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Not Like Ahmadinejad

Juan Cole has written a misguided article [1] comparing the “right-wind populism” of Palin and Ahmadinejad. Thoreau at Unqualified Offerings, who should know better, buys into this and writes [2]:

No doubt he’s playing up some parallels and downplaying some differences, but it’s nonetheless true that Red Province political factions around the world have a great deal in common.

This would be a lot more persuasive if Ahmadinejad were the leader of such a faction, unless we want to change what we now mean by “red,” which has absurdly come to be identified with the main faction of what passes for the center-right here. If you look past a few superficial and ultimately meaningless similarities, it becomes very difficult to see how Ahmadinejad is anything like Palin. Ahmadinejad is more like Huey Long with an engineering degree (not normally the profile of a right-wing populist), whose power base is the rural and urban poor, and who has pushed for redistribution of wealth in his campaign rhetoric and in his governing policies. In other words, when it comes to actual policy Ahmadinejad is an actual economic, and even left-leaning, populist. Because of the peculiarities of Alaskan sources of state revenue, Palin was able to play at this for a time with her tax hikes on oil companies, but in her incarnation as a national political figure she has become the antithesis of all of this.

The “right-wing populism” Cole disdains when critiquing Palin has no real populist policies behind it. Palin and Ahmadinejad have both railed against corruption in principle, but even here we see a crucial difference. Despite her reformer mantra, Palin has been the political ally of Ted Stevens, and Ahmadinejad has been a stern critic and opponent of Rafsanjani and the wealthy elite of the country. Superficial electoral stunts aside, on the national stage Palin was one of the candidates of a predominantly middle- and upper-class coalition, and Ahmadinejad has been the candidate of the lower-class majority arrayed against an alliance of predominantly middle-class reformers and wealthy establishment figures such as Rafsanjani. Would anyone seriously claim that Palin is a sort of American Hugo Chavez? No, not really. So we shouldn’t make a similarly silly mistake by comparing her to Ahmadinejad. Whatever they may purport to represent, their respective constituencies are as different as can be.

I suppose both do adopt a working-class Everyman/woman shtick, but once again when it comes to substance Palin endorses the usual pro-corporate economic policies of her party. Ahmadinejad’s tenure has been an economic disaster as he has tried to buy his way out of economic woes with easy credit and spending, but this is a function of his genuine, if poorly-conceived and even more poorly-executed, economic populism. Palin’s populism is purely rhetorical and symbolic: she is a journalism major who rails against journalists, and a politician who rails against the political class. Even if Ahmadinejad intends merely to replace one entrenched, corrupt establishment with his own cronies, and there is every reason to believe this is what he has been doing and will continue to try to do, this has much more in common with Chavismo than it does with Republican pseudo-populism.

Prof. Cole says at one point:

Both appeal to a sort of wounded nationalism, speaking of the sacrifice of dedicated troops for an often feckless public, and identifying themselves with the common soldier.

An important difference here would have to be that Ahmadinejad actually served in the Revolutionary Guards and trained members of the Basij militia [3] during a very bloody war. As we saw in her resignation speech, Palin’s praise for the military is often enough self-serving: “soldiers risk their lives for your rights, so don’t say mean things about me in the press!” Whatever else one might say about it, Ahmadinejad’s “wounded nationalism” appeals to an entire generation that experienced a foreign invasion, while Palin’s conventional pro-military refrains are boilerplate for politicians of both parties as they back any and all uses of force around the world. In Palin’s defense, at least she does have one of her own children serving in wartime.


Cole’s comparison would work a lot better if Ahmadinejad were right-wing or if Palin were a populist.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Not Like Ahmadinejad"

#1 Comment By Steven Taylor On August 3, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

I have long thought Palin’s approach was populistic in nature: the whole “hockey mom” bit, the attacks on the media and elites, the anti-intellectualism, etc. Her basic appeal is that she is “one of us”–up from the PTA and all of that.

