I call my politics Populist. Forty years of working with juries, the American public at its best, will do that to you. I trust popular will, popular judgments, popular values. That makes me unpopular, because populism itself isn’t very popular. But so be it.
The populism I’m talking about originated with Abraham Lincoln, who built the building on the foundation of the Declaration of Independence. It swept out of the Mid and Far West in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, with an insistence on fair play, tolerance, the rough equality of all men (sic), and a deeply rooted suspicion of every form of privilege or social status. There really wasn’t much more to it inb essence than that, though, God knows, the political flowerings of those simple roots are varied and complex. Though it was undeniably racist and sexist at the start, the transformative power of mass media changed those primitive attitudes decisively a long time ago.. These days, it has progressed to a universalism so far beyond the pronouncements of the intelligentsia that the elite can’t (or won’t) comprehend how far advanced it is. In terms of racism, or sexism, ot this-ism, or that-ism, it doesn’t have attitudes anymore. The issues have disappeared. These days, it literally doesn’t give a damn. There are a great many public intellectuals in the US who refuse to come to terms with that.
Populism is not a system of thought, just a loose collection of values, a respect for openmess, tolerance, sympathy and so on. Many of the attitudes that emerge are completely, enchantingly inconsistent with each other, and who cares? Thus, for example, the Great Beast believes that society should treat everyone the same, but give due respect to the individuality of everyone. Put those two sentiments side by side, and think about itfor the second. The government should take care of basic needs of everyone, but should not intrude on anyone’s life. That’s also an interesting pair of concepts to twin.
In short, we are not talking about consistencies, foolish or not. We are talking (to repeat) about a loose collation of values, which no one has ever tried to organize into a formal philosophy because every one knows it can’t be done. So a self-professed Populist has to live without the comfort ofany system of thought and a basic acceptance of some of the most cornpone formulations imaginable. Thus, Aunt Eller in Hammerstein’s Oklahoma sings an anthem:
I’d like to teach you all a little sayin’ ,
And learn the words by heart,
the way you should, I’m not claimin’ to be better than anybody else -
But I’ll be damned it I ain’t just as good!
Or Frank Capra’s Jefferson Smith on the floor of the Senate:
Because I wouldn't give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn't have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a - a little lookin' out for the other fella, too...
Pretty homey stuff. Nothing that you can reformulate as a premise of some coherent. Comprehensive Theory of Everything. Yet it swept out of the Western United States in the late 19th Century, overwhelmed the crude monopolies of the day, confronted and defeated the decadent repugnant, European nationalism of the 19th Century, transformed the crude laissez-faire capitalism of the day into socially responsible institutions with which we are all familiar now, and crushed the twin Hegelian monsters of National Socialism and Communism in turn. It’s populism, which its insistence on the social equality of all human beings - ‘I’ll be damned if I ain’t just as good!’ - that has eradicated racism and sexism in the West, and not any pronouncements of the United States Supreme Court or the European Union.
At the end of the day, adherence to Populism as a political philosophy comes down to two central tenets - (1) a belief in the essential benevolence of the mass of human beings, and (2) a belief that popular judgments are essentially sound (or at least much sounder than judgments made by the various elitist alternatives). My playful term for the American public is the Great Beast - possessed of no intelligence, but infinite wisdom. It never knows why it’s going, or where it’s going, but it’s almost always gets to the right place. ‘Almost’, because nothing human is infallible. But if history had followed the advice of the New York Times editorial board, or Wall Street Journal, or the faculty of Harvard University, we’d all be broke, or speaking Russian, or what not. The Great Beast knew better. It didn’t know why it knew, but it did.
Alas, nothing in any meaningful blog can be all sweetness and light. I do intend in future posts to take up some specific causes, and without any promise of charity.
(a) The major issue facing the United States is class and the division of wealth, not race or gender. It’s serious, but it’s a problem, and only a problem, not a crisis. We can do something about it short of revolution. My own solution is a switch of the basic annual tax base from income to wealth, coupled with a truly substantial estate tax. I’m going to make any number of posts on the net wealth tax, from the ultra theoretical to the issues of actual administration. I’m something of a voice in the wilderness here, but the topic is critical, the issues present a fascinating intellectual game, and . . . someone has to start the ball rolling, and it might as well be this blog.
(b) Second, I’m going to devote considerable time to the uses of Big Information as a tool to solve, or at least better, some of the social problems we do face. I am very, very tired of playing defense to the likes of Edward Snowden, Ron Wyden, and a host of other cynical Luddites who have deliberately reversed the polarity of the new information world. Its potential for social good is far greater than otherwise, but you would never know that from the public dialog of the last few years. Every new technology can do social harm or good, depending on how it’s used. But you don’t stop building airports because an airplane can be used to drop bombs as well as fly passengers. But that effectively - not building airports - is what a sizable fraction of people who should know better are advising. That’s absurd.
(c ) Finally, and most controversially, I believe the racial tropes with which most Americans grew up have outlived their usefulness. That opinion flies completely in the face of the conventional wisdom most of us grew up with, particularly we Baby Boomers. But any critical look at the culture shows that to be the truth. I by no means assert that the United States has resolved the issue of race. But these days it shows its face in the form of the toxic sociological mess left behind, first articulated by Daniel Moynihan in the 60’s and observed these days by such journalists as Jill Leovy in ‘Ghettoside'. I also do not mean that mainstream society does not have a moral obligation to address those problems, because I think it does. To that extent I believe in reparations.
But it also means I have no patience with the entrenched personalities in the MSM who insist that a pervasive institutional racism still exists in the United States. That’s absolute nonsense, and belied by just about every statistic and cultural observation available (not the least of which is that few if any of the spokespersons has experienced any racial barrier of any kind in their own lives). That would be simply an interesting factoid, except that the same clique has managed to obscure the REAL needs both of poor African-Americans and others, and promote a racial divisiveness that does no one any good and is also wildly out of date. But more of that anon.
So let’s get on with it. First up is immigration and terrorism. The Great Beast in my view is always sympathetic to refugees. But neither does it want to be terrorized. It never had to be ‘either-or’. There are solutions.