From Populism to People: The Case for Meanings in Life
Paper presented at the
The Twelfth Annual Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress
University of Colorado, Boulder
August 8-11, 2019
From Populism to People: The Case for Meanings in Life
Approaching my topic, I undertook some groundwork on populism, including some background information, attempts at a definition of populism, and the three core concepts of populism: The People, the Elite, and the General Will. Unfortunately, for the problems of many populists there may be no economic cure available, and also the status problem, too, cannot be solved in the real world. Thus, we have to look for other solutions. Many populists feel left behind, so, we have to help them overcome their victim mentality. People need to feel needed, and thus everyone has the tools to find meaning and consequently live a meaningful life.
We have seen the rise of populism in Western democracies over the past few years. In finding the answer to the question of why so many people currently support populist ideas and populist politicians, a first avenue to take is so painfully obvious that it is often ignored: one should not a priori dismiss the charges anti-political establishment actors formulate. Maybe, some of the arguments of the populists are true, which could explain why they are so successful. In other words, populism might be a dismissive term for everything metropolitan elites cannot find the energy to understand.
If we were looking to explain the phenomenon of populism, its underlying causes must be examined on a longer time scale. And indeed, there do seem to be two fundamental developments that match the timeline of the populist rise and help explain the particular shape populist politics have taken in recent years: a perceived decline in living standards from one generation to the next and the perceived threat to national identity and status posed by immigration and the growth of supranational organizations. Mistrust led to new political movements: The Tea Party for those who didn’t trust the government and Occupy Wall Street for those who didn’t trust big business.
Thus, populism appears to be a consequence of declinism. Too many people feel that their society is in decline, unable to live up to the new challenges posed by growing internal diversity and globalization.
The term populism goes back to the Latin word “populus” which means people. Nevertheless, it is both contemporary and important as it is revealed as 2017s Word of the Year by Cambridge University Press. Populism is described by the Cambridge Dictionary as “political ideas and activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want”. It includes the usage label ‘mainly disapproving’. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica populism is a political program or movement that champions the common person, usually in favorable contrast with an elite.
Populism has been a tool of progressives, of reactionaries, of democrats, of autocrats, of the left and the right, opposing large business and financial interests but also frequently being hostile to established socialist and labor parties. Most likely, populism is not a relic of an earlier developmental stage, but rather an enduring feature of the modern civic and political landscape.
Attempts at a definition of populism
We cannot hope to reduce all cases of populism to a single definition or find a single essence behind all established uses of the term.
First of all, populism can be seen as a ‘thin’ ideology that in practice is to be found in combination with established, ‘full’ ideologies. ‘Thin’ ideologies are those whose structure is restricted to a set of core concepts which alone are unable to provide a reasonably broad, if not comprehensive, range of answers to the political questions that societies generate. In contrast to ‘thin’ ideologies ‘full’ ideologies could be nationalism, liberalism, or socialism. Populism is a ‘thin’ ideology; it is diffuse in its lack of a programmatic center of gravity, and open in its ability to cohabit with other, more comprehensive, ideologies.
Thus, populists can be found at different locations along the political spectrum and there is both left-wing populism and right-wing populism. The reason for its adaptability lies in the ‘empty heart’ of populism: populism lacks a commitment to key values. While other ideologies contain, either implicitly or explicitly, a focus on one or more values such as liberty and social justice, populism has no such core to it. This explains why populism is appropriated by such a wide range of political positions. It also explains why populism is very often appended to other ideologies. Populism’s natural position is an adjective attached to other ideas that fill the empty space at the heart of populism. Consequently, populism is more likely to attach itself than be attached to.
As a result, there are quite a few definitions, the most prominent being the popular agency approach, the socioeconomic approach, the charismatic leader approach, the six features of populism according to Isaiah Berlin, and the ideational approach.
