Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Case of the American Sheeple

On the corner of 53rd and 3rd Ave in New York City, a posted flyer read “Learn How to Blog!” The advertisement, like so many on New York City streets, is easily dismissed, but if one stops to really consider the message, it offers a profound insight into the American psyche. Blogging is by its nature an informal form of individual expression. There are no rules, only a means for individuals all over the world to churn out their personal ideas. Sure there are ways one can create a more reader friendly blog or learn strategies to successfully publicize their writing, but does anyone really need to “Learn How to Blog!?

Blogging is inherently democratic. It is something that every individual can do, if they only have the ideas to opine on. However, the advertisement was not offering an opportunity to learn how to promote a blog, but a class to learn how to blog. In other words, it was targeted at people who liked the concept of blogging, but did not necessarily know what they wanted to write about. But more importantly, it reveals a conceptual inability for many Americans to truly think for themselves. The targeted consumers of the course are not joining the blogger bandwagon because they have ideas they wish to present, but because they are drawn to the concept of blogging. To them blogging is not a public version of their journal, but a thing to do. Because of this blogging is not natural; they need to be told how to blog.

Now, it was not clear from the flyer what the precise curriculum of this course was or how successful it has been; that is beside the point. What this minor episode offers is a window into the American condition and in particular the recent resurgence of populism. Over the past few years, populist movements have been growing in force on both the left and the right. This is a worrying trend that could have disastrous effects on American policy.

Obama became President, in part, due to a groundswell of populist support. His campaign, which was brilliantly executed, appealed to the everyman without offering (or possibly hiding) any real political ideology. His troubles of the past year are largely because many Americans saw through his populist veneer to what lies beneath. The campaign promises were either bogus or simply infeasible (Guantanamo). Many of his former supporters on the center-left and in the middle are disappointed with their choice, but are now unfortunately stuck with a President who does not represent their wishes or values.

In response, a very similar movement – the Tea Party – has been rising on the right. The Tea Party is steeped in many sound principles and ideas: opposition to big government, excessive taxes, and socialist programs. However, it is based more on emotion than on ideas. Politicians, such as Sarah Palin, have been brilliant is cultivating and stoking this sentiment. This is all too evident in Palin’s recent speech before the Tea Party.

The cultivation of populist movements is often very beneficial for a politician. It has skyrocketed both Obama and Palin to national preeminence. However, it is questionable what benefits such movements have for the governance of America. First, by being devoid of any concrete intellectual basis the movements can do little to change the deep flaws that may exist within the American system. Palin’s speech did not offer ideas to change America, but preyed upon emotion to support an amorphous cause.

Second, the movement can quickly and unexpectedly change tack, directing politicians down dangerous policy trajectories. The routine attacks on Wall Street from both sides of the aisle are evidence of this possibility. While finance or the so-called Big Business is certainly responsible in part for the current economic crisis, a complete attack on the system will hurt all Americans. In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, Donald Luskin outlines the risks of a rightwing populist attack on business.

Populism is a movement of passion.  While there are very often real concerns, real ideas, and real issues imbedded in a populist movement, they are generally secondary to the emotion.  Emotion should not be dismissed, but it cannot be the primary factor in the American political system.  Instead, the emotions of populism must be analyzed and understood.  New ideas must be developed and considered to address the political issues of the polity.  In his discussion of the American Revolution, Irving Kristol wrote:
All revolutions unleash tides of passion, and the American Revolution was no exception. But it was exceptional in the degree to which it was able to subordinate these passions to serious and nuanced thinking about fundamental problems of political philosophy. The pamphlets, sermons, and newspaper essays of the revolutionary period… were extraordinarily “academic,” in the best sense of that term. Which is to say, they were learned and thoughtful and generally sober in tone. This was a revolution infused by mind to a degree never approximated since, and perhaps never approximated before. By mind, not by dogma.
Populism runs counter to this notion because it is innately anti-intellectual. To be sure the passions of the masses are necessary and proper, and all democratically elected leaders need to be in tune with what the people want. But stoking raw emotion for political gain is dangerous and against the very foundations of the American Republic. All men may not be independent thinkers, but all statesmen should govern based on ideas.


  1. Josh--

    Palin is certainly the queen of modern populism, though she presents an interesting case: she's not a pure creation of a "movement," as her star was aggressively advanced by William Kristol in the lead-up to the 2008 campaign. You write that populism has "skyrocketed" Palin to national prominence, but it's unlikely she would have gained anywhere near this kind of notoriety had she not been tapped by McCain to be the GOP's VP candidate.

    Perhaps more accurately, she's cynically co-opted this wave of sentiment to advance her political motives, though the same can probably be said of most major politicians.

    I wonder how today's populism compares to other similar movements in American history, from Shay's Rebellion to the rise of Huey Long to the candidacy of Ross Perot. With the Internet, information can not only be disseminated to the (largely uninformed) masses, but can be used as a bludgeon to bully and pressure politicians as well.

    May we live in interesting times.


  2. Karl~

    You are absolutely right that McCain's VP nod had a huge impact on Palin's career. Judging by America's reception of her during the campaign and the subsequent loss and related fallout of the presidential bid she should have all but disappeared into obscurity. How many losing VP candidates, especially if formerly unknowns, have such a big image after an election? Maybe populism didn't strictly bring Palin to national prominence but it certainly took her to a new level and has maintained her position. I think she is a brilliant politician in terms of cultivating the masses. Look at how she simultaneously disavowed one leader of the Tea Party, while essentially (in many people's eys) in the same breath was annointed the representative.

