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August 23, 2004

sentimental populism

I recently came across a critique of Ralph Nader that Harry Boyte wrote several years ago. This is the best paragraph:

Ultimately, the problem with Nader-style populism is that it asks very little of citizens. It is based on a fairy land account of our nation's problems in which the people are innocents, the corporations are villains and democracy will come when we break them up. Instead of a populism of grievance and victimhood, we need a civic populism that teaches people how to work across lines of difference, how to understand problems in many-sided ways, how to listen to others with whom they disagree, how to think strategically and practically, not simply in emotive or righteous ways.

I think the criticism is accurate; and it applied even thirty years ago when Nader was a crusading lawyer instead of a presidential candidate. It also describes people like Venezuelan President Hector Chavez, media scholar Robert McChesney, and Michael Moore. I'm much more attracted to populism that has two important features: it recognizes that ordinary people are already creating and wielding power all around us (they are not just victims); and it recognizes the ways that popular attitudes, skills, and values could be improved. Corporations and governments are not the only things standing in the way of popular rule; sometimes people are uninterested in governing. But that's not an argument against populism. It's a challenge that makes you think hard about civic education, community organizing, and institution-building.

Speaking of which, Ned Crosby has posted a very useful long comment about the Jefferson Center and its Citizens' Juries on this blog.

Posted by peterlevine at August 23, 2004 03:30 PM


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