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Jim Jaffe

Jim Jaffe

Posted March 26, 2009 | 02:32 PM (EST)

Give Populism a Chance


We've been treated to scant analysis of the AIG bonus payments by professors of populist studies. Instead, we're told that such payments are the price we pay for our sophisticated and prosperous society, an environment that would be threatened by populism's appetite for direct democracy and a bit more economic fairness which is, unhappily, inexorably linked to anti-intellectual and xenophobic prejudices.

Going after the money, we're warned, risks putting civil society at risk. Responding to popular outrage could start us down a slippery slope that would bring majority rule to the Senate, shareholder votes on executive compensation and creationism to the classroom. A calmer iteration of this argument appears here.

In short, we're confronted with a package deal. If we for literacy, rationalism and high culture, we've got to make our peace with a system that appears to have an unseemly tilt toward rewarding the rich. All that's lacking are bumper stickers proclaiming, "Descartes Favors AIG Bonus Payments."

The argument isn't a new one and isn't totally devoid of historic merit. Throughout the 20th century progressive populists in the South found they had to play the race card if they wanted to gain traction at all. That's how they responded to challenges from the powerful arguing that a united white stance trumped a unified working class.

A not dissimilar argument was made in Middle America about immigrants.

Whether that history remains relevant today is the question of the moment. I'm not convinced that we're compelled to disown populism because of its anti-intellectual past. I don't think. I reject posing this a contest between mind and money.

It may be relevant to note in passing that many who find the populist argument most relevant lack the education required to play intellectual games. That may explain why today's game is so one sided.

At a time when American politics is seeking a new balance point, a helpful priority might be learning how to simultaneously balance outrage and civility.