The Clare Spark Blog

August 30, 2009

That slippery word “populism”

Filed under: 1 — clarelspark @ 8:10 pm
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Richard Hofstadter

There is a role for both the public and private sectors in a democratic republic: what the division of responsibilities should be is the subject of the most raucous debates, as we have seen during the first months of the Obama administration. There is too much loose talk and name-calling, not enough healthy skepticism of one’s own predilections in favor of  this or that policy. I have frequently criticized the Populist/Progressive movement on this website, not only because I encourage vigorous, fact-based criticism of  over-reaching government powers or of any other “liberal” institution that betrays its principles and discourages competition, but because the original Populist movement in the 1890s was directed against “the money power” that was frequently (if not always) associated with “the Jews.” Sadly, some New Leftist academics have airbrushed the conspiratorial assumptions of populism in an attempt to rehabilitate the Populist movement; often this took the form of a general attack on the historian Richard Hofstadter, author of The Age of Reform (that nailed the Populists for antisemitism) as well as his work on “the paranoid style.” (For an encomium to Hofstadter see

Visitors here will notice that nearly all my entries are concerned with explicit or embedded antisemitic messages. It is very easy to spot the more obvious kinds of antisemitism that demonize “the Jews”, but even those organizations that are defending “the Jews” or the state of Israel do not go far enough, in my view, in identifying the more subtle forms of Jew hatred–a phobia that is so intense as to affect mental and physical health and impair the very critical processes that make a democratic republic possible. For if all criticism of [illegitimate, arbitrary] authority is subconsciously experienced as parricide or deicide, then the guilty would-be citizen has nothing but “the heart” (the emotions) to react with, and may become putty in the hands of demagogues.

When I criticize the Ivy League or other elite universities, it is not out of [populist] anti-intellectualism, but because I want the great universities to live up to their mission, that is, to train future leaders and innovators, who will then go on to make their professions true to their founding principles, whether these be designing curricula in the schools that develop fully conscious citizens who can separate facts from propaganda and test their government in every respect; or who, as experts, will separate the wheat from the chaff, and who will stand up to the institutions that direct their work in anti-social directions.

Take for instance the false impressions disseminated by the far, far Right, who now claim that “political correctness” and “the liberal narrative” were created by “the Frankfurt Shool” [sic]. Refugee scholars from Germany, such as Adorno, Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, and Marcuse are now the big bogey men on some blatantly racist and antidemocratic sites (one brags about its advocacy of monarchism). As I have demonstrated in my own research, much of it reproduced here on the YDS website, the Frankfurt School of critical theory did not initiate the goals of the Populist-Progressive movement of conservative reform in America (e.g. the New Deal), nor did they plot to curb the First Amendment.

The Frankfurters did share a sharp critique of “mass culture” and wrote about Hitler as the creature of mass culture (or popular culture), but in doing so, they were merely echoing centuries of aristocratic propaganda about the incapacities of “the people” to rule themselves without aristocratic leadership (see my blog “The People Is An Ass….” and the four entries on Hitler and the Big Lie:, And some of their most prestigious members did recommend the use of materials created by Henry A. Murray and Harold Lasswell (on the latter two men, see the blogs on civilian morale and preventive politics, both filled with documentary evidence of social psychologists seeking 1. to limit speech and create subliminal propaganda on a grand scale in order to maintain consensus, not to seek the truth; and 2. to identify latent radicals and keep them out of leadership).

But that is what pseudo-moderates do, so the worst sin I can attribute to such as Theodore Adorno is organic conservatism, a stance that he represented as “genuine liberalism.” (See the blog on his definition of that term, or the longer blog on corporatist liberalism:, As for his defense of high culture, there is no such thing as an ideologically consistent high culture standing armed to defend reality, science, and the rule of law, and I doubt that Adorno would have disagreed with that judgment. Where I fault the affinity group to the Frankfurters is their too hasty rejection of the Enlightenment and science as such, often attributing the rise of Hitler to the irreligous technical worker (see F. Meinecke on this diagnosis: But that is not why the far, far Right is going after them.  Write the ending to this blog yourselves.

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