Populism, Elitism, And Democracy

Populism, Elitism, And Democracy

Authority And Expertise In The Age Of Brexit And Trump

By Professor Andy Hamilton (Durham University)

January 15, 2017         Picture: Carlos Barria/Reuters.

This article is part of The Critique’s January/February 2017 Issue “Stick It To The Man: A Year Of Anglo-American Populist Revolt Against A Changing Culture And An Obtuse Political Establishment.”

Populism, elitism and liberalism

In 1920, H.L. Mencken made a prophecy that has only recently been realised:

“As democracy is perfected, the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people.  On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and complete narcissistic moron.”[1]

Mencken condemned democracy for its populism – its promise of a prosperity that it could not deliver. In fact, following World War II democracy did deliver that prosperity for several decades. It has become a commonplace observation that its recent relative failure – a failure of fair distribution as much as economic growth – has resulted in the resurgence of populism, and the American people’s extraordinary choice for their head of state.

The populist turn recurs throughout modern societies, depending on economic conditions, cultural stresses such as migration, and rapid technological change. But 2016 is notable for its “rage against elitist politics”, as British Labour politician John Cruddas put it.[2] Donald Trump’s election and the result of the June referendum in the UK are regularly linked as expressions of populism. The rage against elites is a rejection of expert authority. Thus Michael Gove, a prominent figure of the Leave campaign in June, refusing to name any economists who backed exit from the EU, notoriously claimed that “people in this country have had enough of experts”.[3]  It may be that some areas of expertise – perhaps chiefly in the social sciences – are accorded more respect than they deserve. But the idea that expertise itself does not deserve respect is an extraordinary view. Presumably Gove would be happy to be operated on by an amateur brain surgeon, or advised by an amateur lawyer.

“The idea that expertise itself does not deserve respect is an extraordinary view.”

There are contrasting explanations for this populist surge. Explanation (1) is neutral towards the elites: the electorate is no longer deferential to the great and good, and is more open to seduction by demagogues. Explanation (2) says: the political elites have done nothing to prevent depredation by economic elites, and indeed have participated in and benefited from it themselves, hence their unpopularity. (1) is consistent with the elites being largely benign; (2) assumes that they are largely malign, or at least culpably ignorant of the conditions of ordinary life. The explanations are often combined: (1) is itself explained by the masses’ recognition of (2), and is thus a sign of their greater political maturity and sophistication.

An example of explanation (1) is Sir David Attenborough’s statement:

“There’s confusion…between populism and parliamentary democracy…Do we really want to live by this kind of [June 2016] referendum? What we mean by parliamentary democracy is surely that we find someone we respect who we think is probably wiser than we are, who is prepared to take the responsibility of pondering difficult things and then trust him – or her – to vote on our behalf.”[4]

A more direct, and somewhat sexist, statement of elitism is the argument by Jean Rey, ex-President of the European Commission, who in 1974 deplored the first European referendum in the UK:

“A referendum on this matter consists of consulting people who don’t know the problems instead of consulting people who know them. I would deplore a situation in which the policy of this great country should be left to housewives. It should be decided instead by trained and informed people”.[5]

Any suggestion that the voice of the people, as expressed in a referendum, should be opposed by their elected representatives, is now regarded as electoral suicide. The idea of political leadership as the articulation of people’s desires – the working out of an inchoate set of aspirations – has been replaced by the direct democratic principle: the fact that a policy is voted for by the majority of the electorate is of itself a reason to implement it, even if it appears to be against the national interest. For populists, politics involves the direct translation of an uncriticisable popular will.

Many factors have been cited as an explanation for this development, most notably the effects of globalisation. The rise of social media is also frequently-cited; allegedly it has “removed filters to expression, encouraging a sense that all views were equally valid…The established media, the traditional filters, largely abandoned that role. It became too easy to read only confirmation of one’s own prejudices”.[6] As John Skorupski comments, “belief in the normative authority of autonomous reason…has virtually collapsed across large parts of the intellectual and political world”, to be replaced by a crass subjectivism.[7] The situation is worse than Skorupski states – in the era of “post-truth politics” with its proliferation of “fake news”, facts as well as values are subjugated to personal opinion. But for liberal theorist Norberto Bobbio, populism is an ever-present danger to democracy. It is a response to what he calls “the broken promises of democracy”: “the survival of invisible power [of elites], the persistence of oligarchies, the suppression of mediating bodies, the renewed vigor in the representation of particular interests, the break-down of participation, and the failure to educate citizens”.[8] Some of these broken promises, Bobbio argues, were illusory, while others have turned out to be misplaced hopes.

It is not political elites as such that are the target of populist attack – liberal elites is the favoured pejorative. Many on the left regard these elites as in thrall to global capitalism and bourgeois values; for them, liberalism is the political philosophy of capitalism. But although political or philosophical liberalism has always been conflated with laissez-faire economics – and the tendency has become more widespread – the relationship between them is questionable. There is a connection with classical more than modern liberalism, since the latter standpoint is consistent with a mixed economy and welfare state, and indeed is taken by some thinkers to imply these. But only a Marxist critique of liberalism would simply equate liberal values with bourgeois capitalist ones. Many liberals – including the present writer – regard their position as consistent with a socialist critique of capitalism. What is excluded by liberalism is the violent revolutionary overthrow of capitalism – because violent revolution also overthrows individual liberty. To condemn “liberal elites” for the excesses of globalised capitalism is to do a disservice to liberalism; indeed, the term “liberal elites” is often used in a lazy and vacuous way. It is fair to condemn the elites for failing to ensure fair distribution of the fruits of capitalism; but that has nothing to do with their commitment to liberal values.

