From Müller, Jan-Werner. What is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2016.
Populism arises with the introduction of liberal democracy; it is its shadow.
Populism is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified—but ultimately fictional—narrative of people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior. In addition to being anti-elitist, populists are always anti-pluralist: populists claim that they and only they represent the people. There can be no populism without someone speaking in the name of the people as a whole.
A core claim of populism is that only some of the people are really the people.
Principled, moralized anti-pluralism and the reliance on a non-institutionalized notion of “the people” also helps explain why populists so frequently oppose the “morally correct” outcome of a vote to the actual empirical results of an election, especially when the latter was not in their favor. […] Convention itself is rigged. In short, the problem is never the populist’s imperfect capacity to represent the people’s will; rather, it’s always the institutions that somehow produce the wrong outcomes. Even if the institutions look properly democratic, there must be something happening behind the scenes that allows corrupt elites to continue to betray the people. Conspiracy theories are thus not a curious addition to populist rhetoric; they are rooted in and emerge from the very logic of populism itself.
Populists always want to cut out the middle man and rely as little as possible on complex party organizations as intermediaries between citizens and politicians. The same is true for wanting to be done with journalists: the media is routinely accused by populists of “mediating,” which is exactly what they are supposed to do, but which is seen by populists as somehow distorting political reality.
While populist parties do indeed protest against elites, this does not mean that populism in government is contradictory. Many populist victors continue to behave like victims … polarizing and preparing the people for nothing less than what is conjured up as a kind of apocalyptic confrontation. They seek to moralize political conflict as much as possible. There is never a dearth of enemies, and these are always nothing less than enemies of the people as a whole.
It is with the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump’s rise in 2015-2016 that populism has become of major importance in American politics. Clearly, anger has played a role, but anger by itself is not much of an explanation of anything. The reasons for that anger have something to do with a sense that the country is changing culturally in ways deeply objectionable to a certain percentage of American citizens. There is the increasing influence of social-sexual liberal values in which white Protestants (the “real people”) have less and less purchase on social reality.
Populists should be criticized for what they are—a real danger to democracy. But that does not mean one should not engage them in political debate. Talking with populists is not the same as talking like populists. One can take the problems they raise seriously without accepting the ways in which they frame these problems.
democracy: a: government by the people; especially: rule of the majority
b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections
post-democracy: a society or state that possesses democratic systems but does not fully practice them
theocracy: government of a state by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided
The election of 2016 marked the fifth time in U.S. history that a president was elected without receiving the people’s vote. Some trying to understand what the election results mean in the context of history have turned to Colin Crouch’s idea of post-democracy from his 2004 book of the same name. Crouch argues that Western democracy is in a post-democratic state due to several causes, including globalism, post-industrialism, and the failure of electoral systems, among others. But what does it mean if the U.S. and much of the West is currently post-democratic? Can we define what we are in hopes of seeing where we are going?
The reality is that America is several different “things” at once that lack a cohesive identity. In part one of this series in which I search for a post-democratic American identity in 2017, I argue that the United States has always been part theocracy, and the inequality wrought of our government’s romance with religion has alienated much of its populace, creating distaste, distrust, and dissent.
A Long Romance
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects religious freedoms but also ensures that religion has no place in government. Religion is exclusive by definition—believers set themselves apart in their beliefs from those who believe alternately or do not believe at all. Conversely, democratic government must be inclusive of its citizenry. It must uphold the rights of all citizens, regardless of belief or social stature. Everyone participates in a democracy. Only some are religious.
But the First Amendment couldn’t completely protect the infrastructure from religious infiltration. America has flirted with theocracy since before the Union was legitimized. The word GOD is printed on currency, purposefully placed to penetrate the daily vernacular. John Jay wrote in Federalist No. 2 before the Constitution was ratified: “Providence has given this one connected country to one united people; a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government.”
The founders were all religious. Adams, Madison, Franklin, and Jefferson were Deists, but most were Christians. Quakerism was rampant. The men who drafted the Constitution believed in free practice of religion without fear of persecution, but they also understood the necessity of a divided church and state for a healthy democratic system. Madison wrote to Congress in 1789: “Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience.” Nevertheless, almost every president has been Christian.
