In Aristotle’s brief work, the Athenian Constitution, he makes mention in particular of two very popular politicians of Athenian history. I invite my gentle readers to give a brief look to how he distinguishes the two:
Peisistratos had the reputation of being an extreme democrat, and he also had distinguished himself greatly in the war with Megara. Taking advantage of this, he wounded himself, and by representing that his injuries had been inflicted on him by his political rivals, he persuaded the people, through a motion proposed by Aristiōn, to grant him a bodyguard. After he had got these ‘club-bearers’, as they were called, he made an attack with them on the people and seized the Acropolis. […]However, the second man he treats a bit more brusquely, and less at length.
The tyranny of Peisistratos… was temperate… and more like constitutional government than a tyranny. Not only was he in every respect humane and mild and ready to forgive those who offended, but, in addition, he advanced money to the poorer people to help them in their labours, so that they might make their living by agriculture. In this he had two objects, first that they might not spend their time in the city but might be scattered over all the face of the country, and secondly that, being moderately well off and occupied with their own business, they might have neither the wish nor the time to attend to public affairs. At the same time his revenues were increased by the thorough cultivation of the country, since he imposed a tax of one tenth on all the produce. For the same reasons he instituted the local justices, and often made expeditions in person into the country to inspect it and to settle disputes between individuals, that they might not come into the city and neglect their farms. […]
[Peisistratos] burdened the people as little as possible with his government, but always cultivated peace and kept them in all quietness. Hence the tyranny of Peisistratos was often spoken of proverbially as ‘the age of gold’.
Nikias, who subsequently fell in Sicily, appeared as leader of the aristocracy, and Kleon son of Kleainetos of the people. The latter seems, more than any one else, to have been the cause of the corruption of the democracy by his wild undertakings; and he was the first to use unseemly shouting and coarse abuse on the Bēma, and to harangue the people with his cloak girt up short about him, whereas all his predecessors had spoken decently and in order.Both men of classical Athens, the tyrant Peisistratos and the general Kleon, are often glossed nowadays as ‘populists’, though Aristotle himself clearly finds a world of difference between the two, both in terms of their temperament and in terms of their substantive policies, such as they were. He clearly favours one and berates the other. The difference is there; but where, exactly, does it lie? I bring this question up because of a recent article by Damon Linker in The Week, which makes a half-hearted attempt at separating the two from each other, but which ultimately invokes Aristotle for the purpose of confusing these two ‘ideal types’ of populist statecraft in ways which Aristotle himself probably wouldn’t have approved.
Mr. Linker might, and I would actually expect him to, agree with me that Trump is more of a Kleon figure than a Peisistratos. He himself holds forth that Sanders is the ‘real economic populist in the race’ (which is probably true), and holds that Trump is ‘a textbook example of a demagogue’. Both statements are fair enough; but this and this alone isn’t what’s driving his core critique. He wants to know, and like Galston and Frum wants to make sense of, ‘what the hell happened to American politics in 2015’. There is a real fear in his entire approach, that ‘a list of sensible, wonky policy proposals isn't going to do the trick’ in disarming this unruly rabble of right-wingers looking to round up the Muslims and immigrants, which Trump has seemingly conjured to do his bidding. Mr. Linker wants to peer directly into the American ‘heart of darkness’ which is currently driving Trump’s support base, and which can neatly be shelved into ‘nationalism and identity politics’. And he wants it stopped.
Unlike Mr. Linker, perhaps, I tend to sympathise with a lot of what gets Trump supporters riled up, even if I don’t (and can’t in good conscience) follow them straight into Trump’s arms. The idealistic, national-greatness jingo of the sort Trump serves up is but a piss-poor substitute for a real, healthy, lived-in culture which is loved as given rather than merely because it is great or could be ‘great again’. At the same time, as I have noted before despite my critique, the nation-state has become a site of resistance to the encroachments of globalism, and a means of securing whatever gains the people have made from any further losses at the hands of a global elite. Note that this is not just happening in the United States!