    But the point isn't what Palin is or isn't, but the use of emotion and rhetoric to govern, rather than political philosophy. Emotion has its place in an representative system and many times populist movements are rooted in real concerns, some of which I may hold myself. The problem with populism isn't its thoughts or motives, but how mob rule can be dangerous. Politicians cultivating of such movements can lead to dangerous places [look at French Revolution], where anger supersecedes rational policy-making and whatever the other side does becomes demonized and wrong - even if it is proper and defensible by one's own arguments. The lack of thinking through policies can lead to instrinsic contradictions in what becomes a fight between groups (masses v. elite) rather than a rational process to determine what is the best way to lead America.


  3. I am curious why you would assume that someone that wanted to learn how to blog was looking to parrot someone else's ideas. Is it possible that some people have great ideas but are not able to articulate them as well as they would like? This directly relates to the rest of your blog that discounts the notion that someone could have a legitimate reason for liking Sarah Palin. I was astonished to see the other day though that her "approval ratings". Emotion will carry so far and I believe she has gone beyond that. There is something about her that appeals to a large number of people and I do not think you can just say that they are ignorant and let it go at that. Obama's popularity was similarly discounted when he started campaigning and I believe a lot of people expected he would be crushed by Clinton. It may be time to take a serious look at what it is about Palin that like. History will show that being a loser in as a vice presidential race will not take you far.

  4. I think you are absolutely right that there are people who have fabulous ideas and need assistance in articulating them. But I don't think this class was for them - learning how to blog seems self-explantory. It is expressing your opinions. There needn't be a class for that. Now, there is certainly room for classes on being a better writer or classes teaching people how to promote a website. But these classes are somewhat different than a catchall learn to blog.

    But this is besides the point. I don't think I say that no one could have a legitmate reason for liking Palin. I know a lot of intelligent people that like her. I think Palin has potential and I certainly respect what she has done politically. However, I have yet to see her really advocate a strong platform. She has certainly moved in a positive direction from the campaign, but I would like to see a further philosophical underpinning to her public persona than she has offered thus far. I don't think it is ignorance that draws people to Palin but her charisma and the fact that she speaks to real concerns. The worry I have is that she just speaks to their concerns without codifying plans to address them. Being against the expansion of government is great and all, but Republicans need to decide how we are going to practially approach that.

    Healthcare for one is a problem that the GOP has not offered a comprehensive plan for. If the Right succeeds in stopping Obama and Congress it'll only be a few years before the Democrats are rallying for the same plan again (see HillaryCare). In order to stop the excesses on the Left, the Right must not just thwart their plans but offer real solutions to combat the liberal orthodoxy. Defeating the current administration is only half the battle. Unless the Tea Party movement changes its agenda it won't be succeed on the second half.

    thanks for writing.


  5. It seems to me that Palin represents values to some rather thaan ideas and that could work in her favor in an election. If she can get away with dodging all of the hard policy questions by interjecting remarks that resonate with those voters looking for something beyond the spin they get today, she could be formidable. I feel their pain. Ross Perot ran a similar campaign and had he not shot himself in the foot he would have had an impact on the election. Nothing would suit me better than a republican candidate that really stood for smaller government, lower taxes, less intrusion into our personal lives, and protecting personal freedom. It has been a long time since I have seen this candidate.


  6. I write a lot about thinking for yourself, we come from different directions but support the same idea. The ad you saw to learn how to blog is a first step for some in understanding that they, too, can have a voice. It's a step in raising one's consciousness to "self responsibility (having the innate ability to respond). So take heart, every one gets on the bus when they're ready. Regarding "populism", I suppose it's another word for "group think", which could be applied to either political party... I was a Republican but jumped ship year two of George W. I'm not a Democrat, either, so I joined the Independents and really like the idea that nobody can label me or my ideas. It also gives me the freedom to take a page from this book and a page from that, creating NEW ideas and ways...which is what evolution and expansion and growth are all about. Letting go of what was and reaching into the unknown for something NEW.
    Best advice my Dad every gave me was "Think for yourself." I heard that from the time I can remember. Don't worry about the "everyman", he's smarter than you think and learning very quickly to think for himself as he encounters repeated "disappointments" from the identified leaders from both parties. I do want to say that every leader, every person, is always doing the best they can in that moment. It's how we all grow. It's lingering on and pounding the drums of blame, error, etc. that keeps American from moving forward. NEXT!
    Kathy Kirk, Hotel '90

  7. Randy~

    I think you may be right as far as the primaries go. Palin's value-led image appeals to a lot of people b/c the majority of her values (at least in language) are rooted in conservative princples. But this is also why she is so polarizing and why I don't think she would stand much of a chance in a general election (unless maybe there was another catastrophe [economic or terrorist] on BHO's watch).

    This is why, as Kathy points out, that populism can be dangerous. It is the groupthink issue, which I think is dead on correct. Ideals themselves don't mean anything if a leader does not know how to apply them, for the benefit of America and the ideals, when governing. Populism allows such leaders to make their way into power without offering how these ideals can be applied. I am all for small government, less taxes, more personal freedom; but supporting these doesn't singlehandedly give us answers on how to challenge liberal ideals that are readily being manifested in Democratic policies.

    Thanks for reading



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