Any Cook Can Govern: Populism and Progressivism

I have lots of feels and lots of arguments about these two pieces by Peter Levine on an alt-left populism: pluralist populism and separating populism from anti-intellectualism.” (This post on identity politics is also relevant.)

Peter even goes so far as to call himself a populist, which is a surprising move to restore the term’s sense in a year when we’ve watched a wave of populist elections sweep through the industrialized world on the back of nationalism, Islamophobia, and anti-elitism. Though the left frequently makes populist appeals as well–especially when we’re criticizing agency capture by industry or the undue influence of the very rich–it’s not always obvious to me that progressive political goals are compatible with populism’s mass movements and drive towards uniformity. Progressives tend to be pluralist and cosmopolitan in their egalitarianism.

Is Populism Inherently Nationalist?

In these pieces, Peter argues that populism can be pluralist and intellectual, and he uses great examples. (He gives the JCI Scholars Program a shout out, as well as our mutual friend Laura Grattan.) But many political theorists argue that populism is intrinsically nationalist and reactionary, usually anti-elitist and anti-immigrant, as well as racist and anti-Semitic. The counter-examples, like the late Nineteenth Century Populist Party run by farmers in the Midwest and South, seem never to actually achieve their goals or become all that… popular. 

For these critics, populist impulses tend towards the violent elimination of difference. Put another way, populist movements tend to become mass movements. Populists appeal to a mythical common good that renders class and geographical interests uniform, and usually identifies an evil or corrupting Other as the people’s enemy. For populism’s critics, the kind of anti-racist and grassroots intellectualism Peter has been describing is something else if it’s possible at all: class solidarity that re-organizes antagonisms without suppressing internal disagreements.

Is Populism Inherently Anti-Intellectual?

Famously, the Progressives of the early 20th Century were quite hostile to the Populists that had gone before. Populist hostility towards elites often swept up intellectuals as well, and the Populists–being farmers–had targeted urban dwellers, financiers, and Jews as their enemies. There is a tendency to lump the rich and the knowledgeable together, so efforts to raise the status of regular working people sometimes try to lower the status of scholars, teachers, and upper-middle class professionals. That’s a worrisome tendency.

But Peter quotes the JCI Scholars Program website, a group I helped found, on our motivations for working with traditionally excluded groups: we do 

as collaboration between teachers and students, and to make classes free-ranging discussions and workshops more than lectures.

But is that populist? Even at the JCI Scholars Program, we’re working with the talented tenth: at most 150 students, in a prison that has between 1400 and 1800 prisoners. The main question among prison educators is the extent to which we are engaged in a truly populist project, and the extent to which we are cultivating what Antonio Gramsci called “organic intellectuals.”

My co-founder, Daniel Levine, likes to invoke CLR James’ Every Cook Can Govern on this question. Pulling from Greek sortition, James praised the capacity of ordinary folks to take up the tasks of governance. Of course, this required a much simpler state, and much shorter periods of governance before passing the responsibility on to another. But perhaps our state has become so complex precisely as a result of–and perhaps as justification for–elite domination.

The deeper problem is that sortition required institutional safeguards as well as agreement. And it’s probably relevant that it didn’t survive, suggesting it wasn’t sustainable. As I’ve written elsewhere, Greek sortition depended on a number of institutional factors to function:

The three norms of isonomy are mutually reinforcing: equal participation requires that the office-holder act with the understanding that she might be replaced by any other member of the community. She cannot abuse her office without being held to account at the end of her term. For the same reason she must regularly give reciprocally recognizable justifications for her actions, without which her decisions might be reversed by the next office-holder, or even punished when her office no longer protects her from prosecution. The ideal result of such a regime is a strong preference for deliberation, consensus, and mutual respect, alongside a cautious honesty and transparency with regard to potentially controversial decisions.

So is it really “every cook can govern” or is it “any cook can govern?” This isn’t quite an embrace of full analytic egalitarianism: everyone is not equally capable of governance. And I don’t mean by this to substitute mere equal opportunity rhetoric for substantic equality, as we see in the classical liberalism of Pixar’s Ratatouille:

What I mean is that lots of people have an odd mixture of impatience and arrogance that makes them convinced that they already possess the requisite knowledge. This is dangerous when it renders them–or us–unable to change our views in light of new information, or incurious at the promise of new evidence.

Consider the man who claimed he could figure out the gist of important matters without doing much reading, that he was more accurate than guys who have studied it all the time,” and “[doesn’t] have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day….” We often think of analytic egalitarianism as more epistemically humble, because it requires humility among those to whom we currently defer, the experts. But there’s plenty of arrogance among non-elite groups as well. It strikes me that many people find the combination of arrogance and anti-intellectualism appealing, and that this is the thing to fear in populism.

Populism cannot fall into demagoguery. If facts are relevant to a decision, they must be given proper weight, even if facts cannot be a substitute for values. But though I doubt that populism is inherently anti-intellectual, the problem is that too often our society mistakes credentials for knowledge, which means that anti-elitism requires the motivation of a certain kind of anti-intellectualism.

Probably the best assumption to start with is the universal claim that all humans are epistemically capable. This what we call a “defeasible” claim, to be held until proven otherwise, as we do with juries. But we do exclude people from juries, and we don’t entrust juries to carry out their own investigations any longer. A provision of analytic egalitarianism is that a corrupted society will corrupt its citizens’ epistemic capacities. To paraphrase Rousseau: we’re born [epistemically] free, sure: but everywhere in [epistemic] chains, as well.

With the right support from experts, probably anyone can govern, where governing” means selecting from a menu of options supplied by those experts—it’s just that the experts who control the framing and flow of information have many opportunities to manipulate those who depend on them (or think themselves superior to them without actually doing the work) that can only be overcome by becoming an expert oneself. My own view is that many more people are capable of that expertise than our society will currently admit.

That because we attach governance responsibility to meritocratic credentialism. But it’s not always clear that we’re valuing knowledge over ignorance, rather than valuing exclusion itself. The nature of the competitive managerial class is that it sets up zero-sum competitions so that winners can capture the lion’s share of the benefits from their education and knowledge. Just because it’s unlikely that every cook can govern equally well doesn’t mean that we must restrict governance to the winner of the most Spelling Bees.

A lot of citizens can govern, and it’s a waste of those talents to relegate those capable of informed participation from doing so: we’d be better off if many more of us were able to take on those responsibilities. There ought to be many more opportunities to exercise one’s civic capacities, rather than such a limited number that our capacities atrophy from disuse. And meritocracy doesn’t just award these opportunities to knowledge-elites, it also tends to reduce their number. It creates both privileges and ignorance.

So that’s the version of populism I can support: one that celebrates the even distribution of insight and institutionalizes a fear of the even distribution of ignorance and arrogance.  A populism that is pluralist and cosmopolitan. But I have to admit that this doesn’t really sound much like populism; I usually call it “democracy.”

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