Balkinization  

Monday, December 06, 2004

What's the Matter With Populism?

JB

I just finished reading Thomas Frank's "What's The Matter With Kansas?" Frank is an excellent writer, and the book is an entertaining polemic. The book is about Kansas City as much as it is about Kansas. I'm from Kansas City myself, and much of what Frank says rings true to me.

The book traces the rise of conservative populism in Kansas, and its baleful influence on public policy. The newest form of conservative populism has made the rich richer and the poor poorer, driving even greater waves of anger and resentment, and leading to even more self-defeating policies. There is one passage where Frank imagines a group of angry working class cultural conservatives marching on the wealthy suburbs of Mission Hills, denouncing the cultural elitism of the latter, and shouting "We are here to lower your taxes!" Articulating this sort of perversity is where the book really does its best work.

At the same time, Frank does not really give a good account of why this populist perversity arose. As a theorist of ideology, I tend to dislike arguments based on false consciousness. My sense is that the more you know about people's values and their circumstances, the less you will jump to the conclusion that they are necessarily acting against their interests. Rather, they may define their interests differently than you do. One of the things that gets jettisoned with so-called scientific Marxism is the notion that people have an objective interest which is the objective interest of their particular economic class. Life is much more complicated, and interests are made, assumed, and developed rather than simply superimposed on people.

That is not to say that there isn't a very good argument that conservative populism has led to government policies that harm working class people. It has, and Frank offers many examples in his book. But conservative populists are not necessarily dupes. Rather, as Dan Kahan has pointed out to me in conversation, people may believe that it is more important for them to have leaders that they trust and whose values they identify with than leaders who will benefit their economic interests. Indeed, if you think that much of what happens in the domestic economy is out of government's hands, or that government should stay out of it, you are naturally drawn to emphasize character and shared values as the key reason you vote for someone. Conversely, if you do think government has an necessary role in improving people's lives and responding to threats, and if you lack the time or inclination to study the issues in depth, you are likely to trust people whose values seem to be closest to your own as the people most likely to do the right thing.

That is why values matter so much in politics. (Here I am drawing on Dan Kahan's work on cultural formation of political attitudes) People use values as a proxy for knowledge about the causes of social problems and the effects of potential government policies. You might not know what the best solution is or what is causing the problem, but you'd rather trust someone who seems to be your kind of person with your kind of values to figure this out than someone who doesn't seem to share your values. If trust and confidence are the key reasons for supporting one kind of leader rather than another, values politics makes a good deal of sense.

What conservative populism has in common with its earlier radical versions is its resentment of social and economic class. At one point Frank suggests a reason why this resentment is so easily diverted to Hollywood rather than Wall Street, but does not develop it further. However, if I am right that people are looking for proxies that give them reliable information about who to trust and who not to trust, then the most important proxies are those that are most salient. Hollywood is simply much more salient than Wall Street. The culture industry is everywhere and, indeed, spends good money to make sure that it is everywhere. Business organization and the effects of good and bad regulation and deregulation, on the other hand, are far less salient to people's lives, even if their actual economic effects are far greater. The same goes for the mass media. Dan Rather is far more in people's faces than the board of directors of any Fortune 500 corporation. Put somewhat differently, the image of the fat cat and the malefactor of great wealth at the turn of the twentieth century has been drowned out by (and displaced by) the image of the pampered, self-absorbed actor or rock star, or the supercilious network reporter at the turn of the twentieth-first century.

The irony, of course, is that the people who produce mass culture are much more after profits than liberal indoctrination. Michael Moore may be a liberal propagandist, but Moore is an independent filmmaker who usually operates on a shoestring, rather than the chairman of the board of Viacom, or, for that matter, Rupert Murdoch. Things appear on television (including Fox) because people who run these businesses believe that these shows will draw audiences and thus draw advertising revenues. Large audiences, in turn, make money from advertisers, who in turn produce advertising campaigns for businesses. Frank points out that the right is losing the culture wars because a significant part of the Republican coalition-- big business-- is actually on the other side. Businesses are perfectly happy to coarsen public discourse if it will draw audiences, maintain eyeballs, make advertising effective, and thus increase profits.

