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Populism vs. Elitism

Populism vs. Elitism

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H
UMANITAS
 73
Populism
vs.
Elitism
The Road to Mass Democracy: Original Intent and the Seventeenth Amend-ment
, by C.H. Hoebeke.
New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1995. 211 pp.$29.95.
The Populist Persuasion
, by Michael Kazin.
New York: Basic Books, 1995. 381 pp.$24.00.
The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy
, by Christopher Lasch.
New York: W. W. Norton, 1995. 288 pp. $22.00.
sented by the American Framers has been politically and intellectuallychallenged by populism and kindredideologies since its inception. Thepopulist movement of the late nine-teenth century, for example, capturedthe imaginations of Americans whotended to blame the political, social,and economic failures of the day onAmerica’s elites. The populist pre-scription at that time was typical of populism: reform the constitutionalsystem. Populist and Progressive re-forms decreased the power of elitesand empowered “the people.”Populism has become a major ideo-logical influence in contemporaryAmericans have always been dividedconcerning the kind of democracythat the Framers created. Since thetime of the Founding, the very mean-ing of democracy has been in disputein American culture. Two traditionsare discernable in American politicalthought: one believes that America istoo democratic, the other that it is notdemocratic enough.At the heart of the debate regard-ing American democracy and theConstitution is the role of elites. Begin-ning with the Antifederalists, a dis-trust of elites inspired opposition tothe Constitution. In fact, the traditionof American political thought repre-
Populism
vs.
Elitism
Michael P. Federici
 Mercyhurst College
 
74 •
Volume VIII, No. 2, 1995
 Michael P. Federici
American politics. Both Democratsand Republicans, liberals and conser-vatives, commonly use populist rheto-ric and promote populist public poli-cies. The “Contract with America”incorporates several populist themes,among them the call for congressionalterm limits. Ross Perot has capitalizedon populist sentiment in proposingthe creation of a third political party.These reforms and others are basedon the premise that the current politi-cal elites cannot be trusted and thatpolitical power is more responsiblyexercised by the people.The recent resurgence of populismin American politics is driven by twoprimary factors. One is the intellectualand political tradition represented bysuch figures as Thomas Paine, Tho-mas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, andWilliam Jennings Bryan. The otherfactor is the growing discontent withAmerica’s political leadership. Popu-lism has become a more attractive re-sponse to political, social, and eco-nomic troubles because the elite classseems incapable of providing thequality of leadership that is necessaryfor good government.The populist challenge to theAmerican constitutional order has re-ceived increasing attention fromscholars. Three recent books addressvarious aspects of the populist move-ment in America, and they all share acommon feature. In one way or an-other, they attempt to answer thequestion, “Is populism right forAmerica?” The three books are C. H.Hoebeke’s
The Road to Mass Democ-racy
, Michael Kazin’s
The Populist Per-suasion
, and Christopher Lasch’s
TheRevolt of the Elites
. These works dis-cuss various aspects of populism inAmerica such as its historical, eco-nomic, and social origins.American populism is not a politi-cally monolithic ideological move-ment. It manifests itself at differenttimes in a wide range of historical cir-cumstances. It is advocated by conser-vatives, liberals, libertarians, andother ideological groups. The mean-ing of populism is easily obscured if its fundamental philosophical identityis divorced from the particular politi-cal forms it takes. The search for thedeeper meaning of populism requiresa marriage of political theory and his-tory.We learn what populism is partly by examining the particular historicalcircumstances in which it has oc-curred. These three books examine asignificant portion of the Americanpopulist experience. But understand-ing and assessing populism also re-quires a theoretical framework withinwhich it can be analyzed. Withoutsuch a framework, the difficult ques-tions and issues raised by populismwill not receive the critical reflectionthat is necessary to give populism afair hearing. For example, what is thephilosophical and historical basis forpopulism’s disdain of elites? Is thisdisdain historically and philosophi-cally well-grounded? Or is populismmerely a ploy by demagogues towrestle power from the current elite?If there is no historical and philosophi-cal ground for replacing elites with“the popular will,” then populism’schallenge to the American constitu-tional order will be viewed differently
 
H
UMANITAS
• 75
Populism
vs.
Elitism
than if there is such a ground. Conse-quently, in assessing Hoebeke’s,Kazin’s, and Lasch’s work, attentionwill be given to their respective his-torical and philosophical frameworksand to their ability to penetrate to theexperiential sources of populism. Forit is that core experience that providesinsights into the challenge of popu-lism and that also provides a standard by which to judge the efficacy of populism as a response to the disorderof the age.All writers on the subject are notpredisposed to systematic philosophi-cal analysis. Yet, most of the work onpopulism implies a philosophical un-derstanding of what populism is,even if the author claims to be simplydescribing history. An author’s philo-sophical assumptions can be teasedout of a work that includes at leastsome critical analysis.Kazin’s book explicitly shies awayfrom theoretical analysis. It is a ram- bling, at times disjointed, descriptionof populism.
The Populist Persuasion
attempts to analyze populism by ex-ploring the history of populist rheto-ric. Kazin considers the words of populist leaders the best illustration of populism’s meaning and importance.He makes no attempt to discover orexplain the roots of populism. He as-sumes that populist rhetoric speaksfor itself. He does attempt to providea basic definition of populism: “a lan-guage whose speakers conceive of or-dinary people as a noble assemblagenot bounded narrowly by class, viewtheir elite opponents as self-servingand undemocratic, and seek to mobi-lize the former against the latter” (1).Although Kazin fails to acknowledgeit, the rhetoric of populism has an un-derlying theoretical foundation. Infact, his analysis of the language of populism indicates that he is sympa-thetic to that theoretical core.Kazin sees it as his task, however,not to elucidate what populism is asmuch as to editorialize about goodand bad populism. In short, right-wing populism is bad and left-wingpopulism is good. Populism has arather specific content according toKazin. Its primary objective is a moreequal distribution of wealth and theempowerment of minorities andwomen. It is clear that Kazin’s egali-tarianism colors his assessment of populism. Populism, for him, is ameans of reshaping America. He as-sumes that the masses, if given thepolitical power and led by the rightelites, would implement his “non-Communist Left” agenda. He believesthat “mass democracy can topple anyhaughty foe.” Thus
The Populist Per-suasion
is not really an analysis of populism but a political tract.Contrary to Kazin’s analysis of populism, Hoebeke’s study of massdemocracy is theoretical as well ashistorical. Unlike Kazin, he viewspopulism as both politically and ideo-logically inconsistent with the politi-cal and philosophical tradition of theAmerican Framers. Kazin’s book pro-vides a broad history of populism di-vorced from philosophical analysis.
The Road to Mass Democracy
examinesa particular populist event, the adop-tion of the Seventeenth Amendment,and uses it to discover the theoreticalfeatures of populism. It should be

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