Civic engagement folks need to talk about nationalist populism.
In the past I have praised movements with which I have no ties for at least giving voice to groups of my fellow citizens who are frequently excluded from policy and electoral politics because they hold noxious views. Both the Tea Party and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign seem to have tapped a part of the US that usually have no representatives who will speak louder than a dog whistle on their behalf. As a proponent of participatory politics, I’ve often thought that the exclusion of nationalistic white people is undemocratic, just as I have thought that the exclusion of leftist non-whites would be undemocratic.
My guide in these things has usually been Hannah Arendt, who praised political participation and criticized the exclusivity of bureaucratic proceduralism. All democratic theorists confront this question in some way: why is it better for a people to govern themselves rather than submit to the dictates of some (richer, wiser, more virtuous) subset of their number? We sometimes speak of politics as a decision-theory, so that a form of government that depends on bureaucracy is no more or less just than any other: everything depends on the characters, or perhaps simply the decisions, of those who rule, no matter whether we call them administrators or aristocrats.
In contrast, Arendt often pointed to the spontaneous development of councils in revolutionary settings when explicating the ideal institutions of political life. On Arendt’s account, the councils of the Hungarian revolution closely resembled the Constitutional Congress and ward system proposed by Thomas Jefferson as an alternative to political parties, the ad hoc groupings of citizens during the French Revolution, and the soviets that succumbed to party unification after the Russian Revolution. Everywhere, the building blocks of politics seem to form the same basic shapes, only to be assembled into different forms due to ideologies, foreign pressures, or historical ideals. According to Arendt, the councils predate the formation of interest groups, they federate easily and advance their most excellent members as representatives to more central councils. The councilors are principally concerned with the establishment of the polis, and so strategy often succumbs to republican altruism. In the US and Europe, lacking as we do anything approaching a revolutionary context, the institutions that most closely resemble councils are deliberative polls.
What the councils, wards, and townships all have in common is that they enact a vision of democratic politics in which democracy is understood as isonomy, meaning equality both before the law and in the legislation. And isonomy is only possible if all citizens participate as equals and develop equal civic capacities, no matter what their ideology. In fact, this participation itself produces certain kinds of inclusive and non-dominating norms, such that to exclude our fellow citizens is to destroy the very power and capacity by which we act.
She sums up the problem in her brief essay On Violence: “Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.” Where power designates the human ability to act in concert, violence emanates from a singular act whose explosive consequences are utterly out of the actor’s control. For Arendt, power is a characteristic of human collectivities: where a plurality forms, the potential for action becomes realizable. Violence, for Arendt, is a perversion of that appearance, insofar as what appears to the members of the group is the possibility of impossibility: terror in the face of the potential for one’s own death. On Arendt’s view of violence, the violent one exposes her fellows to their own mortality by reminding the assembly of the risks of gathering together with others who, like themselves, are fundamentally unpredictable. She may seek to control their activities through this violence, to force them to obey her commands, or she may seek to disperse them and their collected potential for even more unpredictable actions, including mob rule and widespread violence.
Though they usually appear together, violence and power are nonetheless opposites: “…where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent.” (Arendt 1970, 155) The inseparable contraries of power and violence are best seen at work in the efforts of a democratically-controlled police force, where they work in tandem. When they come into conflict, however, the conclusion is foregone: violence wins. The “textbook case” of such a confrontation is the Prague Spring, when “the head-on clash between Russian tanks and the entirely nonviolent resistance of the people in Czechoslovakia” demonstrated the vulnerability of power in the face of violence. (Arendt 1970, 151-2) Of course, the encounter is usually not so unalloyed, and the violence necessary to subdue power is not always palatable to the state. Thus nonviolent resistance like that adopted by the Indian decolonization movement under Gandhi is quite capable of giving pause to an overwhelming force if that force is itself aware of the capacities and risks associated with violence: “To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but its price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is paid by the victor in his own power.” (Arendt 1970, 152) Violence can settle the present debate, but it renders every subsequent discussion uncertain because of the fear that it will be settled as the murderer settles the argument over the life of his victim: with a bullet.
This has long been my way of thinking about politics and hate: that hatred breeds violence, and violence is of limited effectiveness for building lasting political institutions. And simultaneously: inclusive institutions will tend to tamp down both hatred and violence, make us realize the inefficacy of hate and self-destructive character of violence.
