Populism, Part II

Populism, Part II February 12, 2021


Elite liberalism is the default philosophy in our society. (This modified liberalism is not liberalism in the sense of Democratic Party. Both Republicans and Democrats subscribe to elite liberalism, particularly those in Silicon Valley, in Los Angeles, in lower Manhattan, in the Beltway, on college campuses and in technical hubs.) This liberal philosophy prizes individual freedom and individual achievements. It believes in self-improvement; that is, in meritocracy. Thus inequality is justified with the saying: “What you earn depends on what you learn.”

This late stage liberalism often discounts the collective efforts of small groups with their traditions. Liberalism also admires complexity; it is a deterministic technocracy. Growth and efficiency are its drivers, no matter the side effects. It says: “Move fast and break things.” Finally, liberalism considers religious faith to be private while public business is conducted in neutral language. Public policy arguments must be made without appeal to religious convictions.

The inadequacies of classical liberalism create a backlash, which today is erroneously called populism. There is, however, a proper way to deal with liberalism’s inadequacies, writes Fr. Angus Ritchie in Inclusive Populism (Notre Dame Press, 2019). He describes how groups—not alienated individuals—can bring “their distinctive conceptions of the good” into the public arena and can make remote forces respond to local needs. To support his idea, Ritchie presents a refined type of community organization. With a couple of exceptions his examples come from organizations affiliated with Industrial Areas Foundation (www.industrialareasfoundation.org) and from the IAF counterpart in Great Britain, Citizens UK (www.citizensuk.org). Most of the institutions in the community organization are Protestant congregations, Catholic parishes, synagogues and mosques. There are also some union locals, health clinics, social service agencies and the like. Because they represent these established institutions the leaders in the organization tend to be older. These leaders, Ritchie details, are expected to bring their convictions to the organization’s deliberations. This requires the leaders to reflect on and articulate their own stories and the traditions of the church, synagogue, mosque, union or center that they serve. At the same time the leaders engage the traditions of others in the organization and cherish the possibility of being public friends with those whom they might disagree on certain topics. Through this process, the organization brings a conception of the good into the public square. The organization embodies this deliberative process as it advocates in the public square for a specific reform.

This deliberative process is why this type of community organization does not use the word protest, Ritchie explains. Their word is action. The goal of a protest is too general. The protestors arrive individually, prompted these days by an internet platform, and then walk away often with a haphazard connection to the cause. Ritchie’s organizations strive for specificity. They are willing to compromise in order to accomplish a realizable goal.

Ritchie anticipates several criticisms of these organizations. He answers each with honesty and some creativity. For example, he considers the objection that organizing is dangerous. “A healthy democracy cannot be sustained by statute” and the guidance of experts, he counters. It is precisely these smaller “institutions of civil society [that] provide the space within which citizens can learn the vital democratic habits of negotiation and compromise through a range of different kinds of voluntary action… There is the greatest danger of extremism being contagious…when people are not in relationship across deep differences and when their institutions are either weak or self-segregating.”

Although the community organizations encourage people to tell their religious stories, Ritchie is firmly against theocracy. In fact, nobly removing self-interest from the organizing method or introducing some kind of theology of organizing defeats the purpose, Ritchie says. The willingness to live with a “negotiated pluralism is at the heart of community organizing.”

The organizations, he clarifies, do not think about self-interest in entirely material terms. As an example, Ritchie mentions a hospital’s assumption that its cleaning staff was motivated only by money and so the administrators began to outsource janitorial duties. The staff meanwhile felt their sense of vocation (their self-interest) was disrespected. The community organization got involved; a living wage agreement ensued; increased productivity exceeded the hospital’s investment.

“The practice of organizing does not always live up to” its promise, Ritchie admits. The paid organizers can set “a pace that goes beyond” the necessary pedestrian steps of leaders from the churches and other institutions. The organizers might be 25 years younger than the leaders; the organizers know that the budget (from dues and occasional small grants) often depends on newsworthy campaigns; the organizer’s supervisor is interested in turnout and membership growth; the organizer is depleted by meetings too often attended by the same cadre of activists; plus several other pressures. And although an organizer’s pay scale has improved, it is still a few thousand dollars short of minimizing turnover among talented young adults.

Ritchie warns against shortcuts and urges patience. He quotes Pope Francis: One fault of “sociopolitical activity is that space and power are preferred to time and processes.” We need patience “to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society…without anxiety, but with clear convictions and tenacity.”

This institution-based type of “community organizing is only one of the practices necessary if negotiated pluralism is to succeed,” Ritchie concludes. To judge by his account, other efforts at mediating the shortcomings of elite liberalism should borrow from the impressive elements found in Industrial Areas Foundation and Citizens UK.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a print newsletter on faith and work.

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