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James F. Keenan, S.J.December 14, 2021
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

I grew up in a very Irish Catholic neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1950s. We were almost all of the working class, the descendants of three to four generations of Irish American immigrants. We were profoundly suspicious of the Democratic Party and viewed it as the elite. We thought they had sold us out.

In 1960, though 80 percent of Catholics in the United States voted for John F. Kennedy for president, no one in my neighborhood did. We voted for Nixon—not because Kennedy was a Catholic, but because he was a Democrat. Similarly, though I was only 9 years old, I remember distinctly the day that Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962. Though The New York Times said she was “almost universally admired,” in my neighborhood she was so vilified that we partied with our neighbors when she died.

I am sure she was derided because of her active support of the civil rights movement on behalf of African Americans, but we were against her not because we thought of ourselves as racists (we did not, though without a doubt we were), but mostly because we thought she belonged to the elite. We felt that she, more interested in African Americans than in us, welcomed them into her hierarchy but did not welcome us.

In 1964, my parents and their neighbors all voted for Barry Goldwater for president. Though he suffered arguably the greatest presidential loss ever in the 20th century—carrying only 36 percent of the vote and six of the 50 states—no one in our neighborhood thought we were mistaken in our choice. And in fact, Goldwater’s campaign created the pathway to electing Donald Trump in 2016. As The Washington Post noted in Goldwater’s obituary in 1998, Goldwater stole the Republican Party from the Northeastern elite and paved the way for Ronald Reagan to become the populist president in 1981. Reagan’s triumphs in the 1980s then led to Trump in 2016-20.

Why did we vote and emote in ways contrary to our own interests? Because of our sense of alienation from a perceived elite.

How can contemporary democracies address the new populism and respond to its challenge? They need to do it by a clearer and better inclusion of the populist masses that see themselves alienated from those they consider the elite—and whom they want to remove from leadership. The so-called elite in the leadership of these democracies have a particular responsibility to address the populist masses and to restore a sense of public trust that has increasingly been lost.

Five agents of the new populism

I acknowledge my own social context growing up in Brooklyn because when we discuss populism, we need to identify what particular manifestations of populism we are talking about. I would prefer to discuss these manifestations through the language of agency.

I believe that there are roughly five different groups of agents involved in the new populism, and that each of the agents has different purposes. The five groups are: the populist masses, populist leaders, wealthy populist supporters, political parties (and other cultural and social leaders) and the rejected “elite” of the neoliberal democratic political leaders.

It is my conviction that the fifth group, the perceived elites of contemporary democracies, needs to restore confidence in social trust by directly engaging the populist masses. This will not be easy, because the contempt of the populist masses is rooted in resentment over how the elites perceive them in the first place.

The contempt of the populist masses is rooted in resentment over how the elites perceive them in the first place.

Populism has classically been defined as an ideology that, in the words of the political scientist Cas Mudde, “considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.” But I believe there are not two groups but five; and like others, I am not sure it is right to call populism an ideology. I much prefer to discuss the different ways it frames discourse.

The populist masses

When I speak of the populist neighborhood in Brooklyn in which I was raised, I do not speak with pride or righteousness about my past and all its evident racist, nativist and misogynistic biases. Rather, I try to convey the insularity, tribalism and resentful mindset that were so implicit in the culture I grew up in, as well as a moral innocence by which we did not think of ourselves as biased. Rather, we thought of the elite as biased in their condescending disdain of us.

We thought of ourselves as abandoned by the Democratic Party; their elite members were not interested in us. If Hillary Clinton had met us at our toasts to the dead Mrs. Roosevelt in 1962, she would have called us what she called other populists in her 2016 campaign for the presidency: “the deplorables.”

Secretary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment was remarkably obtuse on a political level. When the elites respond to populists with taunts like that, they only further erode the public trust from which populists believe themselves to be alienated. Subsequently, Clinton became more vilified than anyone else in the eyes of populist America.

The populists of today were a long time in the making. Like contemporary populists, we in 1960s Brooklyn rejected others’ assessments of us. While others thought we were racist, backward, exclusivist or the not-yet-named deplorables, we thought that they called us that simply to justify their disdain of us. They abandoned us; we did not abandon them. As populists, our anger was not over economics per se but rather about how the elite socially excluded us. We wanted them out of office because of their perceived condescension.

