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The only consistent definition of “Populism” across the political divide I can find is - ‘popular opinions I don’t agree with.’

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Having an excess of political opinions is indeed one of the scourges of mass mediated modernity. In days of yore people 'knew' far less about the world beyond their local horizons but what they knew they knew intimately. Now you just pick up off-the-shelf opinions at the MSM and social media supermarkets.

You 'know' all about global warming, you know all about Ukraine etc etc because you've seen it on the telly or on your phone

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Sep 12Liked by Richard Hanania

I think you really “got one” with this post Mr. H. It’s true that the people with the worst “political views” that I know are scads more sensible in the areas of their lives with actual personal interaction/stakes. (And frankly, a lot of those with abstractly “sensible” “views” have personal lives in disarray, which speaks to the inherent worthlessness of “caring about politics.”)

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If populism was so bad then why is it so popular?

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“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

― Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night

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I'd prefer populism over being a-political, because being a-political leads you to a Putinist Russia kind of society when there becomes no checks on the ruling elite. Populism = Democracy. A-politicism = Unchecked rule by the usurper.

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I experience populism as an inchoate response to government screwing up and disrupting ordinary peoples' lives. E.g. in the Long Depression in the 19th century when the government created deflation (and hardship for debtors) after the inflation of the Civil War.

Populism should be a signal to the rulers: "hey, we are screwing up." But the rulers typically don't get it.

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Sep 12·edited Sep 12

With Russia things are complicated by the fact that accurate information is hard to come by. If the people were better informed I wonder if they'd be quite so unpolitical. Or perhaps they would make a point of being better informed if they were more political, a kind of chicken-and-egg problem. But you are probably right in saying that knowing there is little you can do to change things probably does lead to political lethargy.

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Sep 12·edited Sep 12

I suspect most of what I believe I believe simply because everyone else believes it and the thought of questioning it has never occurred to me. It's simply the invisible water in which I swim. Equally I have never understood how the question of why things fall occurred to Isaac Newton in the first place. Whether living a largely unexamined life is a blessing or not I can't say. However, surely the radical questioning of everything has the same effect of Daniel Dennett's 'universal acid': it burns through everything until there is no place left to stand.

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*Someone* has to care about politics, though. Someone will be making the policies, after all. So how do we select for those policy-makers to be not stupid and hateful like the majority of everyone is? This is an extremely difficult problem, and I think one reason why we have settled on "democracy" as the least bad option. If everyone is stupid and hateful, at least they should all get a say, as opposed to one particular stupid hateful person (or group of people) having total power.

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Sep 13·edited Sep 13

I really love/hate Richard, he is a great troll but also one of the most interesting autists of our time.

This excellent essay, which (I think) is about how excessive politicization rots a brain (and a society), reminds me of another excellent essay I read awhile ago by Robert Abelson, "Beliefs Are Like Possessions".

Abelson calls these "beliefs" we seem to have (or claim to have inside the digital panopticon) about things we really know little about (and often can't find on a map) "distal beliefs":

"Distal beliefs seem almost useless. They are tools that don’t objectively do anything. Yet it is clear that people are expected to have them and, indeed, do have them. Given that people have distal beliefs, what do they do with them? Since reality testing does not enter into distal beliefs, what other psychological functions control the adoption, exercise, and change of such beliefs?"

Then he gets to the nutmeat (which I think helps shine a light on your brain on politics):

"One finds or adopts beliefs with personal or social appeal. Other beliefs were received in childhood before one had much say in the matter. One shows off one’s beliefs to people one thinks will appreciate them, but not to those who are likely to be critical. One is inclined to ornament beliefs from time to time, especially when communicating them to others. If anyone is critical of them, one feels attacked and responds defensively, as though one’s appearance, taste, or judgment had been called into question. One occasionally adds new beliefs to one’s collection, if they do not glaringly clash with those one already has. It is something like the accumulation of furniture. One is reluctant to change any of one’s major beliefs. They are familiar and comfortable, and a big change would upset the whole collection...

When expressive beliefs are stated, there is often the intent to imply that the belief-holder has good character and good judgment, or a highly developed moral or spiritual sense."

And here's the finale:

"Beliefs are objects which provide values to their owners. The bases for these values have little to do with the probable truth of the beliefs. This is a crucial fact both psychologically and sociopolitically. Competitions between ideologies depend substantially upon which belief system provides greater value to its proponents. The analysis of the ebb and flow of the values of various beliefs is an important connection between individual psychology and mass politics."