Presidents Obama and Trump are Christian. Ninety-eight percent of the Members of the 114th Congress (2016) were reported to be affiliated with a religion. Of the 98%, the vast majority (92%) were Christian.
Equality is at the forefront of the ideals of liberal democracy. But equality is a vague and broad term, and those who wield it must respect its power. Ask five men what equality means to them and each will describe something different. But if those same men were to compare the main tenets of theocracy to the tenets of liberal democracy they would undoubtedly notice the gaping abyss between the two.
Since god was always present in American language, was it necessary for him to be? Theocracy is government by god and for god—god is the primary concern in structuring laws and social institutions. Conversely, the people are the primary concern in a liberal democracy. The people are the sole weapon in the system.
But America in 2017 is not a true liberal democracy. Perhaps it never was. There is proof enough in its flawed electoral college, which has failed the American people again. But there is further proof in its disproportionately Christian-American government. Are Americans as Christian as their government representatives? Are they as religious in general? Can citizens be represented fairly and equally when they subscribe to another religion or to no religion at all, and can this be proven in theory and in practice?
The answer to all of these questions is no. As stated before, Americans have always been religious. The pilgrims of the Mayflower were Protestant Christians from the Old World who sought the New World as a place for peaceful worship without persecution. I point again to the founders and the words they deliberately set in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands that have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them …” At its inception, America’s greatest architects placed equal value on man’s natural abilities and those abilities provided to him by god. But do Americans still feel that way?
A 2014 Pew study found that 89% of Americans believed in god, with 70.6% of those identifying as Christians. Pew identified at least nine other active religions in America, illustrating a more diverse populace than its representatives. Further, many Americans do not practice a religion. Religiously unaffiliated Americans—a group that is growing rapidly—comprise more than one in five Americans (22 percent) today. The populace is not as Christian as it once was, and its government fails to reflect this. A lynchpin in liberal democracy is equal and proportionate representation, and the American system must either verify equal representation for all citizens and amend itself to account for them, or the people will need to “dissolve the political bands” as their founders did 241 years ago.
Belief and Equality
Life after death is a common theme in religions of the Judeo-Christian tradition in Western civilization. “In the Judeo-Christian conception, death is real and fearful. [Death is not] thought to be like walking from one room to another. Only through the sovereign creative love of god can there be a new existence beyond the grave.”
Though Jewish people have diverging views on the afterlife, the Talmud—a sacred religious text in Judaism—describes a life after this world in which believers must prepare their souls. Likewise in Islam, the souls of believers in this world are resurrected by Allah, or god, to be judged for assignation to heaven or hell, with either eternal punishment or reward for their actions and beliefs in this world.
Christians also believe in an afterlife. As with the resurrection of Christ in Christian lore, so too are believers resurrected to an everlasting paradise of emotions and sensations upon their earthly demise. The Christian’s struggle in this world is rewarded in the next. Just as with Jews, Muslims, and many other religions, Christians believe that true reality—true salvation—lies in a reality beyond that in which you read these words.
Conversely, the non-believer places no credence in any reality other than the reality in which she lives each day, the reality in which she routinely participates in civic life. It is her right to vote for equal government representation in a fair and just electoral system. She lives in the here and now and values her immediate world and its reality over any other. She would rather choose for herself than place trust in elected officials with alternative views of reality. She does not need her Christian neighbor to decide the legality or legitimacy of her actions because her Christian neighbor is living for another time, another place. She is burdened by the weight of a government that does not value her reality, but a potential future reality in which she plays no part. Just as the Muslim and Jew, the non-believer is alienated—disconnected and distrustful of those chosen to represent her.
Conclusion – Disarmament
Post-democratic America has no identity, but several sub-identities that make up the whole. Its religiose government has forged theocratic ideals into daily reality, sweeping the legs from democratic principles and alienating (and often persecuting) a growing number of citizens with alternate views. America is a diverse populace and the people’s worldly religions are supposedly welcome, free to practice, but always under the eye of Christian scrutiny.