Populists differ in how ‘the people’ are defined, but it can be based along class, ethnic, or national lines. Populists typically present ‘the elite’ as comprising the political, economic, cultural, and media establishment, all of which are depicted as a homogenous entity and accused of placing the interests of other groups–such as foreign countries or immigrants–above the interests of ‘the people’. Populism is an ideology to identifying the people as the privileged subject of politics. Its core consists of four distinct but interrelated dimensions:
• The existence of two homogeneous units of analysis: ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’.
• The antagonistic relationship between the people and the elite.
• The idea of popular sovereignty.
• The positive valorization of ‘the people’ and denigration of ‘the elite’.
Looking for direct opposites of populism, there are two: ‘elitism’ and ‘pluralism’.
The three core concepts of populism: The People, the Elite, and the General Will:
Who are the People? It is more than 230 years ago that the constitution of the United States of America started with its first sentence: “We The People (of the United States) …”. Since the writing of the constitution of the United States of America the principle that the people’s consent is the only basis for a legitimate government has become commonplace.
In simplifying the complexities of reality, the concept of ‘the people’ is vague and flexible, with this plasticity benefitting populists who are thus able to expand or contract the concept to suit the chosen criteria of inclusion or exclusion at any given time. In employing the concept of ‘the people’, populists can encourage a sense of shared identity among different groups within a society and facilitate their mobilization toward a common cause.
There are, broadly speaking, three senses in which ‘people’ is commonly used in modern English language: The People as Sovereign, The People as Nation, and The People as opposed to the ruling elite (‘The Common People’).
The first way that populists employ the understanding of ‘the people’ is in the idea that the people are sovereign, that in a democratic state governmental decision should rest with the population and that if they are ignored then they might mobilize or revolt.
The usual implication of the People as Nation is that all those native to a particular country are included, and together they form a community with a common life. There are two images of community, the nation and the people, that have become entangled in our minds. Disentangling them, however, is extremely difficult, since we tend to use the words ‘nation’ and ‘people’ interchangeably. Both the people and the nation are imagined communities.
The national community can be defined either in civic or in ethnic terms. In this sense ‘people’ fits comfortably into the classic conservative mold. When we talk about ‘the German people’ or ‘the people of the United States of America’ we usually mean the nation, the country, implying a corporate whole that includes all living members, but also reaches back into the past and stretches out to the future. The people in this sense are not only a collection of individuals, but an articulated and structured community. What binds us into national communities is our image of a shared heritage that is passed, in modified form, from one generation to another.
It is hard to imagine a cosmopolitan citizenship with enough popular solidarity at a global level to allow a United Nations ‘People’s Assembly’ to hold a global government to account. That means that the people are clearly imagined as a bounded community. In essence, a nation can be best understood as an intergenerational community bound by an imagined heritage of cultural symbols and memories associated with a particular territory or territories.
Although ‘the people’ may at times mean the whole nation, it can equally well refer to a particular section of the nation, to what used to be called the common people, the lower classes. In this more restricted sense, the term can be contrasted with some kind of elite or upper class. Consequently, the People as Underdogs can be seen as the less privileged majority of the whole community.
Besides using the word with an article–‘the people’ or ‘a people’–we talk about ‘people’ in general. That is, People as Everyman can mean individual human beings at large. Speaking of the common people often refers to a critique of the dominant culture, which views the judgements, tastes, and values of ordinary citizens with suspicion. In contrast to this elitist view, the notion of the common people vindicates the dignity and the knowledge of groups who objectively or subjectively are being excluded from power due to their sociocultural and socioeconomic status: ‘From common people comes common sense, and that is better than bookish knowledge.’
Now, who is the Elite? The existence of elites is something that is not only to be endured, but it is something quite natural. In every society, in every era, and in every part of human endeavor there have been elites. For a couple of thousand years there were basically two sources of power: God and Land Property. Now, we have the idea of a meritocracy, like it is presented in the Protestant Ethic (and the Spirit of Capitalism) of Max Weber.
