January 12, 2019 in 3,349 words

‘We the people’: the battle to define populism

The noisy dispute over the meaning of populism is more than just an academic squabble – it’s a crucial argument about what we expect from democracy


When populism appears in the media, which it does more and more often now, it is typically presented without explanation, as if everyone can already define it. And everyone can, sort of – at least as long as they’re allowed to simply cite the very developments that populism is supposed to explain: Brexit, Trump, Viktor Orbán’s takeover of Hungary, the rise of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. The word evokes the long-simmering resentments of the everyman, brought to a boil by charismatic politicians hawking impossible promises. Often as not, populism sounds like something from a horror film: an alien bacteria that has somehow slipped through democracy’s defences – aided, perhaps, by Steve Bannon or some other wily agent of mass manipulation – and is now poisoning political life, creating new ranks of populist voters among “us”. (Tellingly, most writing about populism presumes an audience unsympathetic to populism.)

There is no shortage of prominent voices warning how dangerous populism is, and that we must take immediate steps to fight it. Tony Blair spends his days running the Institute for Global Change (IGC), an organisation founded, per its website, “to push back against the destructive approach of populism”. In its 2018 world report, Human Rights Watch warned democracies of the world against “capitulation” to the “populist challenge”. The rise of “populist movements”, Barack Obama said in a speech last summer, had helped spark a global boom for the “politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment” that pave a path to authoritarianism. “I am not being alarmist. I am just stating facts,” Obama said.

When populism is framed this way, the implication is clear. All responsible citizens have a responsibility to do their part in the battle – to know populism when they see it, understand its appeal (but not fall for it), and support politics that stop populism in its tracks, thereby saving democracy as we know it. “By fighting off the current infection,” writes Yascha Mounk, until recently executive director of Blair’s IGC and a prominent anti-populist writer, “we might just build up the necessary antibodies to remain immune against new bouts of the populist disease for decades to come.”

But as breathless op-eds and thinktank reports about the populist menace keep piling up, they have provoked a sceptical backlash from critics who wonder aloud if populism even exists. It is now relatively common to encounter the idea that, just as there were no real witches in Salem, there are no real populists in politics – just people, attitudes and movements that the political centre misunderstands and fears, and wants you, reader, to fear too, although without the burden of having to explain exactly why. Populism, in this framing, is a bogeyman: a nonentity invoked for the purpose of stirring up fear. This argument has even made its way to the centrist mainstream. “Let’s do away with the word ‘populist,’” wrote the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen in July. “It’s become sloppy to the point of meaninglessness, an overused epithet for multiple manifestations of political anger. Worse, it’s freighted with contempt, applied to all voters who have decided that mainstream political parties have done nothing for their static incomes or disappearing jobs or sense of national decline these past two decades.”

PREPARE TO SPEND A WHILE, it’s The Long Read.


Elwood, Illinois (Pop. 2,200), Has Become a Vital Hub of America’s Consumer Economy. And It’s Hell.

The rural town south of Chicago is now a crucial stop for Amazon, Wal-Mart, IKEA, Home Depot, and other giant retailers. Developers had promised growth and good jobs. So why is everyone so miserable?

It’s hard to find anyone who will admit to it now, but when the CenterPoint Intermodal freight terminal opened in 2002, people in Elwood, Illinois, were excited. The plan was simple: shipping containers, arriving by train from the country’s major ports, were offloaded onto trucks at the facility, then driven to warehouses scattered about the area, where they were emptied, their contents stored. From there, those products—merchandise for Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot—were loaded into semis, and trucked to stores all over the country. Goods in, goods out. The arrangement was supposed to produce a windfall for Elwood and its 2,200 residents, giving them access to the highly lucrative logistics and warehousing industry. “People thought it was the greatest thing,” said Delilah Legrett, an Elwood native.

