Is Populism Specific to Democracy?

3 June 2019


This is the third review in our book forum on Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and Truth: A Short History.


In Democracy and Truth: A Short History, Sophia Rosenfeld tackles the vexed relation between democracy and truth in the contemporary United States. Drawing on insights from Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, and philosophers of science, Rosenfeld’s analysis is not primarily a disquisition on a priori philosophical truths but an analysis of the fragility of factual truth. Insisting on the importance of asking how we come to know what we know, Rosenfeld is attuned to the changing sociological parameters of truth claims and to the precarious epistemic edifice on which notions of truth have been constructed historically. Specifically, according to Rosenfeld, we in the West live in the shadow of the Enlightenment’s legacy, with the Trump presidency a grotesque dramatization of longstanding historical tensions between democratic ideals of popular sovereignty and the rule of expert knowledge. That these tensions have reached crisis proportions is part of Rosenfeld’s motivation for writing the book—helping us to understand the current turmoil, with its vocabulary of “fake news” and “post truth,” as the product of a conflict between resurgent populisms and long-term elite efforts to bolster technical-managerial systems of expertise.


Rosenfeld’s is a remarkably lucid and accessible book—a masterful and readable account keyed to understanding some of the intellectual origins of what has come to seem, in the age of the Internet, an exacerbation of lying in politics. Despite promising to be a boon for democracy—providing greater access to information, the multiplication of voices to include hitherto unheard ones, and the elimination of traditional gatekeepers—these technological transformations have produced mixed results at best. The proliferation of websites disseminating fake news; the ease with which digital photos can be doctored; the accelerated cycles in which such “news” gets circulated, absorbed, and then superseded by the next catastrophe; the tensions among rival discourses registering moral outrage from different angles—all play a role in generating both conditions of generalized uncertainty and increasingly siloed publics. Neither an atmospherics of doubt nor the presence of echo chambers are salutary for political judgment. But Rosenfeld reminds us that the roots of the problem precede the Internet.


Refreshing in her own honesty, Rosenfeld rightly notes that “the earliest of the modern experiments in instituting popular self-rule were constructed largely by enlightened types in ways designed precisely to prevent ordinary men, not to mention women of all classes, the poor, the nonwhite, the enslaved, the foreign, and the truly indigenous, from having too much power to impose their vision of the external world.” Hers is not a call to restore a version of democracy that, in fact, never actually existed. Rather, it is to identify the eighteenth-century logic that produced this contradiction at the heart of liberal democracy, namely, that the people were capable of self-government only insofar as that governance was managed by a wise, learned political elite. The people’s passions had to be channeled into proper institutions run by the “best” among them.


Critics of American liberalism have long pointed out that founding fathers and architects of federalism have worked to manage popular sovereignty often at the expense of an expansive, inclusive, equitable notion of the demos. James Madison’s famously articulated anxiety in Federalist Paper no. 10, that individuals are likely to form factions in order to pursue particularist interests, is one canonical argument for a system whose emphasis on checks and balances was designed to regulate ordinary affect in ways that reassured discomfited elites. Vehicles for representing factions, such as political parties, have not been able to advance all peoples’ interests or express all grievances adequately—in part because, as Rosenfeld highlights, liberal, and in the case of France and the United States specifically, republican ideas about the rule of the people combined with a “truth-regime” in which a professional managerial elite became entrusted with designing the institutions that defined the meaning of representation, the people’s will, “the people,” responsibility, etc.


Rosenfeld recognizes that “the people” or any of its cognates is a “complicated, ambiguous construct in the modern world. It is also always up for grabs,” and her efforts to think through its contemporary invocations leads her to a clear, helpful analysis of populism as a style or logic, one that usually “begins with a (self-congratulatory) exaltation of the real people, the unjustifiably powerless.” Less commented upon is Rosenfeld’s astute argument that populist arguments share affinities with Progressives, despite the latter’s arguments in support of expertise. Both movements “flourished at much the same moment in the late nineteenth century,” and both relied on a set of assumptions about “how and where truths to live by, or validated beliefs, are to be found in a real democracy.” Only, in the case of populism, adherents rejected “ostensibly objective expertise and all the institutions, values, norms, procedures, and people that expertise goes with,” valorizing instead the mundane feelings, experiences, and intuitions of ordinary people. In Rosenfeld’s lively prose:

[T]he critical and essential claim at the heart of any populist politics is that the (plain, hardworking, silent—your choice!) people in the majority know best and are the most virtuous. They collectively have a kind of instinctual, practical knowledge of the world that is particularly suited to the political sphere (as opposed to, say, the more arcane world of the science lab), and they are sincere and authentic in ways that make them incapable of engaging in deception when it comes to delivering this knowledge to others.

