Inanity and a populist constitutional republic

So my mom writes, “I’m extremely wary of the Brookings Institute — but is this by and large a good analysis?” And she links to an article.[1]

There are really two issues here, first with the Brookings Institute, and second with the article, and I’ll take them in turn.

First, the problem with the Brookings Institute is like the problem with climate scientists consistently underestimating how bad things are, even with an existential threat like the climate crisis. Climate scientists have careers to protect and while there a number of nuances, the short version of the story is basically that they don’t dare get too far ahead of their colleagues because they would jeopardize their own credibility within the climate science field if they do. It’s institutionally better to underestimate the pace of climate change rather than overestimate. Nobody blames them for the underestimates but if they overestimate, they will be accused of crying wolf in a political environment that already minimizes and denies the crisis.[2]

It’s like that at the Brookings Institute even as it becomes increasingly clear that a neoconservative governing ideology, that embraces neoliberalism as a moral imperative, is failing badly. These are scholars with careers to protect.

But on top of that, the Brookings Institute publishes Foreign Affairs, an establishment scholarly journal in the field. So the Brookings Institute is as establishment as academic establishment gets. I subscribe to their newsletter, but I grit my teeth whenever I read one of their articles because the sky could literally be falling and they would be presenting options for somehow propping it up.

Indeed, I wish this fate on no honest scholar and I hate to say it, but if something like the French Revolution ever comes to pass in the United States, you can pretty much count on Brookings Institute scholars being lined up for the guillotine. Because they will simply be absolutely unable to grasp the entirety of and to effectively respond to the moment.

So here I am, gritting my teeth, reading the article, by William A. Galston and dating to 2018,[3] that my mom found when researching ‘populism.’

To begin, a bit of background: Something strongly resembling authoritarian populism in this country has come to power in a number of countries, including the U.S., Brazil, Turkey, a few eastern European countries, and probably a few other places I’m failing to remember off the top of my head. It was largely to blame for the United Kingdom voting in favor of leaving the European Union—Brexit. Indeed, Galston cites

the Brexit vote; the 2016 U.S. election; the doubling of support for France’s National Front; the rise of the antiestablishment Five Star Movement in Italy; the entrance of the far-right Alternative for Germany into the Bundestag; moves by traditional right-leaning parties toward the policies of the far-right in order to secure victories in the March 2017 Dutch and October 2017 Austrian parliamentary elections; the outright victory of the populist ANO party in the Czech Republic’s October 2017 parliamentary elections; and most troubling, the entrenchment in Hungary of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s self-styled “illiberal democracy,” which seems to be emerging as a template for Poland’s governing Law and Justice party and—some scholars believe—for insurgent parties in Western Europe as well.[4]

It has come to power in significant part because neoliberalism has done exactly what, if the people who promulgated it were honest, they would admit it was intended to do: Make the rich richer, at direct expense to the poor. It does this in many ways, but basically it unfetters what Max Weber observed of capitalism, that is, really that any system of exchange inherently privileges whomever has the greater power to say no, and the benefits and handicaps from each transaction accrue, further advantaging the powerful, further disadvantaging the weak. Thus the rich ultimately get unfathomably rich and the poor are ultimately left nearly penniless.[5]

This is a murderous ideology and one that has, intellectually, been utterly discredited.[6] Neoliberalism was very likely to blame for suicides by desperate people during the financial crisis as northern Europe imposed harsh austerity on southern Europe and Ireland.[7] There are other contributing factors in the rise of populism, including Latin American migration into the U.S. (this was the subject of my dissertation[8]), and refugees from Afghanistan and Syria in Europe, but the message of neoliberalism is that the elites don’t give a shit about ordinary people and therefore cannot be trusted when they make decisions that run counter to common notions of how things should be.

