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.

4 responses to “Top Down Populism

  1. It seems to me that there IS plenty of populism still out there. The open source movement seems proof that it works (although there’s lots of interesting top/bottom-dynamics at work there, too).

    Perhaps the lines are being blurred more, which makes it substantially more confusing. In the past, we had clearly-defined grassroots movements, and clearly-defined top-down administered campaigns.

    But now, things get messier (your examples illustrate that pretty clearly), as the two get blended up.

    Going back to open source, we see the same thing happening…for example, Firefox developement is driving by the Mozilla Foundation. For the sake of argument, let’s consider that top-down. But the outlandish proliferation of extensions/add-ons/etc, is certainly a grass-roots development.

    It seems to me to be a lot more confusing now that folks at the top can masquerade as folks at the bottom (ie. astroturfing), and people at the bottom have (almost) equal access to some of hte same media channels.

  2. Here’s my question–how often do these pseudo-grassroots movements even last? It seems like the majority of them don’t last long because they’re a product of the people at the ‘top’ trying to get the people at the ‘bottom’ to care. So it’s not really a group of people who care enough to make the changes themselves. Only when a grassroots movement is a real grassroots movement do they seem to work (feel free to correct me if you can think of a time when a top-down grassroots movement worked for more than the life of a trend).

    This also makes me think of a quote from The West Wing when Pres. Bartlett says “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. You know why?” To which another character replies “Because it’s the only thing that ever has.” The greatest of these groups, I believe, are Christ and his disciples.

    All of this is a long-winded way of saying that true grassroots movements seem to be the ones that really last.

  3. I hadn’t considered the relative impact of grassroots movements whose from is top-down in terms of idea-to-action. It has given me reason to pause.

    On the one hand, I have considered that there could be a relatively positive impact if a movement is supported by someone at the top and spearheaded by those on the ground floor.

    Still, this notion that the populists are being leveraged (for gain) somehow had not occurred to me. Now that I have considered it, there are a number of instances that stand out.

    I dig Tiffany’s question about the lifespan of the movement. Do grassroots movements really die? (or, do they simply become established in some regard that is acceptable to those advocating change?) What happens when there is no more advocay? Was there an actual change?

    In regards to media literacy (which I believe you mentioned earlier) — do you believe that there is a need? I suspect that you can co-sign on people being able to critically assess any and all messages within the media they consume. If media literacy is advocated from the top-down, is that a bad thing (TM)? I am just curious on your thoughts about ML in particular, as it is a new passion for me (and because I have recently discovered this passion has a name!)

  4. In your opening paragraph, you get pretty close to what Chomsky calls the manufacture of consent.

    I think it’s pretty easy to argue though that people like Michael Moore are what Gramsci would call organic intellectuals. As are a lot of the people working on the Obama campaign.

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