Nevertheless, anti-elitism is a characteristic feature of populism. In populist discourse, the fundamental distinguishing feature of the elite is that it is in an adversarial relation-ship with the people. In defining the elite, populists often condemn not only the political establishment, but also the economic elite, the cultural elite, and the media elite. All of these are portrayed as one homogenous, corrupt group that works against the ‘general will’ of the people. In American politics in particular, this anti-elitist style of popular rhetoric is very common. Nineteenth-century populists contrasted the people with “the plutocrats, the aristocrats, and all the other rats”.
First and foremost, the elite are defined on the basis of power, i.e., they include the people who hold leading positions within politics, the economy, the media, and the arts and sciences. Although condemning almost all those in positions of power within a given society, populists often exclude both themselves and those sympathetic to their cause even when they too are in positions of power.
Americans enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and freedom of association. But to some extent, policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of super affluent Americans. Therefore, America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened. After all, it has been Dwight D. Eisenhower who told us already in 1961 in his farewell address: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”
What is the General Will or volonté générale? It is the third and last core concept of the populist ideology. For populists, the ‘general will’ of ‘the people’ is something that should take precedence over the preferences of ‘the elite’. This concept is closely linked to the work of the Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778).
Rousseau principally explores two routes to achieving and protecting human freedom: the first is a political one aimed at constructing political institutions that make sure that free and equal citizens can co-exist in a community where they themselves are sovereign; the second is a project for child development and education that enables autonomy and avoids the development of the most destructive forms of self-interest. Rousseau thought that humankind is good by nature but is corrupted by society.
Rousseau’s central doctrine in politics is that a state can be legitimate only if it is guided by the ‘general will’ of its members. The general will could be seen as the intention to promote the common good. The community expresses the general will insofar as it intends to promote the common good, and likewise with its individual members. Thus, the general will is intimately related to the common good of the community. The idea of the general will finds its most detailed treatment in “On the Social Contract or Principles of Political Right”. It starts with the famous phrase: “Man was/is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
The key to the reconciliation of the freedom of the individual with the authority of the state is the idea of the general will: that is, the collective will of the citizen body taken as a whole. The general will is the source of law and is willed by each and every citizen. In obeying the law each citizen is thus subject to his or her own will, and consequently, according to Rousseau, remains free.
Thus, the question is “Find a form of association that defends and protects the person and goods of each associate with all the common force, and by means of which each one, united with all, nevertheless obeys only himself and remains as free as before.” This is the fundamental problem which is solved by the social contract.
The answer is: “If, then, everything that is not of the essence of the social compact is set aside, one will find that it can be reduced to the following terms. Each of us puts his person and all his power under the supreme direction of the general will; and in a body we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.” “As long as several men together consider themselves to be a single body, they have only a single will, which relates to their common preservation and the general welfare. Then all the mechanisms of the State are vigorous and simple, its maxims are clear and luminous, it has no tangled, contradictory interests; the common good is clearly apparent everywhere, and it requires only good sense to be perceived.” Consequently, Rousseau takes it for granted that the interests individuals have in common are at least as important as their personal interests, if not more so.
It is obvious that the best way for the general will to emerge is where there is no difference between the governors and the governed; in other words: a political order is one where the sovereign people are governed by their own general will: where the people are both rulers and subjects at the same time. As this is only imaginable in rather small communities, the problems arise with the representation of the general will or the people in larger societies. Subsequently and based on Hobbes, Rousseau presents three forms of government: Democracy, Aristocracy, and Monarchy. Rousseau has a favorite view on the elective aristocracy which could also been seen as a form of an indirect sovereignty.
Rousseau holds that good laws make for good citizens. However, he also believes both that good laws can only be willed by good citizens and that, in order to be legitimate, they must be agreed upon by the assembly. This could be seen as political theology in the sense that Rousseau’s general will has godlike dignity, uniting power and justice. It is an unlimited and unlimitable legislator, the source of the laws of the state as God is of the laws of nature.
