After Brexit, Contra Trump: A (Jewish) Anti-Populist Manifesto
The British referendum to leave the European Union reminds me why I fervently dislike government by direct democracy.
I am an activist but not an anarchist. I believe in the power of government—even when I do not like the government. I prefer representative democracy because, as I have noted, in direct democracy—as in referendums by popular vote—policy is decided by people who do not have the time and inclination to really weigh an issue and consider all of the long term consequences of their choices. This is why we elect representatives. They have staffers and advisors whose are paid to study complex issues, so that when they vote, they (mostly) understand the ramifications of their actions. Contrast this with yesterday’s Washington Post headline: “The British are frantically Googling what the E.U. is, hours after voting to leave it.” Even the average Idaho legislator is not quite that ignorant—and if you are not from Idaho, you’ll have to trust me: that is a very low bar, indeed.
I am a progressive, but not a populist. I grew up steeped in Jeffersonianism, graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School and then Mr. Jefferson’s University in Charlottesville—but I do not trust the political wisdom of the general public over that of a strong representative government. Perhaps my wariness of populism is deeply rooted in the Jewish experience. Populism has never been good to the Jews. In the Middle Ages and beyond, the Catholic Church was no friend to the Jewish people—but by and large, the popes and the hierarchy were less murderous than the general populous. Even earlier, despite living under the brutal Roman empire, Rabbi Chanina taught in Pirkei Avot: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without it, every person would eat his neighbor alive.” And here in America, populism has almost always been accompanied by xenophobia—and anti-Semitism. Donald Trump is just the latest iteration of the Know-Nothing party. The left-wing economic populism represented by Bernie Sanders (full disclosure: I voted for Bernie in the Idaho primary) goes back to William Jennings Bryan, who was also a populist Democrat. Bryan’s love for the “common man” earned him the nickname, “The Great Commoner.” He championed many noble causes—but he was also an anti-Semite and is now remembered primarily for his opposition to evolution in the Scopes trial. Populism believes that ordinary citizens always know better than privileged elites. I believe that sometimes they do—and sometimes, they don’t.
This is NOT to say that the Democratic party can continue to ignore the fears, anxieties and very real inequalities that are fueling the surging populism of 2016. Do not take my disdain for direct democracy as a dismissal of the power of the people. It is, instead, a plea that this power should be used to bring real change to our political system rather than short-circuiting it. Many Americans are hungry and hurting. The rising tide of the economy has not lifted all boats. The gap between the rich and the poor is appalling. Racism and xenophobia and torrents of rage are tearing our country apart. But populism--especially, God forbid, it's Trumpist strain--will not provide the infrastructure required to bind these gaping wounds.
Over our nation’s history, almost no significant social change has been achieved through direct democracy. Justice is secured—albeit very imperfectly—through the representative government—and through the court system. Now, as we celebrate the one year anniversary of same sex marriage, we should remember this. I do not want to put the rights of LGBT folks—or anyone else—up for popular vote (where, historically, they did not do so well).
It is equally true that almost no significant social change in our national history has been achieved without radical activism at a grassroots level. Women’s suffrage, civil rights, workers’ rights and LGBT rights are all prominent examples. We need agitators doing their work on the ground, which eventually translates into court victories and progressive legislation. This is why I remain a proud part of the Add the Four Words movement here in Idaho. I want to drag our recalcitrant legislature into the 21st century. Eventually, this will happen.
Yes, I know, our representative democracy is terribly flawed. As I’ve written earlier, I am a liberal Democrat who lives in Idaho. You don’t have to remind me of its shortcomings—I see them every day. The system is utterly corrupted by money and power and elitism.
But government by the masses would not be better. It would be worse. Pray for the welfare of the government—for without it, people would eat each other alive.
I believe in the people’s voice—as moderated through their legitimately elected officials.
If we don’t like those officials—and I often don’t—then we need to vote them out.
I believe in primaries selecting candidates through delegates—and yes, I believe in superdelegates, because I believe that there are times when experienced political mavens can provide an important counter-balance to the public sentiment du jour. If the Republicans had superdelegates, we wouldn’t have Trump. Before the Democrats had superdelegates, we got George McGovern—a good man who lost 49 out of 50 states to Richard Nixon in 1972. Yes, integrity matters. So does winning (no thank you, Ralph Nader).
If we don’t like the corrupting influence of money in our political system, we need to vote for folks who will make real changes in that system—and appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Citizen’s United.
Otherwise, we’ll end up with the Brits, suffering government by Google.
I am not an anarchist. I am an activist.
I am not a populist. I am a progressive.