The Elusive Promise of Populist Unity
My first encounter with Matt Taibbi’s writing was in 2003, when he began to catch the attention of mainstream journalists with essays that called pro-America veterans “illiterate morons” — “the corpulent Oreo,” if one of them happened to be black. It has taken seventeen years, the suppression of Bernie Sanders by the Democrat Party, and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, but it appears Taibbi is reconsidering his approach:
That Democrats needed Thomas Frank to tell them what conservatives fifteen miles outside the cities were thinking was damning in itself. Even worse was the basically unbroken string of insults emanating from pop culture (including from magazines like Rolling Stone: I was very guilty of this) describing life between the cities as a prole horror peopled by obese, Bible-thumping dolts who couldn’t navigate a Thai menu and polished gun lockers instead of reading.
In that essay, Taibbi warns of the anti-populist condescension overtaking the mainstream Left and the Democrat Party and ponders their inability to reevaluate:
After Trump’s election in November 2016, the first instinct of everyone wandering amid the smoldering wreckage of Democratic Party politics should have been to look in all directions for anyone with an explanation for what the hell just happened.
There’s more to this inability than the difficulty of kicking the addiction of superior feeling. In large part, it’s self-interested and institutional. When your ideology is about concentrating power (in government or any other institution), it becomes critical to be the power. If experts must rule the world, it becomes more difficult to admit that you’re not an expert. When you’re the problem, self-examination is not a solution. The who quickly overpowers the what. The cause gives way to the party, which quickly gives way to the people running it.
In 2003, the gulf between Matt Taibbi and writers I preferred appeared to be a chasm, but now I wonder whether the bridge is already there, if only we could agree on its existence. Note:
At the conclusion of [his latest book,] The People, No, Frank sums up the book’s obvious subtext, seeming almost to apologize for its implications:
My point here is not to suggest that Trump is a “very stable genius,” as he likes to say, or that he led a genuine populist insurgency; in my opinion, he isn’t and he didn’t. What I mean to show is that the message of anti-populism is the same as ever: the lower orders, it insists, are driven by irrationality, bigotry, authoritarianism, and hate; democracy is a problem because it gives such people a voice. The difference today is that enlightened liberals are the ones mouthing this age-old anti-populist catechism.
Many a conservative could have written Frank’s paragraph. The difference is in the implications of the anti-populist error, and they are twofold. First, I’m not sure Taibbi and Frank understand that “the lower orders” and those who side with them do not agree among themselves, and progressivism isn’t necessarily the correct answer. Indeed, privileging democracy and the voice of the masses shouldn’t be done simply on the belief that they will ultimately agree with you. That attitude bespeaks an unspoken plan simply to dominate them for one’s own cause.
The second thing that (I’d suggest) populists on the Left would have to see in order for a sort of populist unity to be possible is that the conceit and the corruption that Taibbi laments among mainstream liberals is inevitable. It’s embedded in the centralizing ideology, as I describe above. The problem isn’t just that experts shouldn’t lose sight of the people whose lives they are striving to improve, but that experts can’t rule the world. Not only do they lack the omniscience, but their own self interests will get in the way.
No doubt, there are parts of this bridge that I, along with my fellow conservatives, don’t see, although we’ve a decades-long tradition as the outsiders of the mainstream, so self-reflection and reevaluation are probably built into our approach to some extent. However, one obstacle on our part is plainly visible: the human tendency not to accept others’ evolution. If the views of such folks as Matt Taibbi are coming around, we should see the opportunity rather than the Bernie-Bro trappings.
Featured image: A scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in which the hero crosses a stone bridge that had been so well camouflaged as to be invisible until he took a step of faith.