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Wisconsin: How Populism Works | Populism & Hegemony pt.5

This is the fifth post in a series.

Teachers, students, firefighters, police officers, veterans, farmers, and even Green Bay Packers players, visibly aligned and defiantly mobilized together in Wisconsin last month, conveyed something very important and powerful. Okay, duh. That’s obvious. If we could orchestrate that kind of line-up all the time, we would, of course. But you can’t just pull that out of a hat.

I concluded Marx’s error saying that “we have some very powerful, very contemporary examples of … populist alignments.”  By which I especially meant Wisconsin.

What are the ingredients of this so-called populism? And how did it come about?

In this post I want to first briefly review a key challenge that makes this kind of alignment so difficult (and therefore, such an important and remarkable accomplishment). Then I’ll take a stab at the original $64 million question: What exactly is populism? What are its elements and processes? And how did it come about in Wisconsin?

The challenge

Our populist mobilization challenge, as I discussed in Marx’s error, is that our society is highly fragmented and heterogeneous. It’s not like a hundred years ago where there was a huge emergent “group” called the industrial working class, whose lifestyles and conditions were similar enough so as to signify similarity to such an extent that “working class consciousness” could emerge (in concert with a lot of remarkable organizing), which meant that a critical mass of people conceptualized themselves as part of a “group” called the working class. Today, even though the same class structures and relationships of exploitation exist, now we all have so many opportunities to express ourselves in such differentiating ways. When we walk down the street, when we get in our cars (or onto public transportation), when we go about our day-to-day lives, in important ways we’re constantly signaling difference:

“I’m a Christian.” “I’m an atheist.” “I’m a punk.” “I’m a golfer.” “I’m a Lady Gaga fan.” “I’m an existentialist.” “I’m an academic.” “I’m a graphic designer.” “I’m a mother.” “I’m an Asian American.” “I’m gay.” “I’m an activist.” “I’m a hunter.” “I’m an environmentalist.” “I’m a southerner.”

By adorning ourselves with distinctions&#151with those things that we feel are meaningful to us as individuals as we construct our particular identities&#151we are a more self-expressive society. And there are many, many positive things about such a shift. The challenge is that it makes the construction of active political solidarity difficult. By not signaling similarity, we’re not triggering those primal, preconscious parts of our brains that evolved to benefit the groups we’re part of (and to secure our individual places within those groups) &#151 those parts that stimulate instincts whose “script” is essentially, “Hey, you’re like me! We’re part of a group! You’re plight is my plight, and my plight is your plight! We’re in this together!” When our expressions indicate difference rather than similarity, we often trigger a negative side of our primal selves &#151 a part whose script is, “OTHER! OTHER!! DANGER!!! ANXIETY!!! FEAR!!!!” or a milder version: “Hey, I can’t really relate to you, so I’d just as soon avoid you and talk to my crew, who I’m far more comfortable around.”

This makes it difficult to mobilize “groups” in solidarity with one another. It’s not always because we don’t care at all about “each other’s issues”. But we all have only so much time and energy, and we tend to orient ourselves toward the things that are most important to the groups with which we primarily identify. So, while I may care about climate change, I may not come out to a rally to stop mountain top removal, because my union has been neck deep trying to pass health care reform legislation. There are only so many hours in a day!

So, back to Wisconsin: Gov. Scott Walker singles out public workers for his attack plan. Hey, maybe we all care about the issue, but we all care about a lot of issues, right? Only so many hours in the day. One can certainly imagine a scenario where only the public workers who are affected make any noise about the attack; them and the “usual suspect” radicals who come out to oppose everything. I can certainly imagine such a scenario. Indeed, this is more or less the scenario I have seen most of the time for most of my life. Sucks that teachers are getting screwed, but hey, what’s new, right? I’m a farmer, and we’re getting screwed too, but I don’t see anyone mobilizing to support me. I’m a firefighter, and I’m glad I’m not getting screwed. I’m with the Green Bay Packers, and we just won the effing Super Bowl! I’m going to Disney Land!!

It could have happened like this, but it didn’t. Instead Gov. Walker’s attacks were met with an overwhelming outpouring of resistance from many sectors, professions, and groups &#151 a populist alignment, if you will.

So, how did it happen?

Message in a bottle

The following series of illustrations is the result of trying to explain Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason to a friend over drinks.  (Thanks and apologies to Laclau, whose insightful work I am about to totally bastardize.)


