Friday, January 29, 2010

Essay on Populism in France and the U.S.

"Populism" has been on the rise in the last few months. Anti-establishment rhetoric has been particularly in vogue with the current economic crisis.
The situations in France and the U.S. may have similarities in that both leaders try to channel people's anger at the financial world - see Sarkozy's extreme rhetoric in Davos and Obama's more moderate attack on bankers in Washington.
But populism in France or the US also take different forms - Sarkozy's burqa issue vs. Obama's budget freeze . Of course, populism is not limited to world leaders - the opposition has been riding the wave of anger using its extreme form to reap political benefits. Besançenot and his New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), or George Frêche in France and of course Sarah Palin or Tea Party movement in the U.S.
In other words, everyone their own.....

What's much more interesting is how the word "populism" takes on different meanings and connotations in France and the US.
A French magazine rightly wrote this week "In the US, populism is not a dirty word" ("Aux USA, le populisme n'est pas un gros mot"). If anything, the American usage of the term is ambivalent at best whereas in France, and the rest of Europe, it is used only in the demagogic sense. Why is that?

The American exception has to do with its history of course and possibly with a linguistic confusion between "popular" and "populism".
As David Brooks remind his NYT reader, populism has been very popular with the elite, but I disagree with him that the U.S. has been built by anti-populists. For every Hamilton or Lincoln, you also have an Andrew Jackson (nicknamed King Mob for obvious reasons) or a Ronald Reagan.
In fact, I would argue that the United-States was built if not by populists, certainly by populist ideas - the rejection of the establishment of Old Europe, and an anti-intellectual religious fervor wary of contemporary education and continental Enlightenment which was feared to subvert belief and faith.
In the American consciousness, the ideal American has become not a man who thinks, not a man from the ruling class but a common man who is a builder - from the taming of the wild west to today's small business - a man who solely depends on his practical ingenuity and not on his intellectual or academic achievement.
Very tellingly, the Populist Movement of the late 19th century was started by small farmers and at the core of William Jenning Bryan - the famous American populist of the eraly 20th century - was his religious beliefs. Those movements are always doomed to fail but they impact the political culture.
I always argue that reality is less important than perception. A politician viewed as an illiterate incompetent can be elected to the highest office, while those associated with Ivy League Schools and the East Coast establishment can easily lose elections, if they don't downplay their background.

The reason why, contrary to America, "populism" is only used as a negative term in Europe probably also has to do with its history. I would think that the impact of fascism in the 1930s has made the Europeans extremely cautious of "populist" movement. "Populism" is indeed today usually associated in France with extreme right-wing movements such as Poujadism and the National Front.
The French Revolution was different in nature from the American Revolution.It was driven by the intellectual elite of the Enlightenment, and education has been perceived as a liberating force and has since become a tenet of the French Republic. Culturally the French have always looked up to their intellectual elite to make sense of the world around them.
At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, the French have always had a fascination for strong lpolitical eaders (from Napoleon to De Gaulle or Sarkozy) with quasi-monarchical powers, and for the elite. Indeed French society remains very hierarchical as do businesses. It is also very centralized which makes strong leaders necessary.
The French educational system is also very elitist which is culturally accepted because the ideal is that everyone may eventually become the elite. (This has become one of the Republican Myths). The reality may be very different but the perception is that every French person can have his son or daughter be some day part of the elite (hence the concours to become a civil servants). In other words, in France, you don't so much want to get rid of the elite, as you want to be part of it.

1 comment:

Tororoshiru said...

A recent NYT article by PATRICK HEALY, published February 3, 2010, offers a good illustration for this English usage: "As a theater director, Diane Paulus is a proud populist. What does that mean exactly? For Ms. Paulus it involves creating shows that appeal to the mainstream as well as theater snobs, and blurring the line between viewers and actors, which is why so many of her productions rely on an interactive relationship with the audience".

Founders of the TNP (Théatre National Populaire) could have used the same words exactly for describing their agenda; however, no French reviewer would have called them populists... although, ironically, "populisme" and "populistes" were originally used in France for naming a litterary, not a political, school of thought.