Thus civic engagement would be civilizing.
And yet: this was always a kind of cherry-picked idealized political theory for Arendt and for me. It may well fail the test of empirical verification. A few years ago, Shanker Satyanath, Nico Voigtländer, and Hans-Joachim Voth published a study on the relationship between social capital and Nazi party affiliation in Germany called “Bowling for Fascism,” where they showed that “social capital aided the rise of the Nazi movement that ultimately destroyed Germany’s first democracy.”
This was a disheartening result. We often talk about Germany between the World Wars as if it was an unrelenting economic and social depression. But in fact, many Germans still had strong social ties and institutional memberships: not just militaristic, but chess clubs, choirs, and animal breeding clubs that seemed to contribute to the rise of the Nazi Party: “a dense fabric of civic associations went hand-in-hand with a more rapid rise of Nazi party membership.”
Social associations are thus no more good or bad than any other capacity: they are as prone to justice as injustice, as prone to democratic norms as undemocratic ones! As Satyanath and his co-authors describe the state of this research, this connection between authority and social capital goes well beyond Nazi Germany: we see similar mechanisms impeding development in Sierra Leone in the research of Daron Acemoglu, Tristan Reed, and James A. Robinson:
[C]hiefs that face fewer constraints build social capital as a way to control and monitor society. This mechanism may also induce people to invest in patron-client relations with powerful chiefs, thus giving them a vested interest in the institution. Hence, if in surveys people say that they respect the authority of elders and those in power, this is not a reflection of the fact that chiefs are effective at delivering public goods and services or represent the interests of their villagers. Rather, rural people appear to be locked into relationships of dependence with traditional elites.
Social capital and civic power, thus, can be tools of both isonomy and oppression. Like many other forms of human organization, the strategies and institutions that we develop to collaborate with each other are not universally good or bad. We can democratically deliberate about violence, racism, and misogyny and come to any conclusion at all.
The burgeoning self-awareness of white national populists within the Tea Party and now in support of Donald Trump for president are unlikely to win an election any time soon. But insofar as they are now busy building lasting relationships, institutions, and sources of support and political power, this need not have a moderating or cosmopolitan effect. In fact, empowering our fellow citizens could easily lead to much worse outcomes. We might well hope that they would continue to lack a voice in our political system.
Consider Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaigns: we normally see more participation as a non-partisan activity. Indeed the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service both define it as such, so that wealthy donors may fund GOTV as a charitable contribution without campaign spending limits. Yet it’s now become de rigueur to use targeted GOTV camaigns as a part of partisan electoral strategies. Democrats focus their GOTV spending on likely Democratic voters, Republicans focus their GOTV spending on their own likely voters. A non-partisan tool for participation has become partisan.
Civics engagement, too, could become a partisan resource. It’s increasingly clear that differential social capital accounts for some of the major privileges in our society: well-organized groups get better government, and thus over time the patterns of organization and disorganization have come to resemble the patterns of wealth and income distribution, the maps of public health disasters, unemployment, crime, and incarceration. As a good liberal, I tend to focus on the way that these differentials affect Blacks and Latinos, and to compare the plight of disaffected whites to the statistics that still report that they are, as a group, better off than non-whites.
But: my framing of the problem comes from a position of comfort. I am not a low skill white male in a de-industrialized city. And so my judgments and values support my class and social position: they are ideological.
Poorly educated white workers are the only group that is demonstrably hurt by free trade and immigration. Yet cosmopolitan liberals have pretended that they ought to stomach their losses to make up for our privilege. Who can blame Tea Partiers and Trump supporters for noting that no one among contemporary elites is willing to stand up for their interests? Who can blame them for attaching themselves to the first charismatic figure who promises to do so?
They will very likely fail this election cycle in the US. Possibly the right historical analogy (which I owe to Steven Maloney) is the French Presidential Election of 2002, where Jean-Marie Le Pen faced Jacques Chirac in the second round. Le Pen surprised everyone by getting 16.7% in the first, crowded, round, to Chirac’s 19.9%. Sound familer? It looked close! Then he got 17.8% in the second round and Chirac got the rest: 81.3%.
The white nationalist populists interests will not dissipate with the Toupée Voldemort who currently leads them. Other politicians–entrepreneurs looking for a market–will step up to take his place, especially now that they are organized and self-aware. So what should we do, together, about our fellow citizens?