Monday, November 14, 2016

Populism is bullshit

As we continue to... grope for explanations for last Tuesday, the word, "populism," continues to bubble to the surface, just as it did with Brexit.  It is kind of a bullshit label, if nothing else for its imprecision.

Is Trump a populist?  That depends on how you define the term.  Obviously.  That's true for any label.

Etymologically, the term derives from the notion that the candidate/party/movement is set on the side of the populace, in opposition to an elite, as though the political system is a dichotomy.  That dichotomous view of politics is shared ironically by both Karl Marx and Ayn Rand, who simply disagreed on whether the monied class was on the side of good or evil.  Trump's policies are as beneficial to the non-elite, in that dualistic view, as any other Republican, unless we view trade protectionism as inherently more beneficial to the non-elite.  Could one argue that?  Yes, but trade protectionism also raises prices and hurts exports, so that necessitates an economic argument and shouldn't be granted the label of "populist" automatically.  As for whether or not Trump's background makes him a man of the people, um...

Of course, there was an actual "populist movement."  It was a late-19th Century movement built around farmers, the silver vs. gold thing, William Jennings Bryan, blah, blah, blah.  Does Trump have any connection to that?  Perhaps tangentially, in that he kept promising to revive doomed industries, but that's sort of like defining populism as either the leadership of lost causes or hucksterism.

When people say "populism" today, though, they frequently mean, "racism."  It is kind of strange.  The movements that get labeled "populist" are frequently vaguely "nationalist," which are frequently, well, ethno-nationalist, and so forth.  The connection is tenuous, but not entirely accidental.  The basis is the idea that the majority of the population is, by definition, well, a majority.  Which minorities, then, are we talking about?  Elites or racial and ethnic ones?  (Or, as they are perceived by hardcore racists, is it all the same?)  Hence the historical connection between "populism" and racism.  Trump earned David Duke's endorsement, but as I have written before, the underlying politics of race are more complicated at the party level.  Regardless, if you want to call someone a racist, just call him a racist.  Fuck euphemisms.

Let's get down to brass tacks, though.  Populism, at its core, is about reflecting the populace, if the term is to have any real meaning.  The will of the people.  Ain't no such thing, kids.  Three people, 1, 2 and 3.  Three options: A, B and C.  How does each person rank them?  Here are their preference orders.  Person 1's first choice is A, then B, then C.  Person 2's first choice is B, then C, then A.  Person 3's first choice is C, then A, then B.  Watch this, and then let your head spin.

How does the group rank A relative to B?  The group prefers A to B because persons 1 and 3 both prefer A to B.  Now, how does the group rank B relative to C?  The group prefers B to C because persons 1 and 2 prefer B to C.

So, the group prefers A to B, and the group prefers B to C.  The group should prefer A to C, right?

Do they?


They don't.  Persons 2 and 3 prefer C to A.  Therefore, the group prefers C to A.

The group prefers A to B, B to C, and C to A.  Yup.  That's fucked up.  The will of the people?  No such thing.  You can't reflect the will of the people when there ain't no such thing.  No candidate can ever represent the nonexistent will of the people.

There's no such thing as a populist candidate.  Populism is bullshit.


  1. I think you're missing the point.

    Populism is only a distinct thing (I won't call it an ideology, because it isn't) in relation to elites. It's not just about a social choice function (And while you can come up with Condorcet sets, there ARE social choices, such as "we should nuke Russia if they nuke us first." Our politics doesn't bring those up because, well, we mostly agree about them)

    So, what does this mean in 2016? THIS is what populism is:

    Populism is the automatic gainsaying of anything that elites support. All the scientists agree there's global warming? Fuck that, I'm rolling coal. Economists think trade is good? We should have never tossed that nice company's tea into the harbor. All those Hollywood bastards tell me that black people should have rights? Trump 2016!

    Your problem (and yes, it tickles me to say this) is that you're RESPECTING the masses too much by expecting populism to be something. It's nothing. It's fuckwits being fuckwitted.

    1. Ooooooo. 'dem's fightin' words. Me? Respecting the masses?

      Breathing... Breathing...

      I said nothing of the sort. You are simply offering another definition of populism. Contrarianism towards elite consensus. So, um, why are smoking rates down?

    2. Why are tattoo rates up? Trends.

      Global warming doesn't exist. Chemtrails made my GMOs hide Obama's birth certificate before he did 9/11.

      Oh, and the answer to your rather silly question:

    3. Face it: you LOVE the masses.

    4. You do realize that vengeance is coming, right?

      Anyway, what you intend for your graph to say is that smoking rates are a function of education, but smoking rates have declined for everyone. They have simply declined fastest for those with college educations. What your "fuck the elites" model would suggest, though, is an uptick in smoking because dem damn scienticians gots no budniss tellin' me nots to smoke! At least we should see that among the least educated, and we don't.

      Now, here's a fun empirical question. Smoking rates and belief in Obama's citizenship. Go over to the 2012 NES data set. We've got it. Are they related? Not really. Is smoking a part of some general fuck-you to the elites? No. If people were just rejecting elite consensus, would they? Yes. Your model? Not doing well.