Figure 1:

The above bottles represent social aggregations (commonly known as “groups”). Now, social aggregations don’t typically have such defined walls around them as these here bottles might suggest, but deal with it; these bottles = social aggregations. Moreover, they represent contemporary social aggregations/groups in Wisconsin. For example, one of these bottles represents Wisconsin public school teachers, another represents university students, then firefighters, police officers, veterans, farmers, Green Bay Packers, and so on. Not all the bottles in all of Wisconsin are included here. The figure leaves out inherently conservative groups (the hard opposition). It does not, however, leave out social aggregations that hold mixed&#151or less than fully defined&#151political dispositions. The above bottles are the groups that could potentially be in alignment. Think of them as potential allies.


Figure 2:

Enter group identity. Each group’s identity is represented by a different color filling each bottle &#151 to illustrate that group identities are indeed particular. As discussed in Bonding & Bridging, groups bond over what is common among group members, and these particular within-group commonalities also make the group distinct from other groups. Firefighters fight fires. Teachers teach. These are obvious defining features, but group identity can come to encompass infinite less obvious particularities, from fashion to rhetoric to organizational structures.

Group members feel at home in their particular bottle. That is to say they identify with their social aggregation, and they concern themselves with the affairs of their group &#151 much more so than with the affairs of other groups. A teacher may be thankful that firefighters exist, and vice versa, but that doesn’t mean either typically has the time or capacity to concern herself with the other’s situation.

To be clear, these bottles can represent all sorts of groups and aggregations &#151 not just professions (or unions representing professions). One bottle could represent Methodists, another could represent the NAACP. (And, to repeat, social identities don’t typically have such neatly defined boundaries as a bottle may suggest.)

So, these groups are each doing their thing. For particular reasons, the NAACP may be focusing on a particular campaign (that, no doubt, grows organically out of the group identity and reflects group-constructed values and priorities), and the Methodist Church may be focusing on other efforts. The AFL-CIO might have some other focus, and, within the AFL-CIO, different trade unions will have different priorities too. Students might be all over the place, clustering by their interests from hobbies and sports to academic disciplines to activist groups that focus on a variety of issues. Of course, any given group would probably love for all the other groups to concern themselves with that group’s issue. But, again, there are only so many hours in a day.

Thus the fragmentation and issue-silos I lamented at the start of this series really seem a pretty inevitable fact of life. We do not have a commander of a centrally coordinated Left who can say, “Hey, everyone, drop what you’re doing and focus your attention right here right now!”


Figure 3:



Enter Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature. What’s happening to those group identities? Something is bubbling up at the top of all those bottles. The groups are processing what radical Republican control of both houses and the governorship might mean for them and their interests. This layer of each group’s particular identity is common among these groups. They each develop a wary attitude toward the power structure, as they perceive how a Republican trifecta might interfere with the realization of group goals. The groups share that wariness in common. (Again, groups that are inherently conservative aren’t featured in this illustration. They’re piled up on some other table.)

This emerging layer of commonality creates a new opportunity to, as Robert Putnam would say, bridge between groups. Ernesto Laclau would say that this common component of each group’s particular identity creates an equivalential logic, which is to say that each group starts seeing each other group’s concerns as equivalent to its own. The ingredients for a new (or at least powerfully refreshed) public start to emerge.


Figure 4:



In this figure Gov. Walker et al single out a target: public workers, represented by the elevated bottle, which Walker wants to break. But that foaming red layer in each bottle&#151in each group’s identity&#151causes each group to see the attack on the teachers and public workers as equivalent to an attack on itself. The equivalential logic becomes an equivalential chain, binding the groups with stronger solidary ties, ultimately resulting in a kind of meta-group &#151 a new (or at least newly refreshed) public. This new public is a projection of proximate group-oriented instincts&#151the group-serving instincts that are a day-to-day part of our experiences with proximate groups&#151onto a more abstract conception of a group (i.e. a public). Thus the proximate group provides a level of commitment and solidarity that only comes through face-to-face, flesh-and-blood, strong tie organization, while the “equivalential chain” between many groups facilitates the projection of this strong within-group solidarity onto a broader public.


Figure 5:



This figure illustrates what I just described playing out. The red line represents the equivalential chain, which connects the freshly politicized&#151now fully adversarial toward Gov. Walker&#151layer of each group’s identity. The public workers “bottle” becomes a symbol that each group sees itself represented by. And almost overnight hundreds of thousands are mobilized in Wisconsin, constituting what we might call a quintessential populist alignment.

Lookin’ a little shaken there, Walker.

The “empty signifier”

The public workers became a catalyzing symbol in which each group in the emerging populist alignment sees a reflection of itself &#151 and to which each group sees its own prospects and future tied. Any populist alignment requires such a catalyzing symbol (or cluster of symbols). The symbol serves to “name”/crystallize the new public. It is the essential focal point that allows groups to extend their strong internal solidarity&#151derived from within-group bonding&#151beyond themselves.

