Against Anti-Politics

Technocracy and populism are dead ends.



In a year dominated by anti-establishment outsiders like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, to defend the traditional political system is to swim against the current. To the extent that their campaigns pressure the political establishment to take seriously immigration law enforcement or expansion of the safety net, they may do some good. But they are harmful to the extent that they reinforce what has been called “antipolitics,” the outright rejection of conventional representative democracy in theory, not just in practice, for alternatives which are supposed to promote the public interest or reflect the popular will. Like it or not, though, antipolitics is a dead end.

Antipolitics comes in two varieties: plebiscitary populism and public interest progressivism. Each promises an alternative to the messy politics of political parties, interest groups, and lobbies. But although they share a common enemy in conventional party politics, the two schools of antipolitics are opposites.

The theory of plebiscitary populism is that a homogeneous people with shared values and a single Rousseauian General Will has been betrayed by a corrupt political establishment. The legislature in particular is seen as corrupt.

The corrupt political elite can be circumvented by one of two methods. One is direct democracy, in the form of laws enacted by the voters themselves, like initiatives and referenda. The other method is plebiscitary democracy — the popular election of a president or other executive figure who will represent the Will of the People in their battle with the corrupt establishment. In theory the two methods could be combined: for example, a plebiscitary president could propose initiatives to be ratified by the voters as a whole, bypassing the legislative branch.

The other theory of antipolitics, public interest progressivism, is quite different. The villain is the same — the legislative branch, dominated by special interests — but the remedy is completely different.

The purpose of government, in this view, is not to do what the people want, but to represent the public interest. The public interest is not whatever a majority wants. Indeed, a majority may be as misinformed about or indifferent to the public interest as special-interest minorities.

The public interest is a somewhat mystical thing that can only be discerned by intellectually brilliant experts who are not corrupt because they do not represent any particular interest group in society. These experts are wholly altruistic. Unlike special-interest lobbyists or the politicians beholden to them, the experts get up every morning and rededicate themselves to the good of the whole. Because they are the only truly public-spirited citizens, nonpartisan experts should govern.

The ideal of public interest progressivism is not democracy, but technocracy. From the premise that nonpartisan experts should rule comes the progressive technocratic agenda. This involves transferring as much decision-making power as possible from legislatures, which may be corrupted by special interests, to bureaucracies staffed by nonpartisan civil servants and commissions filled with nonpartisan experts.

Advocates of pure technocracy, like the Technocracy Movement in the U.S. in the 1930s, have been rare. Most public interest progressives would allow the outward forms of conventional politics to remain, while the power of elected officials is drained and transferred to non-elected, nonpartisan officials who are insulated to some degree from politics.

Plebiscitary populism and public interest progressivism, then, are radically different cures for what many dislike about conventional politics. But both panaceas are snake oil.

Let’s start with plebiscitary populism. The premise is that there is a homogeneous capital-p People, with shared values and a common opinion. But all societies, including highly homogeneous ones like Japan and South Korea, are divided along class and regional and occupational lines, and often along religious and ethnic lines as well, quite apart from political ideologies.

Polls that purport to show what a national majority wants are misleading. The fact that a majority favors this entitlement policy or that immigration policy does not mean that the same majority supports both policies. On different subjects there are often different majorities, made up of different groups. This makes it impossible to speak honestly of a single, undifferentiated will of the people.

If you accept that the public is a kaleidoscope of groups, combining and recombining in different ways on different issues, then the reform program of plebiscitary populism falls apart. To begin with, no single Great Leader, no Tribune of the Masses, can adequately represent the diversity of groups in even a small and homogeneous society. But a legislature can. The case for an elected Caesar or Cromwell or Napoleon to represent the unitary people against the corrupt legislature then falls apart. The legislature may very well be corrupt, but replacing legislative power with executive power is not the answer.

The problem of different majorities for different positions also bedevils attempts at direct democracy, like the use of initiatives or referenda to substitute for ordinary legislation. Different groups may unite to form majority coalitions in support of different initiatives. As a result, ballot initiatives do not reflect a single coherent program.

Even worse, ballot initiatives are inflexible. At least in legislatures, some compromise among representatives of different groups is possible. On ballot initiatives, like those in California and Switzerland, there is no room for compromise, only Yes or No in response to fixed language. And in most cases it is harder to repeal bad initiatives than bad laws.

What about public interest progressivism? This theory of antipolitics is even more naïve and misguided than plebiscitary populism.

Public interest progressivism posits the existence of a minority of citizens who share two characteristics: intellectual brilliance and altruism. Their intellectual brilliance allows the experts to perceive the true public interest, unlike the dumb and ignorant majority. And their altruism ensures that the genius experts will think and act solely on behalf of the public interest, without any selfishness or any partiality toward their families, their friends, or other affinity groups.

Do these superhuman, saintly geniuses exist? I have spent a life in or around politics, at the local, state, and federal levels. I have yet to encounter one of these rare creatures. I long ago concluded that the unbiased, genius-level public interest expert is a mythical creature, like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. Public interest progressivism belongs to the field of cryptozoology, not political science.

I know many people in the sectors favored by nonprofit public interest progressivism, like the federal civil service and the military, in addition to nonprofit philanthropies and think tanks. Most of them are well-educated and more than ordinarily public-spirited.

But most of them also expect professional-class salaries which enable them to enjoy upper middle class lifestyles, in a nation in which the majority make much less money and live far less well. If they have children, they try to maximize the chance that their children will out-compete those of their fellow Americans and remain in the elite social class into which they were born, by sending them to the best schools or taking advantage of preferential admissions policies for the children of legacies at elite schools. I have never met a progressive technocrat who has adopted voluntary poverty or given up his or her children to adoption at birth in order to avoid potential conflicts of interest between nepotism and the public interest.

Public interest progressivism is wrong about the public interest, too. The purpose of government is not to deduce policies from some abstract conception of the public interest. It is to further a relatively small number of interests that are shared in common by otherwise different groups within a country, in a piecemeal fashion, while avoiding civil war among sub-national groups and keeping the political class from becoming self-perpetuating and predatory. Transferring power from politicians accountable to voters to unaccountable experts, however educated and idealistic those experts may be, merely replaces imperfect democracy with oligarchy, even if the oligarchs pretend to be wise technocrats.

In the words of Max Weber, politics is the slow drilling of hard boards. It is a messy and unpleasant process. Many politicians are indeed corrupt and hypocritical and many legislative bodies are indeed captured by special interests. It is tempting to dream of radically different systems — government by experts, direct government by the people or their tribunes. But these cures for the maladies of representative democracy are worse than the diseases. •

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.