In addition to bringing more containers and warehouses, the Intermodal promised to foster vital growth and development. In a town without sidewalks, grand pronouncements were made in the run-up to the Intermodal’s debut. There would soon be hotels, restaurants, a grocery store; flower shops and bars would follow. Property values would surge, schools would be flush with cash. Most importantly, there would be great, high-paying jobs, the kind that could sustain a community devastated by farm failures and the wide-scale deindustrialization of the Midwest. In Will County, of which Elwood is part, the unemployment rate soared to a high of 18 percent in the 1980s, before gradually coming closer to the national average in the 1990s. In Joliet, the nearest urban center, it hit 27 percent in 1981.

An opportunity as great as the Intermodal came with a cost. First, to help seal the deal, the town had to offer the developer, CenterPoint, a sweetener: total tax abatement for two decades, until 2022. Second, the town would have to put up with an influx of truck traffic. No matter: With large-scale manufacturing shifting to the Pacific Rim at the turn of the millennium, the warehousing and logistics industry offered a chance to get back in the good graces of a global economy that had, for decades, turned its back on rural America. Elwood yoked its hopes to warehousing, which would carry the town to the forefront of America’s new consumer economy.

In a few short years after the Intermodal opened, Elwood became the largest inland port in North America. Billions of dollars in goods flowed through the area annually. The world’s most profitable retailers flocked to this stretch of barren country, while the headline unemployment rate plunged. Wal-Mart set up three warehouses in Will County alone, including its two largest national facilities, both located in Elwood. Samsung, Target, Home Depot, IKEA, and others all moved in. Will County is now home to some 300 warehouses. A region once known for its soybeans and cornfields was boxed up with gray facilities, some as large as a million square feet, like some enormous, horizontal equivalent of a game of Tetris.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: “It was never anticipated that every major business entity would end up in the area.”


Machine Politics

The rise of the internet and a new age of authoritarianism.

“The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip,” Ronald Reagan said in 1989. He was speaking to a thousand British notables in London’s historic Guildhall, several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reagan proclaimed that the world was on the precipice of “a new era in human history,” one that would bring “peace and freedom for all.” Communism was crumbling, just as fascism had before it. Liberal democracies would soon encircle the globe, thanks to the innovations of Silicon Valley. “I believe,” he said, “that more than armies, more than diplomacy, more than the best intentions of democratic nations, the communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”

At the time, most everyone thought Reagan was right. The twentieth century had been dominated by media that delivered the same material to millions of people at the same time—radio and newspapers, movies and television. These were the kinds of one-to-many, top-down mass media that Orwell’s Big Brother had used to stay in power. Now, however, Americans were catching sight of the internet. They believed that it would do what earlier media could not: it would allow people to speak for themselves, directly to one another, around the world. “True personalization is now upon us,” wrote MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. Corporations, industries, and even whole nations would soon be transformed as centralized authorities were demolished. Hierarchies would dissolve and peer-to-peer collaborations would take their place. “Like a force of nature,” wrote Negroponte, “the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.”

One of the deepest ironies of our current situation is that the modes of communication that enable today’s authoritarians were first dreamed up to defeat them. The same technologies that were meant to level the political playing field have brought troll farms and Russian bots to corrupt our elections. The same platforms of self-expression that we thought would let us empathize with one another and build a more harmonious society have been co-opted by figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos and, for that matter, Donald Trump, to turn white supremacy into a topic of dinner-­table conversation. And the same networked methods of organizing that so many thought would bring down malevolent states have not only failed to do so—think of the Arab Spring—but have instead empowered autocrats to more closely monitor protest and dissent.

If we’re going to resist the rise of despotism, we need to understand how this happened and why we didn’t see it coming. We especially need to grapple with the fact that today’s right wing has taken advantage of a decades-long liberal effort to decentralize our media. That effort began at the start of the Second World War, came down to us through the counterculture of the 1960s, and flourishes today in the high-tech hothouse of Silicon Valley. It is animated by a deep faith that when engineering replaces politics, the alienation of mass society and the threat of totalitarianism will melt away. As Trump fumes on Twitter, and Facebook posts are linked to genocide in Myanmar, we are beginning to see just how misplaced that faith has been. Even as they grant us the power to communicate with others around the globe, our social-­media networks have spawned a new form of authoritarianism.