This problem has also appeared with COVID-19 and a demand for people to wear face masks and to maintain social distancing.[9]

But the rich and powerful like neoliberalism because it makes them richer, so it remains a governing ideology. And the U.S. and northern Europe have imposed it on the world through institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

My position, therefore, is not horribly unlike the one Galston says he began with:

When I began writing about this emerging revolt a few years ago, I believed that economics lay at its core. Contemporary liberal democracy, I argued, rested on a tacit compact between peoples on the one hand and elected representatives together with unelected experts on the other. The people would defer to elites as long as they delivered sustained prosperity and steadily improving living standards. But if elites stopped managing the economy effectively, all bets were off.[10]

And that the elites badly mismanaged the economy, starting even long before the financial crisis, to the detriment of ordinary people and in support of abject greed has been well documented.[11] And Galston admits as much.[12] But Galston spreads the blame:

The combination of economic dislocation, demographic change, and challenges to traditional values has left many less educated citizens feeling that their lives are outside their control. The national and international governing institutions they thought would step in to help seemed frozen or indifferent. In the United States, partisan polarization gridlocked the system, preventing progress on critical issues. In Europe, the opposite phenomenon—a duopoly of the center-left and center-right that kept important issues off the public agenda—had much the same effect.[13]

I don’t dispute that all of these are indeed factors. But neoliberalism went beyond being “frozen or indifferent.” When people can’t take care of their families, when they can’t earn decent livings, when they are driven to “deaths of despair,” all while the media celebrates a “greed is good” mantra, this is not mere negligence. It is malice toward people who are working ever harder just to survive.

With neoliberalism, government does not merely show it doesn’t care about ordinary people, it actively harms them by supporting so-called “free” (for whom, to do what, to whom?) trade policies that export their jobs to lower cost countries. When politicians insist that their country can “compete with the world,” people know that means they will be paid next to nothing. And indeed they are, and in addition to this, they are treated as absolutely expendable.[14] Government has in fact demonstrated it is out to ruin ordinary people.

Galston goes on to review the ideals both of the constitutional republic and of populism. Populism, he explains, assumes a virtuous and homogenous people, and excludes people of diverse groups—“others”—from a notion of “we, the people.”[15]

Yet, as is typical for Brookings Institute scholars, Galston assumes an elite goodwill to address these problems and seeks to reaffirm the existing system,[16] even with the inherent inequalities that I identify as causal in the present crisis. The sky is falling; Galston offers a plan to prop it up.

Among other things, Galston explicitly associates “control” of borders with national sovereignty;[17] even though, as I have explained, the purpose of borders is to deny human beings on the “wrong” side of those borders rights and privileges enjoyed by those on the “right” side.[18] He effectively seeks to repel migration[19] without addressing the “push” factors that push people away from their homes.

Syria and Afghanistan are war-torn countries where combatants care little for civilian life. Central America and Mexico are beset by drug cartels and drug gangs (a consequence of the U.S. “war on drugs”) where civilians may be compelled to join violently competing factions. Poverty is dire in all of these countries. People are desperate. People are in fear for their lives. Galston’s assertion of borders, like Donald Trump’s wall, ignores their reality. It does not solve the problem; it only makes human beings more desperate.

And thus, by limiting his conception of “we, the people,” to citizens, Galston barely improves on the populist ideal of a homogenous population he claims to resist. Just as surely as that population is not in fact uniformly virtuous, leading to witch hunts for betrayers,[20] the failure to address “push” factors will drive people to circumvent whatever barriers he manages to erect. He cannot succeed.

But even worse, Galston wants to reinforce cultural homogeneity by limiting inward migration to those able to assimilate.[21] This assumes that any such cultural homogeneity exists in the first place: The “culture wars” in the U.S. obliterate that assumption.

Galston thus manages to confound his constitutional republic ideal,[22] which I understand as a constitutional oligarchy,[23] with the populist ideal he sets out to oppose.[24] He is a fool.

But what’s even worse is that through the introduction of this foolishness into establishment academic discourse, it has become respectable. I can only shake my head.

