Monday, February 01, 2010

OK, here's my take on David Brooks' article "The Populist Addiction"

Which is Here. In short, Brooks is arguing that politicians make simplistic divisions based on class when they advocate populist policies, and that they do this in order to woo average, non elite people, to their side. Additionally, he argues that populism doesn't succeed, which is doubtful, and that even if it did its take on how society is structured is wrong and so any policies based on populism would be counter productive economically and socially.

I've just condensed it and cleaned it up a bit. What I want to look at is his use of the idea of populism. He outlines it in this series of passages, two paragraphs of which are pure definition and two of which are application of the defs to real world issues:

"Politics, some believe, is the organization of hatreds. The people who try to divide society on the basis of ethnicity we call racists. The people who try to divide it on the basis of religion we call sectarians. The people who try to divide it on the basis of social class we call either populists or elitists.

These two attitudes — populism and elitism — seem different, but they’re really mirror images of one another. They both assume a country fundamentally divided. They both describe politics as a class struggle between the enlightened and the corrupt, the pure and the betrayers.

Both attitudes will always be with us, but these days populism is in vogue. The Republicans have their populists. Sarah Palin has been known to divide the country between the real Americans and the cultural elites. And the Democrats have their populists. Since the defeat in Massachusetts, many Democrats have apparently decided that their party has to mimic the rhetoric of John Edwards’s presidential campaign. They’ve taken to dividing the country into two supposedly separate groups — real Americans who live on Main Street and the insidious interests of Wall Street.

It’s easy to see why politicians would be drawn to the populist pose. First, it makes everything so simple. The economic crisis was caused by a complex web of factors, including global imbalances caused by the rise of China. But with the populist narrative, you can just blame Goldman Sachs."

The problem, besides the question of the validity of his arguments, is that his definition of populism is pretty arbitrary, as well as formalistic, and yet he applies it consistently throughout the article as if it were an established fact.
What it looks like is that he came up with an abstract theory and just started plugging it in without trying to either explain it beyond two brief statements or justify it. So it comes out biased, biased, biased because Brooks has translated his personal opinion into a theory, which he never elaborates, then applies it to politics in a one sided way. I could do that all day long but it wouldn't be good writing or good commentary. You generally need examples to prove something. As it stands, it's just Brooks hiding behind a theory he made up.

*It could be argued that the applications of his theory to facts, like in the two paragraphs in the example cited, are really examples themselves. However, I don't think so. They don't really justify the theory. Instead, they're just vehicles for the theory to play itself out. They're not inductive, they're deductive. Rationalist applications of the theory rather than attempts at empirical explanations.

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