I have described myself as a populist and a nationalist. As you might imagine, as a man of the left, I get a lot of questions about this. People think these terms indicate right-wing sympathies—worse, and this is because corporations have effectively associated populism and nationalism with far right-wing ideology, sometimes even fascistic tendencies. This plays heavily in a narrative about my changing politics, as if consumers of my public comments on governance and politics were unaware before the presidency of Donald Trump of my strident criticisms of corporatism, globalization, neoconservativism, and neoliberalism, as well as my open sympathies for classical liberalism, civil libertarianism, and democratic republicanism.
The reality is that a pathological reaction to Trump presents as cognitive tunnel vision wherein either one is a progressive devotee to corporatist-globalist ideology committed to diversity, equity, identity, and inclusion or a white supremacist—or self-loathing minority. As I pointed out in a recent blog, the constellation of beliefs held by progressives reflect a deep disturbance in the collective thinking of self-convinced left identitarians. At this point it has become a religion in all aspects sans explicit belief in a god.
Right-wing politics are of course not intrinsically fascistic even if my politics could be said to be right wing. Right-wing ideas encompass a range of beliefs including liberal capitalism, a belief and a system far preferable to the bureaucratic-corporate utopia for which the progressive pines and in which all of us increasingly dwell. Indeed, this system is a source of the deformation of left-wing thought. But populism and nationalism are not intrinsically right wing. Populism and nationalism may be left wing or right wing or an amalgam of ideas and values found in these standpoints. As I have said before, the bifurcation point is less about left-right and much more about the following divides: democracy-technocracy, libertarianism-authoritarianism, nationalism-globalism, populism-progressivism, republicanism-corporatism. I fall on the left side of all these bifurcation points. Unfortunately, today, most people who self-describe as “on the left” fall on the right side of all these bifurcation points.
We see the way corporations use the left-right divide to manipulate the public and advance their agenda in a recent opinion piece in The Daily Beast (echoing many other MSM opinion pieces of late) Why Is the Right So Obsessed With Hydroxychloroquine? The piece, by William Sommer, the platform’s tech reporter, rambles about right-wing voices who support the drug while ignoring completely the many doctors and scientists whose work demonstrates the clear benefits of hydroxychloroquine in clinical data and academic papers, for example, Harvey Risch, distinguished epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health. Risch’s work (see his article in The American Journal of Epidemiology) is promoted on the Steven Bannon’s right populist webcast War Room: Pandemic.
The straw man of “right-wing” advocacy of hydroxychloroquine is contrasted with amplified media reports of progressive scientists and their technocratic allies in the regulatory bodies of the medical-industrial complex (FDA, CDC, NIH) finding that hydroxychloroquine is ineffective and even dangerous. Among the more amplified reports was the May 22 The Lancet article “Hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine with or without a macrolide for treatment of COVID-19: a multinational registry analysis.” You won’t hear much about the article today. If you follow the link you will see why. The point is that scientific work that contradicts the financial interests of pharmaceutical corporations (hydroxychloroquine is a cheap genetic drug) is delegitimized by locating it on a political side. This in turn reinforces in the public mind the connection between right-wing sentiments and populist-nationalism and the danger populism presents to public health.
When you understand what populism is the framing described above makes sense. Populism is an egalitarian political movement and philosophy that promotes the interests and opinions of the common people over against concentrated and narrow power. As in the case of the medical-industrial complex, we see the institutions of the progressive movement in full regulatory capture, that is, regulations in the service of legitimizing corporate products and services to facilitate capitalist accumulation, while restricting public access to cheap and effective drugs and interventions. We see the same thing with environmental regulations and resource management (see The Anti-Environmental Countermovement). Populism involves a critique of establishment power where it prevails and affirms the right of sovereign people to collectively determine their fate by popular democratic means. Populists are suspicious of elites because they are suspicious of hierarchies and concentrated power. Hierarchy and concentrated power carry corrupting effects. We see this clearly in the framing of therapies for the treatment of COVID-19.
Who are these elites? Those in position of power in the administrative state, corporate media, culture industry, higher education, the medical-industrial complex, the military-industrial establishment, and science and technology firms. This is the technocracy (see Paul Diesing’s 1992 How Does Social Science Work? for the distention between democratic and technocratic science). Elites put their narrow interests—and often the interests of foreign agents external and internal—above the people’s interests. Large corporations and wealthy oligarchs cannot represent the interests of the common man and woman. Government captured by these forces is alienated from the popular will. Sheldon Wolin tells us in his 2010 Democracy, Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, “Inverted totalitarianism, although at times capable of harassing or discrediting critics, has instead cultivated a loyal intelligentsia of its own,” He writes. “Through a combination of governmental contracts, corporate and foundation fronts, joint projects involving university and corporate researchers, and wealthy individual donors, universities (especially so-called research universities), intellectuals, scholars, and researchers have been seamless integrated into the system.” Wolin is no longer with us, but if he still were I would urge him to recognize that harassing and discrediting critics has become a core tactic of corporate governance.
Populism holds that the nation is synonymous with the people, that is the citizens organizing a government to reflect their interests in a juridical system defined by policed borders that lie at the center of politics. The people are sovereign, and the government belongs to the people. The government promotes the general welfare, protection of individual rights and due process. This is democratic republicanism. to provide a concrete example, in a popular democratic system, the demonstrated efficacy and safety of hydroxychloroquine would enjoy government-facilitated distribution throughout the population. The regulatory agencies as federal, state, and local levels would not interfere with the doctor-patient relationship and the freedom of doctors to prescribe off-label. Any government official who would conspire with business to prevent patients from getting the medicine they want in order to preserve the possibility of profits from the patenting of new drugs and therapies would prove immediately scandalous. The media under a popular democratic system would expose such corruption, not cover it up as it does under the present elite technocratic system.