As populists, our anger was not over economics per se but rather about how the elite socially excluded us.

Resentment governs the populist masses. Indeed, in the literature on populism, the language of resentment emerges particularly when talking about alienated groups. That literature came out in a torrent after Foreign Policy in 2019 referred to a “resentment epidemic.” Since then, many writers have spoken about the specific vice of resentment and its function within this community of actors.

The populist leader

The sociologist Bart Bonikowski is completely right when he refers to populism as a “discursive frame.” He states that “framing is the practice of presenting an issue from a particular perspective in order to maximize its resonance with a given audience.”

Here then we need to distinguish the populist leader from the populist masses. The populist leader taps into and articulates the grounds for the resentment of his or her constituents by first casting him or herself as also rejected or held in contempt by the elite. Though the leader does not belong to the populist mass, he or she does give voice to their laments and their cries for recognition.

Indeed, Dr. Bonikowski suggests that the longer populist leaders stay in office, the less inclined they are to invoke the populist’s lament, because they have set the frame for their own ascendancy, rather than the masses’ needs for incorporation.

It is important to appreciate, however, that regardless of how opportunistic a popular leader is, it is his or her role (and not the role of the populist mass itself) to articulate an understanding of the political situation that is accepted by the populist masses. The leader taps into an unarticulated resentment and gives it voice—by identifying the elite as the source of the resentment. Mr. Reagan and Mr. Trump both did that in the United States. The working class populists were not the leaders of their own movements.

I think the elites would do well to look sympathetically on the rhetoric of the populist leader—not to validate the opportunistic egos of such leaders nor their agenda, but rather to understand why the populist leader is able to connect so well socially with a population that is experiencing alienation.

The working class populists were not the leaders of their own movements.

The elite need to ask, for example, how Mr. Trump connected with, and ignited the passions of, so many people who were previously not able to articulate those passions themselves. The elite need to study the rhetorical resonance that the populist leader can achieve with an audience, which they so frequently dismiss. The inability of the elite to recognize this talent of the populist leader is not only found in the United States either. It can be seen in numerous political and social situations throughout the world. The success of any populist leader is an indictment of the elite for their neglect of the alienated.

The wealthy

The third agent of the new populism is the wealthy. In a very provocative essay, “How Billionaires Learned to Love Populism,” Amy Chua, the John M. Duff professor of law at Yale, notes that after his election, Mr. Trump “appointed the wealthiest Cabinet in modern history.” Whether other populist leaders around the globe—Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines—have made wealthy allies so integral to their populist discourse is open to debate, but in the United States this affiliation has been key to the success of populist leaders. Trump was and remains—especially on issues like taxes—very much a friend of the very wealthy.

Professor Chua adds that in affiliating himself with the “people”—that is, the populist masses who have been long unrecognized—“Trump has done a remarkable job presenting himself as being on their team, creating a tribal bond between a celebrity billionaire and blue-collar voters.” Despite how markedly different Mr. Trump’s ideas may be from traditional conceptions of the American Dream, for many Americans his monetary and political success is the American Dream made manifest.

Further, Professor Chua notes, “The tribal instinct is all about identification.” For many lower-income Americans, she notes, “being anti-establishment is not the same as being anti-rich. This is the key to the new billionaire populism, and its roots lie deep in American history.”

For many Americans Trump's monetary and political success is the American Dream made manifest.

The billionaires who have helped Mr. Trump mount an enormous war chest in his campaign for re-election can spend at levels far beyond what the populist masses could ever afford. Trump could not have succeeded in 2016 without the wealthy, and he used them to create a regime during his presidency that could afford to be unaccountable to its own constituents.

Though populists who came before Mr. Trump, like Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, have targeted the rich in their rise to power, we need to know more about others who were like Mr. Trump and effectively brought the wealthy on board without alienating their political base.

Political and social leaders

The fourth agent of the new populism is the aggregate of political parties and religious, social, and cultural leaders who use the populist leader, and the leader’s populist mass, for their own gain. Unlike the populist masses, who have developed a resentful discourse of being alienated, or the populist leader (generally new to the scene) who uses that resentment for his or her own political aims, this group is made up of leaders of aged, long-standing social and cultural institutions.

