The Unspoken Flaw of Populist Rhetoric, or F–k “the People”

It doesn’t matter where you stand on the right-center-left spectrum of American politics, the fact is that, if you’re running for political office and you want to stand any chance of winning, you will laud and promote your candidacy as being aligned with the spirit of the people.  What exactly is this spirit, and who specifically constitutes being a member of such a vague and loaded category like “the people”?  None of that matters, because the phrase is meant to be a blank sheet, onto which voters can project whatever specific attributes they favor, left over from the sociopolitical legacy of the populist struggle of the 19th & 20th Centuries.

Populism is a broad term within political philosophy, but its basic ideological tenet is one of supporting the interests of the common worker and general public (frequently stylized simply as “the people” in popular speech), against the domination of the affluent elites of society.  In the United States, the populist movement began in the late 19th Century as a mostly rural (farmers, laborers, and small-businessmen) backlash against the growing monopolization of their resources into the control of a group of industrialists and venture capitalists.  Because the latter group had most (if not all) of the political and financial backing from the government, populism (even after its namesake’s fall as a major political player in the early 20th Century) became associated in the public mind with the common good of the lowly citizenry; essentially presented under the image of giving a voice to the hitherto politically voiceless.

As I already mentioned, nowadays the appeal to populist rhetoric transcends political affiliation.  Barack Obama can fail to call for the legal investigation of the individuals and enterprises (indeed, openly refuse any suggestion of it) who contributed to the high risk gambling of public and private funds that helped bring about the financial crisis of 2008 (the economic effect of which we are still feeling on a global level), and he will still promote his policies as prime examples of serving “the people” above the interests of the upper classes (well, I don’t know about you, but when I commit marketing fraud and declare bankruptcy, I don’t see the judicial system putting up its hands and saying, “Meh, shit happens, let’s just move forward.  Oh, by the way, here’s your old job back, too”).  During the 2012 election, Mitt Romney could openly say that his vision for America’s economic system is one in which the richest will be directly favored above the rest (while also privately implying that nearly half the country is made up of social parasites), and he still continued to claim how the goal of his policies is structured to actually work for the common good of “the people” (because somehow making sure that your boss is financial secure, will–without any legal imperative pressuring him to do so–guarantee that he’ll be generous enough to graciously trickle a descent sum of that money down your way, instead of the more likely scenario of him hording it away in his own private funds).  And both sides will get away with this vacuous rhetoric among their voting base, partly because most people are convinced that this is as good as it can get, and partly because they figure that (at the very least) their candidate is still making reference to them–which has got to count for something, right?

The reason people think it counts for something is the notion that somehow, by virtue of some noble force or another, the party, the candidate, the ideology that seems to most support the spirit of the people, is the less corruptible faction in the game.  It rests on the unspoken premise that “the people” are this incorruptible fortress that stands above the decadency of the power-hungry rulers, and therein lies the central flaw of populist rhetoric.  “The People” who make up the Democratic Party are corrupt enough to ignore the ethical trespass of their candidates, for the sake of promoting the handful of pet-issues they care about.  “The People” who make up the Republican Party are corrupt enough to ignore the ethical trespasses of their candidates, for the sake of promoting the handful of pet-issues they care about.  “The People” who make up the ranks of all political, social, ideological movements are corrupt enough to ignore the various faults in their reasoning for the sake of the greater good or the lesser evil they are convinced will benefit society more.  In other words:  I am corrupt enough to care more about my petty, pedantic disagreements with political thought, than to truly consider the possibility that a great deal of people could potentially benefit from my support of one political model over another.

This idea of the immaculate virtue of “the people” is a myth.  It was a myth when it was being promoted by my Southern farmer’s great-great-grandparents on behalf of the populist cause, and it’s a myth in its current incarnation as a bipartisan talking point during every election cycle.  After all, all corrupt individuals, in all identifiable fields of work and thought, are still people, and I’d wager that none of them consider their misdeeds as acts of corruption, as much as circumstantial/vocational necessities.  And everyone is liable to be led astray into morally questionable deeds, if s/he can convince her/himself of the virtue of the “bigger picture” involved.  You and I, no matter how humble and modest of a life we lead, are no exception.

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