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The limits of populist resistance and the nature of Western liberal democratic government
Some valued readers objected to my views on the ominous new mood of the American social media censors. They believe the powers-that-be are in real retreat, having been damaged by recent setbacks like the Budweiser boycott, Tucker Carlson’s wild success on Twitter, awkward censorship revelations, Trump’s strong polling and other things too. They gently suggest I am overthinking things.
I don’t mean to say that these aren’t welcome developments or that they don’t matter. But I think it’s very easy to overestimate their importance, particularly if one adopts a literal view of politics – that is to say, if one accepts the forms of western liberal democracy at face value, and believes that state actions are to a substantial degree either guided or constrained by the popular will. All major media across the entire West propagate this literal view and most people accept its broad outlines without examination. It’s what you learn in school and it’s how the politicians themselves describe their activities. In this conception, signs of popular displeasure with the reigning system are booked as direct wins. If the regime is losing support, it means the popular resistance must be gaining support, and sooner or later the regime must adjust course to realign itself with what the people want. We just need more people on our side, more electoral victories, and all will be fine – this is the essence of the literal view.
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Almost by definition, this understanding of politics is widespread in populist movements, where it finds a variety of expressions. One is a deep faith in formal political speech, especially rallies, protests and demonstrations. Another is what you might uncharitably call the conspiratorial mindset, which arises as belief in democratic forms is repeatedly confronted by a reality which seems to falsify this belief. Adherents of the literal view struggle to explain the disconnect by positing closed groups of malicious actors who actively subvert democratic processes. While populist ‘conspiracy theorists’ are often smeared as antidemocratic fascists, the truth is that they consist overwhelmingly of the liberal democratic faithful, who protect their political commitments by ascribing failures not to the system and its broader tendencies but to specific bad people. The implication is that, if these people could only be removed, the system itself would return to an optimal representative equilibrium.
Everything shows that the literal view of politics cannot be right. At all levels of policy, Western democracies act with near-total independence of the popular will. Mass immigration, lockdowns, the massive expansion of taxation and the welfare state, nearly all foreign policy interventions, climate change mitigations and the entire apparatus of intrusive regulations in social and economic life, all happened well in advance of popular demand. Plainly, our governments just do whatever they want. At best, in select cases, they work afterwards to establish some basis of support for their actions. The will of the people is neither necessary nor sufficient, but it makes the execution of certain policies a great deal simpler and cheaper.
It’s a real problem, how political systems founded to express the popular will have come to operate with almost perfect independence of this will. A lot has been written on this phenomenon, and here and there on this blog I’ve tried to introduce readers to some of the ideas in this body of thought. A key thesis is Robert Michels’s iron law of oligarchy, which holds that organisational pressures force any political arrangement to function sooner or later as an oligarchic system broadly independent of the masses. It’s obvious that the permanent bureaucracy plays a key role in modern liberal oligarchic systems, but there are other means of escaping democratic constraints as well, and the precise mechanisms in every case aren’t totally clear. The relentless Atlanticist orientation of German politics, for example, is a nut that I think has yet to be properly cracked.
None of this means that populist discontent doesn’t matter, but the depressing truth is that our states can sustain quite a bit of it, and I don’t think our rulers show any sign of being seriously affected by recent events. Certainly, none of these rise to the level of the 2016 populist backlash, which truly rattled Western elites, sending them down a path of repression which they’re still eagerly pursuing. As a rule, this is their expected response to genuine threats, while mild relaxations and liberalisations are best taken as expressions of confidence and security.
It’s great that Tucker Carlson is reaching an audience of many millions on Twitter, but I fear our rulers prefer that he have a bigger audience on alternative populist platforms rather than a smaller one on a cable news channel, and I’d suggest the reason has something to do with the very different political role played by formal media outlets. The formal discourse, naturally, insists on propagating a very naive literal view of politics, which has many benefits. Among other things, this view disorients the populist opposition, permitting the people to enjoy periodic symbolic victories and now and again even to feel genuinely represented.
All of this sounds pessimistic, but I hope it illustrates why I find it useful to think very deeply about modern politics. I emphatically don’t believe that it’s hopeless or that populist wins don’t matter. Populist energy is explosive, like fuel, and too much of it accumulating with the opposition can be deeply destabilising for any regime. Accordingly, the more popular support our rulers bleed, the more resources they must expend to forestall backlashes and pacify the masses, which necessarily limits their capacity to act in other respects. Our rulers appear to be very far from the theoretical limits here, however, and I don’t see a turning point anywhere on the horizon.
Of course, there’s nothing I’m more desperate to be wrong about.