It may be objected, as Mark Kelly does, that:

“Liberals aren’t in favour of any form of overthrow of capitalism, even through peaceful, democratic means, because a communist government will curtail certain canonical liberal freedoms in relation to property and the market. Indeed for liberals, freedoms trump democracy, whereas communists believe the opposite – even if their conception of democracy can be highly at variance with a liberal conception.”[9]

But this objection rests on a stark contrast between capitalism and communism, with no middle ground of socialism and welfarism that liberals may occupy. It is neo-liberals who advocate the position that Kelly ascribes to liberals.

Trump voters do not want to overthrow capitalism, of course – though they want to restrain its global excesses. But unlike leftists, whose attack on liberal elites targets capitalism rather than elitism, populists do mean something specific by the phrase “liberal elites”. They reject standards in culture and morality that are not based on popular appeal, while undermining the framework of liberty in accordance with law, in favour of populist leadership.

What then is liberalism? As Skorupski argues, it is both a moral and political philosophy, and a political framework for policy.[10] The latter he terms the liberal order, comprising (i) equal liberty for all citizens – the right to act as one chooses, subject to a law protecting the equal rights of others; (ii) special protection of liberty of thought and discussion, and (iii) entrenchment of these principles in an effective legal framework that guarantees equality of every citizen under law. Philosophical liberalism, for Skorupski, comprises individualism in ethics – the view that all value and right reduces to value of or for individuals, or their rights; equal respect for all, based on the belief that all are equally capable of self-governance; and liberty of thought and discussion. Skorupski comments that, “For a philosophical liberal, liberal order is universally the ideally best order; [but] a process of development must take place for a civil society that can maintain it successfully to emerge.”

The idea that liberalism and democracy are necessarily linked is quite a recent development. However, Skorupski holds, “one can argue that the liberal’s philosophical thesis of equal respect creates at least a prima facie case for unconditional equal rights of political participation”.[11]

Liberalism in its broadest sense requires rejection of populism and advocacy either of elitism or – the alternative I will defend – meritocracy. My focus is on what these concepts involve, rather than the practical steps that can be taken to defend them; but obviously these issues are connected. Elitism may be a legitimate description, but one that it nonetheless inadvisable to use, because of the pejorative associations gathered over a period of use.

Since I began thinking about liberalism and elitism, around ten years ago, the conceptual geography of the area has changed. At that time it seemed necessary to argue that elitism is opposed not by egalitarianism, but by populism. When opposed by egalitarianism, elitism says that a larger share of resources should be devoted to the preferences of the elite.[12] For instance, John Rawls’ neutralist liberalism, according to which government should not promote specific spiritual, moral or cultural goods, regards inegalitarian resource-allocation as the hallmark of elitism; so does Hurka in his work on perfectionism.[13] Now it is true that elitists tend to oppose egalitarian distribution; but that opposition is not definitive. To treat the problem of culture and democracy in terms of resource-allocation is philistine; it fails to acknowledge art and the aesthetic as essential to human well-being.

The preceding arguments are no longer necessary, because it is now common to contrast elitism with populism rather than egalitarianism; though at the same time, “elite” has come to be used more broadly, especially by historians, as a term for those with economic as well as political power. The electoral and referendum politics of 2016 have reinforced a development that has been increasingly evident: Western societies have had a proletarian revolution, though not of the kind that Marx envisaged – it is a revolution that joyfully embraces consumer capitalism. The era when working people were mostly deferential to their alleged social superiors has passed. They no longer feel inferior, just oppressed; they are angry at being denied the prosperity and security that politicians have so blithely promised, and feel that they are losers in the era of globalisation. This applies with particular force to those in the geographical periphery or provinces – between the coasts in the US, and outside South-East England in the UK. Thus the UK Leave vote is regarded as the revenge of the elderly and less well-educated, and those from smaller provincial places.

What exactly is meant by “populism” – or more precisely, the populism-elitism dichotomy? The Oxford English Dictionary says: “a member or adherent of a political party seeking to represent the interests of ordinary people”. But that is a very broad definition. To talk about populism before the era of democracy would be mistaken, I think – Spartacus’s slave uprising or the Peasant’s Revolt are not sensible examples. Populism and elitism appear only with representative systems. American commentators have traced the phenomenon at least as far as the nativism of President Andrew Jackson. Nativism aims to protect the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants; “Jacksonian democracy” implied slavery, subjugation of Native Americans, and white supremacy. Nativism and populism have recurred in American politics since Jackson’s time. The nativist Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s claimed that immigrants were taking the jobs of honest Americans. William Jennings Bryan won the Democratic Party nomination in 1896 with a populist program that defended producers against non-producers.