  1. [1]William A. Galston, “The populist challenge to liberal democracy,” Brookings Institute, April 17, 2018,
  2. [2]Naomi Oreskes, Michael Oppenheimer, and Dale Jamieson, “Scientists Have Been Underestimating the Pace of Climate Change,” Scientific American, August 19, 2019,
  3. [3]William A. Galston, “The populist challenge to liberal democracy,” Brookings Institute, April 17, 2018,
  4. [4]William A. Galston, “The populist challenge to liberal democracy,” Brookings Institute, April 17, 2018,
  5. [5]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 119-129; see also David Benfell, “The fallacy of ‘free’ trade is more than a fallacy of ‘free’ trade,” Not Housebroken, June 28, 2018,; David Benfell, “They must pay,” Not Housebroken, February 21, 2019,; David Benfell, “These disunited states,” Not Housebroken, January 9, 2020,; Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University, 2013).
  6. [6]Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Oxford, UK: Oxford University, 2013); Amir Fleischmann, “The Myth of the Fiscal Conservative,” Jacobin, March 5, 2017,; Jason Hickel, “Progress and its discontents,” New Internationalist, August 7, 2019,; Daniel Stedman Jones, Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2012); Robert Kuttner, “Austerity never works: Deficit hawks are amoral — and wrong,” Salon, May 5, 2013,; Dennis Loo, Globalization and the Demolition of Society (Glendale, CA: Larkmead, 2011); Thomas Piketty, Jeffrey Sachs, Heiner Flassbeck, Dani Rodrik and Simon Wren-Lewis, “Austerity Has Failed: An Open Letter From Thomas Piketty to Angela Merkel,” Nation, July 6, 2015,; John Quiggin, “Austerity Has Been Tested, and It Failed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 20, 2013,; David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, “How Austerity Kills,” New York Times, May 12, 2013,; David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, “Paul Krugman’s right: Austerity kills,” Salon, May 19, 2013,
  7. [7]Charles C. Branas et al., “The impact of economic austerity and prosperity events on suicide in Greece: a 30-year interrupted time-series analysis,” British Medical Journal 5, no. 1 (2015): doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005619; Paul Corcoran et al., “Impact of the economic recession and subsequent austerity on suicide and self-harm in Ireland: An interrupted time series analysis,” International Journal of Epidemiology 44, no. 3 (2015): 969–977, doi:; John Quiggin, “Austerity Has Been Tested, and It Failed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 20, 2013,
  8. [8]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  9. [9]David Benfell, “The pandemic and a crisis of illegitimate authority,” Not Housebroken, May 14, 2020,
  10. [10]William A. Galston, “The populist challenge to liberal democracy,” Brookings Institute, April 17, 2018,
  11. [11]Daniel Altman, Neoconomy (New York: Public Affairs, 2004); Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Oxford, UK: Oxford University, 2013); Thomas Frank, Pity the Billionaire (New York: Metropolitan, 2012); Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); Daniel Stedman Jones, Masters of the Universe (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University, 2012).
  12. [12]William A. Galston, “The populist challenge to liberal democracy,” Brookings Institute, April 17, 2018,
  13. [13]William A. Galston, “The populist challenge to liberal democracy,” Brookings Institute, April 17, 2018,