Politics should follow the Middle Way or observe the Golden Mean: too little may sever your connection to others, too much turns you into a drooling zealot. But, either way, for the love of God, let's stop pretending humans are "rational"!

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I'm curious what the point of disliking populism is, though. Let's say a country is dominated by populists, with large margins of support. The government has anti-immigration, anti-offshoring (jobs or capital), pro-family/fertility policies. We would expect this country, with this policies, to do less well economically than it would otherwise, yes? Anyone there who would prefer to live somewhere less restrictive could just move. There'd be a boiling-off effect and the country would get poorer and more populist over time, hurting nobody.

Why would this be bad?

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According to Hanania, average people have sufficient mastery of economics such that their free choice in such matters (because clearly multinational corporations and the average wage slave are on equal epistemic footing here) is sacred and should never be violated, but they are far too dumb to understand political science and their preferences in this area should be heavily discounted if not ignored.

Based on the relative intelligence of economics and polisci majors, among other things, I find this questionable. In fact, most of the egregious stupidity of recent times (mass immigration, pediatric gender medicine, affirmative action, letting criminals run wild, etc.) has been broadly unpopular with the unwashed masses he despises, and would never have happened under a government that was responsive to the preferences of the people rather than elite interests.

The people may get a lot of things wrong, but they understand the real world and how it works far better than the bubble-living pseudomarxists aristocrats currently in charge. Does he really propose that people who don’t know the difference between men and women should run complex modern societies? An illiterate farm hand is wiser than this bunch.

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Sep 13·edited Sep 13

The great balancing act of liberal democracy: to have a state strong enough to put down striking workers, but weak enough not to attack or destroy concentrations of private wealth--the liberal dimension. Also. enough procedural mechanism to create an appearance of popular sovereignty while being able to re-launder the same narrow set of elites owned by the same narrow interest groups--the democratic dimension.

RH is interesting because at heart he starts from an essentially Marxist sociology, but his political problem is how to keep workers down and the Oligarch and their Trustifarian children up. Perhaps his next book will be on the virtues of false consciousness. He may want to make it sound prettier, but "Conservative politics historically has been great because it channels the energy of the proles into political positions contrary to their own interests" is right out of Karl Marx.

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So called populist ideas on trade, energy, and work not because they represent the wisdom of the masses, but rather because these policies benefit the country as a whole. Trusting in the wisdom of free markets to help the working class is a noble lie. Markets are not free. Pretending otherwise benefits the few at the expense of the country as a whole.

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Communists are only the greatest murderers in history when you fail to adjust for per capita nor consider the counterfactual. Communism turned an absolutely backwater feudal state into a co-world nuclear superpower with America, communism unified several long-bickering Balkan states successfully against the aforementioned nuclear superpower, communism gave an ancient kingdom-turned-colonial-plaything the independence and time necessary to enjoy arguably the most impressive economic boom in world history, and it even turned a bunch of punji stick-setting tunnel-dwellers into a highly respectable developed economy with minimal murder at all. One can hand-wring over individual atrocities or gulags, but the same can be done with most nations in history, including certain glorious 19th century empires.

The problem isn't hatred of elites, which is justified almost by definition, but a failure to identify the material problem underlying newly formed revolutionary states. The reset button of any explosive event, literal or metaphorical, provides a new slate; what is then written isn't necessarily relevant to what was previously. There were no feudal lords to squat the ruins of post-war Germany, in stark contrast to post-civil rights Michigan in which thousands of petty administrator-speculators may hold in perpetuity five-figure tax liens on long-burned housing lots, while evicting and seizing the homes of the elderly over pocket change.

The problem with populism in America is that it's sold in a way that exists to pacify its listeners while enacting the exact opposite policy it claims to want. Robert Reich can go on about the rich and the need for wealth taxes, while simultaneously shutting down new housing to maintain his own property values, and self-described left-wing populists suck him off. Even nazbols like Eric Striker are pro-nimby and take the side of some of the most craven speculators as long as the entry-level populism of racial tension is satisfied. Every American populist is invested in artificial scarcity. Since full-on MAGA Communism isn't going to happen from within to overthrow the elites by force, we must look abroad with open eyes, and encourage complete demographic replacement of the boomer class that created the problem to begin with. A new America with new infrastructure and cheap housing, engineered by the Chinese, constructed by various Spanish-speaking people. It's the only way forward. Those of us in the Southwest are already enjoying the fruits of this labor, such as in Vegas and Phoenix where we build endless suburbs in the driest deserts just to escape the tyrants of the Midwest and New England.

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