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Liberalism And Populism

There's something I don't understand about Michael Lind's argument here (which is just a variation on an argument he's been making for years). On the one hand, Lind claims to be writing with the Democratic Party's interests in mind: Please Mr. President, don't let the Republicans tap into a reservoir of populist resentment that could destroy your presidency. But on the other hand, Lind's lengthy account of this populist resentment is itself written in a tone of . . . populist resentment. To judge by his column, liberals are all snooty, condescending elitists who care more about cheating on their taxes, breaking immigration laws, and manipulating the admissions processes of Ivy League universities to land sinecures for their pampered kids than about crafting policies that serve the common good of the nation.   

Now, it's certainly possible to reconcile the two stances: Lind simply wants Democrats to change their elitist ways and tap into the legitimate populist grievances of Middle Americans instead of allowing the Republicans to continue exploiting these grievances for political gain as they have since Nixon pronounced himself the champion of the "silent majority." Yet it would have been nice to see some evidence that Lind recognizes Republican-Party populism for what it so clearly is: demagoguery. That would leave open the possibility of Democrats speaking to populist resentments without encouraging or flattering them. Instead, Lind appears to buy just about every element of the demagogic Republican line on the treacherous ways of the so-called liberal elite, including its supposed economic exploitation of and contempt for the white working class, and merely wants the Democrats to begin peddling the same line.

Even if we leave aside the fact that the liberals who form the core of the Democratic Party are exceedingly unlikely to begin (let alone to benefit from) bashing liberals like latter-day Spiro Agnews, Lind's advice deserves to treated skeptically. Yes, the mid-century liberals (like Daniel Bell and Richard Hofstadter) who wrote about the dangers of populism may have overstated their case, but their concerns cannot be dismissed as regionalist or ethnic prejudice (as Lind seems to do). Democratic citizenship can be exercised intelligently and it can be exercised irresponsibly, stupidly, thugishly. When Republicans extol the innate political wisdom of a proudly uninformed plumber while describing the presidential candidate of the opposing party as a terrorist, they are acting irresponsibly, stupidly, and thugishly, while also encouraging these same qualities in their supporters. For doing so, they deserve to be denounced, not emulated. No matter what the electoral cost.