Saturday, June 24, 2017

Elizabeth Anderson

Elizabeth Anderson is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Imperative of Integration and Value in Ethics and Economics. Her newest book is Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don't Talk about It).

Recently I asked Anderson about what she was reading. Her reply:
Since the stunning result of the Presidential election, I have been reading books that help explain what happened. At the top of my list is Jan Werner-Müller's brilliant What is Populism? Everyone knows that populist politicians back "the people" against "the elites." While this rhetoric is common to all populists, it cannot distinguish them from non-populist politicians, because nearly all politicians in democratic regimes talk this way. The key to populism is rather that "the people" is always defined exclusively, as a subset of the citizens and permanent residents of a state, and in contrast with those who are not "real Poles" (because they are Jewish or liberal), not "true Finns" (because they are Muslim, or have immigrant ancestry), not "real Americans" (because they are coastal city dwellers, Black, Muslim, Latino/a, or liberal), etc.. Populist politicians gain support from the "real" people by telling them that they are being taken advantage of, humiliated, or threatened by enemies, both foreign and domestic (where the domestic enemies are those citizens and/or permanent residents who don't belong to the "real people"), and that elites are to blame for this. Populism is inherently authoritarian and anti-democratic, because it rejects a core constitutive feature of democracy, which is the legitimacy of opposition. The "real" people can never be legitimately opposed, since their will exclusively defines the nation. Hence, opposition parties and politicians are always "corrupt," an independent judiciary is always "unfair" when it checks the power of the populist politician, an independent press is always lying when it corrects the lies of the populist politician, elections must be rigged if the populist doesn't win, but are legitimate if he wins, and so forth. Werner-Müller shows in detail how Trump, far from being a new type of politician, campaigned straight out of the same populist playbook as Silvio Berlusconi, Marine Le Pen, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Viktor Orbán. I consider What is Populism? an absolute must-read for anyone who wants to understand not just what has happened in the U.S., but why populism is affecting many democracies across the world, and what can be done to stop it.

I have also been reading J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Vance narrates a critique of his own group--poor white Appalachians--through a compelling and sympathetically drawn account of his own dysfunctional family and of the similar families in his community. One way to interpret this book is as an application of the conventional conservative culture-of-poverty story to poor rural whites rather than blacks: he's saying that white Appalachians are lazy, welfare-dependent, alcoholic and drug-addicted, disdainful of education, prone to violence, domestic conflict, and divorce, with unstable family relationships, fathers who have sired and left multiple children with different mothers, and mothers who cast off one male partner after another. On this reading, government isn't the problem and can't help solve the problem; what's needed is for the community itself to reform its values, and for individuals to study and work hard and climb up through personal grit and determination. This certainly captures a strain in his book. But it's not the only one. Another way to read the book is to reflect on Vance's deep sympathy and love for those he criticizes. In the larger public discourse, conservative culture-of-poverty narratives are used to whip up white resentment against blacks, who are the public face of poverty, and who are depicted as wholly to blame for their own problems, and wholly deserving of scorn, rejection, and state neglect on that account. But Vance shows how resentment, scorn, rejection, and neglect are morally stunted and inhumane responses to distressed communities. People are complicated. They deserve sympathy for their problems even when they bring some of those problems on themselves. Moreover, the same people who behave badly also have powerful virtues that deserve recognition. His grandmother, who, like many in her community, regularly escalated conflict out of all proportion, in conformity with Appalachian honor culture (she once poured gasoline on her husband and lit him on fire to get the better of him in a domestic conflict), also loved Vance deeply, provided the key source of stability in his life, and insisted that he study hard. If only white America viewed poor blacks with comparable sympathy and admiration for their virtues, we would have a very different country. Vance, who draws explicit analogies between poor Appalachian whites and poor blacks, invites all Americans to view the latter in the same light with which he views his own community. A third way to read the book is to appreciate his sociological awareness. He shows through his own experience how the ability of children to overcome their disadvantages through personal striving can be severely undermined by domestic conflict and unstable relationships with adults. Childhood trauma is real, and it undermines agency, sometimes in ways that radically restrict the opportunities a child will have in adulthood. He also shows through his own experience how individual success is predicated on "social capital"--having access to networks of trusted others, outside one's own disadvantaged community, who can open doors of opportunity and teach one the informal norms of more advantaged social classes, mastery of which is needed to join them. No one succeeds wholly on his own. He thereby invites those who were born into functional families with great parents and lots of social connections to discount their own pride and appreciate how much they owe their success to good luck and the assistance of others. Definitely worth reading for insights into what a humane conservatism can look like.
Learn more about Private Government.

--Marshal Zeringue