The Purity Paradox: How Cultural Populism Tarnishes Progressive Politics

Progressive political values have, by and large, provided the impetus for improving universal human rights standards. However, even though the ends ought to be the principal objective of any political framework, the means can affect the ends in surprising and widespread ways. While it is admirable to fight for progressive outcomes, the means of cultural populism actually undermine progressive theory and practice. ‘Cultural populism’ refers to the use and aggrandization of judgments and beliefs held by those with a lack of expertise within cultural settings. This will be proven through taking a contrarian view on meritocracy by considering it as a force for fair representation instead of exploitative social and economic appropriation, in addition to assessing whether the layperson is an appropriate indicator of right and wrong within political and social settings. Finally, the prospect of expert-led deliberation as an adjudicator of complex decisions will be proposed as a possible alternative to the predictably chaotic mechanisms of cultural populism in terms of scrutinizing political mistakes at the local, national, and global levels. 

Actual Meritocracy as Fairness 

Meritocracy has been a popular political target for many people belonging to a variety of political affiliations. This is not entirely without justification: mounting economic disparities and socially oppressive features of current society have made it clear that at present, meritocracy is a myth in nearly all contexts. However, to conclude from this that meritocracy is defective as an idea fails to take into account the virtue of hierarchies that are predicated upon expertise as opposed to those of bigotry and ignorance. Indeed, with proper checks and balances, generally speaking, putting the most competent people in positions of power yields the best results for all people. A case study that bolsters this argument is the juxtaposition of Silicon Valley and Wall Street, the two chief vanguards of corporate America. In simple terms, notwithstanding some prevalent inconsistencies on the part of Silicon Valley, Wall Street is a metaphor for tradition and nepotism and Silicon Valley is a symbol of change and meritocracy. Wall Street is typically a conservative industry: “target schools” arbitrarily provide the next generations of bankers, and an uncritical idolatry of Reagan-esque capitalism all serve to perpetuate its smoke-and-mirrors mystique. This myopia does not come without consequences. According to a 2019 poll by YouGov and the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, only half of Millennials and 49% of people within Gen Z hold a favourable view of capitalism, the bedrock of Wall Street. This is especially stark when measured alongside the Baby Boomers of post-WWII and the Silent Generation (composed of people born from 1928 to 1945), who respectively have 63% and 77% of their population approving of capitalism. The meaning of this data, presuming that individuals are motivated by perceived self-interest, is that capitalism has progressively served less and less of the net population, instead boosting the welfare of the most powerful in both numerical and abstract terms. But unlike Wall Street, Silicon Valley adopts an imperfect yet modernized dialect of capitalism that addresses many of the core foibles that characterize the capitalism adhered to by Wall Street. The true distinction between Silicon Valley and Wall Street is the former’s focus on the cutting edge and technological innovation. Even as companies like Facebook and Amazon obscure the larger picture, Silicon Valley as a whole is an instance of how meritocracy can persist; with Tesla, affordable electric cars are being developed at scale, and Twitter is beginning to combat the ‘fake news’ phenomenon  , to name a few examples. Yet these breakthroughs did not come about purely from scientific ingenuity. Rather, they were in part derived from a meritocratic framework in which, in spite of noteworthy exceptions, functions to reward the best ideas at the expense of the worst ideas.

Impartial Expertise as an Adjudicator of Right and Wrong

Both moral and scientific definitions of right and wrong fall under a spectrum by and large, yet the methodologies deployed in discerning right and wrong must be based in defined expertise, not in the whims of laypeople who lack it. The rise of the anti-vaccine movement in America is a living testament to the dangers of governance that is not steeped in expertise. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, only 55% of American adults place “a lot” of trust in medical scientists in vaccines; this data is likely to have worsened in tandem with the onset of the anti-science discourse of the Trump administration. The significance of this data is that the scientific consensus of vaccines is nearly universal, yet only slightly more than half of American adults are in alignment with the science. Even with many variables at play, a likely cause of this misunderstanding of the facts is what the intellectual Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” within the far-right in American politics. The “paranoid style” tends to forsake objective inquiry in favour of staving off an unseen and commonly nonexistent enemy, which in many ways is a hallmark of both a large portion of Trump’s base and the overarching detraction from expertise in American life. Hofstadter may have coined the concept in the shadow of things like Barry Goldwater’s “Southern Strategy” and McCarthyism, but its pertinence in the present day is striking. Therefore, examining the anti-vaccine movement and the Trump administration as evidence of what happens when leadership without expertise takes the reins displays an incomplete yet rigorous proof of how expertise is foremost in formulating systems of governance that better improve the lives of all people.

Evaluating meritocracy and expert-led governance leads to the totalization of cultural populism’s failures, singularly in terms of how it falters and how its inverses can offer sound answers to the problems that it cannot solve. In lieu of cultural populism, critical and impartial analysis on the part of both leadership and experts of all subjects can transition towards human rights policy-making that is both realistic and idealistic. By combining meritocracy and expert-led governance, even if the real shifts in society are far away, it is possible to forge a future that is modern and receptive to the needs of all people.

Edited by Amelia Coleman.

By Alexander Mclaren

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