A Last Word on My Exchange with Sheri Berman

Sheri Berman has written a response to my response to her New York Times review of my book. It doesn’t add anything new to the conversation, and I see no need to reiterate a set of arguments I’ve now made twice. I stand by what I wrote in my critique: Berman did not represent the arguments of my book in her review. Readers can read the exchange and judge for themselves.


  1. Stephen Zielinski October 15, 2011 at 12:58 pm | #

    Berman wrote:

    “As I see it, my dispute with Robin over the nature of right-wing populism is straightforward: either it is a real expression of the resentment, frustration, and goals of the masses or it is best seen as a tool used by elites to manipulate the masses for their own ends. Robin’s definition of conservatism supports the latter view, whereas I think the former is more accurate. I want to emphasize my dispute with Robin is over how to interpret right-wing populism, not over the desirability of its goals. It is perfectly possible to see the goals of a movement as wrong and counterproductive without seeing the members of the movement as manipulated or insincere.”

    Berman seems to miss an obvious point: Right-wing populism can be “a real expression of the resentment, frustration, and goals of the masses” and “a tool used by elites to manipulate the masses for their own ends.” The anger of the rightwing populist base, especially in its irrational forms, provides professional rightwing politicians and their monied backers one fertile point of contact with a movement that might otherwise treat them with suspicion. Berman ends with a false dilemma. To my mind, both claims are true.

  2. Bill Barnes October 15, 2011 at 1:34 pm | #


    Sheri Berman’s Response to you on the Dissent Books blog deserves to be taken more seriously than her poorly done NYT review of your book — her discussion of populism in the former is worth serious engagement. More generally, Berman herself deserves more respect than she’s getting here (though of course you could say she has no one to blame but herself given the crappy review). The characterization of her in reply # 4 by Jason Kosnoski and in #7 by V. Brandt are not all wrong, but they are skewed and uniformed, and you’re too quick to simply accept them. There is a more meaningful political ethic and identity behind her argument — with some real integrity. She is both a good scholar and a dedicated champion of Social Democracy. What is being missed here is that over the last decade she has also become a modernization theorist caught up in the recent rejuvenation of that school of thought and its marriage with the “Democracy Promotion” industry/school of thought. For these folks, Populism and right-wing elites (and the latter’s refusal to recognize the necessity for fundamental class compromise) are separate enemies, regardless of whether the former are sometimes created or minipulated by the latter. Both are guilty of the fuindamental mistake of failing to recognize and accept the leadership of a social democratic modern middle class over both private sector elites and the general citizenry. This is an argumement that champions of a more radical social democracy should seriously engage, rather than dismiss.

    Bill Barnes

  3. Daniel Oppenheimer October 16, 2011 at 11:45 pm | #

    I wish you would engage her further. Seems like an important argument to have, at length if necessary.

  4. Jon October 17, 2011 at 2:11 am | #

    Daniel, I too would like to see Prof. Robin’s response to Berman, however, try to see it from his perspective.

    Her response is, at times, incomprehensible. She also engages in the same straw man arguments she made in the original review.

    Consider this statement:

    “The concept of national security is something any state must have and that defending “national security,” however defined, is an absolute necessity. ”

    She fails to define national security while accusing Robin of taking a fairly narrow concept (duh! everyone needs national security!) and characterizing it as a vague, subjective term subject to nearly limitless bounds of interpretation–yet leaves its definition vague and open-ended. Apparently, also, its implementation is an “absolute necessity” regardless of what form it ends up taking. Where is the logic?

    Also, consider all the variety of acts the US government has assigned under the umbrella of “national security”. The last decade alone has shown the term used to justify abuses ranging from warrant-less wiretapping, preemptive wars & endless occupation, torture, indefinite detention, and recently, assassinating US citizens. It has also been extensively documented many rights the US government claims under the guise of national security–such as eavesdropping– is routinely performed on innocent Americans outside of official guidelines. Officials from the NSA have repeatedly stated they “recorded and transcribed” the private telephone calls of thousands of American citizens who had absolutely nothing to do with terrorism. It has used its powers to crack down on whistleblowers and free speech. By now, “national security” is little more than a euphemism to justify US abuse of law and government secrecy. It is a running joke and the last ten years is a wonderful illustration of Robin’s point.

    In light of all this, it is hard to take her very seriously.

    Towards the end, she writes:

    “As I see it, my dispute with Robin over the nature of right-wing populism is straightforward: either it is a real expression of the resentment, frustration, and goals of the masses or it is best seen as a tool used by elites to manipulate the masses for their own ends.”

    This is a false dichotomy which reveals a lack of understanding of human nature. It also misses Robin’s point that these expressions of “resentment” and “frustration” are often channeled by elites away from the underlying rot and towards weaker subjects as scapegoat or to satisfy the public’s appetite for blood (as we can see with attacks on immigrants and Muslims).

    This leads to a bizarre contradiction in the closing paragraph:

    “One need not, therefore, fully engage the rage, disenfranchisement, and disillusionment felt by the many who hold conservative and right-wing ideas.”

    I could be wrong, but I think Robin believes these sentiments are indeed genuine and must be engaged before they can be manipulated and very bad things happen.

    These are just a few examples and I lack the time to cite the others. I have no doubt readers here will be able to sort them out and reach similar conclusions which is why I think Prof. Robin leaves it up to those who have read the book.

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