If I am right that salience matters, rather than Frank's version of false consciousness, Democrats will have to win the trust and confidence of the public before the public will vote for their policies, no matter how much those policies help the average American. That may seem to be a tall order, but Democrats once had that trust and confidence for several generations, and there is no reason why they cannot have it once again.



Comments:

Relative trust between parties is a zero sum game. To make electoral headway, Dems can either try to build up public trust in them... or they can act to reduce the public's trust in the GOP.

For many reasons related to human nature, the media, and politics... the latter is the easier path, and while in the long term Dems really ought to have a plan to make gains on both fronts, emphasizing the former is the sort of instinct that has gotten us Dems to our current low ebb.

Generally speaking... I'm extremely cynical of the rafts of people offering up their off the shelf ideas as THE narrative Dems ought to project.
 

Republicans--as opposed to conservatives--are a coalition, and that coalition includes people who favor low taxes and people who are socially conservative and people who are both. That doesn't mean that interests aren't a focus, only that they can only tell a portion of the story. (Perhaps many high-income Democrats would prefer lower taxes, but don't mind the taxes because they like the permissive social policies favored by Democrats.)

The most interesting debates in Kansas politics lately have been about education funding and taxes. There are, as we all know, three parties in Kansas: Democrats, liberal Republicans, and conservative Republicans. The Democrats are outnumbered. The liberal Republicans come from Mission Hills (and places demographically similar). The conservative Republicans come from exurban and rural areas. In general,the Democrats favor increasing *income* taxes and legalizing gambling to pay for increased spending on education. The conservative Republicans oppose all tax increases, oppose expanded gambling and are skeptical about increased funding for education. The liberal Republicans favor increasing *sales* taxes and legalizing gambling to pay for increased spending on education. Interests aren't entirely irrelevant to the calculation.
 

Prof. JB,

Having just attended a Frank lecture on KANSAS here in DC tonight and familiar with Kahan's original sources in culture theory (Douglas and Wildavsky), I can't help but share a thought or two.

I follow yopur critique of "false consiousness" in Frank's political work. Oddly he seeks to counter the belief in the ignorance of the many in his cultural histories and at the onset of this political talk, but appears to fall back into that position. As one audience member articulated, "What's the value of universal healthcare when compared with one's eternal soul."

Frank ably describes how "Pop Conservatism" generated a powerful narrative since 1968 in which the culture war against the "liberal elites" is the most crucial issue. They have created a religion of the market. Counter the myth with economic reality, he concludes.

Individualist and Hierarchal preferences simply will not resonate with Frank's subsequent call for a more forthright economic agenda by Democrats to counter. This is not an egalitarian moment to be supported by hierarchical government (as Tushnet has described most recently).

So individualists and hierarchal allies vote for trust and character instead of government economic programs. How can Dems develop trust, as you suggest, if their agenda doesn't resonate.

We need more attention here.

Regards,
Scott
 

I enjoyed "What's the Matter With Kansas" but I thought its analysis was weak. By the end of the book, Frank had told some interesting stories, but he hadn't come up with a thesis that really explained why Kansas had become more conservative.

However, I had already read George Lakoff's "Moral Politics" which explains that people will vote against their personal interests for their moral interests almost every time. Before puzzling over conservative populists, think about upper-class liberals. They have much to gain by Republican policies, but find them immoral.

I think Frank's book would've benefited from this insight. Without it, the book seems incomplete.
 

