John B. Judis, The Populist Explosion (2016)
This is part 6 in an ongoing series exploring books that address the current political, social, and economic situation in the US. Part 1: The Unwinding Part 2: Dark Money Part 3: Strangers In Their Own Land Part 4: Listen, Liberal Part 5: Hillbilly Elegy and White Trash
A year ago, I set myself the goal of reading the New York Times list of “Six Books to Understand Trump’s Win.” After five books, though, I thought I might call it quits. The final title seemed to have such a dry and dull angle on the topic, and would probably be full of political-science jargon that I couldn’t comprehend. What would it add to my understanding after I’d been through so many different angles already?
Well, I decided to give it a try, largely because it is a very short book (only 124 pages plus notes), and I’m glad I did. Far from being beyond my comprehension, it served as a helpful guide for this political ignoramus, explaining and defining terms and movements in a completely lucid way, while not shying away from the real-life ambiguity and uncertainty that keep politics such a tricky business.
The very term “populism,” for example, can be a slippery one, meaning slightly different things to different people at various times. But in general it can be characterized as a mindset that pits “the people” against an “elite.” This is not the same as socialism (working class vs. capitalist class), but a broader and more murky worldview. Nor is it a conservative movement. In fact, populism can exist on both the right and the left, and as the elites of both ends of the political spectrum have become more calcified, populism has drawn its support from the dissatisfied denizens of both sides. The difference, author John B. Judis argues, is that left-leaning populists simply oppose an elite, as in Bernie Sanders’ campaign against the 1%. Right-wing populists add opposition to another “out” group: immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, etc., as amply demonstrated by Trump’s own campaign rhetoric.
Today, with the explosive rise of populism in the United States and Europe, we have an unprecedented situation: a movement that previously fizzled out against the stronger forces of other political parties and ideologies, now has a chance to be in a position of power. What will it do with this opportunity? It’s already caused a chaotic challenge to the prevailing “neoliberal” consensus, in which impossible-to-maintain economic structures keep going as if there were no tomorrow — yet its own inflated promises are hard to bring down into concrete reality. It often seems bitter and mean, especially when campaigning against refugees and immigrants — but it does raise important questions that are not addressed by the upholders of the status quo. The problem is that there are no structures or procedures to help us deal with such a situation, and it’s anyone’s guess what is going to happen now.
Judis didn’t actually think Trump would win, not realizing that his vulgarity would be an asset in the final reckoning, rather than a liability. It would be interesting to read his views about the past year’s events, and where he thinks American populism stands now.
For me, though this small book answered many questions, it raised many more. Yes, the people are angry, and rightfully so, but is anger a sufficient response to the troubles of our world? Who are “the people” anyway? And is it good to pit ourselves against an elite that, while it does embody much that is selfish and even evil, also bears the fruits of our cultural heritage: intellectual striving, art, and so on? Is there another way, a way of integration rather than opposition?
Such questions probably seem naive and idealistic, and may not belong in a political discussion. Yet I can’t help feeling that in setting up all these left-and-right, you-and-me, inside-and-outside opposites, we’re missing something essential about ourselves: that the human being is not only a duality, but a trinity, and it’s in the dynamic middle that our true potential lies.
So, as I come to the end of this particular journey of trying to understand, I have encountered much that is alarming and baffling, but also much that inspires me to keep asking these unanswered questions, to keep trying and searching, keep believing in a future that often seems inconceivable. Humankind has been through so many changes, and yet change is still hard for us to navigate. What yet-unmanifested reality is trying to speak to us through these phenomena?
Each of these books has given me some piece of the puzzle, and even though the wholeness remains beyond my ability to comprehend, I will keep on with the quest. I don’t know where this journey is going, but I do feel glad that through reading these books I have more of a grasp of some of the underlying causes and trends that are affecting us all right now.