Likewise, Ahmadenijad’s placement within the Iranian spectrum is rightward, at least in terms of religion and coercive power of the state–and certainly in terms of the status quo power.

#2 Comment By Daniel Larison On August 3, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

The “one of us” appeals are at the heart of what I’m calling pseudo-populism. That is not populism. It is the vacuous rhetoric that everyone seems willing to dub populism.

Ahmadinejad doesn’t represent defenders of status quo power. Of course, he now defends his own claims to power, and to that extent wants to defend the status quo, but he apparently wishes to retain power to upend the rest of the establishment.

The status quo power has been represented by Rafsanjani and Khatami–they are different wings of the same elite filled with clerics. He is quite vocally opposed to holders of vast landed wealth, he is seen correctly as an enemy of many of the clerics, and his main support inside the regime comes from military institutions. There is nothing necessarily “rightward” about being willing to use the coercive state apparatus against dissidents. By that standard, Khomeini and Mousavi were “right-wing” in the 1980s, which hardly makes sense. There is also an important factor that this is a revolutionary regime; the most radical or aggressive defenders of a hard-line interpretation of a revolution cannot credibly be labeled right-wing.

#3 Comment By Rowan On August 3, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

When a regime becomes entrenched, don’t its most aggressive defenders become “right-wing”? I mean, I realize that this is semantics, but at a certain point, the revolution becomes codified and it has a recreation of what was “left” and “right.”

#4 Comment By M.Z. Forrest On August 3, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

Palin likes to glad-hand. To call her a populist would be to give her too much policy knowledge and to, as Dr. Larison put it, describe the polar opposite of her actual policies.

#5 Comment By Sean S. On August 3, 2009 @ 10:22 pm

It is hard to characterize the Iranian state, being as it is anchored in many of the same policies that Mossadeqh and other nationalist leaders of the Middle-East promoted, as following the rules of the traditional left-right divide of Western politics. It is a fusion, borne out of a colonial/imperialist experience. Some people wonder how many leftist groups in Arab states could support Islamic fundamentalism initially, but that mostly came out of expedience, and a presumption that Islam represented some sort of home-grown revolt against Western capitalism. most of them were sadly mistaken at a later date, but thats no here no there.

As to Palin, I think the term populist is fairly accurate, if for no other reason than there has hardly ever been politician described as “populist” that hasn’t sounded vacuous and ridiculous. I find when people throw around that word it means that the politician in question throws out a bunch of canards about national strength, red-meat cultural statements, and some vague ideas about things that may or may not have anything to do with the common person.

#6 Comment By Norwegian Shooter On August 4, 2009 @ 6:50 am

Rowan, I’m afraid you’ve got it dead wrong. As Daniel has said in this post, “left” and “right,” however nebulous, should describe actual policies, not orientation to the current regime. You’re conflating these terms with “liberal” (change) and “conservative” (status quo).

Sean, only right-wing “populists” (scare quotes) sound vacuous because they don’t support any policies that could even remotely be described as populist. Dennis Kucinich doesn’t sound ridiculous (besides the UFO stuff).

#7 Comment By Rowan On August 4, 2009 @ 7:06 am

I disagree. I think “left” and “right” make more sense as the terms which can be changed according to the circumstance of the country, where “liberal” and “conservative” tend to make more sense as describing actual policies. At least, “liberal,” in the classical sense, has fairly well-known and described policies attached.

#8 Comment By Norwegian Shooter On August 5, 2009 @ 9:02 am

Rowan, we agree liberal and conservative describe actual policies. What I am saying (and I think Daniel has too) is that policies should be the medium of debate, not labels made meaningless by their application.

In terms of the Iranian regime (or any revolution), defenders of the new status quo are revolutionary, those that want to go back to the old way are anti-revolutionary. Each revolution is different, obviously, but they are usually formed from the masses who revolt against the current elites. So their is form is usually “populist” but what is more important is what policies they use their popular support to enact.

[4] is something completely different from what we are talking about in this discussion. You mean just plain old liberal.