Further undermining the democratic system is the broken electoral structure, which has failed (for the fifth time) to appoint the people’s choice for president. Sabotage of the election by rival states and the impotency of the people’s vote begs for a dramatic overhaul of the electoral infrastructure. Until then Americans float in post-democratic limbo, without a central identity. The time is ripe for faction, which Madison warned about in Federalist No. 10:
Complaints are heard everywhere […] that our governments are too unstable; that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties; and that measures are often decided not according to the rules of justice and the rights of minor parties, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.
The post-democratic reality now facing many Americans has led them to look not within the system to repair it, but elsewhere to disarm it.
The snow was more than a meter deep without drifts. Each step was a victory earned by the breath in our lungs, every muscle in the body straining up the spongy incline rutted with tree and rock. Quickly we discovered we would not make it unless we helped each other, provided leverage where man substituted tree, an outstretched glove covered in snow in a world fiercely against us, its gravity, calm, and vastness too much to meet alone. Lungs aflame and breaths before us like clouds where above there were none—a sky impossibly blue and vast just as our steps from the Jeep grew impossibly numerous. I looked back to our path up the mountain, a manmade seam in an otherwise undisturbed natural kingdom. Twice we stopped to rest. The exertion elevated my body temperature but my feet and hands felt frozen. Brandon stopped moving again but it wasn’t to rest. With the breath pumping in and out of him, he said: This is it.
He looked down the mountain and up to the sky then pointed to the tree nearest me. Should be right there, he said, then knelt and began digging with his hands, shuffling the snow away from the base of the tree. A bird cawed. I knelt to help Brandon, keeping my eyes trained on him and the woods around us. The digging brought him to rustling plastic and he carefully extracted a bulky black trash bag, brushing the snow from it. It’s in here, he said, handing it to me. I could feel the contours of the boot box inside, heavy with paper. Hope it’s not damaged, I said.
A doe startled me to my left. She watched us with interest, two tall figures limited by two legs, shrunken by their voyage up the mountain. She’d studied our journey the entire way, from our vehicles on the bluff to a point not halfway up the mountain, where the doe, amused and aware of our admiration for her combination of elegance and power, took leave swift and light to a place beyond the trees.
Notes from Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance:
“The philosophical task set by Nietzsche and followed by many others in the continental tradition is how to respond to nihilism, or better, how to resist nihilism. Philosophical activity, by which I mean the free movement of thought and critical reflection, is defined by militant resistance to nihilism. That is, philosophy is defined by the thinking through of the fact that the basis of meaning has become meaningless. Our values are meaningless and require a Nietzschean ‘trans-valuation.’”
“The human being has a reflective attitude towards its experiences and towards itself. This is why human beings are eccentric, because they live beyond limits set for them by nature by taking up a distance from their immediate experience. In living outside itself in its reflective activity, the human being achieves a break with nature.”
“Ours is a universe where human relations have been reduced to naked self-interest, to unfeeling hard cash, and where all social life is guided by one imperative: conscience-less free trade; a life of open, unashamed, direct, and brutal exploitation.”
“Some wrote in the 1970s that capitalism was over. On the contrary, capitalism under the guise of globalization is spreading its tentacles to every corner of the earth. If someone found a way of overcoming capitalism, then some corporation would doubtless buy the copyright and distribution rights.”
“Politics is not rare or seldom, and to adopt such a position is defeatist. Politics is now and many. The massive structural dislocations of our times can invite pessimism, but they also invite militancy and optimism, an invitation for our capacity of political invention and imagination, an invitation for our ethical commitment and political resistance.”
“No revolution will be generated out of systemic or structural laws. We are on our own and what we do is what we must do for ourselves. Politics requires subjective invention, imagination and endurance, not to mention tenacity and cunning. No ontology or eschatological philosophy is going to do it for us.”
Critchley, Simon. Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. Verso, London, 2012.
