Are academics to blame for the rise of populism?

A critical and questioning intellectual community of social scientists is a core component of a confident and flourishing democracy, but can academic critique go too far? asks Matt Flinders

July 9, 2018
Crowds in Hungary
Source: Getty

One of the great things about being on sabbatical is that you actually get a little time to hide away and do something that professors generally have very little opportunity to do – read books. As a result, I have spent the past couple of months gorging myself on the scholarly fruits that have been piling up on my desk for some time. What fun it is to soak yourself in the literature! To swim from genre to genre, from topic to topic with a little more freedom to explore beyond your micro-specialism than is ever usually possible and, through this, to garner new insights. 

That is, until an argument and insight makes you stop and tread water; to question your intellectual tribe and its contribution to society; that leaves you with a sense that a gentle swim has ended and that you may now be “not waving but drowning”. 

To some extent, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (2018) is the literary equivalent of being hit over the head while open water swimming by the chap in the guide boat who was supposed to be looking after you. 

For someone who had just taken so much from Pankaj Mishra’s wonderful book The Age of Anger (2018), Pinker’s position is – simply put – that “those angry people don’t know how lucky they are”. 

His argument is as simple as it is bold: overall, the world is not declining into chaos and disaster but “people are getting healthier, richer, safer, and freer, they are also becoming more literate, knowledgeable, and smarter…People are putting their longer, healthier, safer, freer, richer and wiser lives to good use”. 

There is no “hellish dystopia” but a world defined by progress based upon the insights of science and the Enlightenment. Pinker offers a powerful polemic that is almost bursting with apparently unquenchable optimism. From sustenance to health, from peace to equal rights to quality of life and the environment, the world has never been a better place to live in. 

Did you know that that Americans today are 37 times less likely to be killed by lightning than in 1900, thanks to a combination of better meteorological forecasting, electrical engineering and safety awareness? Pinker writes that his favourite sentence in the whole English language comes from Wikipedia, “Smallpox was an infectious disease caused by two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor”. The word “was” is what he likes. 

In a somewhat odd turn of argument, Pinker focuses upon Friedrich Nietzsche as the root of all Counter-Enlightenment evil. And yet when reading Enlightenment Now, Nietzsche’s phrase “philosophizing with a hammer” sprang to mind because of Pinker’s emphasis on the world as understood (and only understood) through data-driven graphs. Variations of these graphs appear over and over in his book, each one measuring an apparently indisputable measure of human progress but hitting you over the head with the dull data thud of progress until you surrender to the inevitability of progress past, progress present and progress future. 

The problem is, however, reconciling this vast body of data on global human progress with the rise of populism, which is in itself arguably reflective of a large amount of frustration and anger among huge sections of the public who don’t “feel good” but feel “left behind” (Wuthnow, 2018), “strangers in their own land” (Hochschild, 2016 – by far the best book I have read for years) or part of the forgotten “périphérique” (Guilluy, 2015).

And yet if life is actually improving in relative terms for most people, why have so many people been seduced by populist temptations? Who or what is to blame? 

“I believe that the media and intelligentsia were”, Pinker writes, “complicit in populists’ depiction of modern Western nations as so unjust and dysfunctional that nothing short of a radical lurch could improve them.” 

This intelligentsia includes the social and political sciences and, although he notes that “it may sound quixotic to offer a defence of the Enlightenment against professors”, he proceeds to rally against the “dystopian rhetoric” of academe, the cultural pessimism of professors and even accuses them of poisoning voters against democracy. Academics are, apparently, “progressophobes” who chip away at the public’s confidence in conventional politics and, through this, may have unwittingly created a vacuum that populism has filled. 

I am not really that interested in Pinker’s book. It is flawed from too many angles. Moreover, the academics and cultural pessimists that he blames are generally sociologists and critical theorists such as my old friend Zygmunt Bauman and the terror of modernity himself, Slavoj Žižek. 

And yet I could not escape a vague sense of uneasiness; a feeling that in some oblique and indirect way there might be a link between the critique of the “new optimists” and the psychoanalytic temperament of political science. Not only has the discipline’s long-standing focus upon “endism”, crises and failure been well documented, even its more quantitative approaches tend to be laden with fairly pessimistic assumptions about human nature. 

John Kenneth Galbraith once advised that if you ever want a lucrative book contract, just propose to write The Crisis of American Democracy – and it appears that there may have been some truth in this advice (at least in the minds of publishers thinking about potential sales). This is true to the extent that even when the arguments that reside within the pages of books such as Democratic Deficit (Norris, 2011), Democracy Disrupted (Krastev, 2014) and How Democracy Ends (Runciman, 2018) are as balanced and measured as they are coherent and constructive, they are published under a title that resonates with “endism”. 

Therefore, if democracy is not in terminal decline, the general message emanating from political science seems to be that it is in pretty bad shape. Put slightly differently and with Pinker’s critique in mind, it is hard to find a positive vision within the discipline that sees the world’s problems against a backdrop of progress. That may well be all and good; I’m certainly no apologist for capitalism, but it did at least make me stop and think about the existence of academic orthodoxies and default assumptions and what Elinor Ostrom once called “the danger of self-evident truths”.

That democracy is “in trouble” certainly appears to be something of a “self-evident truth” within political science and Pinker certainly seems to think such beliefs are “dangerous”, but can academics really be blamed for the rise of populism? I’m not convinced. 

To make such a claim seems to overestimate the public influence of academe while also underestimating the amount of international data on the rise of “disaffected democrats”. This seems to leave Pinker facing a “blame boomerang” that stems from his urge to shoot the messenger, in this case the critical professor, rather than looking beyond and beneath the populist signal in terms of its underlying emotional currents. Progress may well have occurred but (ironically) it is also the nature of that progress with its increasingly unequal and precarious dynamic that is really to blame. But, then again, maybe I’m just one of those progressophobes.

Matthew Flinders is professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, president of the Political Studies Association of the UK and a member of the Economic and Social Research Council.

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