6 Terrifying Animal Swarms Capable of Causing Total Mayhem

When the Holy Bible — inarguably the most messed up horror novel ever published — calls out something as being particularly terrifying, you know it’s bad. That’s why, to this day, whenever somebody points out “a swarm of” something, you pay full and quivering attention. But forget rats or locusts, there are loads of lesser-known plagues, featuring new and exciting ways to horrify you. For example …

6. Giant Killer Hornets Are Invading Asia And Europe


Aside from a few deluded entomologists, mankind generally agrees that hornets are the premier assholes of the insect kingdom. Luckily, the bastards aren’t big enough to do any real damage. Except in Japan, which has a hornet variety so big and terrifying that it would make Godzilla shriek and swat at the air with his tiny, ineffectual arms. And here’s the really bad news: They’re legion, and they’re coming for us all.

To this day, this is the only one we’ve managed kill.

The Asian “Matayaks” are one of the most dangerous predators in Japan. They can reach up to two inches, the biggest of any hornet, and they have the appetite and fighting prowess to match. They defend their territory like they’ve got a guest part on Game Of Thrones — terrorizing the countryside and decapitating any lesser bee they happen to find.

But don’t worry about the bees; worry about yourself. Matayak stings feel like “hot nails,” and can easily pierce clothing. They’re also incredibly lethal, injecting a fucked-up venom that kills red blood cells and shuts down your liver. And anyone allergic has better odds of surviving a grizzly attack than a swarm of Matayaks, because their stings cause such a bad anaphylactic shock that vulnerable people can up and die of a heart attack on the spot.

And in case you’ve decided to simply give Japan a miss now, even that won’t save you. Matayaks have recently started forming terrible migrating swarms, because ecological changes have thinned out their natural enemies, which they apparently had. (Does “all that is good in this world” count as a natural enemy?)


The blind spot

It’s tempting to think science gives a God’s-eye view of reality. But we forget the place of human experience at our peril.

The problem of time is one of the greatest puzzles of modern physics. The first bit of the conundrum is cosmological. To understand time, scientists talk about finding a ‘First Cause’ or ‘initial condition’ – a description of the Universe at the very beginning (or at ‘time equals zero’). But to determine a system’s initial condition, we need to know the total system. We need to make measurements of the positions and velocities of its constituent parts, such as particles, atoms, fields and so forth. This problem hits a hard wall when we deal with the origin of the Universe itself, because we have no view from the outside. We can’t step outside the box in order to look within, because the box is all there is. A First Cause is not only unknowable, but also scientifically unintelligible.

The second part of the challenge is philosophical. Scientists have taken physical time to be the only real time – whereas experiential time, the subjective sense of time’s passing, is considered a cognitive fabrication of secondary importance. The young Albert Einstein made this position clear in his debate with philosopher Henri Bergson in the 1920s, when he claimed that the physicist’s time is the only time. With age, Einstein became more circumspect. Up to the time of his death, he remained deeply troubled about how to find a place for the human experience of time in the scientific worldview.

These quandaries rest on the presumption that physical time, with an absolute starting point, is the only real kind of time. But what if the question of the beginning of time is ill-posed? Many of us like to think that science can give us a complete, objective description of cosmic history, distinct from us and our perception of it. But this image of science is deeply flawed. In our urge for knowledge and control, we’ve created a vision of science as a series of discoveries about how reality is in itself, a God’s-eye view of nature.

Such an approach not only distorts the truth, but creates a false sense of distance between ourselves and the world. That divide arises from what we call the Blind Spot, which science itself cannot see. In the Blind Spot sits experience: the sheer presence and immediacy of lived perception.


Why we should be watching the sun, not the clock

Between daylight saving and obligatory early starts, we live at the mercy of ‘official’ time – and many of us feel permanently out of sync.

The tourism brochure for the German spa town of Bad Kissingen features a photograph of a young woman on its cover. Dressed in white shorts and a pink vest, the woman is perched peacefully on a sunny rock overlooking a river, reading a handwritten journal. Emblazoned on the top left of the page is the slogan Entdecke die Zeit – Discover Time.