In many cases, these institutions have proven willing to compromise their core identities in order to profit from a populist surge. Note that most leaders of the Republican Party, once called the party of Abraham Lincoln, were notably silent when Trump attempted to launch a coup against our government on Jan. 6, 2021. Note also that leaders and significant sectors of both evangelical Christian churches and the Roman Catholic Church in the United States offered a sense of civic legitimacy to Mr. Trump throughout his campaign and his presidency despite the glaring disparity between their public convictions and Mr. Trump’s policies and personal behavior.

Leaders and significant sectors of both evangelical Christian churches and the Roman Catholic Church in the United States offered a sense of civic legitimacy to Mr. Trump.

This group of agents harms the body politic and the social trust necessary for society by compromising their cultural and social institutions in their parasitic relationship with the populist leader. Long after the populist leader has lost power, the effects of compromise by these sycophantic leaders still need to be redressed through the process of restoring social trust. If these social institutions are to survive into the future, they will eventually need to repudiate the actions of their present leaders, who compromised their mission identity by lending their cultural support and momentary legitimation to the populist leader.

The elite

While the other four aforementioned agents of the new populism use their discourses to remove or overthrow the legitimacy of the elite in liberal democracies, the elites themselves are not always recognized as agents in populist affairs. But the negligence of the elites—and sometimes their actual attempts to further demoralize populists—contribute to the legitimacy of any populist movement. For this reason, I insist that they too are agents in the populist movement.

Our elites are in part responsible for the original nonrecognition of what emerged as a populist movement. This does not mean that those who belong to the populist masses truly are the abandoned masses. Indeed, I think that often the populist masses are more like the elite than they are different. They both consider themselves victims and they both absolve themselves of any moral wrongdoing. Without question, the elites have overlooked many in their maintenance of liberal democracies and the perpetuation of their own evident hierarchies. But in addition to this neglect or inattention, their agency—their “causative” role in the development of the populist claims—also needs to be acknowledged.

The philosopher and political scientist Nancy Fraser has rightly taken the elites in the United States to task for their role in the emergence of populist movements. “I am not unhappy that those who have been screwed by progressive neo-liberalism are rising up against it,” she said in a recent interview with Economic and Political Weekly. “In some cases, of course, the form their rebellion takes is problematic. Scapegoating immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, Jews, and others, they often mistake the true cause of their troubles.” At the same time, she said that “it is counterproductive to simply dismiss them as irredeemable racists and Islamophobes. To assume that at the outset is to surrender any possibility of winning them to the left, whether to left wing populism or democratic socialism.... My point is that all these voters (and others!) have legitimate grievances against progressive neo-liberalism.”

Our elites are in part responsible for the original nonrecognition of what emerged as a populist movement.

In particular, Professor Fraser criticizes the social hierarchy that the elites often espouse, noting that “they lack even the slightest idea of a structural transformation or an alternative political economy. Far from seeking to abolish social hierarchy, their whole mindset is aimed at getting more women, gays, and people of colour into its top ranks. Certainly, in the US but also elsewhere, the left has been colonised by liberalism.”

Rebuilding social trust

The real issue in the new populism is not the agency of populist leaders, or that of the wealthy or of parasitic backers of such leaders, most of whom have no real interest in the common good or in any notion of fairness. Rather, the elite governors of our democracies need to be reconciled with the populist masses by working to eliminate the social hierarchies that they continue to develop. I believe, too, that they also need to engage the populist masses directly, confronting their narratives of resentfulness with constructive engagements so that together the two groups can repair the social trust in our institutions that has been so terribly tattered. But social trust cannot be achieved without working through the long-standing resentments of those populist masses who perceive themselves as the deplorables of the elite.

There may be five agents involved in the new populism, but the ones who consistently show they are really interested in the good of governance and the common good are the populist masses and the elites of government. Both these agents need to engage one another directly by eliminating social hierarchies. By doing this, I believe the matter of the racism or xenophobia of the populist masses can also be engaged. By being incorporated, the populist masses can recognize better the harm that alienation causes. For indeed, the lament against alienation is the cry of both populist and racial and ethnic minorities.

In the meantime, the rest of us—no matter the group we belong to—need to help foster that engagement.

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