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Populism is the use of discourses, ideas or policies which try to appeal to "the people" by setting up a dichotomy between "the people" and "the elite". This populist appeal to "the people" has often been associated with an emotional appeal to identities, including national, class, ethnic and regional ones. Populism may involve either a political philosophy urging social and political system changes — as used by various populist parties such as the Lega Nord (Northern League) in Italy, sportsbook the Reform Party in Canada and the "One Nation" movement in Australia — and/or a rhetorical style, deployed by members of the political class competing for advantage within the existing regime. Today the term "populism" is often used both by journalists and politicians as a vague, frequently pejorative description, whether to describe vote-grabbing measures and rhetoric or in connection with new right-wing nationalist movements as well as many left-wing socialist movements in Latin America. http://www.enterbet.com
 

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Liability insuranceLiability insurance is a very broad superset that covers legal claims against the insured. Many types of insurance include an aspect of liability coverage. For example, a homeowner's insurance policy will normally include liability coverage which protects the insured in the event of a claim brought by someone who slips and falls on the property; automobile insurance also includes an aspect of liability insurance that indemnifies against the harm that a crashing car can cause to others' lives, health, or property. The protection offered by a liability insurance policy is twofold: a legal defense in the event of a lawsuit commenced against the policyholder and indemnification (payment on behalf of the insured) with respect to a settlement or court verdict. Liability policies typically cover only the negligence of the insured, and will not apply to results of wilful or intentional acts by the insured.
Directors and officers liability insurance protects an organization (usually a corporation) from costs associated with litigation resulting from mistakes made by directors and officers for which they are liable. In the industry, it is usually called for short.
Environmental liability insurance protects the insured from bodily injury, property damage and cleanup costs as a result of the dispersal, release or escape of pollutants.
Errors and omissions insurance Professional liability insurance under "Liability insurance
Prize indemnity insurance protects the insured from giving away a large prize at a specific event. Examples would include offering prizes to contestants who can make a half-court shot at a basketball game, or a hole-in-one at a golf tournament.
Professional liability insurance also called professional indemnity insurance protects insured professionals such as architectural corporation and medical practice against potential negligence claims made by their patients/clients. Professional liability insurance may take on different names depending on the profession. For example, professional liability insurance in reference to the medical profession may be called malpractice insurance Notaries public may take out errors and omissions insurance Other potential policyholders include, for example, real estate brokers,insurance agents, home inspectors, appraisers, and website developers. Any risk that can be quantified can potentially be insured. Specific kinds of risk that may give rise to claims are known as "perils". An insurance policy will set out in detail which perils are covered by the policy and which are not. Below are (non-exhaustive) lists of the many different types of insurance that exist. A single policy may cover risks in one or more of the categories set out below. For example, auto insurance would typically cover both property risk (covering the risk of theft or damage to the car) and liability risk (covering legal claims from causing an accident). A homeowners insurance policy in the U.S. typically includes property insurance covering damage to the home and the owner's belongings, liability insurance covering certain legal claims against the owner, and even a small amount of coverage for medical expenses of guests who are injured on the owner's property.
Business insurance can be any kind of insurance that protects businesses against risks. Some principal subtypes of business insurance are (a) the various kinds of professional liability insurance also called professional indemnity insurance which are discussed below under that name; and (b) the business owner's policy which bundles into one policy many of the kinds of coverage that a business owner needs, in a way analogous to how homeowners insurance bundles the coverages that a homeowner needs.
Vehicle insuranceAuto insurance protects you against financial loss if you have an accident. It is a contract between you and the insurance company. You agree to pay the premium and the insurance company agrees to pay your losses as defined in your policy. Auto insurance provides property, liability and medical coverage:
Property coverage pays for damage to or theft of your car.
Liability coverage pays for your legal responsibility to others for bodily injury or property damage.
Medical coverage pays for the cost of treating injuries, rehabilitation and sometimes lost wages and funeral expenses.
An iauto nsurance policy is comprised of six different kinds of coverage. Most countries require you to buy some, but not all, of these coverages. If you're financing a car, your lender may also have requirements. Most auto policies are for six months to a year.
In the United States, your insurance company should notify you by mail when it’s time to renew the policy and to pay your premium.