Combining a sense of revelation—an exposure of the conspiracy, for example—with the promise of restoration (such as “Make America Great Again”), populist narratives depend on an affect-laden narrative style that embraces “truths of the heart over dry factual veracity and scientific evidence.”


Rosenfeld agilely returns her reader to the Enlightenment to identify the origins of populist politics; she chronicles post-revolutionary instantiations in both left- and right-wing populist epistemologies that questioned conventional habits of deference in the nineteenth century; and she identifies the democratic dimensions of this skepticism toward the wisdom of authorized intellectuals. Across various movements, there is a common opposition to the “standard bearers for truth claims and their institutions, procedures, and values.” They can be angry and defensive (such as the outsider populism of George Wallace or Richard Nixon, or Donald Trump for that matter) or conservative and toxically cheerful (like Ronald Reagan). In the United States, populism tends to be avowedly racist—a fact that could be discussed in greater detail. In Europe, Rosenfeld emphasizes Jacques Chirac’s assault on the “technostructure” and on “experts,” but also the racism of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Elites, she recognizes, often use populist language cynically—discrediting expert knowledge and lying in the name of “the people” in order to capture public resources for private, elitist (often racially inflected) gains.


The book could nevertheless do more to think through how racism and different forms of capital have animated populist movements—not all of which speak to majority concerns or can be neatly folded into the main conflict between “experts at the helm” and democracy. To be clear: she does not ignore these phenomena. She notes directly “capitalism’s failure to naturally promote democracy” and the lack of commitment to “stemming the tide of growing inequality within and among nations.” But whether this logic in capital is best seen through the “forces in democracies that pit expert truth against the prepolitical sense of ‘the people’” may get the relationship wrong. It risks reducing the contradictions in capitalism to this conflict within democracy, as opposed to, say, seeing the conflicts in democracy as the product of contradictions internal to capitalism.


In moving from historical movements to the sprawl of contemporary populisms, Rosenfeld is, unsurprisingly, less sure-footed. She is, after all, a historian. But her thinking through of the present without being presentist is worthy of praise and emulation. My lingering concerns should thus be read as reflecting my engagement with her arguments. I shall mention two. First, the reasons she gives for populism’s resurgence and contemporary traction could use elaboration. She is surely right to note that these are global trends, but what exactly has generated populism’s current appeal? She attempts to answer this question by arguing that “politics, not to mention knowledge about it, has gotten ever more complex in recent decades, from the issues at stake, to the procedures it follows, to the language it employs to explain itself” But is this true? Has politics really become more complex than it used to be? Is it even more “multinational”? She gives examples of refugees, nuclear weapons, terrorism, and trade. But given her attunement to arguments about knowledge formation, it is odd to assert this complexity as self-evident. And surely colonial rule, massive displacements of populations in the past, and previous scientific revolutions have also been extraordinarily complex and global.


The relationship among this complexity, individuals’ experiences of it, and the rise or rejuvenations of populism needs more work. What are the mechanisms by which an oversaturation of information—as a result of new social media innovations, for example—generate this populism? How have reading practices changed and how might this matter? How has what I call “the temporality of high-speed eventfulness,” or the sheer velocity with which information is transmitted and apprehended in the Internet age, shaped these new strains of populism? The unceasing whirl of (over)information certainly makes it easy for people to move on to something new the instant a favored narrative fails. Does this make it easier for populisms to find outlets for intensified emotions, fabricated stories, and the cultivation of a selective forgetfulness?


And this brings me to my second concern: the global trends, including ones associated with neoliberal reforms (which Rosenfeld mentions) may have helped to generate new technical-managerial elites, new valorizations of expertise, and new populist reactions to it. But these trends, and the populisms they generate, are not specific to democracy. Indeed, the conflicts between expertise and popular sovereignty Rosenfeld underscores have been as central to undemocratic nationalisms as they have been to democracy. And here we would do well to consider how nation-states in the northern hemisphere seem to be “evolving” into the kind of societies normally associated with the “global south,” as the anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff contend.


In other words, current populisms are not specific to democracies, the distinct conflicts they foreground may be more intrinsic to nationalism (or nationalism’s interface with capitalism); and thinking through both the roots of the problem and its solution may require engaging not only with important political theorists such as Hannah Arendt (as Rosenfeld does and on whom I also rely), but also with a variety of artists and theorists from the “global south” whose knowledge of the seductions of authoritarian rule and the contradictions of Enlightenment thought are longstanding and imaginative.


Photo Credit: Christine Roy, via Unsplash.


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