I decided to stop wanting cigarettes and bought a pack, smacking it in my hand like a ball into a mitt while vehicles swam past on F Street. Still the same plastic string to break, then the foil, still that unmolested, fecund first smell of a new pack. The sun high in its nest but past zenith. I lit the smoke with a match and inhaled, flooded with sensation, injected with memories as if from a dream. As if I’d never smoked but somehow in not smoking I’d smoked ten thousand times. An inhalation toward perfection. I took one pull for my lungs, bronchi stretched taut and sated, and one for the head, spinning slightly but controlled in mellow euphoria. The heart raced, vision was clear, sharpened. I inhaled the air around me.
I didn’t know what else to do so I ate in a diner. The food was excellent but it made me sleepy. I ordered a coffee to go and called my wife. She was upset with work. I listened, reassuring her, and promised to call before bed. The waitress brought my coffee in a paper cup and took my payment. I left the diner to smoke in the alley next to it. The air smelled of burning wood from a stove. My wife was passionate about her work in music and perhaps sometimes too passionate but long ago I conceded that I’d rather have a passionate woman than the alternative. A thin trail of single-file footsteps cut through the icy drifts down the center of the alley toward Tenderfoot on the other side, drenched in sunlight. Even with the snow cover I could smell garbage, spoiled food, piss. Something moved to the right of me and I turned to see a woman seated on steps at the back door of a business, smoking. I smiled at her and she looked at me as if I wasn’t supposed to be there. Her eyes were brown and she wore a red knit cap. Her fingernails were trimmed and painted black. I drank my coffee. Like the town itself the buildings in the alley were old and I wondered how many drifters stood in my exact spot, how many starved cowboys, how many Kerouac copycats and rafting junkies stood here like me staring at the old masonry and pondering their next move. Cat prints laced the alley snow like scars. I inhaled again and the smoke and cold air were ice in my lungs. A tall figure entered the alley from the sunlight at the far end. It was bright but the daylight wouldn’t last. Nothing lasts, nothing endures. I heard steps on the snow close behind me but it was too late. He’d come from the sidewalk near the diner’s entrance and hit me with pepper spray. Daggers ripped my eyes apart. He kicked me into a drift and I sank deep into it, my back crashing into something like steel. I cursed and could open my eyes just enough to make out two of them. Hornets swarmed and stung my face, my ears. The woman in the red hat was gone. Where’s the case? one man said. I’d never heard the voice before. He must have been talking to me because when I didn’t answer I got punched in the face, but my attacker lost balance and fell into the snow next to me. I pounced on him, grabbing him by the neck and squeezing, his stubble digging into my palms. I reared back to hit him, my face ablaze, my eyes swollen closed and filled with crushed glass, sinking deeper into the snow with each movement. Then I was pulled from behind and tossed away like a child. I landed hard on my shoulder and attempted to see but couldn’t. The snow on my face and up my nose was heaven and I stood to fight but the big man pulled the other up with powdery dust flying off him. They had dark ski masks, both of them. The man I’d fought pulled a revolver up from beneath his snowy overcoat and said, Where’s the fuckin case?
What case? I said, but the words were like saliva dripping out. My lips were burning, numb.
Someone must have walked by on the sidewalk because they both looked in that direction. Their eyes were dark rimmed with white beneath the masks.
I said: I don’t know what the fuck you’re—
Shut up! shouted the man with the gun, thrusting it toward me. His eyes were mean. The big man put his big arm out to try and quell the other man’s rage, or intent, or boldness.
Then the man with the gun said: Let’s go.
They took off running down the alley toward Tenderfoot, stumbling and breathing heavily in the deep snow. I put my face in the drift and just lay there. That asshole got me good, right on the nose. I was close enough to smell his coat. It was him—he’d been in my room at the motel the day before.
I felt a soft hand on my back. Someone said: Are you all right?