I want to discuss three important things about such a catalyzing symbol: 1) the symbol is necessarily ambiguous, 2) the symbol is not inherently progressive in character or result, and 3) the symbol can take many different forms. I will briefly discuss these in reverse order.

The symbol can take many different forms. Paste George W. Bush’s face over top Scott Walker’s and think back to the waning days of the Bush Administration. The electoral campaign of then-candidate Barack Obama provides another case study of a populist alignment. Obama himself became the “catalyzing symbol in which each group in the emerging populist alignment [saw] a reflection of itself &#151 and to which each group [saw] its own prospects and future tied.” Bush had become such a villain to so many swaths of society by the end of his presidency that that red layer in those bottles&#151the layer of identity that is in opposition, typically to an authority&#151had profoundly shifted most group identities in the whole of US society. Obama the candidate&#151in large part through his brilliant oratory skills&#151emerged as the symbol to which so many social aggregations came to see their hopes tied.

So in the case of Wisconsin, a huge grouping of people served as the catalyzing symbol&#151under the label “public workers”&#151and they were thrown into this role overnight by forces beyond of their control. While in the case of the 2008 election, one person&#151Barack Obama&#151served as the symbol, and he emerged as such over a longer period of time.

The symbol might also be neither a group nor a person. It could be something like a label or a brand. Take Obama out of the catalyzing symbol role and paste his face in the place that Walker and Bush had occupied in the previous examples. He is now the authority figure that another set of identities is aligning against. The label “Tea Party” is constructed/resurrected (/manufactured by Dick Armey et al) to serve the purpose of the catalyzing symbol, which leads to the next point about catalyzing symbols…

The symbol is not inherently progressive in character or result, which should have already been apparent to most readers through my discussion of Barack Obama as a catalyzing symbol. But the Tea Party as catalyzing symbol makes this even clearer. All sorts of populist moments are possible &#151 from the French Revolution, to the New Deal, to the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Populism is a kind of formation; a pattern and process of political alignment between social forces in relation to opposing alignments.  All shades and stripes of political ideologies can and have strategically engaged in populist strategy &#151 sometimes ushering in profound advances in social equality and human welfare; sometimes resulting in the worst horrors of human history.

The symbol is necessarily ambiguous. For a catalyzing symbol to appeal to a lot of different groups at the same time&#151for a diversity of constituencies and interests to see themselves and their hopes reflected in the same symbol&#151it must necessarily be ambiguous. The symbol is more about a general, ambiguous direction than it is about detailed solutions. The more you dig into the details&#151the more you try to nail down the symbol’s precise significance&#151the more the myriad differences between groups’ particular visions and goals come into focus. You risk emphasizing difference in a political moment that demands an emphasis on “universality”. You risk exposing fissures in the tentative populist alignment.

This is why Ernesto Laclau calls this catalyzing symbol the empty signifier. I’m not too fond of that term, but what he’s getting at is this necessary ambiguity. It is conceptually useful to think of the contents of the symbol/signifier as empty, and to focus instead on its function in naming/signifying/crystallizing the new populist alignment. A populist alignment will not crystallize without this necessarily ambiguous symbol. You could try to write a document that spells out all of the concerns of a myriad of groups with diverse interests, but in the writing you will undermine the tentative unity of the groups. You might realistically be able to get some radicals from the edges of multiple issue areas together to write such a document, but it’s not going to unite anyone other than radicals; by trying to spell out everything, you lose nearly everyone. This is one reason why sectarian groups that try to organize “the masses” by first trying to refine everyone’s political analysis are perpetually not getting anywhere (other than in the way).

Consider for a moment candidate Obama as empty signifier. The consistent Republican strategy throughout the campaign was to attempt to overly associate Obama with particular constituencies and concerns&#151to “nail him down” and fill in the contents of the signifier (in very calculated ways)&#151in order to prevent other groups in the emerging populist alignment from being able to see their own identities and hopes in the symbol of Obama. Obama dodged metaphorical bullets like Neo in the Matrix. His steady retort&#151most remarkably demonstrated in responding to his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright&#151was to associate himself with universal elements of multiple identities. This feat was performed with tremendous skill (and self-conscious preparation, utilizing Marshall Ganz’ “story of self, us and now” framework).

All of this is to demonstrate the critical importance of the ambiguity of the catalyzing symbol in the construction of a populist alignment. This idea of positive strategic value in ambiguity may offend some progressive sensibilities. We want clarity. I sure as heck do. There are certainly times when clarity is precisely what is called for. And, to be clear, there can be a tremendous cost to this necessary ambiguity. But effective social change agents must befriend ambiguity; we gotta “get intimate and comfortable” with it. If you can’t turn off your need for clear definitions in some moments, you may well attain your clear definitions. But you’re not likely to build the kind of collective progressive power we need to start turning this thing around.

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