Thursday, December 30, 2010

Why Can't the People Be Wrong? Or, On Popular Egotism

Since Plato, the prospect of popular rule summons up a terrifying demophobia. Whether understood as a distrust of the masses as a kind of idiotic hoi polloi, concerns for how a majoritarian tyranny might take advantage of the minority, or the Arendtian worry that mass society with no check brings the risk of fascism, these claims consistently attend critiques of democratic rule.

Contrast the suspicion of the people with the also-constant suspicion of elites that in part explains democracy's appeal. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely!" shout maxims. "Let them eat cake!" signifies the inability of the ruling class to ever connect with the concerns of people. One reason the printing press really mattered was because it offered up the possibility of a popularized, rather than centrally controlled, understanding of religion and God. This historical keystones find substantial sympathy within the academy: Theodor Adorno's radical distrust of expertism, Michel Foucault's critical investigation of expert mantles as discursive assemblages rather than as absolute pieces of armor, and however many Marxist demands against those in power illustrate that a lack of faith in the empowered is common enough.

Contemporarily, however, only one of these discourses circulates popularly enough that we might think of it as hegemonic, or at least strongly influential. That is, I think, the suspicion of elites. Lets attempt an analogy: Clintonian "Third Way" politics have taken their share of criticism because of the compromises made with neoliberalism in the name of political necessity. Welfare reform and free trade, it was said, were the cost of business, of pushing other policies friendly to progressive politics. Surely Clinton-era successes like the Patient's Bill of Rights, increased taxes on fossil fuel companies, and tax cuts for the poor and tax hikes on the rich are understood as political victories from a progressive standpoint. Many have claimed that the rhetorical concessions made to neoliberalism (economic growth as a premiere policy goal, neutral assumptions about opportunity and effort at the individual level, and support for free trade as a lever of change) undermined the important old progressive political coalition, eradicating the rhetorical resources (notions of class, race, gender etc.) necessary for constituting a political coalition capable of decisively influencing public policy.

We might benefit from asking: was there ever a similar phase in American politics where the resources necessary for making the demophobic critique of "the people" were lost, concessions made for some other instrumental political good? Its certainly easy to pinpoint at least one golden age for government management, stretching from the administration of FDR (emboldened by the Great Depression) into the Great Society era of Lyndon Baines Johnson. During this time government did many things for many people: social security, welfare, civil rights, and countless and innumerable expansions of governmental policy. While the exigence of the depression might have authorized a good deal of FDR's policies, the discourses outlived him in presidents who created national highway systems, raised the minimum wage and strengthened social security, and went on the fight the war on poverty in the name of a Great Society.

Like any political movements, these policies made sense within their particular times. FDR's great policies were considered necessary given the extreme threats of economic collapse. Truman and Eisenhower presided over post-war booms but the specter of the depression continued to stalk the American landscape. And JFK and LBJ had nations on fire, with evental political epidemics of discrimination and crime that necessitated large visible social policy.

By the time of the Reagan Revolution, however, social policy was on the defense. The economy was devastated in the late 70's by a combination of foreign oil crunch and the notorious "stagflation" of American currency. Reagan's administration, while it did not succeed in radically shirnking the size of the federal government (it continued to grow at a solid rate) did commit rhetorically to hollowing out the government's committment to social policy and functionally doing so by making massive tax cuts. All this during "Morning in America", a time of new beginnings for an old and hallowed place full of bright and motivated individuals simply yearning to break free and make a new life for themselves.

What could explain this shift? This is a blog post, not a history book, but the other day over a drink my friend Patrick brought up a good point: that during the 50's and 60's, there was a political consensus against communism and its embodiment in the Soviet Union. Certainly this consensus mostly emerged in the shadow of the threat of thermonuclear extermination, but it could directly articulate itself as such (perhaps the psychoanalytic trauma of the horror was too great, necessitating a displacement, but it is also likely that the threat of big government control threatened by Stalin's purges and the related horrors of WW2 legitimized this anxiety, which still needed to find its basis in democratic and relatively genocide-free America in what new social policies COULD prefigure). So whatever domestic policies could be associated with the kind of big government social managerialism characteristic of both America AND the Soviet Union could then be linked, however complexly, to these existential anxieties about the threat to America posed from abroad.

So while a liberal, managerial politics is consistent both with the fact of America (so many policies embody this ideology) and its history (we did, after all, ditch the Articles of Confederation for a reason) it is highly likely that the appeal of such policies diminished as the Cold War began to increasingly overdetermine the idea of what "America" went during a period that saw numerous proxy conflicts and an imaginary colonized by the threat of nuclear extermination. In order to differentiate American from the Soviet menace, its ideological discursive committments (equality, planned economics, state intervention, socialist policy) had to be taken as absolute terrors, co-equal with the threat of Soviet dominance (always articulated as an ideological/absolute clash).

So one thing we might glean from this admittedly brief and too broad reading is at least one insight: the horrors of big government have far more punch and verve than the benefits big government supplies. The discursive economy privileges threats of evental genocide, nuclear annhiliation, and economic collapse much higher than the values provided to individual's everyday lives by a powerful and vibrant welfare state. Not to sound like broken record of some terrible K debate or anything, but we seem to lack a language to describe why exactly goods like equality or health care ought to matter as much as others. The necessary supplement to this reading is to figure out how "the American people" came to always be on the one side rather than the other, which I shall pursue in my next post.

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