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Why The Elites Are Really Populists At Heart

ta-nehisi coates

As the accumulating crises confronting the Western world stuff our newsfeeds more and more each day, a certain broad narrative about what is happening seems to have gained near-universal acceptance. It says the populations of Western nations are presently ruled by an incompetent and out-of-touch “elite,” who evince no regard for, or even knowledge of, the people’s will on a variety of issues, ranging from immigration to free trade to education.

In response, the citizens of these nations have demonstrated their contempt for these elites in fairly dramatic ways, from the Brexit to the rise of the Front National to the Donald Trump campaign. It is a contest between populism and elitism, we are told, that defines our political moment.

The problem with this understanding: it seems to bifurcate the political and cultural options available to us into two thoroughly unsatisfactory sets of choices—a bumbling and decadent institutional structure versus an enraged citizenry boiling over with justified indignation but without the resources to generate any authentic solutions. We are tossed between decadence and resentment, pretense and vulgarity; between Angela Merkel and Golden Dawn; Lena Dunham and Honey Boo-boo; between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. No sensible person can be satisfied with this situation.

It’s Not Just Populists Who Are ‘Mindlessly Angry’

So what might be a better way to think about what is happening? We should start by asking exactly what we mean when we refer to populism. Evidently, we are not discussing any kind of theory or ideological commitment. The mass of people, thankfully, are never philosophers. Populism is a spirit, an attitude, informed by varying degrees of pride, self-sufficiency, frustration, resentment, and wrath.

Because populism is an attitude, and not a philosophy, it is typical for populist movements to fail to make important distinctions—crucially, the distinction between the corruption of present institutions, and the desirability of institutions as such. Hence, populism usually tends towards suspicion of social structures, and loves to indulge in the utopian reverie of a world without institutions, along with the ranking of persons they inevitably entail. The soul of the true populist is engaged in a perpetual revolution.

If the received narrative about our political moment were accurate, we should expect to find our purported elites hostile to such an attitude. Occasionally we do, as when James Traub advised his peers that “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses,” in an article decrying the policy preferences of the “mindlessly angry.” But when we become genuinely acquainted with the thoughts of these people, when we read the kind of works where their souls are laid bare, we find something else entirely.

Consider the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates. If there is anywhere we can look into the heart of the sort of people running the world, it is here. The Left has lauded this author up and down as one of their most outstanding thinkers for his writing on race. I do not wish to enter into the quality of his arguments here. Rather, I want to call attention to the attitude or spirit that pervades his work.

Coates repeatedly councils his son (and, by extension, his readership) that the institutional structures of the country he was born into are incorrigibly malignant, having their origins in violence perpetrated against black people. He tells him American society was built on “looting and violence” against his ancestors; that brutality against blacks is its “heritage and legacy”; that power is irrevocably placed in the hands of white persons under the sway of a “demon religion” of racism. He warns him that the police force of his country is endowed with the legitimate authority to kill and abuse him. He laments that his place in his society, as a black man, will always be subject to a “cosmic injustice.” He also dismisses the hope that anything could change these conditions as chimerical; that he can see “no real promise of such a day.”

Again, I am not interested here in the extent to which any of these claims may be justified. I simply want to ask: What is the pervasive tone of all these claims together? The answer is plain to see: Alienation from those in power, and a persistent rancor against the institutions in which that power is located. An incurable sense of outrage and resentment. Suspicion of the political structure as such, with no suggestion that it could be reformed (and, in fact, explicit denial of the possibility it could be). Clearly, we have here a state of mind akin, in all its essential features, to the populist mentality.

I’m a Victim of My Privileged Circumstances

Only the accidents of partisan politics obscure this affinity. Because Coates’ brand of racial politics is typically associated with the progressive movement, we tend to see it as a thing entirely apart from, even antagonistic to, the populist fervor percolating among supposedly conservative groups. But if we peek beneath the superficial postures of left-right politics, we will find the same fundamental mentality evident on both sides of the divide—the same eternal rage against the powers that be. It would no doubt cause Coates and his many besotted admirers horror to learn they are close spiritual kin to the Trumpistas of the world. Nonetheless, it’s true.

Of course, the seething resentment that burns in every paragraph of Coates’ work did not originate with him. This attitude of permanent disaffection has been the primary psychological note of modern progressivism ever since the uprisings of the 1960s. Over the last half-century, even as the Left has conquered one institution after another—the university, the media, the federal bureaucracy—this disposition to revolt has remained the chief feature of the progressive mind.

It is why the people running our civilization have never developed the virtues necessary to carry out their duties adequately. Determined to always think of themselves as persons out of power, they never learned to regard themselves as persons with power, and all the responsibilities power entails. They never learned to imagine the kinds of moral formation that would fit a person for rule, rather than for protest.

This is why we can listen to a close advisor to the president—a woman with access to the most effective levers of power in the world—declare her intention to “speak truth to power.” But as for speaking truth as power, as for directing their policies with the wisdom and prudence requisite to their offices, the populist elite in control of the Western world have never learned how to do this, because their own modes of juvenile self-fashioning have precluded them from ever admitting that they do indeed occupy such offices.

This is the dimension missing from most analyses of our present political circumstances—the historical dimension. We find ourselves saddled with a teetering institutional structure without considering the decades of populist agitation that went into making this wreckage. Coates’ own biography is uncannily symbolic in this regard. The son of a Black Panther, he continues to spout his father’s revolutionary creed, even as his society grants him an unrivaled authority to speak and to write. It is why a man heaped with accolades and honors can still think himself the victim of a “cosmic injustice;” why a writer privileged with a platform in one of his country’s most prominent organs can think of no other use for this platform than to cultivate deeply uncharitable sentiments in his own child. He is incapable of recognizing himself as the establishment figure he has unquestionably become.

Once we account for the historical dimensions of our situation, we can discern the ruinous consequences the politics of resentment has had on the character of our present leaders. It will cure us of any temptation to engage in different varieties of that politics, as they make themselves available in the populist movements of the time.

We will never try to concoct remedies out of the very passions that have sickened us in the first place. Rather, we will recognize that the biggest challenge facing political philosophy at the present lies in critiquing the pernicious institutional structures of our society, without impugning the value of institutions as such—a task that requires some exercise of the imagination, to see how the formation of our leaders in the future might comprise practices far different than what has gone into the making of our present rulers.