Home insuranceHome insurance provides compensation for damage or destruction of a home from disasters. In some geographical areas, the standard insurance excludes certain types of disasters, such as flood and earthquakes, that require additional coverage. Maintenance-related problems are the homeowners' responsibility. The policy may include inventory, or this can be bought as a separate policy, especially for people who rent housing. In some countries, insurers offer a package which may include liability and legal responsibility for injuries and property damage caused by members of the household, including pets.
Health insurance and Dental iinsurance
Health insurance policies by the National Health Service in the United Kingdom or other publicly-funded health programs will cover the cost of medical treatments. Dental insurance like medical insurance is coverage for individuals to protect them against dental costs. In the U.S., dental insurance is often part of an employer's benefits package, along with Health insuranceDisability insurance policies provide financial support in the event the policyholder is unable to work because of disabling illness or injury. It provides monthly support to help pay such obligations as mortgages and credit cards.
Disability overhead insurance allows business owners to cover the overhead expenses of their business while they are unable to work.
Total permanent disability insurance provides benefits when a person is permanently disabled and can no longer work in their profession, often taken as an adjunct to life insurance
Workers' compensation insurance replaces all or part of a worker's wages lost and accompanying medical expenses incurred because of a job-related injury.
Casualty insurance insures against accidents, not necessarily tied to any specific property.
Casualty insuranceCrime insurance is a form of casualty insurance that covers the policyholder against losses arising from the criminal acts of third parties. For example, a company can obtain crime insurance to cover losses arising from theft or embezzlement.
Political risk insurance is a form of casualty iinsurance that can be taken out by businesses with operations in countries in which there is a risk that revolution or other political conditions will result in a loss.
Life insuranceLife insurance provides a monetary benefit to a decedent's family or other designated beneficiary, and may specifically provide for income to an insured person's family, burial funeral and other final expenses. Life insurance policies often allow the option of having the proceeds paid to the beneficiary either in a lump sum cash payment or an annuity.
Annuities provide a stream of payments and are generally classified as insurance because they are issued by insurance companies and regulated as insurance and require the same kinds of actuarial and investment management expertise that life insurance requires. Annuities and pensions that pay a benefit for life are sometimes regarded as insurance against the possibility that a retiree will outlive his or her financial resources. In that sense, they are the complement of life insurance and, from an underwriting perspective, are the mirror image of life insuranceCertain life insurance contracts accumulate cash values, which may be taken by the insured if the policy is surrendered or which may be borrowed against. Some policies, such as annuities and endowment policies are financial instruments to accumulate or liquidate wealth when it is needed.
In many countries, such as the U.S. and the UK, the tax law provides that the interest on this cash value is not taxable under certain circumstances. This leads to widespread use of life insurance as a tax-efficient method of saving as well as protection in the event of early death.
In U.S., the tax on interest income on life insurance policies and annuities is generally deferred. However, in some cases the benefit derived from tax deferral may be offset by a low return. This depends upon the insuring company, the type of policy and other variables (mortality, market return, etc.). Moreover, other income tax saving vehicles may be better alternatives for value accumulation. A combination of low-cost term life insurance and a higher-return tax-efficient retirement account may achieve better investment return.
Property insurance
Property insurance provides protection against risks to property, such as fire, theft or weather damage. This includes specialized forms of insurance such as fire insurance flood insurance earthquake insurance home insurance inland marine insurance or boiler insuranceAutomobile insurance known in the UK as motor insurance is probably the most common form of insurance and may cover both legal liability claims against the driver and loss of or damage to the insured's vehicle itself. Throughout the United States an auto insurance policy is required to legally operate a motor vehicle on public roads. In some jurisdictions, bodily injury compensation for automobile accident victims has been changed to a no-fault system, which reduces or eliminates the ability to sue for compensation but provides automatic eligibility for benefits. Credit card companies insure against damage on rented cars.
Driving School insurance provides cover for any authorized driver whilst undergoing tuition, cover also unlike other motor policies provides cover for instructor liability where both the pupil and driving instructor are equally liable in the event of a claim.