Populists are opposed to established elites, and the logical implication of their position is permanent revolution of the Maoist kind. But in practice, their idea is suggestive, and populists rarely look further than a one-off cure. For Müller in What Is Populism?, it is a “moralistic imagination of politics”, “a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified [and] ultimately fictional…people against elites who are deemed corrupt”. Just as for Bobbio, populism has always been a danger to democracy, Müller regards it as a “permanent shadow of modern represent­ative democracy, and a constant peril”.[14] The populist believes that there is such a thing as the popular will, and that they embody it; populism is essentially anti-pluralist, therefore, Müller holds. The hallmark of populism in power is colonization of the state, mass clientelism, discriminatory legalism, and repression of civil society. As Lionel Barber writes, “Trump’s…lack of respect for minority rights…mirrors the more extreme Brexiter demands that the ‘will of the people’ be respected at all costs. Anyone who raises objections – the media, the opposition or, indeed, the judiciary – risks being branded ‘enemies of the people’”.[15] Barber writes that this is not merely populism run rampant, but a denial of politics itself. (The Daily Mail seems not to realise that the phrase is Lenin’s, from November 1917.)

Populism is anti-elitist, but what does this mean? Populists may say that they are not sceptical of expertise as such, but sceptical about the expertise of the traditional or present political elite. According to populists, career politicians in the Washington Beltway or Westminster bubble fail to exercise expert judgment in areas of politics affecting the welfare of ordinary people – they have become detached from the kinds of experience that would make them experts in what people need, and so are ignorant as well as corrupt. Populism in this sense does not reject expertise as such. For his supporters, perhaps, Trump has business expertise that means – in the clichéd formulation – that he can get things done; he represents the will of the people, and has the competence to do what is required. (Although not successful at making money, he is clearly very good at developing and maintaining a brand – his election victory has been called “the triumph of the brand”.) On a stricter definition, Trump might be considered nativist rather than populist. The leadership of UKIP, in contrast, is undoubtedly populist. Although also from a privileged background like Trump, former leader Nigel Farage pretends to be a man of the people; he has a bloke-ish sense of humour and is frequently photographed enjoying a pint of beer.

I have assumed that populism, correctly understood, rejects expertise in certain areas – but allows it in brain-surgery and competitive sport. The implications of this assumption are developed in the remainder of the article. We should first explore the implications for liberalism, and its relation to democracy. As Vernon Bogdanor notes, there is a tension between democracy and liberalism; he takes the side of democracy. For him, a referendum “is a safeguard against major constitutional changes that the people do not want. It prevented devolution to Scotland and Wales in 1979 and devolution to the regions in 2004…[It] is now ejecting Britain from the EU, against the wishes of both government and parliament”. (Against Bogdanor’s analysis, its consequences in 2016 are radical rather than conservative, however.) “Liberal-minded people find themselves uncomfortable with the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people”, he continues. “They use arguments against it similar to those deployed by 19th-century conservatives opposed to the extension of the franchise. Many liberals have become elitists”. He rejects this perspective: “The high turnout of 72 per cent in the referendum seems to me a striking illustration of democratic commitment on the part of the least fortunate in our society…The greatest threat to democracy comes from a passive electorate”.[16] Under the new constitutional dispensation, Bogdanor argues, the people rather than parliament decide major constitutional change; direct democracy is now embodied in the unwritten British constitution.

Müller and Bobbio are more clearly on the side of liberalism. Müller wants to characterise democracy as inherently liberal; Bobbio builds liberal values into democracy, and so finds “illiberal democracy” an incoherent notion. Both left and right critics of bourgeois democracy have long advocated what is in effect illiberal democracy, found in Erdogan’s Turkey, Chávez and Maduro’s Venezuela, and Orbán’s Hungary. British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn values democracy over liberalism, and presumably – like many on the more radical left – regards the latter as denoting unfettered laissez-faire capitalism. But the description “illiberal democracy” is one that Müller resists, on the grounds that it gives a fig-leaf of legitimacy to authoritarian figures such as Erdogan and Orbán. It allows them to retain the label of “democrat”, when in fact they reject the liberal rights of free speech, media pluralism and protection of minorities that constitute democracy. Populism is not just illiberal; it “distorts the democratic process”; populists are a real danger to democracy, not just to liberalism.[17]

There is truth in what Müller argues; it is hard to separate the values of liberalism and democracy. But I think he is wrong to deny the coherence or possibility of illiberal democracy. To hold that democracy has value in itself, distinct from its liberal implications – as the direct democratic principle, stated above, holds – is populist. Müller suggests that being critical of elites is a necessary but not sufficient condition for populism; East German protesters in 1989 who cried “We are the people” were making a legitimate claim against an oppressive regime. But he does not present a clear enough picture of what populism is opposed to. It may be an aberration of “liberal democracy”, but what in liberal democracy, precisely, does it reject? To answer this question, we must broaden his account to include populism in art, culture and other spheres. 


Elitism and meritocracy

The Shorter OED defines elitism as “advocacy of or reliance on the leadership or dominance of a select group” – a group that its critics would describe as self-perpetuating, exclusive and non-meritocratic. Elitism is the denial of populism, as we have seen. But it is necessary to characterise the central sense of “populism” – denial of the possibility of better judgment in moral, political, aesthetic and cultural matters.[18]

Populists allow that neuro-surgeons, physicists and professional sportsmen must possess genuine skill or expertise – no one objects to elitism in brain surgery, or in selection of the Olympic team. What they deny are elitist claims that moral, cultural, and spiritual ends and values invite deliberation about ends and not merely about means, and that some individuals are more penetrating judges of these questions than others.[19] Until recently, cultural elitism was the primary target of populists, who found it in opera houses, ancient universities, and public service broadcasters. To describe opera as an elitist artform is to say, using current sloganising, that it is “obscure, not relevant to ordinary people, socially exclusive”. Populists target high culture, and the claims of objectivity in aesthetic judgment which underlies the artistic canon. For them, the artworld of curators, connoisseurs and critics possesses the illusion of expertise, purporting to legislate on what are purely subjective matters of taste and opinion.

