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Populism on a Human Scale

Jeff Taylor’s timely and provocative work, Politics on a Human Scale, deserves to be read as carefully as it was written. Informed by his own Jeffersonian populism, Taylor articulates a vision of the decentralist imagination in American history. By selectively rereading American political development since the founding, he recovers a distinctively populist tradition that challenges the centralizing tendencies of internationalist elites in politics and big business.

Taylor’s work takes its place alongside other advocates of such an approach, including Wendell Berry, Allan Carlson, Patrick Deneen, Jason Peters, and Rod Dreher. But while the individual essays demonstrate Taylor’s many virtues, a wider reading of history presents considerable, if not insurmountable, challenges to his faith in populism.

The book begins by offering a historiography of the decentralist tradition. Taylor’s reading attempts to recover a set 19th-century tropes and categories, which he uses to tell a story of loss of the tradition of agrarian populism. Taylor calls to his side Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and Jefferson’s thought in particular is read as presaging the populism of Taylor’s 20th-century heroes: William Jennings Bryan, Robert LaFollete, Jerry Brown, Ron Paul, and others.

Regardless of whether one shares Taylor’s ideological commitments, readers will find great value in his skillful treatment of this history. Taylor genuinely loves American politics, and his passion has resulted in deep research of the forest and the trees. He presses one to scrutinize the fundamental structure of American politics—examining the influence and alignment of economic and political elites. He goes beyond politicians’ rhetoric and considers their supporters, appointments, and policies.

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Taylor contrasts the perspectives of perpetual Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and Wisconsin progressive Senator “Fighting Bob” LaFollette with the policies of FDR. He argues that there are really two camps of progressives: a largely midwestern Bryan-LaFollette Jeffersonianism and the modern liberalism of Wilson and Roosevelt (dominated by the Eastern establishment). Bryan, for example, did not share the latter tradition’s notion of progress, which emphasizes the endless global pursuit of material betterment and abstract ideals. According to Taylor, Bryan and LaFollete in contrast focused on more pragmatic issues, such as undermining the Eastern plutocrats’ hold on political and economic power while maintaining the wider tradition of American individualism.

While FDR’s New Deal worked to cement alliances between big business and big government by advancing the interests of Eastern elites, Bryan and LaFollette sought decentralized commercial policies as a means of returning America to a land of small farms and businesses, always emphasizing individual self-reliance and the nobility of Jefferson’s “yeoman farmer.” Given LaFollete’s progressive, elite-dominated bureaucratic innovations as Wisconsin’s governor, Taylor is much more successful in making his case for Bryan, but he still presents impressive evidence to link LaFollette to Bryan and also articulates major differences between LaFollette and Roosevelt (especially with respect to foreign policy).

Taylor also traces the ideological development of modern liberalism in the Democratic Party, effectively showing how it significantly diverges from Jeffersonian populism. Since World War II, this turn toward bureaucracy has also manifested in the GOP as well, and the two parties have subsequently converged on many points at odds with the decentralist imagination and tradition.

Much of this dramatic change can be seen in the Democratic Party’s history in the 20th-century South. The fate of populist decentralism was shaped by events in that once largely agrarian part of the country. Here the issue of racial politics is only addressed selectively. While Taylor admits, and in some cases willingly shows, that populism within the Democratic South often employed race baiting, he rarely elaborates upon the extensiveness of it (with the exception of George Wallace). Indeed, the racism of one-time Bryan Vice Presidential running mate, Georgian Tom Watson, is mentioned, but no elaborate dirt is unearthed. So while Taylor goes out of his way to explicitly condemn resistance to civil rights, he seems quite willing to forgive the racial sins of Southern Democratic populists. The same is not true for their rival elite—so-called “Bourbon” Democrats—aristocratic Southerners who allied themselves with Eastern money and influence. Taylor is merciless in his chronicling of the racist sins of these elites, and he even questions their sincerity in assisting civil rights or other racial equality causes.

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Toward the end of the book, Taylor critiques the contemporary American system in light of decentralism’s decline. America is dominated by internationalist, big-business elites who reject populism, rule for their own interests, and favor social liberalism and centralization. The differences between the two parties are trivial, and divergence from the bipartisan consensus is marginalized by well-funded campaigns, diminishing the electoral effectiveness of any challenges.

Taylor’s sweeping and impressive reading of the decentralist tradition is a treasure trove of resources and ideas from which sympathetic contemporary thinkers can draw. But the jury is still out on whether the recovery of this tradition is possible or desirable.

