Populism, Pogoism, and J.D. Vance

#40 -- Why some kinds of elite-bashing are better than others

"You have elites and the ruling class that have plundered this country, that have made it harder for middle class Americans to live a normal life, ...And when those Americans dare to complain about the conditions of their own country, if they dare to complain about the Southern border or about jobs getting shipped overseas, what do they get called? They get called racists, they get called bigots, xenophobes, or idiots. They need somebody who's willing to speak for them, who's willing to fight for them."

— J.D. Vance on Tucker Carlson Tonight, July 1, 2021

In 2000, When Al Gore tried Shrumian populism in his presidential race, I complained.

In 2021, when J.D. Vance tries populism in his Ohio Senate race. I'm all for it.

Is there (a) a meaningful difference between the two or am I (b) a total hypocrite? I favor (a). It's true that the 2000 Gore and 2021 Vance sound alike. Both tell voters there are people at the top who are screwing them over. Vance even uses the default populist phrase of Gore strategist Bob Shrum -- about how he's "fighting for you" against the powerful. But there are at least three significant differences.

1. Gore's populism was weird:  In his 2000 convention speech, Gore didn't talk about elites. He talked more vaguely about "powerful forces."

“So often, powerful forces and powerful interests stand in your way, and the odds seem stacked against you. … I want you to know this: I’ve taken on the powerful forces. And as president, I’ll stand up to them. … It’s about our people, our families, and our future–and whether forces standing in your way will keep you from having a better life … [Emphasis added]

Who are these mysterious "forces"? Are they living organisms? Presumably they take human form, but they seem to almost be something supernatural. "Occult populism." Nothing as clear and familiar as a "ruling class" or "elite."

2. Vance is applying it to issues where it clicks: Gore's demonic "forces" were raising drug prices and threatening Social Security -- two issues where the populist template was peculiarly ill-fitting. The underlying problem with Social Security, for example, was that we had trouble paying for all the benefits we've voted for ourselves — not that an elite somehow foisted on us. The issue fits more into the anti-populist framework that was drummed into my head by Michael Kinsley at The New Republic -- and popularized by a famous Pogo cartoon: "We have met the enemy and he is us." The same Pogoist doctrine applies to drug prices: Drugs cost a lot of money to develop. Someody has to pay for this. It will be expensive. We can debate how to allocate the expense, but nobody's imposing the dilemma on us. We are simply finding it hard to finance all the drugs we (rightly) want for ourselves. Pogo.

In contrast, Vance's two biggest issues, trade and immigration, fit almost perfectly into the elites vs. masses mold. Free trade, like free immigration, tends to be favored by well-schooled economists and businessmen who can prove with charts and graphs that trade and immigration will increase national wealth. What they can't prove is that these things will benefit towns whose factories close down, or less-skilled workers suddenly forced to compete with poorer, hungrier and cheaper foreign labor. ‘There are winners and losers,” we’re told — and they are the losers. The winners are the businessmen who benefit from the cheaper and more compliant workers. — and the stockholders of those businesses. And the banks that lend them money.

In theory, these winners can be made to compensate the losers. In practice, this doesn't happen. And in some cases, it can't happen. How do you give a less-skilled native laborer back the dignity of making a middle class income? Not with a check.

Vance is proposing to speak up for the "losers," as well as for many Americans who are doing well enough economically but don't like seeing their communities transformed by rotting production facilities or rapid deterioration of the labor market,  That's why the establishment … sorry, the elite position on trade and immigration always has to be smuggled past the voters through one means or another (generally by misrepresenting the effects).

And yes, opponents of free trade, immigration increases and mass amnesty (i.e. opponents of the wildly dominant position of the elite) are called racists and idiots. Trust me on this. OK, don't trust me. Look here and here and here and here and here.