Populists reject critical authority in any form. Hence for Curt Ducasse, “A person’s taste may change…but whether we call the change development or perversion depends solely on whether it changes in the direction of our own or away from it. A change in our own taste is for each of us, by definition, development…” This is the subjectivism that, as Skorupski describes, has supplanted autonomous reason.[20] Populists regard judgment by the critics as inhibiting the individual’s aesthetic response, undermining their trust in their own opinions.

Populist subjectivism is misconceived. The question, I believe, is what form one’s rejection of it should take. Opponents of populism, as I am characterising them, make both a moral and aesthetic, and a political claim – that there are authorities in moral and aesthetic matters, and that these should have social influence in their sphere. For Skorupski, liberal elitism “affirms that there are better judges…whose natural influence must [not] be impeded”.[21] This is the case made by J.S. Mill in On Liberty, which argues that individuality is valuable for innovation. There is conservative elitism, but it rests on the very different phenomenon of inculcating communal habits of allegiance and obedience. Elitism, for conservatives, implies a hierarchy required by stability, not one required by innovation.

My concern is to contrast elitist and meritocratic alternatives to populist rejection of authority. Both alternatives are committed to a canon, and to a standard of taste in aesthetic judgment. But meritocracy is distinctive in its notion of authority, and in its more positive response to popular culture. It differs in its commitment to the recognition and requirement that those who are capable of appreciating the classics – even though they may be a minority – originate in any section of the population. For the meritocrat, the novice’s responses have standing in critical discourse. This is the claim of the democracy of taste: that anyone who puts a sincere effort into a critical judgment has the right to have it taken seriously – yet the judgments of those with practice and experience in criticism carry particular weight.[22] It is possible for someone largely ignorant of art history to have valuable responses to artworks; sometimes, indeed, knowledge can make one look past the artwork, and not experience it fully. There is no comparable democratising element in the disciplines of science, engineering, medicine, or history. One could not seriously suggest that anyone is entitled to an opinion concerning how many kinds of subatomic particle there are, or the likely load-bearing capacities of a bridge design. In science, the opinions of the untrained are worthless.

“One could not seriously suggest that anyone is entitled to an opinion concerning how many kinds of subatomic particle there are, or the likely load-bearing capacities of a bridge design.”

Both aesthetics and ethics exhibit twin poles of spontaneity and dialogue – we decide moral and aesthetic questions for ourselves, but not by ourselves – though we seem to be more equal in ethics than aesthetics. The claims I make for the aesthetic novice are minimal; in aesthetics, in contrast to ethics, the effects of education are greater. Cultural elitists, with their exclusive conception of authority, reject the democracy of taste.

Elitism is the diametrically opposed position to populism, but the term “elitist” has acquired too many negative connotations for liberals to use it with equanimity. Hence I propose instead the term “meritocracy”. Meritocracy involves a system of social organisation where appointments are made on the basis of ability rather than wealth, family connections or class – rule by the meritorious. Meritocracy’s critics regard it merely as a new legitimation for social elites.[23] But their objection seems to be that genuine meritocracy is unattainable, not that it is objectionable – that all hierarchies create an entrenched and self-perpetuating elite that is not effectively open to all the talents. These critics rightly criticise the rigid stratification and low social mobility increasingly prevalent in Western societies, especially the US and Britain – without recognising that these are factors which undermine meritocracy. Without meritocracy, how would scientists, surgeons, generals, engineers, teachers, town planners, bankers, broadcasters, artists and athletes be selected? The alternative is the insanity of Mao’s Cultural Revolution or Pol Pot’s “Year Zero”.

One could argue that elitism can be meritocratic, and that meritocracy is elitist; my definition separates the two positions.[24] On my account, meritocracy requires an open, non-exclusive body of authorities, and a nuanced notion of authority. It agrees with elitism that some individuals are more penetrating judges of moral, cultural, and spiritual questions, and should have social influence; it denies that the resulting body of authorities is exclusive. Scruton is rightly regarded as a cultural elitist. But he does not discuss whether “elite” in his sense refers to the non-meritocratic social elite which has historically enjoyed privileged access to high culture – or to those of whatever social background who have created and enjoyed it. If the latter, he does not agonise over the problem of widening access.[25] The problem with elitism is not that members of elites lack individual merit, but that they resist inclusion of able candidates from social and intellectual backgrounds unlike their own. Aesthetic meritocracy recognises, and requires, that those capable of appreciating high culture or the classics – even though they may be a minority – originate in any section of the population. Up to the 19th century, Western culture was largely the preserve of a class or classes with a virtual monopoly on leisure. Now, the average person living in a Western liberal society has sufficient leisure to become an aesthete in a minimal but essential sense – that is, they have the leisure to develop an appreciation of art and the aesthetic as ends in themselves.

