Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The need for an enlightened populism

Where democracy ends, fascism begins. So we should stop forerunners in their tracks. Populism is the main forerunner.
There are always different interests and different views that need to be balanced. What makes democracy work is not the rule of the majority, but the the recognition and acceptance of plurality. Even economically, inclusive societies do better than exclusive ones. In a democracy it is never the winner takes all. 

Many people have been getting a more open-minded view of cultural and national and religious differences. We consider that modern, liberal, enlightened. We may even glorify differences and we overly respect those groups that have been treated or are treated disrespectfully. That makes us feel we belong to the right kind of people.

But other people, tired of economic, political and religious tensions between different groups in a country long for a less diverse society. One dominant religion, one dominant culture, one dominant tribe. They may remember fondly the past. But the past has never been that nice. The French revolutionaries around 1790, who almost invented nationalism, were shocked to discover that more than 80% of the French didn't consider themselves French and even didn't speak French, at least not what the people in Paris considered to be French. Today, the Parisian people consider the small-town and the rural French as the true French, la France profonde, not yet urban and international. Assumptions, the world is full 0f them. And the more brittle our assumptions, the more we seem to believe in them.

Obsession with the past is a recipe for stagnation and exasperation. Any type of obsession: both glorifying the past and blaming the past. If it wasn't for colonialism and slavery, black people would still live in peace in Africa, without artificial, 'unnatural' borders. But only the most uncrossable borders are natural. Borders are never simple and always are shifting and permeable. That is what border areas should be.

The injustices of the past father the slippery monster of grievances. Rightful grievances should be met. But here is a snag. Two snags actually. Unfortunately, both are huge.
One snag is that grievances often are fostered. They feed indignation and so identity. Such grievances can never be met. It's never enough. People may have become addicted to the poison of grievance. Grievances start with facts, but they may grow into mental infections. We can bend over backwards and the grievances still may stay. How many excuses and compensations were needed to resolve old wrongs, like true Germans having to live outside Germany?
The other snag is even more pernicious. Modern, liberal people who are inclusive, open-minded, internationalist, look with disdain to more traditional, exclusive and nationalist people, consider them backward bigots—and so exclude them. Inclusive people exclude exclusive people.
That's the rub. A progressive, developing, modernizing democracy creates its own nemesis.

We should accept and embrace differences; we should especially accept and embrace everyone who historically was excluded. And so we exclude the ones that are not modern, not international, not inclusive. They are the losers, the 'deplorables.'  They hopefully will dissolve and die out while enlightenment advances.
So they despise, even hate, the people of goodwill, the know-it-alls, the yups, the expats, the graduated, the well-to-do, the well-employed, the modern: the … (expletives deleted) elite.

This frustration becomes pot-boiling when from the outside a new proletariat comes in: hard-working people willing to do odd-jobs, work for a pittance—and usually bringing a few new loafers alongside. Insiders who are stagnant look badly at outsiders who are on the way up.

And then come people who offer a way out. Populist politicians sell a double hamburger of a lie. They promise back to the good old days. Well, they weren't that good at all— and you can't go back to them.
As Carl Rogers once remarked, nobody is shouting out load to large crowds that the sun will rise again tomorrow. The more unfounded the message, the more the volume is turned up. Who needs arguments?

Populism is the bastard child of progress and progressivism: an unrecognized offspring. But one: this bastard has a power, no matter how backward or even ugly you may think it is: numbers. And two: people susceptible to populism are real people with real lives under real conditions. Whatever we may think of their thoughts, they have them for a reason. For a couple of reasons, usually.

Reactionary nationalism is dangerous, but people are nationalist for a reason. Understanding the reasons, even acknowledging those reasons is necessary. There is no other way to get your reasons for modernity and internationalism acknowledged with them. Why would people listen to people who don't listen to them?

Populist voters  deserve better leaders than the ones they have got. Or not? Anyway, we all would be better off by better populist leaders. Less unreliable, less egocentric, less crazy.
Where can we find a better alternative? Social-democrats would be the best bet, at least in Europe, but they seem to have forgotten their raison d'ĂȘtre. To take care of common people with simple interests and simple outlooks is not very sexy for politicians. And they have been bowing to the prevailing winds of neo-liberalists and neoconservatives who sincerely think they own the place. Well, they don't. At least not anywhere near to the extent they are assuming that.

To cater to common people may seem not to be very sexy for politicians, but in the face of the inexorable dwindling of simple work, it is one of the deepest human and political challenges for the century that just began. The new proletariat is not necessarily poor and ill and dirty; it often has plenty of leisure and usually some money to spend on that. The options for wasting your life have grown considerably. Drugs have been diversifying from alcohol. The US is going the way of Russia: life expectancy is decreasing. Twenty years ago that would have been unthinkable.

Don't leave an enormous segment of the population to the Pied Pipers of populism. From populism may come fascism. From fascism dictatorship. From dictatorship the degrading and fragmentation of society or the horrors of war and civil war.
After coming thus far we shouldn't stop progress. We have to eye populists coolly and their constituencies warmly, at least with understanding. We have to understand their views.  We have to recognize their interests. And we have to communicate that understanding and that recognition in the most practical and down-to-earth way possible. If they don't listen to us, we should start listening to them.