And note that this is not a fear born solely of economic insecurity or stress, though that certainly is a factor. I note that Mr. Linker does not do this himself, but it’s a strange and deeply insulting thing to assume, that poor people are essentially amœboids which respond only to the most basic and material of external stimuli: pain, hunger, comfort or pleasure. One of the most infuriating things about elitism is the way in which it robs the poor of their judgement in non-economic matters first. Poor people as well as wealthy people are concerned about losing the non-tangible things: language, religion, æsthetics, convictions, the integrity of their families, the character of their communities. And this is where the backlash against immigrants, against political-correctness and against the journalistic profession as a whole comes in.
Panning out and looking at the broader picture for a moment: poor people, black as well as white, are from a sociological standpoint deeply conservative (or at least, more conservative than the wealthy). A technocratic ‘establishment’ which leans toward a malleable liberal view of human nature, of which the journalistic profession is the most visible and easily-accessible moving part, therefore has a bias toward viewing poor people as a behavioural problem that needs fixing, rather than as persons. As a result, the poor – whether black or white, urban or rural – have been neglected, ill-treated, deeply-disdained, badgered, blamed and shamed for decades now, as barriers to progress, and as the wellspring of whatever ‘goes wrong’ in America. And this, in spite of a series of massive economic, foreign-policy and cultural blunders that were largely the fault of a hubristic elite technocratic class, and not of the masses. Why, then, is the anger and frustration that lashes out against globalism (along with its most visible symbols), and against a journalism which does little else but propagandise on behalf of the elite class, so difficult to understand?
Or, let’s put this another way. The difference between Peisistratos and Kleon is not that the first focussed solely on meat-and-olives economics and the other focussed solely on distracting ‘cultural’ issues. Kleon did indeed self-servingly favour the Athenian mercantile class whilst ginning up what we might now consider to be nationalistic or jingoistic fervour among the Athenian lower classes. But this is how Aristotle describes Peisistratos’s original plan of gaining power (bold mine):
He first spread abroad a rumour that Athēna was bringing back Peisistratos, and then, having found a woman of great stature and beauty, named Phyē (according to Herodotos, of the dēme of Paiania, but as others say a Thrakian flower-seller of the dēme of Kollytos), he dressed her in a garb resembling that of the goddess and brought her into the city with Peisistratos. The latter drove in on a chariot with the woman beside him, and the inhabitants of the city, struck with awe, received him with adoration.Peisistratos appealed directly to Athenian piety and to Athenian religious sentiment, and sought to leverage that religious sentiment to vault himself to power as the tyrant of Athens. And even when he had settled into his position as tyrant, long enough to enact his reforms, he did not neglect the religious life of the Athenian people. He used the power and wealth of the Athenian state to sponsor the City Dionysia (something which had not been done before, and which gained him instantaneous approval from the Athenian rural poor) and to honour the gods. He treated what was originally a rural agrarian cultus, hithertofore disrespected and distrusted by wealthy city folk, with a high degree of prominent public piety and respect – and by the same stroke increased the economic demand in the city for wine and olives. It’s highly difficult to untangle economic from ‘cultural’ (which is to say, particularly in this context, religious) motives in the reign of Peisistratos, and probably for good reason. But the ‘cultural’ measures Peisistratos undertook very likely gained him as much respect as his economic ones did.
Mr. Linker very clearly wants to stick Trump with Kleon’s stamp, and I can’t blame him at all for that. I cannot help but wonder, though, if he would welcome a Peisistratid politics in any greater degree. Would Mr. Linker welcome a perspective that not only bettered the poor with jobs and bread, but that also considered their religious and social convictions as valid (in spite of their higher degree of social conservatism)? Would he welcome a synthesis of left-populist economics and traditional cultural and social views? Even a more muscular, autocratic form of politics that wasn’t quite so procedurally-liberal and democratic in character (but still governed like a constitutional government, as Aristotle described it)?