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Populism and pettiness

February 14, 2010

Even if the toxic rhetoric of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck can be confined to the fringes, it may yet make ‘populism’ a dirty word for a long time to come. That would be unfortunate. Populism, like virtually any other creed, can be corrupting and corrupted, but it isn’t necessarily so. It has its noble forms along with its base. It’s great when animated by principle and virtue, and bad when it simply gives cover to vicious self-interest. That’s life; the exact same thing is true of any other ideology. Even if populism is unusually susceptible to this kind of debasement, it’s a mistake to think that ‘populism’ is just another name for political malfeasance.

E.D. Kain flirts with this error when he criticizes conservative politicians for being petty. He thinks they are too obsessed with scoring cheap points, with whining, with feigned outrage and empty gestures, and attributes all this to ‘cheap populism’. He then equates populism with playing to the mob—a bad and dangerous thing if ever there was one. Populism, then, explains why pettiness is bad: it roils the masses:

Populism, after all, is just a nice word for “mob”.  If ever there was a thing that conservatives were meant to protect us against it is the rule of the mob.  Conservatives were never supposed to be the mob, were never meant to be its advocates.

Set Kain’s distrust of the common man to one side. He is right to be put off by ‘cheap populism’ but the reason it’s bad is not because it’s populist but—surprise, surprise!—because it’s cheap. Pettiness is bad because it’s petty. Playing to the mob is deplorable, but so is playing to anyone.

Why this need to invoke political theory to explain one of the most common of all vices? There is an unfortunate tendency to collapse virtue and ideology, to think that being good is simply a matter of endorsing the right slogans and aligning oneself with the right interests. We would do well to remember that they are instead two separate dimensions. Sometimes people are just stupid, shortsighted, and petty. This makes them bad leaders and pitiable human beings, but it has nothing much to do with their politics.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 152 permalink
    February 14, 2010 12:11 pm

    I’d have to respectfully disagree with your opinion.

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