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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

More on Populism

Populists (see last blog) generally wind up giving away their power to demagogues who rule in their name to relieve their fears and satisfy their anger without subjecting their opinions to critique in the public space. This is why demagogues also want to suppress or control the press and put down dissent.

The Tea Party is a good example of this. Like the 19th century Know-Nothings (the American Party), they fear and oppose outsiders and blame them for their ills. Populism is focused on a single issue or enemy and is often hooked up to electoral politics rather than building a base of autonomous power among people bringing together many issues and a more sophisticated analysis of those issues.

We ask how did we permit the KKK lynchings of African Americans? The Know Nothing persecution of Catholic and Jewish immigrants? The concentration camp internment of Japanese Americans?  The witch hunts of McCarthy? How can so many now be supporting Trump and Cruz in their efforts to stop immigrants and refugees? The silent majority is silent because it is afraid. It becomes noisy when it despises "outsiders" who threaten their way of life. But silent or noisy it is a "mass"--unsullied by liberal education or community service where one touches "aliens," other views and cultures, and share their suffering with others not like them. In short they are not organized in publics but in parties and special interest movements.

Obama tried to maintain a community-based organizing process that would turn his electoral movement into autonomous community organizations. But that was impossible because the Organization for Action (OFA) was really an extension of his campaign. I believe the same would happen if Sanders were elected.  The popular movement might continue but the power arrangements would pretty much stay the same.

However, if Sanders is not elected, if he worked with a collective leadership through experienced community organizing efforts (e.g. PICO, NPA, IAF, Black Lives Matters, Occupy Wall Street, progressive unions and churches), maybe we could see a real revolution. A revolution that would build local power for smart growth, living wages, preserved wilderness, water, air, and climate, universal health care and education, affordable housing for all, immigrant rights, and an equal starting point for all regardless of ethnicity, religion, culture, and sex. The Next Systems Project is trying to rethink and reframe the political-economy for the U.S. But we still lack the local political organizing to make it happen.

The assumption of democratic republicanism is that most people, if educated in the skills of critical thinking and civic participation, will understand the obstacles and illusions that hold them back; and they will do the right thing. They will no longer be members of the populist silent majority which operates on the ignorance that promotes fear and hate of others.

I hope we can try out that assumption.


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