by Stephen Eric Bronner
Make America Great Again!” is a slogan based on nostalgia for an “imaginary community;” women were happy in the kitchen, gays were happy in the closet, and people of color were happy doing menial tasks and keeping to themselves. “Everybody” knew that this was how it was supposed to be. Certainty of this sort is gone. Apparently, these subaltern groups were not quite as happy as their white male counterparts thought they were. They protested, organized, and left-wing populists recognized their plight. Especially where the labor movement has been weak and politically unorganized, such as in the United States, left-wing populism has equated the “people” with the “poor,” the disenfranchised, the outcasts, those stripped of identity, and its version of the “average guy.” Left-wing populism calls for inclusion of the excluded, especially immigrants, and basic economic equality. No less than right- wing populists, however, their left-wing rivals are wary of “politicians,” bureaucrats, experts, intellectuals, and republican regimes run by the political establishment. Sensitive to issues of identity, however, their constituency remains a mechanical combination of interests — those of race plus gender plus an empirical view of class — without a serious vision of the organic community.
Where right-wing populists celebrate an anachronistic form of small-town laissez-faire capitalism, without recognizing the system’s centralizing tendencies, left-wing populism is predicated on what Georg Lukács termed “romantic anti-capitalism.” Less a theory than an outlook, it is critical of the capitalist system while remaining blind to the accumulation process and how it operates. Contemptuous of elites, preoccupied with economic equality, left-wing populists have difficulty in dealing with structural conflicts among the exploited. And that is unfortunate since, especially in periods of crisis, deep interest-laden conflicts often become evident: so, for example, a “scissors problem” can arise in which agricultural workers seek high prices for their products and low prices for industrial goods, while urban industrial workers seek the opposite. It is not a matter of which class or group is “poorer.” The issue instead is how to specify their common interest and use it to resolve the conflict — and it is fair to say that populism has few answers. According to Carl Schmitt, indeed, charismatic authority, plebiscites, and the curtailing of checks and balances are necessary to achieve any form of political unity or represent the “nation.”
Sovereign dictatorships target the people by coordinating conflicting interests and highlighting their inner unity. Mechanical compromises play no role in mobilizing the masses and compromise is what the sovereign says it is. This standpoint can be celebrated by the left as well as the right. In general, populism is agnostic when it comes to the sovereign. Unlike socialism, it is not tied to liberal-republican norms or cosmopolitan values. Where labor’s interests were expressed by a socialist party, populism was mostly identified with the political right. That remains the case. European populism employs “new right” slogans that are not very different from those used by America’s white nationalists and fascists. Their idea of community still revolves around the (patriarchal) family, (hegemonic) religion, and (existential) feelings of national belonging. Fear of progress — or, better, decadence — produces the appeal of the anachronistic. The “people’s state” (Volksstaat), after all, is for those who “belong” as against outsiders, foreigners, and deviants who don’t. “Fortress Europe” thus con- fronts the “alien” or immigrant, with the slogan “Patriotism! Community! Identity!” There is perhaps more confusion over the market and somewhat less contempt for liberal individualism than in times past. Nevertheless, what ultimately differentiates left and right is the concern with an inclusionary as against an exclusionary under- standing of sovereignty.
Yet, populism also has an adaptive quality; it vacillates between left and right, and the two opposing interpretations often bleed into one another. From either end of the spectrum, however, populism misses the point, namely, the primary importance of institutional accountability and respect for the rights of minorities. Without the commitment to both, democracy vanishes. Authoritarianism can be imposed either from the top down or the bottom up. It can be launched by the sovereign’s suppression of civil liberties or small-town prejudices that ultimately influence powerful politicians; it can arise through terror unleashed by the sovereign or local terror (a lynching or a pogrom) unleashed by the community. It can occur through hierarchical rule that is arbitrary and insular horizontal decision-making that is chaotic and lacks rules of procedure. Sovereigns can employ a propaganda apparatus but citizens can let prejudices go unchecked at the town meeting or the workers’ council.
There is room for nuance: right-wing populism exhibits an authoritarian, military and “integral” character lacking on the left. But left-wing populists have also excused (especially non-Western) authoritarian and even religious demagogues so long as they seem engaged in egalitarian economic and social justice projects. Each time there is disappointment: either the leader stays in power too long, or the regimes become corrupt, or temporary terror turns into long-term repression. More is involved than discrete errors of judgment. Left populists like anarchists tend to idealize their version of “the people” without referring to the institutions that represent it. That has also been the case on the right whose members view the enemy as privileging the state over the community, reason over experience, and the universal over identity. If not the republic then its liberal features can thus appear illegitimate to communities within it; that is surely the case with the Buddhist majority in Myanmar and Hindu extremists in India who see no place for the Rohingya or Muslims, respectively, and who have used lynching, hate crimes, Internet hate sites, and other more odious methods to make their point.
