John B. Judis recently wrote a good analysis of populism on the right (Trump) and on the left (Sanders). This updates some of the themes in his book, The Paradox of American Democracy, in which he:
presents a familiar diagnosis of American democracy with an interesting twist. He deplores the absence of even a basic conception of the common good in contemporary pluralism.
I could not disagree more. The problem isn’t that American democratic institutions (and elite leadership) don’t have a basic conception of the common good. The problem is that our main conception of the common good is mmutilitarianism which is so warped that most people, including Judis, don’t even realize that it is an ethical conception of the common good. But mmutilitarianism is the moral philosophy that motivates much of American thinking about the common good and government policy. The whole point of medianism is to point out how warped mmutilitarianism is by presenting medianism as an equally simple alternative which is much better even though it is still far from perfect. (Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good).
Judis probably doesn’t realize that mmutilitarianism is our basic conception of the common good because mmutilitarianism so easily enmeshes with selfishness and ethical egoism and that is the antithesis of the common good. Mmutilitarianism abets selfishness because every dollar of income is an equal contribution to the mmutilitarian conception of the common good. Under mmutilitarianism, you might as well try to get as many dollars as you can for yourself because it doesn’t matter who gets the dollars.
Ethical egoism is a selfish individualist conception of the common good. Most mmutilitarians aren’t ethical egoists, but both philosophies often lead to the same conclusions because many mmutilitarians erroneously believe that higher inequality is always better for mmutilitarian growth (GDP). They also erroneously think that one’s income is a good measure of how much one contributes to the common good. That is why mmutilitarians tend to adulate wealthy elites.
Perhaps Judis doesn’t understand that mmutilitarianism is the dominant moral philosophy that underpins the trends he describes because the founders of mmutilitarianism were economists who rejected moral philosophy and claimed to be positive scientists. But don’t believe them. It is impossible to avoid moral philosophy and if you try, you will end up with an accidental ethical system like mmutilitarianism.
But this is a minor quibble with Judis’ excellent analysis. He describes a public that is angry with mmutilitarian economic policies and is seeking an alternative. Whether that alternative will be Trumpism or Sanders’ socialism or something else remains to be seen. Trump doesn’t have a clear definition of the common good and is running a negative campaign which blames our problems on foreigners, Muslims, and to a lesser extent towards American elites. Sanders is focused on blaming economic elites. I haven’t heard either one clearly define how they would measure an improvement in the common good. Median Expected Lifetime Income could help both insurgents move beyond mmutilitarianism.