Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Is Populist politics bad?

Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer and author. She formerly taught World History and Islamic Civilization at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. Now living in Aptos, she writes a column for the Santa Cruz Sentinel that she also distributes to a wider list. Her latest is an OpEd is a broadside at populist politics.

Headlined Don’t Let a Populist Do Brain Surgery On You it is scheduled to appear in the Nov. 1, 2008 Sentinel. I take issue with her premise when you Read more!

Cynthia McKinney has used the Power to the People campaign theme this year and it appears to not be a success. Farhat-Holzman starts off attacking that theme.
When you hear “Power to the People,” see if your wallet is still in your pocket. I think neither Joe Sixpack nor rent-a-mob campus radicals have the mental equipment to run a society. Both are shallow, self-serving, without experience or thought, and are easily led.

Today’s culture wars have been with us since our country’s beginnings. James Madison warned that “pure democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” President John Adams, however, professed that our representative assemblies should be an exact portrait of the people at large. Happily for us, he changed his mind when he took office.

The French and Russian revolutions showed us that “Power to the People” let mobs vent their resentments after centuries of elite oppression; they not only got revenge, but also destroy any protections that their ancient societies offered. Power to the People morphs into a dictatorship, which has no intention of giving power to the people.
She ignores some other examples where such a view was absolutely needed to oppose the very dictatorships that she fears, examples such as the civil rights movement in the United States or the Anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa, neither of which ended up in a dictatorship.

Farhaz-Holzman thinks that the solution is in brain power.
The current economic crisis brings up another issue: do we want to leave an issue this important to our elected politicians, no matter how bright or stupid they are? The best use of elected representatives is to weigh ideas, to hold hearings, and to get the best advice they can from professionals in a discipline.

Fareed Zakaria in his important book: The Future of Freedom, suggested that for needed but contentious issues requiring expertise (reforming Social Security; restructuring no longer affordable public official retirement packages; producing a national health care system; restructuring our energy infrastructure), we should create a bipartisan commission of the best experts we can find in those disciplines. Let them fight it out behind closed doors (no public pressure), arrive at a consensus, and then present it to our elected representatives to vote up or down (no pork or earmarks allowed). This gives us informed democracy, not mugwump democracy.
While I would agree with her that a "hostility toward intellectuals remains an undercurrent in our society today." It explains the popularity of the hockey-mom veep candidate in some circles. It was better defined by Jane Jacobs in her last book, Dark Age Ahead, particularly as she wrote about honoring scientists along with an aversion to science in general.

The latter concerns me more than the elitism the Farhat-Holzman espouses. I have written on the subject before. While there is power to be found in espousing populist issues, we need good scientific minds to find the solutions to some major problems of our society: global warming, energy, population growth.

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