3.  "Elites" are a distinct, durable social fact. If there aren't elites, why do we have a whole system — “meritocracy” —-designed to promote some people into more important, powerful and usually better paying jobs while relegating others to less important and less remunerative work?  The people that get to the top -- elites -- don't have to have the same political and cultural views. But increasingly, they seem to. They're likely to have similar views on issues other than trade or immigration -- other issues, perhaps, in which they can be the "winners" while the losers sulk voicelessly out there, somewhere, in middle America. Climate change may be one such issue. Also the idea of preserving the traditional family. Elites aren't necessarily wrong on everything. The point is they stick together, have a lot of media power and sometimes you need to fight them, as Vance proposes to do.

Gore's populism, to the extent it referred to earthly phenomena, seemed to invoke a different, equally familiar battle — the conflict between special "interests" and the common good. "Interests," in this formulation, aren't necessarily elite interestss — they can be coal miners fighting environmental regulations, for example. Unlike a "ruling class," “interests” tend to form themselves anew with each issue -- you have oil and gas interests and drug company lobbyists and second amendment enthusiasts, They aren't the same people each time. They just feel intensely about their issue and are therefore hard for a majority — that may feel less intensely about the issue — to beat. (This is of course a staple dilemma in political science.) Vance's ruling class, in contrast, really is likely to be the same people each time.

The two models aren't contradictory and they both refer to real things. What sets the Vance view apart is that it highlights the contemporary "coming apart" phenomenon, in which different classes of Americans increasingly don't mix, don't share the same values and don't identify with each other. It's particular damaging if our de facto rulers no longer identify with those lower down on the scale -- what Charles Peters long ago identified as the central, destructive development in American life since the New Deal.

Vance's populism shines a bright spotlight on this distressing social fact. Gore's didn't.

P.S.: Here is Vance’s campaign website. (Hard to find via Google!) Here he is being attacked by all the right people.

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‘Coup’ or Clueless? Has anybody noticed that Michael Wolff’s New York magazine account of Trump’s Jan. 6 actions undermines the standard Democratic narrative. Did Trump conspire with the rioters? No evidence here — he “often expressed puzzlement over who these people were.” Did he incite them? You can read the text of the speech and you won’t see any incitement—instead you’ll see Trump urging his followers to “peacefully” protest. Was that maybe a wink-wink call to violence? Wolff doesn’t find any wink-wink. Rather, Trump is entirely, obsessively focused on the out-there idea that Vice President Pence might vote not to accept the electors. He’s looking for the TV coverage of that vote and doesn’t (in this account) seem to even notice that the building has been breeched. His infamous anti-Pence tweet (“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done”) comes during this clueless period.

According to Wolff, Trump does argue that (in Wolff’s paraphrase) “These people were protesting the election … The protesters wanted Pence to do the right thing. These were good protesters.“ But he’s not sitting there cackling at violence. Eventually he’s impressed with the seriousness of the situation, though he continues to pretend the riot was “peaceful.”

Yes, he wanted to overturn the election — but there’s no hint that he thought the protesters would do it by stopping the vote, as opposed to the Pence ex machina. Mainly, he seems confused and deluded. Impeachably negligent, maybe. But that’s not the Democratic narrative.

Wolff’s reporting could well be flawed — very flawed. He might be relying on self-serving sources — Trump aides trying to minimize their culpability. He might be assimilating his January 6 account to his book’s overall thesis that Trump was a man without a plan. He might be gliding over implicit background facts — like Trump’s constant monitoring of cable TV — that would make Trump more malevolent than he comes across.

Luckily, there are other books coming out about these events — including ’Frankly We Did Win This Election’ by Michael C. Bender and a book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. Maybe they’ll have the damning, explicit (not just implicit) details. Until they do, it’s worth noting that Wolff doesn’t have them —even though he’d probably sell more books if he did.

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All About the Fonts: Not clear why GM needs the cheesy futuristic lettering on its new sports car. It's a mid-engine Corvette -- isn't that enough? [Photo from Automobile, where you can read Robert Cumberford’s excellent design analysis. (“There is a surplus of horizontal lines across the tail. I count at least 10, but there may be even more in the indecipherable black areas down low.”) Not easy to chop up a new Corvette in a mainstream car mag — a little like slagging Johnny Hallyday in Paris Match, or Trump in a GOP primary.]