The wall opposite the hearth pulses light, my head and shoulders cut sharply in shadow. I am a man, former architect. Everything else is mystery. Warmth from the fire marches over me, into me. I stare into it, captivated by its light and color, its disorder. In the next room a harsh rectangle of silver light is etched into the wall. I rise and walk toward it. The glass is cold and fogged. Beyond are white-capped trees and snowy rooftops, glinting particles of light. Bookcases dominate the wall opposite the window and I stand before them as if naked before strangers. They know me but I don’t know them. I don’t even know myself; the books are supposed to remind me. I take down a large, handsome volume: Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect. I open to a random page by the light of the window and begin reading.
Page 161: Throughout his life as an architect, Wright attempted to relate the spaces and forms of his designs to the structures and materials with which they were made. Wright believed this was essential if his buildings were to be edifying for those who inhabited them: aedificare, the ancient word for building, means both to edify (instruct) and to build (construct) with an ethical intention. Wright engaged in a constant search for a comprehensive order that would encompass both composition and construction, an order similar to the fusion of structure, material, form, and space that he found in his studies of nature.
I remember nothing of my career, my creations. Reality is dreamlike. Events and situations unfold then wash away entirely. A warm breath on the window fogs it. Nearby a radio plays a man’s voice. Twenty-eight degrees, he says. The book is filled with large photos and I admire them. I am often angered by the memory loss, saddened, fatigued, but fortified by the notion that I might uncover the hidden jewel to unlock everything. The answers are buried inside me, inside the books.
Page 87 – As we have seen, Wright’s public buildings invariably focus on introspective, top-lit central spaces, protected by solid walls that deny eye-level views outwards. Introverted at ground level with their closed exteriors and open centers, these buildings are vertically oriented, opening up and out, directed towards the sky.
Trankworth—I remember the name but nothing else. I built it. Perhaps it was a success. It does not matter. It’s a ghost that haunts. Surrounded by ghosts, I am also a ghost. I stopped writing when days passed after adding nothing to the pages. Nothing to recall into print. I often smile but not in moments like this, by the window with a book, nor at the hearth, watching the flames. The souls of the ancients remain alive in the flames, and to flames I shall also go.
Page 63: With his statements, and more importantly with his own design works of this period (c.1908), Wright sought to reclaim ancient architecture for those who would examine it analytically, searching for the underlying principles that shaped it; to accomplish this he could not allow ancient architecture to be claimed and defined by those merely seeking models for copying.
A man’s legacy is his contribution to history. His history is what he leaves behind. The world of light beyond the window seems an abstraction. So much history. I once moved through that world a claimant. The weight of the world belongs to each inhabitant. I don’t remember why I built but there was a purpose. The man on the radio says, probably a good day to stay inside…
Page 225: Approaching [Taliesin West] through the desert, we first see it silhouetted against the low mountains immediately behind, its materials and colors drawn from the material site itself, and its broken, serrated profile intended to merge with the desert.
The window is cold, my legs are tired from standing. I return the book to the shelf. My arms sigh in relief. I revisit the hearth and poke the logs. I know how to do this. I watch the fire and merge with it. Silence and stillness weave a path and time escapes me.
The wall opposite the hearth pulses with light, my head and shoulders cut sharply in shadow. I am a man, former architect. All else is mystery. Warmth from the fire marches over me, into me. I stare into it, captivated by its light and color, its disorder. I am tired. In the next room a harsh rectangle of gray light is etched into the wall. I rise and walk toward it. The glass is cold and fogged. Beyond are white-capped trees and snowy rooftops, glinting particles of light. Bookcases dominate the wall opposite the window and I stand before them as if naked before strangers. They know me but I don’t know them. I don’t even know myself; the books are supposed to remind me. I take down a small, neat volume: The Poetics of Space, by Gaston Bachelard. I open to a random page by the light of the window and begin reading.
Page 43: There is nothing like silence to suggest a sense of unlimited space. Sounds lend color to space, and confer a sort of sound body upon it. But absence of sound leaves it quite pure and, in the silence, we are seized with the sensation of something vast and deep and boundless.
I know silence. I know it in spaces and in myself. I am a house, my life is a home that has been rearranged beyond comprehension. A light burns eternal in its attic-a sole occupant there hard at work. Papers and debris scatter the floor endlessly. The worker is confused and loses time. He loses focus. Again he is lost.
