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.