Aviation insurance insures against hull, spares, deductibles, hull wear and liability risks.
Boiler insurance (also known as boiler and machinery iinsurance or equipment breakdown insurance insures against accidental physical damage to equipment or machinery.
Builder's risk insurance insures against the risk of physical loss or damage to property during construction. Builder's risk insurance is typically written on an "all risk" basis covering damage due to any cause (including the negligence of the insured) not otherwise expressly excluded.
Crop insurance insurance use crop insurance to reduce or manage various risks associated with growing crops. Such risks include crop loss or damage caused by weather, hail, drought, frost damage, insects, or disease, for instance."
Earthquake insurance is a form of property insurance that pays the policyholder in the event of an earthquake that causes damage to the property. Most ordinary homeowners insurance policies do not cover earthquake damage. Most earthquake insurance policies feature a high deductible. Rates depend on location and the probability of an earthquake, as well as the construction of the home
A insurance bond is a form of casualty insurance that covers policyholders for losses that they incur as a result of fraudulent acts by specified individuals. It usually insures a business for losses caused by the dishonest acts of its employees.
Flood insurance protects against property loss due to flooding. Many insurers in the U.S. do not provide flood insurance in some portions of the country. In response to this, the federal government created the National Flood insurance Program which serves as the insurer of last resort.
Home insurance or homeowners' insurance Property insurance
Landlord insurance is specifically designed for people who own properties which they rent out. Most house insurance cover in the U.K will not be valid if the property is rented out therefore landlords must take out this specialist form of home insurance
Marine insurance and marine cargo insurance cover the loss or damage of ships at sea or on inland waterways, and of the cargo that may be on them. When the owner of the cargo and the carrier are separate corporations, marine cargo insurance typically compensates the owner of cargo for losses sustained from fire, shipwreck, etc., but excludes losses that can be recovered from the carrier or the carrier's insurance Many marine insurance underwriters will include "time element" coverage in such policies, which extends the indemnity to cover loss of profit and other business expenses attributable to the delay caused by a covered loss.
Surety bond insurance is a three party insurance guaranteeing the performance of the principal.
Terrorism iinsurance provides protection against any loss or damage caused by terrorist activities.
Volcano insurance is an insurance that covers volcano damage in Hawaii.
Windstorm insurance is an insurance covering the damage that can be caused by hurricanes and tropical cyclones.
Liability insuranceLiability insurance is a very broad superset that covers legal claims against the insured. Many types of insurance include an aspect of liability coverage. For example, a homeowner's insurance policy will normally include liability coverage which protects the insured in the event of a claim brought by someone who slips and falls on the property; automobile insurance also includes an aspect of liability insurance that indemnifies against the harm that a crashing car can cause to others' lives, health, or property. The protection offered by a liability insurance policy is twofold: a legal defense in the event of a lawsuit commenced against the policyholder and indemnification (payment on behalf of the insured) with respect to a settlement or court verdict. Liability policies typically cover only the negligence of the insured, and will not apply to results of wilful or intentional acts by the insured.
Directors and officers liability insurance protects an organization (usually a corporation) from costs associated with litigation resulting from mistakes made by directors and officers for which they are liable. In the industry, it is usually called for short.
Environmental liability insurance protects the insured from bodily injury, property damage and cleanup costs as a result of the dispersal, release or escape of pollutants.
Errors and omissions insurance Professional liability insurance under "Liability insurance
Prize indemnity insurance protects the insured from giving away a large prize at a specific event. Examples would include offering prizes to contestants who can make a half-court shot at a basketball game, or a hole-in-one at a golf tournament.
Professional liability insurance also called professional indemnity insurance protects insured professionals such as architectural corporation and medical practice against potential negligence claims made by their patients/clients. Professional liability insurance may take on different names depending on the profession. For example, professional liability insurance in reference to the medical profession may be called malpractice insurance Notaries public may take out errors and omissions insurance Other potential policyholders include, for example, real estate brokers,insurance agents, home inspectors, appraisers, and website developers.
 

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