Popular sovereignty ignores how “the people” can take on different meanings: it can speak to citizens of a state, members of a nation, or members of a community, race, ethnicity, etc. Impartial rules for resolving grievances among legal citizens are either taken for granted, or deemed, irrelevant (given how politics really works). That they alone serve as bulwarks against authoritarianism is not taken seriously. Equality and liberty require institutions to protect and render them operative. The idea that the “people” somehow retain an inner empathy and feeling for one another, or some- how inherently value the rights of others, is less than naïve; it is dangerous.
Popular sovereignty projects not only a culturally organic community, but harmony between administrative, judicial, political, and economic decision-making. Popular sovereignty wishes to cut through the intermediate associations separating subject and sovereign. This is the case on the left as well as the right so that the community can become identical either with the workers’ council or a totalitarian order. Each can employ nostalgic images of a golden age that contests the commodity form, capitalist production, and the existential problems associated with modernity. Left- wing populism has its roots in the Greek polis, the medieval free city, the Levelers, the Anti-Federalists, the American town hall meeting, the Paris Commune of 1789–92, and then 1871, the Russian mass strike of 1905, the workers’ councils of 1918–23, and the anarchists during the Spanish Civil War. Its most radical libertarian impulse actually becomes clear in Marx’s vision of the classless society in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
Calls for popular sovereignty have accompanied all revolutions. Yet, the phenomenon remains radically undertheorized. Direct democracy’s history is not taught, its assumptions are not confronted, its appeal is not critically investigated, and its inherent weaknesses are not engaged. Especially left-wing radical intellectuals living in liberal societies valorize the virtues of everyday people and participatory commitments. They often simply assume the existence of accountable institutions, rules of conflict resolution, specialized expertise, and “book knowledge.” That is also true of checks and balances, separation of powers, and political parties.
Romantic ideas about “inclusion,” what Enrique Dussel termed “the social bloc,” only make sense when conflicting material interests among competing groups are specified. The movement-party, which some believe directly represents the “people,” has always been a staple of fascism. It is the same with the condemnation of intellectuals, elites, and scientists. Coordinating interests and enforcing organizational discipline are issues usually side-stepped on the left: they are reserved principally for sects, presumably because of their unpleasant associations with the past. More sophisticated views suggest that resolving tensions between popular protest and political parties calls for the introduction of a “radical democratic referent.” But this remains metaphysical without practical criteria for deciding on coalitions and compromises, how to deal with contradictory ideological views, competing material interests, and, most importantly, how to define “the people” and its enemies—because, after all, there are always enemies.
In short, which “people” is popular sovereignty intending to represent? Identity, race, and ethnicity can all prove appealing in defining the community and defending it against the Other. Such ideological motivations, however, only create bridges to nowhere. “The people” as a category only makes sense when applied to citizens in a community privileging the liberal rule of law. Inspired by a cosmopolitan sensibility, only with the liberal rule of law in place is it possible to integrate and appreciate traditions and sub-traditions that contribute to other traditions and sub-traditions. The cosmopolitan sensibility can bridge divisions based on identity, race, and ethnicity, but it requires a human rights pedagogy to make clear that “the task of political theory is the determination of the degree to which a power group transcends its particular interests and advocates (in Hegelian terms) universal interests.”
Questions about how to handle such needs are avoided by left-wing and right-wing populists alike. For example, Chantal Mouffe emphasizes the need to organize a “chain of equivalences” within the exploited and disenfranchised in which no single interest or identity is primary. Such a project rests on fostering unity through reliance on “intersectionality,” which ultimately unifies different identities through a certain essence, while keeping diversity or “difference” in place. But these are just words: what results is nothing other than the usual mechanistic idea of a coalition based on class, plus race, plus gender, plus anything else. Organizing principles are non-existent and the result is the usual unity of a contingent social bloc on contingent single issues that then falls apart and then requires contingent recreation when new issues arise — or, better, the constant need to reinvent the wheel.
