'The commandments had to be delivered by a bearded prophet whose mystic credibility had been conferred by the burning bush and who came down from the mountain accompanied by a terrifying display of thunder and lightning. Somehow human authority is never enough; we must have special effects.' -Barbara Ehrenreich, Living with a Wild God

What Populism Really Is

by Ethan Glover, Fri, Dec 11, 2015 - (Edited) Sun, Dec 13, 2015

Strategy is a tough question for libertarians and anarchists. Especially for those who are impatient. A world of instant gratification has put into the minds of some, that one universal strategy can get us anarchy within our lifetimes. It’s just a matter of finding that strategy. LewRockwell.com has time and again, looked to populism as the saving grace for libertarianism. The problem with looking for a universal is obvious. There’s no magical incantation that will make the government go away tomorrow. Every person on earth has different motivations, interests, and perspectives.

Populism, as a word, is ambiguous. The primary definition says that it, appeals to the interests and conceptions (such as hopes and fears) of the general population. For political movements, it is the strategy of taking  what appeals to most people, and using that against the status quo. Essentially it boils down to paying attention to what people believe in and tailoring your message to meet their needs. A synonym for populism might be salesmanship. Simplified, the idea isn’t so complex.

Yet, it is the idea of populism that has caused Chris Cantwell to ditch libertarianism and become a fascist. In his mind, he thinks he’s merely adopting a belief and co-opting it. What he has done so far is alienate his fan base from, and insult organizations and people like Free Talk Live, CopBlock, Adam Kokesh, and Liberty Hangout. (Refer to his blog posts between November 24, 2015, and December 10, 2015.) Cantwell is not bringing people from fascism to libertarianism, he’s bringing people from libertarianism to fascism.

There’s not a lot to worry about there. Aside from a small internet audience, Cantwell is not taken seriously to most libertarians. He has instead become a running joke. He’s unwelcome at almost every major libertarian organization and he still blames everyone else for that.

This isn’t about Cantwell, but his misinterpretation of populism. It’s dangerous, and it suggests that his goal is the opposite of what he claims. In fact, if you look at how populism works, he is doing a great job of using it to move libertarians into fascist republicanism.

His justification for his most recent appalling state of mind comes from Rothbard’s 1992 article, “Right-Wing Populism.” Rothbard notes that the problem with libertarian strategy, in general, is that there is too much concentration on trying to ‘correct’ people, especially intellectual elites, into libertarianism when truth is not what they care about.

He suggests that libertarians need not only point out the flaws in current political thinking but expose the political elite for what they really are to the masses. He then suggests being intelligent about who you expose elites to. It is most effective to target those who are most oppressed.

That’s it. Rothbard goes on  to talk about what policies we need to change, and these policies are obviously his pet interests. For example saying we need to “unleash the cops to clear the streets of bums and vagrants” and that “public schools must allow prayer” are personal issues and have nothing to do with a free society.

Needless to say, nothing about Rothbard’s interpretation of populism suggests pretending to be a fascist or a Republican. There’s nothing about it that suggests being dishonest about who you are is a good idea. And it’s not.

Populism has nothing to do with working “inside the system” or “co-opting a party” in itself. It is about taking the issues that concern most people, such as a growing police state, and injecting your message into it.

Populism becomes ineffective when you repeat party lines and never admit to what you want. Simply supporting a particular party or candidate by selling the policies you agree with, is not populism. It’s just supporting a party or candidate.

To use Cantwell as an example, who is always a perfect source of what not to do, he has recently begun to claim that immigration is a bad thing. In one sentence he will say that government-funded immigration is wrong, but in the next he’s suggesting that immigrants are all criminals and their move will create war. It is, of course, absurd to say that oppressed families moving from one place to another is dangerous. He might also use a social movement such as #BlackLivesMatter as a welcome opportunity to call “the blacks” “animals” or “vermin.” 

Need I say more? It’s clear that Cantwell is ‘doing it wrong.’ Instead of appealing to Republicans based on their views, he is helping them fuel their racism, and bringing ex-libertarians into the mix along with him.

The Syrian refugee crisis is not a good target right now to begin with. It’s recent, and everyone has a strong opinion about it. Creating opposing conversation regarding refugee’s will most likely lead to the backfire effect. Which I’ve covered in detail.

If a recent event brings up an issue on everyone’s minds, it can be beneficial to talk to people about it with the goal of swaying them to think in a more liberty oriented way. However, it depends on the general tension/feeling you get about the subject. 

For example, nobody likes that the police are killing more than 1,000 innocent people every year. Going into the conversation, you don’t have to worry about a person's stance on whether it is right or wrong. Convincing someone that something is wrong is no easy nut to crack. (Taxation for example.) But, it is easier to talk to someone about solutions and discuss the consequences and benefits of each.

Helping your surrounding culture to think in a way that forces them to consider that their choices can negatively affect their neighbors is much more effective than a single vote in a ballot box. It’s certainly more effective than supporting said culture’s racism and tendency towards violence. Getting people into that mindset does not require you to sell them on the non-aggression principle, or libertarianism as a philosophy. It only requires that you get them to think about the benefits of those things in the context of what’s relevant to them.

What you do with that information, whether it’s speaking at town hall meetings, talking to people online, or anything else, is entirely up to you. While I don’t see populism as a magic cure-all, it is effective so long as it you interpret it correctly. Using it as an excuse to let your inner demons out, is not helpful. Using the idea of tailoring your message to particular groups to people, to guide them in the direction of freedom, is great. 

My only purpose in writing this is to remind you, in the wake of Cantwell’s ever so interesting downward spiral, to not forget who we are as libertarians and anarchists. Let’s not forget that our goal is to build a freer society in which we have a choice on how to live our lives to the best of our abilities and interests. Getting to that point is not a matter of playing tricks and alienating those who once supported you because they're not racist enough. Getting to that point is a matter of helping other people to realize that it’s also in their best interest to work towards that goal, by whatever means they see fit.