What Populism Is Not

Are cash grants to all rural residents more “populist” than agricultural subsidies? Only if one mistakenly thinks that populism has something to do with equity.

Mark proposes replacing agricultural subsidies with cash grants, of steadily decreasing amounts every year, to residents of rural areas. His plan sounds unimpeachable in terms of efficiency, equity, environmentalism, etc., and he wonders why nobody’s discussed it.

Short answer: they haven’t discussed it because it’s un-American. Agricultural subsidies involve paying people for doing What Decent People Do: that is, work—and most particularly, work at growing stuff and raising sources of future barbecue. Cash payments given out regardless of the work done by their recipients involve, well, welfare. Replacing virtue-rewards with welfare would be not just widely but viscerally unpopular (except in Detroit, and Detroit isn’t popular). Even those who would benefit from Mark’s scheme would be likely to oppose it angrily. “Americans are” workers, not rentiers. And we’d much rather be paid less to do something that’s virtuous but economically inefficient than paid more to do something less virtuous (or, worse, to do nothing).

When Mark calls his scheme “populist,” he’s falsely implying that populism has something to do with equity or distributive justice. But in fact, populism–wherever it has existed, though it’s much stronger and louder in the U.S. than in, say, Western Europe–is, above all, producerism. It’s grounded in a moral distinction between those who do Real Work (agricultural, or, grudgingly, urban but physical) and those who use their abstract intelligence to exploit the real workers through useless tasks like finance or politics. As even its scholarly defenders note, populism is, down to its roots, anti-elitist, anti-intellectual, backwards-looking, xenophobic, and protectionist—and if some populists are these things to only a mild degree, it’s because they’re only moderate populists. (See Kazin’s Populist Persuasion or Lasch’s True and Only Heaven, or, most scholarly though alas out of print, Ionescu and Gellner’s Populism.) It’s all about rewarding those alleged to be honest and virtuous. Populism isn’t quite as opposed to equity as it is to efficiency, but it’s a close call.

So we’re probably stuck with agricultural subsidies. On the other hand, what’s one of the few policies that’s both extremely redistributive and extremely populist? Wage insurance: the next social policy frontier.

Update: An reader who’s angry at my characterization of populism (but still compliments my post, clearly the gracious type) asks whether American workers don’t in fact have good reason to look backwards at a better time, to fear competition from low-wage workers abroad, and to think that clever financiers rip them off. Of course they do. My point was that populism specifically is a surprisingly narrow, unsubtle, and yes, often prejudiced way of addressing these grievances. We can’t really improve workers’ life prospects (or anyone else’s) by closing off our borders, doing without banks and investment funds, or willing consumer preferences back into the 1950s. The workers of the future will need sophisticated income support, constant retraining, excellent government-funded schools and infrastructure, and universal health and old-age pensions in order to move forwards in an economy where semi-skilled jobs will never again command upper-middle-class wages.

And yet populist rhetoric constantly reinforces the vague belief that we can go back–and provokes people hurting economically to turn to the narrowest kinds of conservative bigotry when liberal “elites” tell them the truth. (Granted, we often tell them too snarkily–as I guess I did above. Sorry.) As my mention of wage insurance was meant to suggest, and the above list fleshes out, I fully support aggressive and costly measures to help those that capitalism leaves out. I just don’t think populism leads us there.

Update: Robert Waldmann responds (and, with some lag, I comment).

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.