Left to themselves, in practice if not in theory, interest groups tend to preach solidarity as they ready themselves to sell out their partners. To talk about a social bloc or a chain of equivalence says nothing about the criteria required for setting priorities and judging policies. Solidarity turns into just another slogan unless parts of the “people” are willing to sacrifice for other parts. Dealing with that necessity, ideologically and organizationally, is among the principal political tasks of our time. Conflicts among “the people” are impossible to avoid or dream away: institutions supported by the “people” are necessary to check the ambitions of other people. Without reference to such institutions and political traditions, popular sovereignty is devoid of meaning. The temptation grows to define it in terms of common “experience,” shared cultural values, habits, myths, and emotional ideals of solidarity.
Working behind the scenes, however, an elite minority is plotting against the community and the nation. That an elective affinity should exist between populism and conspiracy theory is not accidental. Just as the “people” can become anything the populist wishes it to be so can the conspiratorial agent: it can be Jews, freemasons, communists, corporations, or the Queen of England. All have been targets of xenophobic bigotry and, interestingly enough, the stereotypes are usually interchangeable: each has been portrayed as dirty, lazy, culturally retrograde, and “alien.” Conspiracy thinking ultimately relies on rumor, selective facts, and confirmation bias. So, for example, the United States is supposedly under siege on both borders as Arabs enter from the Northeast while, at the same time, Latinos sneak in from the South- west. Numbers are irrelevant. As conspiracy thinking takes the form of a fetish, and is used to explain even the most incidental events, it provides an illusory sense of under- standing and control. Sovereignty neuroses are, meanwhile, fueled by pre-reflective justifications and assumptions that legitimate prejudice and further stoke the fires of conspiracy thinking.
Populists lack analytic categories and criteria for either dealing with political agency or rendering political judgments. Class thus takes on immediate empirical characteristics: the worker becomes the industrial proletarian of times past — usually white, sometimes ethnic, and mostly reactionary. There is talk of rich and poor — “haves and have nots” — that ignores the structural attributes of the working class, such as sale of labor power and class consciousness, as well as the accumulation process and the contradictions it generates. As the need for specialized labor grows, moreover, populists conflate the economic and political hegemony of a capitalist class with technocratic experts, programmers, and networks in which conflicting agendas apparently just magically appear. Nor do platitudes about family values explain how a broader culture of sleaze has arisen. None of this helps make sense of the world and the heightened frustration only strengthens resentment against “the system” elites as well as the appeal of conspiracy fetishism. Pathological preoccupations with the “deep state,” secretly undermining the will of elected officials and the public interest, is not so different from paranoid beliefs in the “hidden hand” of the Jews manipulating society that appears in the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Trust in the community is misplaced. Its outlook is exclusionary regardless of whether it is composed of Christian evangelicals, orthodox Jews, Muslim extremists, or black nationalists. The strength of that insular outlook, however, depends greatly upon the force of symbolism and the power of tradition. If only for this reason, populists are sensitive to criticism regarding their views on history and community. It only follows that they should also prove suspicious of the commodity form, urban existence, and modernizing trends associated with individualism, diversity, secularism, and rationalization of production. Indeed, therein lies Ferdinand Tönnies’ famous distinction between the traditional community (Gemeinschaft) of the small town and the dynamic-modern business-oriented society (Gesellschaft).
Modern and premodern trends are always in conflict. In fact, the battle between them is the stuff of ideological interests. The dominance of one over the other, more- over, is a contingent matter that is less economic in character than political. Popular sovereignty is a choice with regard to its character and purpose. It can serve as the enemy or ally of traditionalism and small-town life or radical social change and a new and better world. In this regard, there must be a reason why the dissident always looks for support to advocates of modernity. Tradition harbors prejudices and there is sim- ply no reason why minorities should trust the goodwill of those who benefited most from the communities of times past. Women, gays, people of color, dissidents, and workers have all tended to rely less on local governments and community passions than on federal institutions and universal ideals to achieve their ends. The “people’s community” is not the source of humane skepticism, tolerance, cosmopolitanism, or the liberal rule of law. Indeed, for that it is necessary to look elsewhere.
Stephen Eric Bronner is a Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Political Science (Emeritus) at Rutgers University. He also serves on the Executive Committee of the UNESCO Chair for Genocide Prevention, as Director of Global Relations at the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights, and as Co-Director of the International Council for Diplomacy and Dialogue. Especially concerned with issues of human rights, bigotry and tolerance, his Reclaiming the Enlightenment (Columbia University Press), A Rumor about the Jews 2nd Edition (Palgrave/Macmillan), and The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists (Yale University Press) are widely recognized as standard works and his writings have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Professor Bronner is the recipient of many awards including the 2011 ME Peace Prize from the Middle East Political Network based in Jerusalem.
This essay is a chapter from Stephen Eric Bronner’s forthcoming work The Sovereign (New York: Routledge, 2020).