Historically speaking, when promoted in a decentralist fashion, populism and liberty don’t always function well together. He does not want to choose between the two ideals, but history shows that sometimes this is required. In the West, for example, aristocracy has often operated as the protector of liberty and limited central government, while populism in contrast is vulnerable to bureaucratic tendencies toward centralization. Taylor misses this fact when his history skips from the ancient Romans to 17th-century England and barely mentions (perhaps due to space constraints) the millennium of Medieval Europe, when aristocrats provided a constant check on monarchical power. He avoids another potential difficulty when he fails to fully explain how aristocratic principles were often mixed into institutions meant to preserve federalism—namely the U.S. Senate—within the Constitution. It was the aristocratic house of Congress (especially prior to La Follette’s Seventeenth Amendment mandating direct election of Senators) that protected federalism by mediating conflicts between certain state minorities and national majorities. (Tariff conflicts provide one example.)

Taylor may also have too narrow a view of what kind of tradition “politics on a human scale” must favor. Are our only choices populist Jeffersonianism in the Bryan-LaFollet tradition or a more centralized union dominated by the big-business-and-big-government alliance of the Wilsonian-Rooseveltian tradition? Why not consider, for example, a decentralist but nomocratic libertarianism—a political order in which the law merely provides a limited order, like rules in a game, but does not determine the choices or ends of individuals and groups? Making this case would require a longer essay.

Suffice it to say, one real alternative (which, to be fair, Taylor neither excludes nor elaborates), allows vibrant experimentation with decentralism. Consider a federal union where agrarian-oriented states and localities can develop a communitarian ethos alongside other jurisdictions, which might instead be oriented toward libertarian, atomistic living and legal protections affording individuals with maximum freedom. In some periods, national leaders have advanced the latter vision, but such days seem bygone: the rise of state bureaucracy and advanced technology, along with a contemporary liberalism that seeks cultural transformation, has made it increasingly unlikely that we will see a federal government that promotes individual freedom.

Taylor’s assessment of contemporary American politics as broken due to elite dominance has more than a grain of truth to it, but understanding this phenomenon requires addressing concerns missing from his analysis. For example, many ordinary citizens likely agree with the results of elite rule; otherwise, voters would punish them. Serious rejection of the consensus would be met with an overwhelming influx of elected officials determined to change the status-quo, regardless of bureaucratic and judicial obstacles.

A second concern is that the dominant all-things-considered contentment reflects Americans’ acceptance of wealth created through greater economies of scale. The goods that citizens enjoy, and their access to them, improves as the international economy lowers costs and advances technology. Modern economic growth ultimately benefits all even if it disproportionately enriches the elite. By focusing its critique on elite abuses, the populist alternative positions itself as a threat to the current economic system, and loses a great deal of its ability to mobilize the wider public needed to successfully challenge elite rule.

Indeed, Taylor and the tradition he works to recover lament the rise of an elite-dominated economy and political life, but is such a disposition justified? One can always hope that people might eschew greed and injustice, but this often proves to be fantastical and imprudent. Would any of us realistically choose an alternative to the modern economy and its access to economies of scale? Jeff Taylor and the impressive intellectual company he keeps—Rod Dreher, Wendell Berry, and others—would likely answer, “Yes!”

But we doubt many would actually withdraw from the modern economy—even if they could. Indeed, it is often by such means that individuals are able to realize some semblance of protest against the status-quo. Consider those who depend on urban preferences for chic-organic food to support small farming, supplement their farming income via the sale of novels and other writings to national markets, work at regular jobs to support penchants for hobby farming, or even rely upon welfare benefits to support vocational blogging or other low-income pursuits. Most Americans seem content to find their place within the system and refrain from declaring their economic independence. In this we make our choice clear: we want the benefits that our system makes ubiquitous and tacitly consent to the means and foibles of the system.

Yet it is also reasonable to suppose that there may ultimately be costs of deferring to an elite-dominated economic and political system. The possibility, for example, that business interests will use their influence to economically “punish” adherents of traditional morality who refuse to accommodate certain elite moral preferences—gay marriage, assisted suicide, abortion—might be a cost too onerous to endure, regardless of the wealth one can attain by acquiescing to such preferences.

Those caveats aside, Taylor’s recovery of the decentralist tradition offers more than mere food-for-thought for those of us desiring a more human scale. Indeed, he offers a veritable banquet of ideals deserving of wider attention. Even if this Jeffersonian populism cannot ultimately inspire “politics on a human scale,” the struggle of Taylor and others to resist politics on an inhuman scale will continue to be relevant and welcome.

Peter Haworth, Ph.D., is Editor of ANAMNESIS and President of the Ciceronian Society, and Joshua Bowman is a Ph.D. Candidate in Politics at the Catholic University of America.

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Populism on a Human Scale"

#1 Comment By Viking On October 23, 2015 @ 3:10 pm

This is a good analysis of problems with populism and decentralization. One issue that I seldom see mentioned is a US Constitutional one. To wit: all power not going to the national government goes to the states. (Well, to the people too, but I have no idea what that means in practice.) That leaves nothing firm for rural districts, cities, or even counties. That gap will have to be filled if we are to truly have a more communitarian society. And this even extends to larger cities. What, after all, do LA and San Fran, or Houston and El Paso, really have in common other than being good-sized municipalities in the same American state?