Elitism seems to involve what is now often termed epistemic injustice – the silencing of speakers who are not accorded a critical voice. Miranda Fricker developed the concept, as a description of failure to accord someone’s testimony a level of trust, especially because of prejudice. Thus the trial of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird shows the rejection of honest testimony by an African-American in an early 20th century Southern town, while the less than credible testimony of white witnesses is accepted. For Fricker, epistemic injustice is rooted in culpable prejudice; there is an ordinary entitlement to have one’s words heard and responded to, that is fundamental to human learning, respect, enjoyment, and engagement with others.[26] The notion of epistemic injustice in social and artistic criticism can be seen as a development of Fricker’s notion, addressed by the notion of democracy of taste, above.

A meritocratic conception of authority insists that even if, as elitism asserts, some people are more penetrating judges of political, cultural and moral questions than others, each individual must ultimately decide these questions for themselves. As J.S. Mill recognised, what is required is not “the blind submission of dunces to men [and women] of knowledge, but the intelligent deference of those who know much, to those who know still more”.[27] As Skorupski comments:

“in free and inclusive debate more and less authoritative voices inevitably emerge…[but] one’s personal independence or dignity is not diminished by free recognition of genuine authority in the common pursuit of truth…On the contrary, to recognise it is a mark of inward freedom”.[28]

The ideal of liberal education and the university is that a teacher inspires autonomous thinkers, not slavish adherents. The undermining of deference since the Victorian era has generally been liberating, when it reinforces the possibility of un-self-abasing respect for intellectual authority. But it has also meant a decline of authority as such.

“The ideal of liberal education and the university is that a teacher inspires autonomous thinkers, not slavish adherents.”

David Hume’s claim in his classic essay “Of The Standard of Taste”, that the taste of all individuals is not upon an equal footing, is defensible. This inequality is circumstantial, not essential as elitists maintain.[29] On my interpretation, Hume bases critical authority on experience and practice, rather than on specialised knowledge and exclusive critical language; so one can develop Hume’s account in a way that does not subjugate individual response to expert opinion. Less experienced artlovers do not “defer” to the critic; rather, they debate and perhaps concede that the other’s evaluation or interpretation is superior. Some populists argue that for Hume, “the qualification of some subjects of judgment is effected by the simultaneous disqualification of others” through the exercise of cultural power. But the process of educating a sensibility rests not on disqualification, but on a distinction between those who are qualified and those who are not yet qualified. Elitists, in contrast, are not eager to empower anyone other than the presently qualified elite.

According to a meritocratic notion of authority, developing a critical sensibility involves discovering both who the true critics are, and what true criticism involves. Aspiring artlovers do not just learn from the critics, as a matter of fact as it were, which works have artistic value. They develop the capacity to make critical judgments themselves, to become – at least in an amateur way – true critics. It would be perverse for someone to say “I just defer to critical opinion. If I want to buy a painting by a contemporary artist, or recordings of Jamaican dub music, I’ll ask an expert’s opinion on which to go for. I’m not interested in developing my own autonomous judgment.” This aesthetically alienated individual mistakes the beginning of the process of appreciation for its end. But the opposed extreme is also misguided. “I never read the critics, I just form my own judgment” – the claim of the aesthetic solipsist – and “I never form my own judgment, I just read the critics” are equally perverse.


“Giving people what they want”

This meritocratic interpretation of critical judgment gains support from Jonathan Rose’s defence of the canon in The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. His research shows that critical judgment, as expressed in the artistic canon, is not simply the preserve of a social elite. Rose examined published and unpublished memoirs, diaries, oral histories, newspapers, surveys, polls, library and school records from 19th- and 20th-century Britain. He asked: What books did they read?  What did they think of them? The picture that arises, Rose argues, is of a working class determined to achieve self-education. As Stefani Collini points out in a review, “The real subject of his book is not ‘the intellectual life of the British working classes’, but ‘the reading habits of the autodidact tradition within the British industrial working class from the early 19th century to the mid 20th'”[30]. Collini is sceptical, arguing that Rose mostly collates anecdotal evidence from those who enjoy telling this kind of anecdote about themselves later in their lives; but even if Rose’s case is qualified, it is still impressive.

Rose undermines the assumption of Cultural Studies that the dominant class alone defines and maintains the value of high culture. He argues that classic literature offers a versatility of insight which is itself empowering and subversive: “If the classics offered artistic excellence, psychological insights, and penetrating philosophy to the governing classes…then the politics of equality must begin by redistributing this knowledge to the governed classes”.[31] Rose shows that weavers, miners, cooks, wheelwrights, fishermen, milk maids, mechanics, shepherds, and farmers read an impressive range of canonical literature: Dickens, Milton, Tennyson, Ruskin, Marx, Shakespeare and many others.

Rose relates how shepherds in the Cheviot Hills maintained a kind of circulating library, leaving books they had read in designated crannies in boundary walls.  Books were then borrowed by another passing shepherd who left another book in the cranny; books travelled thirty or forty miles, with the shepherd readers rarely meeting one another.  These case-studies show that the classic belongs to all; there is no imperative for a working-class culture to rival high culture. The concept of the classic is backward-looking in making essential reference to the test of time, but clearly one must allow that new works can belong to high culture; contemporary high culture is that which the critical consensus, over time, predicts will become classic.