However, there are two dangers to the ideal rule of the general will:
First, the general will can err: “One always wants what is good for oneself, but one does not always see it. The people are never corrupted, but they are often fooled, and only then do they appear to want what is bad.” It is not always the case, “that all the characteristics of the general will are still in the majority.”
Second, the representatives don’t follow the general will but their own selfish interests at the cost of the people. This becomes possible, when public service ceases to be the main business of the citizens, and they prefer to serve with their pocketbooks rather than with their persons. Then the state is already close to its ruin. “Is it necessary to march to battle? They pay troops and stay home. Is it necessary to attend the Council? They name deputies and stay home. By dint of laziness and money, they finally have soldiers to enslave the country and representatives to sell it.” That is the reason why Rousseau apparently rejects ‘representative government’.
In emphasizing the general will, many populists share the critique of representative democratic government. This approach regards representative governance as an aristocratic and elitist system in which a country’s citizens are regarded as passive entities. Rather than choosing laws for themselves, these citizens are only mobilized for elections in which their only option is to select their representatives rather than taking a more direct role in legislation and governance. Populists often favor the use of direct democratic measures such as referenda and plebiscites.
- Meaning in Life as a Philosophical Answer
The first line of defense against populism could be a cure for the widely perceived economic problem: too many people feel left behind. The problem is, that there may be no economic cure available, since the economy is an instrument to fulfill the needs of people. But, in Western countries absolute needs like food, shelter, security, etc., are widely fulfilled. What is an unresolved problem are relative needs: the comparison with one’s neighbor: Keeping up with the Joneses. But relative needs can never be fulfilled in the real world, unless we realize equality of outcome for everyone. Alas, that is impossible and has not been achieved in even the most socialist countries.
Perhaps expectation management is what we need. What people in the affluent west typically want is a great partner who is both a terrific friend and a terrific lover; a good material standard of living; well adjusted, happy children; a stimulating and fulfilling job; a varied social life with interesting, amusing and intelligent friends; and regular holidays abroad. Of course, one only needs to read the list to realize that very few people have all these things. Yet there is a widespread belief among the western middle classes, influenced by the media and advertising, that all this can and should be achieved almost by right.
A second problem to be attacked is the status problem. In the good old times many white men had superiority over women and people perceived to be lower status like slaves, Jews and the like. Unfortunately, this problem, too, cannot be solved in the real world. Going back to the roles of men and women in the 19th century and before is not conceivable in a democracy with voting rights for women. Neither will going back to a slave holder society find significant acceptance in today’s world.
If all other possible attempts at solution fail, cure must come from philosophy!
If people feel left behind they feel that other people are to blame. They think that responsibility for their lives is not in their hands, they feel they are being victimized and therefore they might be victims to their victim mentality, victims by choice. The victim mentality is a result of ‘learned helplessness’, it is characterized by pessimism, self-pity, repressed anger and a belief that life is beyond one’s control. Victims not only believe in their helplessness but actually worship it. They blame any and every available scapegoat (fate, circumstances, other people, etc.) for their problems and disappointments. Unlike true victims, people with a victim mentality lament their misfortunes and stop there. The victim style becomes a life-affirming activity: ‘I am miserable, therefore I am.’ They make no effort to learn from their mistakes, to analyze what went wrong, to pick up the pieces and move on. We have to distinguish real victims from those who adopt the role, ignoring their own capacities to improve their situation.
Psychologically, victim mentality is an attractive point of view because if others were responsible, others will have to change their behavior. Constantly acting as a victim can actually have a lot of advantages. But, the victim mentality is also a dangerous point of view because people have no positive influence on their lives anymore. Change must start here, since victim mentality is learned and not inborn, so it is possible for everybody to change it. To reject the ability to live a life someone has imagined results in a live lost, along with its potential and possibilities. We all have only one life to live, and we are able to respond to achieve what we desire.
