Top Down Populism

I’ve been intrigued of late by a seemingly obvious and pervasive contradiction within American culture—the notion of “grassroots” or “populist” activity as something that can be not only leveraged but orchestrated from above by powerful groups seeking the “consensus” approval or authentic legitimacy that comes when something is done “by the people.” Politicians recognize the importance of tapping into populism (see how many times each of the presidential candidates’ websites name-drop the word “grassroots”), as do media moguls (who pay bloggers to start a buzz on the web to create “bottom up marketing”) and television executives (who, in reality shows like American Idol, cede “control” to the audience to portray themselves as “America’s show”).

Indeed, populism has always been a hallmark of America, a nation birthed out of a direct opposition to the elitism, stratified wealth, and top-down imperialism of 18th century Europe. But the very point of populism was that it not be coopted by the elites who—from their perches of power in Washington or Madison Avenue—sought to use “the people’s voice” as just another way to sell their products, their messages, their agendas.

So how can we take top-down populism seriously? After all, a “grassroots” movement is, by definition and necessarily, bottom-up. This is not to say it doesn’t take leadership on the grassroots level to get the ball rolling with any momentous movement or change. Of course it does. But something ceases to be authentically grassroots when the ideas or origins of a movement come not from the “people” or “populace” but are fed from above by campaign strategists, teachers, or other institutional arms of the hegemony.

Briefly, here are two examples I’ve encountered recently that illustrate my point:

1) I sit on a board at UCLA that oversees all student media (newspapers, magazines, yearbook, etc) and at our last meeting a few board members proposed a revitalization plan for several of the floundering niche magazines on campus. These magazines (for groups like African American students, Muslims, Latinos, Asian-Americans, etc) were quite popular in the mid to late 90s at UCLA, but for whatever reason have recently fallen on apathetic ears. Students are simply not as interested in this sort of community-based “progressive” journalism anymore. The proposed “revitalization” plan calls for the formation of an “alternative/underground journalism training program” wherein students are taught how to organize on the street level and produce community-specific journalism that is hopefully oppositional, subversive, muckraking and important. Sounds good, but we can easily see the contradiction here. How do we teach community-level, grassroots activist journalism? If the students are inclined to do it, they will on their own. If not, why should we (and how can we) force it?

2) I went to a conference at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts this weekend on the topic of DIY Video (i.e. kids with cameras and editing equipment who make their own films that wind up on YouTube). A panel of ridiculously utopian media theorists (Henry Jenkins, Howard Rheingold, Joi Ito, Yochai Benkler, John Seely Brown) went on and on about the “revolutionary” effects on culture that this sort of democratized video production might hold. They kept repeating that we (read: educated, old, and liberal) should create programs of “visual media literary” wherein young, poor, minority students would be given the tools (cameras, computers, etc) and training to visually express and distribute (via YouTube or elsewhere) the opinions they are otherwise never given platform to convey. The idea is that these muted voices will be enabled to speak and speak out against the forces that control and oppress them. The goal of the old rich benefactors who finance these “media literacy” initiatives is, of course, that some brilliant high schooler with a laptop will create the next great anti-establishment “stick it to the man” expose. But what happens if all the kids want to do is film Jackass stunts?

Ultimately, the problem both of these groups must solve is the problem of caring. How do we get young people (or anyone, really) to care enough about an issue to organize and build grassroots momentum for change? It’s a serious problem. But it can’t be solved by cloying, force-fed, top-down manipulation.

Perhaps the increased proliferation of top-down, taught populism is simply a sign that the populace doesn’t know what or who it is (or should be). Perhaps grassroots activity today—even with the ultimate grassroots tool (or, perhaps, hindrance) of the Internet—cannot exist without the orchestration and steering of someone who actually has a message or idea we can get excited about. In lieu of having little we are organically excited about (or perhaps in lieu of the overwhelming glut of potential things to get excited about), we need direction.

I’d like to think that a “mass” or “populace” exists outside the realm of top-down influence. I’d like to think that the people are capable of banding together and revolutionizing systems and societies, Marx style. But I think that Marx underestimated the extent to which—as we see today—the “people” are quietly (and perhaps unknowingly) going about the business of the powers that be, rather than overthrowing them. Indeed, I think Gramsci’s view of the world is more practical—the notion that control is wielded not through coercion but ideology, that subjugation can be framed as a positive, that we willingly participate in the subtle reinforcement of dominant values.

Of course this is all very pessimistic, and any Gramscian must hold on to the hope that little moments of personal rebellion are possible—that hegemonic forces can be thwarted by means of grassroots revolution. But it is definitely, and increasingly, an uphill battle.