So one should be sceptical about populist claims that they are “giving people what they want”, whether in the media, politics or the arts. The pure entertainer is often described as “giving people what they want”; the artist who does this is often said to be “selling out”. But people do not always know what they want. “What people want” is not fixed and invariant; it is not, in many cases, highly variable, but does change according to what people are exposed to. Many fans of commodified pop music will be unaffected by exposure to opera; a minority will find their horizons broadened. If one is frequently exposed to something, it is possible to develop a taste for it. That is the assumption of such institutions as public service broadcasting, and state funding for the arts. This view is anti-populist in implying that some forms of culture are more aesthetically valuable than others; it is not elitist because it does not suggest that high culture should be reserved for the favoured few.  Those like the BBC founder Lord Reith, who want to enlarge the audience for higher-quality forms of culture, might better be described as paternalist – or parentalist, to use a gender-neutral formulation.

Composer Trevor Wishart advocates “Elitism for all” as a response to populism:

“Populism [is how] savvy financial operators…restrict the opportunities and experience of ordinary people – that’s true elitism, keeping the plebs in their place and the money rolling in! But everyone should be entitled to listen to the best music there is, and the job of a creator is to produce the best music they can.”[32]

Analogously, in response to the argument of corporate journalism that “We’re just giving people what they want”, McChesney responds:

“The ostensible principle behind journalism is that you give people what they need, not what they want. They need information to help them understand the world and public life. Giving people what they want is the job of the entertainment industry…it’s not even true that they’re giving us what we want. Yes, if you’re constantly exposed to something, it’s easy to develop a taste for it…if people were exposed on a regular basis to really good, hard-hitting journalism, they’d develop a taste for it, too.”

He cites as an example of journalism by the bottom line, the fate of Iowa’s Des Moines Register. It had a full-time reporter in each of the state’s ninety counties; these were fired when the newspaper was purchased by Gannett media in the 1980s. After a long period without county-by-county coverage, Gannett could claim that they were giving the people what they wanted, because younger readers would not realise that extensive coverage was an option. As McChesney rightly comments: “Media giants don’t give people what they want [but] what’s most profitable to produce”.[33]

The BBC remains a leading example of a more discriminating conception of “giving people what they want”. For founder John Reith, the BBC’s aim was to “inform, educate and entertain”. He believed in “giving people what one believes they should like and will come to like”; “the best way to give the public what it wants is to reject the express policy of giving the public what it wants”, and instead offering it something “slightly better than it now thinks it likes”.[34] “To have exploited so great a scientific invention for the purpose and pursuit of ‘entertainment’ alone would have been a prostitution of its powers and an insult to the character and intelligence of the people,” wrote Reith in his 1924 book Broadcast Over Britain. Huw Wheldon, founder in 1958 of the first TV arts programme Monitor, which developed the talents of Ken Russell, John Schlesinger, Humphrey Burton and Melvyn Bragg, described the BBC’s cultural mission as making “the good popular and the popular good”.[35]

This thinking was apparent from the early days of the BBC. In 1923, one of the earliest outside broadcasts of opera had taken place. For Cecil Lewis, listening at Marconi House, BBC headquarters, “The broadcasting of opera was an assured success – that could be said after listening for a few moments…Many people imagining opera to be a dull and dreary thing were converted in an evening; many others who had never heard or expected to hear opera as long as they lived had it brought to their hospital or bedside”. For an era with much more limited access to music than our own, the effect must have been very powerful.

Lord Clark’s Civilisation was a classic series on art history presented on BBC TV in 1969. David Attenborough compares it favourably with a successor, “Apples, Pears and Paint: How to Make a Still Life Painting” from 2014. The latter’s producers, according to Attenborough, must have felt, ” ‘we can’t have a mandarin point of view, so [we’ll] get 10 different people, we’ll interview them and then we’ll just sling little slices of it together.’ And so there’s no thesis…no central thought…we live in a populist culture where we can’t accept that there’s anybody who actually knows more about things than you do”. Broadcasting, he said, “should be the cream of thinkers in society who have been given by the BBC a platform on which they may speak. But the BBC doesn’t believe that now.”[36]

Attenborough’s Reithian view should be defended. It is culturally meritocratic rather than elitist. When Reith advocated “giving people what one believes they should like and will come to like”, populist critics will ask who is the “one” that decides what to give them. But there is always someone who decides – whether a broadcaster or newspaper proprietor. In a referendum, who decides the question, and when it is to be put? Who decides what literature to publish, advertise and review, or what TV programmes? These are decisions by those in power, who will want to manipulate popular opinion – not that experts, academics, critics or bureaucrats can be assumed to be disinterested. The cultural question is whether the provider’s choice aims to reflect the artistic canon and test of time. The populist will persist by asking “Whose canon”? The answer is: the canon of society as a whole, recognised to varying extents by all members of the population – as Rose’s work discussed earlier shows.

To reiterate, the democracy of taste says that anyone who puts a sincere effort into arriving at a critical judgment has the right to have it taken seriously. Science, engineering, medicine, or history have no comparable democratising element. It would be absurd to suggest that anyone is entitled to an opinion concerning how many kinds of subatomic particle there are, or the likely load-bearing capacities of a bridge design. Elitists might argue that in this respect, politics belong with science. The expertise of “men from the ministry” was regarded in early post-war Britain almost as scientific – this was the era of state planning, which continued till the 1970s. This confidence proved misplaced. Moreover, there is a crucial sense in which politics belongs with aesthetics. The stake of people in their future means that they cannot simply be subject to benevolent, paternalistic expert concern.

