Three Failing Movements and the One that Can Succeed
by Benjamin Studebaker
One of the key things I always like to remember about politics is that there are no political systems or political organizations which are wholly elitist or wholly populist. All regimes and all organizations are mixed. Autocracies and aristocracies still need their peoples to recognise them as legitimate and cooperate with their decisions. If they ignore legitimacy, their peoples will destroy them. Democracies still rely on elite professional civil servants, politicians, lawyers, and economists to design and implement policies that address the interests of the people and the subgroups which comprise it. If they ignore those elites, they won’t be able to govern effectively and they’ll disappoint the people they set out to help. It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? And yet, despite this, there are always political movements which operate dogmatically from an elitist or populist standpoint, ignoring the need to find the right mix of both. I want to describe three such movements, and the alternative path we can take to avoid their mistakes.
The Liberal Technocrats
These liberals believe they have a monopoly on the expertise required to run our institutions. By contrast, they are relatively uncritical about their moral principles and values–economic competitiveness and GDP growth are just taken to be the primary objectives of politics. They believe their opponents fail to see they possess economic expertise because their opponents are uneducated fools. For them, the purpose of elections is to keep them legitimate. When elections fail to do that, they come up with stories about why voters are unable to recognize their greatness. Maybe it’s Russian propaganda. Maybe it’s populist lies. Maybe it’s social media. Yet this attitude–this sense of entitlement to support–is itself repellent to people, particularly when it is coupled with an indifference to their needs. When people feel there is a crisis and these technocrats tell them everything is fine, that everyone who complains is being unrealistic or unreasonable, the people feel either that the liberal claim to expertise is false or that it is true but paired with a deep indifference to their needs grounded on elite corruption. They are dogmatically elitist–they demand allegiance, and they are not willing to make the concessions necessary to legitimate themselves to the people and earn their support. They know how to get the institutions to do things, but they can’t get them to do the things we want.
The Church Left/The Virtue Technocrats
These leftists are technocrats of virtue rather than economics. They believe they have a monopoly on the virtues required to determine our values and goals. By contrast, they are relatively indifferent to the details of running political and economic institutions and take it as a given that if people possessing the right values are in charge, these things will be well-managed. They want to throw out the moneylenders and bring in the high priests of virtue-signalling. They believe their opponents fail to see they possess moral expertise because their opponents are uneducated fools. For them, the purpose of elections is to keep them legitimate. When elections fail to do that, they come up with stories about why voters are unable to recognize their greatness. Maybe they’re all racist. Maybe they’re all sexist. Maybe they’re all homophobic. Yet this attitude–this sense of entitlement to support–is itself repellent to people, particularly when it is coupled with an indifference to their needs. When people feel there is a crisis of institutions and these virtue technocrats tell them they are bigots, that everyone who complains is morally deviant, the people feel either that the claim to expertise is false or that it is paired with a deep hostility to their needs grounded on their being straight or white or male. They are dogmatically elitist–they demand allegiance, and they are not willing to make the concessions necessary to legitimate themselves to the people and earn their support. They know what they value, but they cannot use their values to help others.
Center-right political movements (e.g. Jeb Bush) are liberal technocrat. Far left movements (e.g. the abusive, enclavist part of BLM or DSA) are virtue technocrat. Center-left movements (e.g. Hillary Clinton) tend to combine both economic and virtue technocracy. This makes them massively unappealing to ordinary people. Because these groups are all out of touch with the people, they are unable even to get their own domains right. The center-right now shops policies which many experts outside their movement don’t believe in, but they’ve become too insular to accept that. The far left now shops principles and values which many experts outside their movement don’t believe in, and they cast out any who speak up. The center-left shops policies and values which many experts don’t believe in. It sees and hears no evil, but it speaks plenty.
The Populist Right
These right wingers respond to economic and virtue technocracy by rejecting expertise all together–they have “had enough of experts“. They believe they know something the experts do not–what the people actually want. They think a monopoly on being in touch with the people. But because they reject expertise, they have to dismiss research and facts which disagree with what they wish to do, basing their agendas on “common sense” and unexamined emotional reactions. They must believe their opponents fail to see that they are speaking for the people because their opponents are so out of touch or so corrupt that they are either dead to the people’s cries or contemptuous of them. So when they lose elections, it must be because the out of touch, corrupt elites stole it from them–elites cannot speak for the people and so they cannot really win democratically except by cheating. When these economic and virtue technocrats accuse the populist right of promulgating lies or of being racist, sexist, or otherwise morally defective, they see these accusations as tactics to silence the people and prop up a defective and possibly devious elite. They are dogmatically populist–they reject all appeals to facts or to various ways of adjudicating truth. Donald Trump is the classic example, but in recent days I prefer to draw attention to Don Blankenship, who created the most right nationalist ad I’ve ever seen:
Many of the things Blankenship says in the ad are not true, and he makes many implications which are technically dubious. It is highly unlikely that Blankenship can bring back all the jobs to West Virginia for a bunch of technical reasons. But Blankenship takes no notice. He’s a populist, and he doesn’t care about the truth or the experts who claim to know something about it.
