be enlisted by giving them material benefits that they could see and understand, a change in course was not necessary. And so it continued for decades after the House Reforms following Watergate. In this sense, the real change came long before Watergate: the Cold War Democrats, if forced into a choice between Cold War and the New Deal, would have gladly ditched the New Deal: they simply did not have the voters to manage that. The New Democrats, in a sense, took on the villainous role because they realized that they did not need the votes from many of the New Deal beneficiaries to win elections. They were, in 1970s, 80s, and 90s, on the “right” side of the Culture Wars, meaning the side that yielded more votes. They could more easily take on the symbolic positions and gain votes from the “right” demographics cheaply enough, while cutting back on the New Deal for the benefit of their new allies, the businesses. The symbolic politics were cheap: you didn’t need to talk to the voters and understand their problems. Symbolic politics, often, were based on obvious traits that people showed off that did not require understanding of technical knowledge. To appreciate the problems of farmers meant that you had know something about technical aspects of farming: you could not simply state that you support the farmers conserving their top soil. On the other hand, there was nothing technical about gay marriage: it was either the right thing or the wrong thing. Stating your position won support from one set of people and opposition from the other. If you had to learn something technical to win farmers’ votes, why bother, especially if there should be so few farmers left?
This is where a peculiar paradox emerges: Hillary Clinton and others like her pride themselves in their wonkism, that they know practical details of policymaking that somehow affect the real lives of people. Yet, I’m hard pressed to think of any one thing that the average voter can imagine that these wonks know that pertains to their lives. They know technical details of banking regulation, international trade, election monitoring in Third World, and many such things, things that are important to, well, people who are interested in such things–in other words, people who are in financial sector, big businesses, or international NGO’s, not exactly the people on the main street. I don’t think knowing what farmers need and knowing about democracy promotion abroad are necessarily mutually exclusive–certainly, the likes of Robert Kenneday would not have thought so. If you know both about election monitoring and farming, maybe you could even get farmers to support intervention in East Timor, by winning over their trust. But this has not been seriously attempted for decades now. If there was one policy agenda that the Obama administration, and before that, Hillary Clinton herself, in course of the so-called “Hillarycare” fiasco, could have scored major points with the masses, it would have been by making a credible attempt to communicate with and mobilize mass support for their agendas, which, after all, was predicated on selling tangible benefits to many people, who, if spoken to directly in a language that made sense to them, would have been supportive of their program. Instead, any effort that they made was only in the language of wonks that made no sense to the masses and engendered only suspicion and apathy.
I think this is yet another place where the political science has been going astray. It makes little sense to define politics along the left-right continuum. It makes more sense, I think, to conceptualize politics in terms of intelligibility. If the argument makes no sense to the audience, it does not matter whether an argument is far left or far right, it is gobbledygook, and all gobbledygook looks the same. To many voters, there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan other than the former wears pants and the latter has no ‘nads, so to speak, because they are equally incomprehensible to them, even if what they say may be very different–as C. Auguste Dupin, the master detective created by Edgar Allan Poe might say, an Orangutan’s scream and Italian are the same to one who does not understand Italian. Bernie Sanders, for all his alleged leftism, can command widespread support despite all odds because he is understandable to everyone. The same argument can be made for Donald Trump, except that his negatives are just as plainly visible as his positives. That both Sanders and Trump should have done as well as they have against an allegedly moderate centrist should indicate to us that there is something huge we are missing.
What The Atlantic article calls “populism” is really the lost art of political communication, where the politicians would actually try to communicate with the voters in terms that make sense to both sides, not force them into abstract choices that mean very little to them. Instead, we are getting too busy pointing fingers at the witness who heard a strange scream for both not knowing Italian and for being bigoted against Italians, not about the murders of two women whose bodies were stuffed inside chimney.