Since corporate power folds left-wing sentiments into its hegemonic control structure, the establishment media disregards the history of left populism and focuses instead on right populism. When audiences hear the word populist, as well as nationalist, they are presented with such figures as Jean-Marie Le Pen and the National Front. As I However, in the United States, the first populist movement emerged from the interior of the United States and from the South in the 1880s and 1890s. Represent a democratic mass movement, farmers organized against bankers and politicians of the Northeast. In the twentieth century, Senator Huey Long’s campaign for wealth sharing pushed Franklin Roosevelt to expand the depth and reach of his New Deal programs, as did the End Poverty in California movement, led by Upton Sinclair.
It is crucial to avoid confusing left populism with progressivism, the latter technocratic movement from above to expand and deepen the social logic of corporate governance. When Occupy Wall Street emerged in the context of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, it presented itself with populist tones with the rhetoric of the 1%. And the Independent senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders ran his 2016 bid for the Democratic nomination using this language. Both Occupy Wall Street’s thematic was incorporated into the progressive establishment of the Democratic Party and suffocated. By 2019-2020, Sander’s message had become a thoroughly progressive one, seen, for example, in his shift away from advocacy to immigration restrictions and adopting the neoliberal line.
Donald Trump also took up a populist spirit in the 2016 election and this led him to victory. Trump’s populism, which shared many of Sander’s positions, grew out of a movement on the political right. In 1992, Ross Perot, a billionaire from Texas, launched the United We Stand campaign, it’s centerpiece opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This movement established the Reform Party, and in 1996, Pat Buchanan ran on its anti-globalization, anti-immigrant, and anti-neoliberal platform. Also, during the 2008-09 financial crisis, the Tea Party movement emerged as an attack on neoliberalism. This set the stage for Trump in 2016, the core elements reflected in his anti-establishment and anti-globalization campaign. Trump has been involved in the right populist movement since the 1990s and his election and presidency steered the Republican Party away from its neoliberal and neoconservative character, which had brought it into alignment with the Democratic Party.
Right populism is a trans-Atlantic phenomenon. There is the aforementioned National Front in France, now led by the daughter of its former leader, Marine Le Pen. There is also the Freedom Party in Austria and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), led by Nigel Farage, which succeeded in leading the British working class to greater independence from Europe with the Brexit referendum in 2016. This was followed by the election of Conservatives in 2020, led by Boris Johnson, which finally recognized Brexit in law. At the heart of these developments is Euroscepticism, a standpoint critical of globalization and immigration. Latin America is also a site of populism across the ideological spectrum. On the left, it has come in the persons of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. On the right, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro is most notable. The resounding victory of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party victory brought populist nationalism to India. Modi has won two consecutive terms with a full majority.
What are populists responding to? The power of transnational corporates and affluent cosmopolitan elites amassing wealth and privilege from neoliberalism and globalism and a rigged political system that entrenches these policies. These developments have come at the expense of working families. Resistance to these forces was accelerated by the financial crisis of 2008-2009, which was a trans-Atlantic affair. Mass immigration, competition over jobs, and the unraveling of Western norms of values heighten class antagonisms across the European continent, especially as the open border structure of the European Union (EU) facilitated the wide distribution of immigrants throughout Europe. The distress was rendered acute by the migrant crisis in the 2010s. The imposition of austerity and the heaping upon of scorn by the EU on the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) was an insult to working people particularly affected by globalization. These developments brought to awareness the inability of the corporate form of capitalism even in its social democratic and progressives forms to deliver on bourgeois promises to build a just and sustainable future for the Western proletariat, to solve the problems of inequality and poverty as well as the diminishment of the Western norms and values of democracy, liberalism, and secularism.
I earlier said how important it was to distinguish between populism and progressivism. The more vocal among self-described leftists in the United States identify themselves a progressives and contrast this to rightwing populism, smearing the latter as fascists, nativists, racists, and xenophobes. Progressives do this while appealing to populist rhetoric, claiming to represent the people, while furthering the neoliberal and neoconservative aims of the corporatist-globalist establishment. Perhaps nobody has done a better job to putting the distinction between populism and progressivism in historical context than the late Richard Grossman co-director of the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy. Grossman at once shows how the founding of the United States secured the power of a minority of the opulent while simultaneously laying the foundation for a dynamic republic responsive to popular movement politics.
Grossman identifies the development of corporatism and progressivism, with its legacy of administrative and regulatory law, as establishing a governing framework that undermined the dynamic potential of our democratic republic, leading to a corporate state, and it was the defeat of populism and the institutionalization of progressivism that locked in corporate power. Banking, insurance, manufacturing, real estate, transportation. He identifies how the corporate media, for example Bill Moyers, sold the lie that progressivism represents farmer and worker interests by lumping the two together thus erasing the stark differences between them. Populism sought to end the privilege or special rights of the corporations, to make institutions democratic and responsive to popular will, to subordinate the corporate entity to democratic government. The essence of populism left and right is the people controlling their communities, owning their labor to better their ends, and commanding the mechanisms of governance and the levers of social institutions for the sake of all families and communities.