Although we live in a capitalist society, we should not accept that our lives are reduced to an exclusive financial matter. People are far more than what is in their Bank accounts. Usually, we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups. A person’s family, hometown, gender, church, politics, profession, employment, food habits, sport interests, taste in music, social commitments, etc., make us members of a variety of groups. Each of these collectivities, to all of which this person simultaneously subscribes, gives her a particular identity. None of them, individually, defines a person’s identity. This is also applicable to a person’s wealth.
Here, meaning in life comes into play. As the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who survived the Nazi camps, stated: “As the causation of the feeling of meaninglessness, one may say, albeit in an oversimplifying vein, that people have enough to live by but nothing to live for: they have the means but no meaning.” A proposal for what it is to live a meaningful life: It is one that is actively and at least somewhat successfully engaged in a project (or projects) of positive value.
It has been shown that meaning in life is a fundamental normative category that is distinct from welfare and morality. Viktor Frankl goes so far as to claim that the “striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.” On the other hand, we should not confuse happiness with meaning. Happiness is generally defined as subjective well-being (measured as affect balance and life satisfaction) whereas meaningfulness is presumably both a cognitive and an emotional assessment of whether one’s life has purpose and value. Happiness is about the present–whereas meaningfulness is about linking past, present, and future together. Meaningfulness is associated with doing things for others–whereas happiness is associated with others doing things for oneself. Hence, happiness goes with being a taker more than a giver, while meaningfulness is associated with being a giver more than a taker. Additionally, a meaningful life differs from a moral life full of dutiful action.
Religion was once the default path to meaning, today it is one path among many: a cultural transformation that has many people adrift. Today, what makes life meaningful is something every person has to find out for oneself, i.e., every person is responsible for their life. There are some accounts of what makes life meaningful. According to Frankl meaning in life can be discovered in three different ways: “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”
Frankl’s first account of what makes life meaningful, i.e., by making certain (creative) achievements, raises the question what an achievement is. For an achievement to contribute meaning to a life, the following conditions must be satisfied: (1) Something counts as an achievement for X only if, were X to fail at attaining it, X would have a reason to reassess herself. (2) Something is an achievement for X only if, when X attains it, X can justifiably enlarge her self-conception. (3) Something is an achievement for X only if it is difficult for the average human to do. (4) Something is an achievement for X only if it is difficult for X to do. It is only when an achievement satisfies these four conditions it contributes meaning to a life.
The second way of living a meaningful life is experiencing good relationships with family members and friends, and even experiencing nature. Here, it has been argued that especially biological ties are genuinely meaningful. Direct acquaintance with biological relatives helps people to know what they are like, knowledge of family history helps people to understand what it means to be like this. As human beings are quintessentially social creatures, it is only through social interaction that we, as human beings, come to have a sense of self. It is on account of being valued by their parents that children come to see their activities as having meaning. Next to parenthood, friendship is the most remarkable way in which human beings are purely valued by another human being.
It could be questioned whether attitude as the third point is an independent source of meaning. Attitude, especially in frustrating life phases, can be seen as an opportunity to hold on to the other sources of meaning in remembering past meaningful life, in experiencing a good present, for example good relationships, or in hope for future meaningful activities. When attitude is phrased in a broader sense, i.e., by developing a moral character, there might be a chance to give it some meaningfulness. There is something about the nature of a moral life that grants one a non-trivial advantage when it comes to leading a meaningful life.
Everybody can find out for himself what best suits him. Although we are born with different talents, everybody can find his role. At least, everybody (including self-perceived left behind people) can find someone weaker than himself around him, a child, a sick or handicapped person, or an old and ailing person. Everybody can find meaning in life and make a difference in helping others who are in great need.
A philosophical answer to populism might be that we first take responsibility for our lives, second find meaning in our lives, and third revive family and community which is a good start for a meaningful life. If we want to help those that feel left behind we can help them find meaning in their lives because people need to be needed. As Nietzsche said: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
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