Tips on Opposing a Populist

Monday, January 30, 2017

Andrés Miguel Rondón, a Venezuelan who has lived through the rise of Hugo Chávez, draws some thought-provoking parallels between the dead dictator and another populist politician, Donald Trump. Although I think Rondón sounds at first like an apologist for socialism, his main focus is really on cultural activism, or what American abolitionists called "moral suasion." In that vein, he has some valuable points for Trump's political opponents, even including those who of us who aren't on the left and who may even approve of some of his policies. I found the whole piece worthwhile, but will highlight a couple of passages here.

In the first of these, Rondón notes that Chávez's opponents got too caught up in removing him from power:

In Venezuela, the opposition focused on trying to reject the dictator by any means possible -- when we should have just kept pointing out how badly Chávez's rule was hurting the very people he claimed to be serving.
I disagree that the opposition shouldn't have tried to stop Chávez at all, but it is true that doing so wouldn't have solved the underlying problem. That is, absent pro-freedom arguments presented in such a way that some of Chávez's supporters would consider them, removing the dictator from power would have merely paved the way for the election of another socialist or populist. In addition, absent parallel efforts at proposing a better alternative, such moves look desperate, as if the opposition is writing off their political opponents or, worse, can't offer a better alternative. Both of these only serve, as Rondón indicates, to play into the hands of the populist.

Regarding this, Rondón makes an interesting point. Noting that populists dehumanize their opponents by protraying them as caricatures -- something many of Trump's leftist opponents are making it very easy for him to do to all of his opponents -- Rondón urges those of us who find ourselves in a similar position to remember both our own humanity and that of our opponents, and to interact as normally as possible. Doing so goes a long way towards undercutting the caricatures:
In Venezuela, we fell into this trap in a bad way. We wrote again and again about principles, about separation of powers, civil liberties, the role of the military in politics, corruption and economic policy. But it took opposition leaders 10 years to figure out that they needed to actually go to the slums and the countryside. Not for a speech or a rally, but for a game of dominoes or to dance salsa -- to show they were Venezuelans, too, that they weren't just dour scolds and could hit a baseball, could tell a joke that landed. That they could break the tribal divide, come down off the billboards and show that they were real. This is not populism by other means. It is the only way of establishing your standing. It's deciding not to live in an echo chamber. To press pause on the siren song of polarization. [bold added]
This is reminiscent of an observation about motivation by Mark Murphy, author of HARD Goals:
You'd do just about anything for the people you love -- your kids, spouse, best friend, family, significant other, and so forth -- because you have a heartfelt connection to them. You don't just know these folks; you know you really care for them. But what if you were asked to do something for a passing acquaintance or even a total stranger? Most likely you'd exert some effort because you're a nice person, but most people would risk and sacrifice much more for a loved one than they would for an acquaintance or stranger. Doctors give more comprehensive care to people they feel more connected to. People give more money to charities when they feel a heartfelt connection to the recipients. Research has even shown that sales generated at Tupperware parties can be significantly explained by analyzing the strength of the personal connection between the host and the guests. [bold added] (pp. 22-23)
Mental effort is no different in this respect than physical effort or financial generosity. It should thus be clear that supporters of a populist who know and respect an opponent might be more predisposed to give that opponent a hearing. But let's turn this around for a moment and consider our target audience: Trump's supporters are not all bigoted ignoramuses, as portrayed by the news media (who frequently play into his hands by cultivating the kind of stereotyping Rondón describes). Some of them just need to learn what is in it for them to support a better alternative, or to learn what one would look like. Those of us who understand in principle what's wrong with populism generally and Trump in particular must not merely oppose him. We must formulate a positive alternative and present it in a way that will motivate his supporters to consider that alternative. Interestingly, part of that way would appear to be a deliberate attempt to cultivate normalcy in relationships that are being strained by the rampant use of stereotypes so common today.

-- CAV

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