  14. [14]Daniel D’Addario, “Amazon is worse than Walmart,” Salon, July 30, 2013,; Timothy Egan, “The Corporate Daddy,” New York Times, June 19, 2014,; Josh Eidelson, “Wal-Mart faces warehouse horror allegations and federal Labor Board complaint,” Salon, November 19, 2013,; Josh Eidelson, “Tens of thousands protest, over 100 arrested in Black Friday challenge to Wal-Mart,” Salon, November 30, 2013,; Josh Eidelson, “Finally paying for Wal-Mart’s sins: Wage theft settlement yields millions,” Salon, December 16, 2013,; Josh Eidelson, “Freezing for Wal-Mart: Sub-zero warehouse temperatures spur Indiana work stoppage,” Salon, January 14, 2014,; Josh Eidelson, “Amazon Keeps Unions Out By Keeping Workers in Fear, Says Organizer,” Alternet, January 22, 2014,; Nichole Gracely, “‘Being homeless is better than working for Amazon,’” Guardian, November 28, 2014,; Steven Greenhouse, “The Changing Face of Temporary Employment,” New York Times, August 31, 2014,; Erin Hatton, “The Rise of the Permanent Temp Economy,” New York Times, January 26, 2013,; Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” Salon, February 23, 2014,; Paul Jaskunas, “The Tyranny of the Forced Smile,” New York Times, February 14, 2015,; Allison Kilkenny, “Ohio Walmart Holds Food Drive For Its Own Employees,” Nation, November 18, 2013,; Molly Kinder, “Trump’s State of the Union declared we’re in a ‘blue-collar boom.’ Workers don’t agree,” Brookings, February 6, 2020,; Paul Krugman, “The Plight of the Employed,” New York Times, December 24, 2013,; Paul Krugman, “The Fear Economy,” New York Times, December 26, 2013,; Danielle Kurtzleben, “Read McDonald’s workers’ shocking harassment and discrimination complaints — and why they’re so important,” Vox, January 22, 2015,; Edward McClelland, “You call this a middle class? “I’m trying not to lose my house,’” Salon, March 1, 2014,; Mac McClelland, “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave,” Mother Jones, March/April 2012,; Nathaniel Mott, “From Amazon warehouse workers to Google bus drivers, it’s tough working a non-tech job at a tech company,” Pando, October 9, 2014,; Marc Pilisuk with Jennifer Achord Rountree, Who Benefits From Global Violence and War (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2008).; Ari Rabin-Havt, “Wal-Mart flunks its fact-check: The truth behind its sarcastic response to the Times,” Salon, June 25, 2014,; Michael Sainato, “‘I’m not a robot’: Amazon workers condemn unsafe, grueling conditions at warehouse,” Guardian, February 5, 2020,; Alex Seitz-Wald, “Amazon is everything wrong with our new economy,” Salon, July 30, 2013,; Alana Semuels, “As employers push efficiency, the daily grind wears down workers,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013,; Alana Semuels, “How the relationship between employers and workers changed,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013,; Alana Semuels, “Tougher workplace makes home life worse too,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013,; Spencer Soper, “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse,” Lehigh Valley Morning Call, September 18, 2011,; Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006); Lindsay Wise, “Report: Temp jobs at all-time high in U.S.,” McClatchy, September 2, 2014,
  15. [15]William A. Galston, “The populist challenge to liberal democracy,” Brookings Institute, April 17, 2018,
  16. [16]William A. Galston, “The populist challenge to liberal democracy,” Brookings Institute, April 17, 2018,
  17. [17]William A. Galston, “The populist challenge to liberal democracy,” Brookings Institute, April 17, 2018,
  18. [18]David Benfell, “Things I shouldn’t have to say about borders,” Not Housebroken, December 26, 2018,
  19. [19]William A. Galston, “The populist challenge to liberal democracy,” Brookings Institute, April 17, 2018,
  20. [20]William A. Galston, “The populist challenge to liberal democracy,” Brookings Institute, April 17, 2018,
  21. [21]William A. Galston, “The populist challenge to liberal democracy,” Brookings Institute, April 17, 2018,
  22. [22]William A. Galston, “The populist challenge to liberal democracy,” Brookings Institute, April 17, 2018,
  23. [23]David Benfell, “A constitutional oligarchy: Deconstructing Federalist No. 10,” Not Housebroken, June 7, 2020,
  24. [24]William A. Galston, “The populist challenge to liberal democracy,” Brookings Institute, April 17, 2018,

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