In this essay, I have contrasted meritocracy and elitism, and defended the former. The fundamental aim has been to undermine populism by presenting a position that is less subject to criticism than elitism. But populism is a far greater evil than elitism. It corrodes liberal democracy, and the events of 2016 have put liberal values under greater pressure than at any point since 1945. Liberals have been slow to appreciate and understand the populist insurgency of Trump, Le Pen and Farage – an insurgency from which careerists such as Gove and Johnson have sought to gain advantage. This failure in part results from liberals’ slow response to populism’s economic causes. But the culpability of populists and liberals is of a totally different order – a moral failure contrasted with an imaginative one. Those who voted for Trump were said to be feeling angry and left behind. So no doubt were those who voted for Hitler in the last free elections in Germany in 1932, before the Nazi seizure of power. Trump is not Hitler, obviously, but he is clearly unfit to be the American head of state. We accept that those who voted for Hitler are subject to moral criticism; so, to some extent, are those who voted for Trump. They had an alternative to vote for, who clearly was fit to be head of state, even if they were too deluded to recognise this.

The fact that Trump voters were rightly angry at being left behind does not justify them in voting for H.L. Mencken’s “narcissistic moron”, therefore – it only explains it. Liberal democracy is threatened by failure to recognise the importance of character in a leader. Trump is objectionable not primarily because of his policies, absurd or appalling though many of them seem to be, but because of his character. His supporters are to be criticised for not giving the latter due weight.

Hilary Clinton’s description of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” was a politically ill-advised but correct description, therefore. The democratic principle prevents us from seeing this; it views political leadership simply as translating the popular will into action. True political leadership, in contrast, consists in articulating and interpreting the inchoate set of preferences in a democratic process –not in translating an alleged popular will. It does not consist in pandering to – let alone inflaming – the kind of desires that Trump and Brexit inflame.

If Clinton’s description of “deplorables” was correct but politically ill-advised, so presumably is this article. In a liberal democracy, one must engage with those whose views one rejects, and describing them as “deplorables” prevents this. Indeed, there is too much moral criticism in politics – for instance the faux-moral criticism of “Crooked Hilary” by Trump and his supporters. However, one must distinguish the pursuit of truth, and the pursuit of politics. My case in this article, in pursuit of truth, is the modestly anti-populist one that insofar as there is a will of the people – itself a populist concept – it can be criticized on moral as well as prudential grounds.

I conclude with a warning by journalist Ece Temelkuran, writing from what she calls a post-truth, post-fact Turkey:

“…intellectuals and journalists reacted to a nascent populism with the self-critical question: “Are we out of touch?”…We thought our own tool, the ability to question and establish truth, would be adequate to keep the discourse safe. It wasn’t. Soon we were paralysed by the lies of populism…We found, as you are now finding, that the new truth-building process does not require facts or the underpinning of agreed values…The elite, with experts as mouthpieces…were portrayed as people detached from society, willing to suppress the needs, choices and beliefs of “real people”…We have learned a lesson, but too late. The question “Are we out of touch?” leads to “them and us”, which then morphs into “either us or them”. As we found in Turkey, the masses choose “them”. From that point you find yourself, like me, labelled “not real people” in your own country. Europe and the US will soon learn that being “elite” is not about social class or education: it is about obedience to one version of the truth.”[37]

No liberal should be sanguine about the ability of Western democratic structures to withstand these pressures.

Footnotes & References

[1] H. L. Mencken, The Baltimore Evening Sun, 7/26/1920. It is the imputation of narcissism – probably Trump’s most deplorable and dangerous characteristic – that is particularly prescient.

[2] John Cruddas on The Week In Westminster, BBC Radio 4, 11/18/2016.

[3] Financial Times: https://www.ft.com/content/3be49734-29cb-11e6-83e4-abc22d5d108c

[4] David Attenborough, “Sir David Attenborough: BBC ‘absolutely right’ to let Bake Off go”, The Guardian, 11 Jan 2016, available at www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/nov/01/sir-david-attenborough-bbc-bake-off-top-gear-brexit. Bake Off is a popular BBC baking programme dedicated to increasing the incidence of diabetes in the UK.

[5] Quoted in Vernon Bogdanor, “After the referendum, the people, not parliament, are sovereign”, Financial Times, 9 Dec 2016, at www.ft.com/content/9b00bca0-bd61-11e6-8b45-b8b81dd5d080.

[6] www.ft.com/content/2f5262e8-a7f8-11e6-8898-79a99e2a4de6

[7] John Skorupski, “The Conservative Critique of Liberalism”, in Stephen Wall, ed., Cambridge Companion to Liberalism, Cambridge University Press (2015), p. 411.

[8] Norberto Bobbio, The Future of Democracy, Oxford: Polity Press (1987), p. 75.

[9] Mark Kelly, personal communication, 9 Jan. 2017.

[10] Skorupski, “The Conservative Critique of Liberalism”.

[11] Skorupski, “The Conservative Critique of Liberalism”, p. 404.

[12] Wendy Donner, The Liberal Self: John Stuart Mill’s Moral and Political Philosophy, Ithaca: Cornell University Press (1991).

[13] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1971); Thomas Hurka, Perfectionism, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1993), p. 164.

[14] Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism?, University of Pennsylvania Press (2016)pp. 20, 44, 11. For him, Nazism and Fascism are populist, but they are also racist, glorify violence and have a leadership principle.