Btw, you brought up Tom Watson. IIRC, he was by no means a virulent racist when running as Bryan’s Populist VP candidate. It was later, when blacks didn’t vote as he thought they should, that he regressed to more unfortunate views. (I presume that his native Georgia didn’t have secret ballots then, as probably most states still didn’t.)

#2 Comment By long way home On October 23, 2015 @ 4:03 pm

Most US humans live in urban or suburban areas; I believe last census put around 15% in rural areas.

What “a human scale” is seems to depend on where humans are and how many of them there are there.

#3 Comment By Clint On October 23, 2015 @ 4:49 pm

In the original design by the Framers of the U.S. Constitution, there was an effective check on Congress through the state legislatures’ power to appoint (and remove) U.S. Senators. The 17th Amendment eliminated the checks and balances available to the states over federal power or over Congress itself in any area.

#4 Comment By kalendjay On October 24, 2015 @ 2:19 pm

This kind of book would mean more if its political analysis were not bound by two factors. The first is geography, inasmuch as sectionalism and frontier mythos, even more than regionalism, are endless themes and tropes in American history. The second is partisanship. Notwithstanding the great philosophical splits that were inherent to our early republican development (e.g. Hamilton v. Jefferson), the American predeliction toward party groupings often obscures rather than elucidates intellectual development and moralistic integrity (how did racist Democrats now become the font of Progressivism?)

I would say contemporary German political philosophy are now informative enough to study as a matrix to understand the US. This country not only has the bitter retrospect of a considered development of federalism within the context of cultural uniformity (which federalism is better and more genuine than our own), but of the concept of social democracy, which Americans do not study at all.

Could there be an American or even conservative social democracy at all? Bernie Sanders espouses a most infantile and dishonestly leftist explanation of it — rob the rich and save the poor. The Weekly Standard types however dismiss it as nothing more than an alien influence on ‘pure’ American values, whatever that means.

I would suggest that a good immersion in Jurgen Habermass will give one a good immersion in the historiography of centralism v. institutional atomism, elitism v paternalism and noblesse oblige, and genuine libertarianism v participationism in a market economy. Compared to this some discussion of US politico-intellectual history looks like journalism and not real history.

#5 Comment By David Naas On October 24, 2015 @ 2:51 pm

Jefferson famously remarked to James Madison: “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get plied upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.”

Too many people (think Soylent Green here) equals no room for liberty.

Indeed, “populism”, like “libertarianism” seems to be even theoretically possible only in a place with a distinct lack of population.

When we consider that our “American experiment” in self-government has barely lasted two fragile centuries, that other forms have survived much longer, that human cussedness has yet to find the balance between order and liberty, one might easily claim the jury is yet out.

#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 25, 2015 @ 5:59 pm

No. It’s not the only alternative. The technological economic revolutions have made one imperitive to repairing (in my view) the relationship between business and government is a simple start.

It has never been embraced. But it accurate. It’s keeping in line with the very purpose of government as a mechanism of the citizen.

1.Terminate and all nvestment capabilities of elected officials. No elected official should be permitted to own stocks upon election or that such transactions should be frozen.

2. No elected or appointed official should be permitted to serve on boards of either for profit or not for profit organizations whose interests are financial.

This would include all judgeships.

If the allotted public salary is insifficent to hold office, the choice is to do what others do —

seek employment elsewhere.

The advantage of being unpopular nor seeking the same is that allows a certain freedom of advocacy. The above is neither intended to be provocative nor trolling. Just one of the fixes to shift the purpose of governance to it’s core goals.

Not prestige, not honor, not being an insider,

but governance

#7 Comment By Julien Peter Benney On October 26, 2015 @ 6:05 pm

It is refreshing to see that these ideals, which have great value in an Enriched World affected by the “Green Revolution” – which has I think been a major cause of the triumph of atheism and lowest-low fertility in the Enriched World – are still alive.

Once a large comparative disadvantage in its only natural resource – young, renewable, nutrient-rich soils which can support highly sustainable agriculture – is firmly developed, history appears to demonstrate militant atheism as inevitable throughout Europe, East and North Asia and the Americas. Under this situation, withdrawal from an ecologically unsustainable economy dominated by the nonrenewable resources (ancient soils, energy-intensive minerals and fossil fuels) of Australia, Southern Africa and Arabia becomes virtually a necessity to maintain any sort of cultural tradition. However, as the article says, this is very difficult because many means of saving what resources the Enriched World has can play into the hands of the radical Left’s flawed consciousness (e.g. organic farming) or of how deep the changes needed to maintain a localist, organic, “renewable” society in the Enriched World actually are.