Page 15: The house we were born in is more than an embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams. Each one of its nooks and corners was a resting place for daydreaming. And often the resting place particularized the daydream. Our habits of a particular daydream were acquired there. The house, the bedroom, the garret in which we were alone, furnished the framework for an interminable dream, one that poetry alone could succeed in achieving completely.
Beyond the window men and women move about the world with their memories intact, accessible. Perhaps they take their memories for granted. I don’t remember if I did or not. Perhaps Bachelard can tell me, or one of the others. Shapes and angles, those were my life. Principles, ideals, realism—and their invaluable synthesis. Now what is my life? The enduring change of the seasons, the endearing breath of night. Absence populates most everything. Biology is my only schedule.
Page 41: Winter is by far the oldest of the seasons. Not only does it confer age upon our memories, taking us back to a remote past but, on snowy days, the house too is old. It is as though living in the past of centuries gone by.
The window is cold and my back is tired. I return the book to the shelf, my elbows sigh in relief. I revisit the hearth and carefully add a log. I know how to do this. I watch the fire and merge with it. Time escapes me.
Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston, 1958.
McCarter, Robert, Frank Lloyd Wright, Phaidon Press Limited, London, 1997.
…I’ve stayed in all types—fancy hospitals, but mostly non-descript hospitals of ill repute. Most are run by condescending men and women dressed as business executives, with methods to match. Hospitals are not all the same, and I’ve slept in them all. There are big, airy, clean places, and there are the opposite. Places with cigarette butts swept into corners, rats and roaches under the bed, human shit on the walls. Some hospitals allow pets. Those places are privately owned. Many places you’ll see the patients and nursing personnel all drugged beyond words, and if you watch closely you’ll see facility staff jaunting tiled corridors they’ve just swept to perfection only to sneak about rooms they shouldn’t. I knew nurses who’d arrive at work some days gentle and tender and other days gritting teeth and grabbing patients roughly, with meanness. I’ve seen all kinds of meanness. One place I lived brought in a clown with a cartful of iced cream every summer. The patients lobbied to allow the clown and his cart year-round, a request the director denied outright. He wouldn’t hear of it. The patients orchestrated clandestine meetings at night by candlelight and organized in solidarity against the director. Patients who otherwise bickered and hated one another united to subvert the director, to sabotage his hospital. Then suddenly the director was transferred to another hospital as often happens and a new director was installed in his place. As a sign of good will from the director to his new patients, the clown was immediately allowed to peddle from his cart even in winter. Gone was the focus of the patients’ anger and frustration. The energy that unified them was replaced again by boredom, pettiness, lassitude, and the banality of living each day of one’s life in a hospital, where the pulse of life is one of military or prison-like rigidity. Doors open and close and people move through them. Voices scatter and retreat. You only know what day of the week it is by the smell emanating from the kitchen. I’ve slept in government-owned hospitals where people buy and sell drugs in plain sight. Staff, patients, visitors. The patients sometimes disappear from those places. They exit unseen in the night or they don’t wake in the morning because someone put them to sleep. I don’t want to be one of them and that’s why I write this, that’s why you’re reading these words. My story is like all others: it requires a voice to tell it, to leverage my life in the eternal war against the abyss. How do I mean? One hundred years is about as long as a person can expect to live under the most favorable circumstances. Earth is about four-point-five billion years old, and that’s just a fraction of what astronomers estimate to be the age of the universe. O, the brevity of our existence! The clock on the wall and the device in the pocket are constant reminders of how soon you’ll depart this place and how insignificant you are. Each day the sun rises and you’re older than you were—another giant step toward the vast expanse. In a house broken by violence I was a slave to time, conscious of its brutal inflexibility, its moments of intolerable duration. It’s the same in all the hospitals I’ve lived since. Only reading and writing eliminate time from my awareness. Only through reading and writing I can learn about the world and my purpose. Why bother to live without purpose? Knowledge and creation buoyed me up above the depths. I had to understand why I was the way I was but more importantly, I had to create something to speak for me following my departure.