[15] Lionel Barber, “The year of the demagogue: how 2016 changed democracy”, at https://www.ft.com/content/7e82da50-c184-11e6-9bca-2b93a6856354

[16] Quotations from Bogdanor, “After the referendum…”.

[17] Müller pp. 55, 57, 103.

[18] The characterisation of elitism as contrasting with populism is found in John Skorupski, “Liberal Elitism”, in his Ethical Explorations, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2000).

[19] As Skorupski argues in “Liberal Elitism”. “Cultural” is meant in the artistic sense.

[20] Curt Ducasse, Art, The Critics, and You, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill (1944): 115-27. As a Philosophy academic, I devote much of my effort to persuading students in aesthetics and ethics to develop a more sophisticated response than this prevalent subjectivism.

[21] Liberal elitism does not regard these judges as having special vision of an esoteric Platonic domain; rather they divine common human norms, “registering more sensitively, or in the light of better information or greater reflection, natural dispositions which we also share…” (Skorupski, “Liberal Elitism”, p. 210).

[22] On these questions, see Jason Gaiger, “The True Judge of Beauty and the Paradox of Taste”, European Journal of Philosophy, 8: 1 (2000): 1-19; and Andy Hamilton, “Scruton’s Philosophy of Culture”, in British Journal of Aesthetics, 49:4, (2009): 389-404, which argues for a meritocratic notion of the classic in place of an elitist concept of high culture.

[23] Quoted in Peter Kellner, “Yes, We Still Need Meritocracy”, New Statesman, 130: 4545 (2001).

[24] Matt Cavanagh, Against Equality of Opportunity, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2002), is right that the definition of meritocracy proves surprisingly problematic, but unlike him I recognise a basic sense in which it is opposed to nepotism and other kinds of exclusion.

[25] Roger Scruton’s views on elitism are found for instance in his Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, New York: Encounter Books, 2007.

[26] Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and Ethics of Knowing, Oxford University Press (2007), also cites a second kind of epistemic injustice: hermeneutical injustice, where someone’s significant social experience is obscured owing to prejudicial flaws in shared social interpretation.

[27] J.S. Mill, Collected Works Vol. X, University of Toronto Press, pp. 313-4. The question of elitism and authority is discussed further in Andy Hamilton, “J.S. Mill’s Elitism: A Classical Liberal’s Response to the Rise of Democracy”, in E. Kofmel ed. Anti-Democratic Thought, Imprint Academic (2009).

[28] “The Conservative Critique of Liberalism”, p. 413. This is what he calls “liberal elitism”, but I am suggesting that “liberal meritocracy” is a better term.

[29] “Of The Standard Of Taste”, in David Hume, Essays Moral, Political and Literary, ed. E. Miller, Indianapolis: Liberty Classics.

[30] Stefan Collini, “The Cookson Story”, London Review of Books, 23:24 (13 Dec 2001), p. 33.

[31] Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Yale: Yale University Press (2001), p. 7.

[32] Andy Hamilton, Trevor Wishart, The Wire, 366 (August 2014). Wishart adds: “I want my music to reach as wide an audience as possible…That’s not quite the same as saying that my music should appeal to a wider audience. I want to make music…that conforms well to my aesthetic/expressive idea and is as well-crafted as possible. Then I want to find opportunities to present that work to as many different audiences as possible, to make it as attractive as possible, without compromising what it is.” “It has an accessible surface,” he argues, “not necessarily tuneful, or even pleasant, just comprehensible or engaging on a first hearing – but a lot more to offer if you take the listening further.” This is what Umberto Eco calls “double-coding”.

[33] Derrick Jensen, Resistance Against Empire; interview available at www.daclarke.org/WTChit/McChesney.html.

[34] Peter Mandler and Susan Pedersen, eds., After the Victorians: Private Conscience and Public Duty in Modern Britain, Routledge (1994), p. 197.

[35] “The BBC informs, educates and entertains – but in what order?”, at https://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/jul/01/bbc-inform-educate-entertain-order

Charlotte Higgins, 1 July 2014.

[36] Quotes in last two paragraphs from “The BBC informs, educates…”. Lord Clark’s series was a fine cultural achievement, though judging from the appearance of the presenter, was not a great advertisement for British dentistry of the time. Attenborough is too critical of the Still Life documentary. Despite irritating features, it does present experts, while reflecting current anti-elitist concerns.

[37] Ece Temelkuran, “Truth Is A Lost Game In Turkey”, available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/15/truth-lost-game-turkey-europe-america-facts-values, 15 December, 2016.

Andy Hamilton
Andy Hamilton
Andy Hamilton teaches Philosophy at Durham University, UK. He specialises in aesthetics, philosophy of mind, political philosophy and history of 19th and 20th century philosophy, especially Wittgenstein. His books are Aesthetics and Music (Continuum, 2007), The Self in Question: Memory, the Body and Self-Consciousness (Palgrave, 2013), and Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Wittgenstein and On Certainty (2014). He also teaches aesthetics and history of jazz at Durham, and published Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser's Art (University of Michigan Press, 2007).
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U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton looks at a Donald Trump brand tie that was made in China during a stop at a local tie company in Denver August 3, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking - RTSKXAADemonstrators take part in a protest aimed at showing London's solidarity with the European Union following the recent EU referendum, inTrafalgar Square, central London, Britain June 28, 2016.       REUTERS/Dylan Martinez - RTX2IQ6W