In laying out these kinds of failures–dogmatic populism and dogmatic elitism (in both the economic and virtue forms, and in the hybrid form which combines both), we see that there is a gap here. It should be possible to mix together forms of expertise with a politics which is responsive to people’s needs.
At various points in my life I’ve thought about the relationship between these things, and at times I’ve gone too far in one direction or the other. The right mix is hard to find. Our primary system is a great example of how easy it is get too dogmatic. Until the early 70s, candidates were picked by party elites in smoke-filled rooms via the old convention system. But in 1968, this meant the left’s demand for an anti-Vietnam War candidate (Eugene McCartney, RFK, or George McGovern) and the right’s demand for a hardcore anti-communist (Reagan) both went unfulfilled. The party bases were furious, and to retain the legitimacy of the nominating mechanism, both parties transitioned to binding primaries, with the Democrat’s super-delegates remaining the final trace of the old system. A populist reform–and one which mean that candidates no longer had to have political experience of any kind. All they needed was the ability to win primaries, and that means they needed two things–charisma and money. Experts and policy wonks tend not to have that stuff. But rich businessmen and those willing to attach themselves to them have both in spades. In making the system more populist, we empowered the populist right. I gave a short talk about this the other day:
So now the left argues the problem is that we failed to complete the primary revolution–get rid of the super-delegates, open the primaries, regulate campaign finance laws, fight voter suppression, maybe even change the voting system to make third parties more competitive. But making the electoral system more populist cannot be the solution by itself. The left still needs to understand the institutions and policies it plays with–it still needs expertise. It’s good to build a connection with the people, but we don’t want to end up like the populist right. The more populist our institutions become, the more populist our candidates and movements will have to be to win. It will become harder and harder for politicians to be experts or to make use of them. It is the people that pay to fund the universities which create these experts–they deserve to get the benefit of that investment in the form of high-quality expert advice oriented toward their interests and needs. Great advice doesn’t always come in a charismatic package. The people can’t get great advice if the political system is designed to promote a politics which caters exclusively to those who are too busy working and raising families to spend large amounts of time thinking about values, institutions, and policies.
Those seeking to prevent us from becoming a mirror of the people go too far the other way and retreat into a virtue technocracy which can never compete democratically. These virtue technocrats will say they want a connection with the people, but they will tolerate the people only insofar as the people mirror the virtues they were able to develop through many years of higher education and activism. The people were denied the years of leisure necessary to have the experiences which might enable them to develop those virtues. So the virtue technocrats claim to be interested in the people, but they are only interested in the people who had the social advantages necessary to develop the virtues which the virtue technocrats have. Theirs is a false populism. It contains nothing of the people.
What’s the appropriate mix? We need experts who focus on something beyond values, institutions, and policies–we need experts who are interested in legitimacy itself, in what is necessary to maintain that connection with the interests and needs of the people. But what if even this is insufficient? What if even the experts who care about legitimacy lose track of what it means for non-experts? Experts need to be made to listen to and observe the people. This means there must be an arena in which the people can express themselves, in which the experts may be observers. That arena has to matter politically for the people to bother to take the time to express themselves in that arena and to do so in a genuine way. We need both populist institutions and expert institutions, and we need these institutions to check and balance each other. We need the experts to be observers in the populist institutions and the people to be observers in the expert.
In all our organizations and institutions, there should be a decision-making body which is thoroughgoingly democratic and populist, to channel and express popular feeling. At the same time, there should be a decision-making body which is expert in values, institutions, and policies, but especially in legitimacy itself. This popular body and this expert body should have equal or near equal power. They should be able to veto one another and their cooperation should be necessary for decisions to go through.
This is the kind of left that can win and govern well once it has won–a left which is both elitist and populist, which combines the strengths of both instead of choosing one at the expense of the other. If we can develop these kinds of organizations, we will gain significant advantages in both areas–we will be more in touch with the people than our opponents, and we will be better equipped to govern. We should not be a firm, a church, or a mob. We should be better than all three. We should be the synthesis.