Located in the sparsely populated region of Lower Franconia in Bavaria, Bad Kissingen was once a fashionable resort for the European aristocracy and bourgeoisie. They came for rest and relaxation; soaking up the classical architecture and fragrant rose gardens, and taking the mineral-rich waters, which were reputed to cure all manner of ills. Today, Bad Kissingen has rebranded itself as the world’s first ChronoCity – a place where internal time is as important as external time, and sleep is sacrosanct.

Most of us are not free to choose our work or school hours; we have little control over the lighting in our public spaces and external environment; and we are even forced to reprogramme our internal clock twice a year because of daylight saving time. The question that the idea of the “ChronoCity” raises is what changes could society make to better accommodate our body clocks?

Michael Wieden, Bad Kissingen’s business manager, came up with the ChronoCity concept in 2013. Having followed scientific developments in the field of chronobiology with interest, Wieden realised that not only could weaving these principles into the town’s fabric benefit its residents, it would also make Bad Kissingen stand out from rival spa towns. Bad Kissingen has always been about healing and health, he reasoned; so what better way to heal our modern society than by bringing it back into contact with natural light and sleep. Tourists could come and learn about the importance of internal time, then return home and implement the lessons in their everyday lives. Wieden contacted a chronobiologist called Thomas Kantermann, who was similarly enthused by the idea of launching a revolution in the way that society prioritises sleep.

Quickly, the two men began drawing up a manifesto of the things they’d like to change: schools should start later, children be educated outdoors where possible, and examinations not conducted in the mornings; businesses should be encouraged to offer flexitime, allowing people to work and study when they felt at their best; health clinics could pioneer chronotherapies, tailoring drug treatments to patients’ internal time; hotels might offer guests variable meal- and check-out times; and buildings should be modified to let in more daylight.

PREPARE TO SPEND A WHILE, it’s The Long Read.


Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

Choose your own shutdown narrative.


CNBC pundits find out about Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos’s divorce on-air, and Desi Lydic explains what a divorce settlement is like when you’re the richest person in the world.

THANKS to Comedy Central and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah for making this program available on YouTube.


The government shutdown is having an impact on the demographic known as ‘Americans who eat food.’


Rep. Steve King wants to know what’s so offensive about white supremacy. Short answer: the ‘white supremacy’ part.

THANKS to CBS and The Late Show with Stepen Colbert for making this program available on YouTube.


CAUTION: Some language may not be appropriate for work or children.

Maybe there is a positive statement in there. Maybe.


スリムなプラケースで寛ぐときは隙まる方式で。Maru is relaxed in the slim plastic case.


FINALLY . . .

Broadcasting from Deep Space, a Mysterious Series of Radio Signals


The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or Chime, a radio telescope array in British Columbia. Soon after it was turned on last summer, it picked up a set of odd radio bursts from deep space.

Something is happening out there, and astronomers sure wish they knew what it was.

For the last several years, they have been teased and baffled by mysterious bursts of radio waves from the distant universe: pops of low-frequency radiation, emitting more energy than the sun does in a day, that occur randomly and disappear immediately. Nobody knows when these “fast radio bursts,” or F.R.B.s, will occur, or where exactly in the cosmos they are occurring.

More than 60 of these surprise broadcasts have been recorded so far. About the only thing astronomers agree on is that these signals probably are not extraterrestrials saying hello.

So it was big news a year ago when scientists found a repeating radio burster and tracked it to a dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years from Earth. Subsequent observations suggested that the burst was generated by extremely powerful magnetic fields, most likely ruling out lasers from alien spaceships.

Now a group of astronomers from several Canadian universities have announced the discovery of a second radio repeater. The repeating bursts appeared last summer almost as soon as the team turned on and began tuning up a new telescope, the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or Chime, in British Columbia. The team announced the discovery in a pair of papers in Nature, and in a news conference at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle on Jan. 9.


Ed. More tomorrow? Probably. Possibly. Maybe. Not?