Populism or Fascism—A False Choice

In a recent blog post about what he calls “aspirational fascism,” William Connolly writes:

…a focus on guardrails alone reproduces the conditions that created the crisis in the first place. It under plays how radical actions within universities, corporations, localities, and the state challenged ordinary party politics as it extended the pluralization of civic culture. And it ignores how the market fundamentalism of the neoliberal Right and the pluralizing politics of the cultural Left—while each resisted the other–caught many members of the white working and middle classes in a bind between them. That bind increased their job insecurities, produced wage stagnation, made it more difficult to send their kids to college in an economy where a high school education is not enough, and made them highly vulnerable to the debt and underwater mortgages spawned by neoliberal meltdowns. The bind even encouraged some within the liberal Left to characterize this constituency in disparaging terms it would find to be outrageous if they were applied to Blacks, women, Jews, Mexicans, Muslims or others.

There are three major problems with this gloss.

First, the radical actions pressing for pluralization did not affect ordinary party politics uniformly. Rather, they found a permanent home inside one party while sending opponents to the other. Thus far from exerting an external force upon the parties, these movements were integral to the polarization of these parties and the constituencies they represent, entrenching the opposition between pluralism against ethno-nationalism as a defining feature of party politics.

Second, what Connolly here calls the neoliberal Right conflates two ideological projects, only one of which opposed—and continues to oppose—pluralization. Adherents of the Mont Pelerin economic ideology enthusiastically welcomed pluralization and opposed ethno-nationalism, which were and remain anathema to their culturally conservative collaborators. That is, the “cultural Left” and the Hayekian right were demonstrably on the same side of the struggle for pluralization; indeed, this is what made the Democratic party such an effective vehicle for the neoliberal policies of the DNC.

Third, the critique of the liberal tendency to besmirch rather than embrace the so-called white working class overlooks the fact that, since Nixon, this constituency has formed the robust base for the neoliberal Right. In other words, it has either tacitly or actively supported the dismantling of the welfare state from which it now suffers. And it has done so precisely in order to exclude and punish women, racial and sexual minorities, immigrants, and left-leaning political rivals.

There is thus a perfectly sensible reason why those rivals mistrust this constituency and are disinclined to take its complaints seriously. But even if we do, it remains the case that this segment of the polity is organized around a political vision that is radically incompatible with our own. There is no discernible ground on which solidarity with them can be built. Political strategy must choose whether to seek such ground or to treat them as the enemies of plural democracy they insist they are. On this point, Connolly contends that

What is urgently needed today…are democratic activists with rhetorical powers to both activate several minorities and inspire the higher angels of a larger faction of the white working and middle classes.

But this puts the cart before the horse: the problem is precisely that such “rhetorical powers” are precluded by the political division they are supposed to overcome. This brings us to Connolly’s next claim:

Third, democracy does not consist merely of representation through open elections, compromises between governing elites, and consensus on guardrails. Representative democracy stands in creative tension with its indispensable double: creative social movements…

This is true, but incomplete. After all, no one—not even defenders of elite leadership—thinks that democracy is reducible to representation. Rather, the point is that it is unthinkable and impossible without representation. And the central objection to populism seems to conflate right- and left-wing versions because it resists the tendency on both sides to oppose representation tout court. The social movements Connolly admires are themselves divisible in accordance to their aims: some seek to expand the field of representation, while others seek (or claim to seek) to abolish representation (e.g., parties, elites, institutions, formal procedures, etc.) as the primary obstacle to authentic collective self-determination.

In short, creative social movements are not a replacement for representative democracy or the fulfillment of the democratic promise. Rather, they rely on the existence and functioning of representation in order to register as legible and coherent political projects in the first place. It is from the regimes of representation that ground themselves in democratic rhetoric that they derive their normative force.

Interestingly, Connolly’s most convincing argument is purely pragmatic:

while the democratic Left might hope to win a Presidential election with an inspiring candidate, it cannot create large enough Congressional majorities unless it makes substantial inroads into the large fly-over zones between the two coasts.

This, of course, is an empirical rather than theoretical matter. The Democrats may indeed be able to win back Congress if enough disenchanted Trump voters stay home. By the same token, we cannot take for granted that either Trump or the Right will allow a free and fair election to proceed and then accept the outcome. We may be approaching the moment when the pluralist Left beloved by Connolly (and myself) learns the consequences of glibly dismissing the “guardrails” defended by anti-populists.

In the end, what Connolly and others like him urge as a “radical” critique of the feckless center-left amounts to a litany of familiar welfare-state proposals:

it is now clear: in order to surmount racism and misogyny you must also support general policies to render the infrastructure of consumption more inclusive, to make public college tuition free, to protect low and middle income people from retrograde bankruptcy proceedings after a meltdown, to improve the legal power of labor unions, to reverse finance laws that allow the rich to steal elections, to build a sustainable power grid, to support universal health care, to protect worker retirements after a company closes, and to reduce the income discrepancy between the highest and lowest paid workers in each firm.

None of these ideas would be out of place in the Democratic party platform—and most already are. Nor is it accurate to claim, as Connolly does, that “such proposals fall into categories that some pundits place under the label of Left Populism.” He gives no examples of such invidious characterization, for the simple reason that there are virtually none. In fact, the most vocal critics of populism endorse practically all of these ideas.

The fact that these ideas are utterly mainstream within established party politics should not be surprising. If critics of populism are easily mistaken for critics of authentic democracy, defenders of popular movements tend to miscast themselves as opponents of institutional hegemony on politics. In practice, the difference usually proves mostly superficial.

“Radical” opponents of aspirational fascism face a familiar but difficult quandary: to resist the erosion of democracy, they must join forces with those whom they’ve dismissed for decades as complicit with neoliberalism and associated ills. Disinclined to do so directly, they must now re-cast the arrangement of forces to conceal the fact that they’ve been allies all along. There is nothing populist about the anti-fascist coalition, since in practice everyone in it concedes the irreducible necessity of democratic representation and procedures as the loci of pluralist and egalitarian political investments.

Ultimately, Connolly himself concedes as much:

I am aware that a faction on the Left contends that democracy forms a thin varnish on top of capitalism. They exaggerate.…as Theodore Adorno found, after the “veneer” had been ripped off Weimar democracy, democracy had in fact been closer to a skin than to a veneer.

But if this is so, as it surely is, the rebuke of anti-populists turns out to lack any target. To defend “left populism” is in fact to defend constitutional democracy itself—which is what the anti-populists are doing.

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