How “America First” Rhetoric Reconfigures Classic Political Theory

It is one of the great ironies of modern politics that vague, colloquial conceptions of democracy understood simply as the moral authority of the people’s will promulgate the view that partisan ideological labels have meanings which fluctuate with different forms of self-identification in the polity. In other words, the semantics of modern ideology is rooted in a self-affirming loop of populist efficacy whereby the people’s conception of words matters because it is the people who are the fountainhead of political authority. This is a theory that becomes all the more entrenched the more intellectuals–whose credentials instantaneously separate them from “the people”–attempt to introduce a referential blueprint through which the polity can be understood. Such attempts at empiricism are seen as an attack on the untrammeled democratic rights of the people and are placed in opposition, as an inherently limiting action, to grassroots power.

The irony deepens when the similarities between this behavior and characteristics of populism, which include a binary opposition between nefarious elites and an innocent populace, become evident, as populism is chief among those political terms which means one very specific thing in academic terminology and quite another colloquially. Civic action becomes participatory reaction; meaningful ideological schema become oppositional mantras. There is an overwhelming sense of “restoration” to such behavior. Though, again, its scope and aim are nebulous; to attempt to formally define it is the concern of the oppressive “other,” not that of the people.

The fundamentality of this sentiment to modern political behavior is nowhere so evident as in the 2016 electoral cycle, which can only be characterized by the vagaries of colloquial populism, which had outlets on both the left and the right, and the resurgence of an “America First” mentality that hearkens back to a wistful gilded era of the past.

Since it is not an ideology, populism can promise much by cloaking itself in such ambiguous bromides which play upon emotional rationales, not rationed ones. To be sure, this is sophistry, but of a particularly interesting sort. The failure of most episodes of populism is in the inability to reckon its call to restore past freedoms with its reliance on a benevolent strongman who, because he identifies with the colloquial semantics of the people, is entrusted with their welfare. However, the “America First” mentality of 2016 brilliantly sidesteps this. Nationalism is a handmaiden of populism, but in this instance the former has supplanted the latter.

This may not sound significant, but putting a primacy on nationalism deemphasizes the collective nature of populist politics and allows the self-affirming loop of the modern political lexicon to come into play. The phrase “America First” is utterly meaningless, which is actually a positive for those who rally around its cry because it allows individuals to interpret it as they will, namely in whatever manner they believe best befits their own interests. When political leaders promise to restore American greatness, each member of the movement therefore is spurred to action by a different understanding of what this will mean, but, because they believe they cannot be challenged in their comprehension of democratic efficaciousness, they assume everyone else in the movement also shares their belief.

This aberration of populism is only possible when nationalism is emphasized. Traditional populism, for all its flaws, counts a strong sense of community as its greatest asset. The feeling that the members of the movement are yoked together by a common identifier catalyzes the movement; anything perceived as an attack only strengthens the bond.

Yet, what populists have in common is generally too specific to allow for coalition-building, an essential element to national popular elections. The emotion of nationalism overcomes this because American greatness means something different to individuals based on what aspect of cultural or economic life they have most prospered from. But since national pride is such a fundamental aspect of the political life, it does not need to be defined, but is sensed or felt innately. Individualism, the great political legacy of America, colors comprehension of the public dialogue so that each person assumes their voting rationale must be similar to their neighbor’s. As a result, collective identity is assumed but never really established.

This behavioral structure is the inverse of classical political philosophy’s understanding of democratic government, which makes its success in 2016 significant. When philosophers such as Aristotle spoke of democratic rule, this was not a consideration of individual interests. It was assumed that the individual’s welfare was tied to the welfare of the city. Therefore, when the polity was spoken of, it was as a singular entity. Populism traditionally adopts this rationale. However, the emphasis of nationalism over and above populist unity in 2016 assumed the collective good was tied to the welfare of the individual, particularly the businessman. This represents a radical reconfiguration of the relationship between the welfare and the polity.


Also published on Medium.

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