The Populist Pundits

Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti’s The Populist’s Guide to 2020 offers a powerful rebuke to liberal elitism and ruling class neglect. But only one of its authors has the solutions it will take to remake our unequal society.

Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti on the Hill TV's morning show Rising.

Railing against “the establishment” is routine for Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti, hosts of the Hill TV morning show Rising. The populist duo regularly expose the venality and narcissism of the rich and powerful in terms that seem more at home in a religious tent revival than in a slick web show.

In their new book, The Populist’s Guide to 2020, they take on “the elite media . . . the army of pundits . . . milquetoast centrists . . . the god of consumerism” and “the most fraught and oft-used weapons in the neoliberal playbook: identity politics.”

Their guide is broken into sections with headings like “Theories of Change” and “Media.” Each opens with a cowritten introduction and features choice essays written by either Saagar or Krystal. Fans of the show will recognize many as a sort of “greatest hits” of Rising monologues.

Stylistically, the pair have a gift for pulp. The book is filled with florid writing about the ruling class and the mendacity of the media elite. Ball and Enjeti are united in their shared disdain for the professionals, managers, and the political leaders responsible for the “multi-decade long bipartisan failures, systemic breakdowns, and utter betrayal of the working class.” They slug away at McKinsey & Company’s Mayor Pete and even white-collar warrior Elizabeth Warren. But in analyzing the causes and consequences of a country “with a few prosperous super cities and a vast wasteland of hollowed out towns,” it is Ball who shines brightest.

The Old Order Is Dying

Krystal has a talent for making you mad, or more accurately, resentful. She rages against the contradictions of a society dominated by profit, and the people that personify those contradictions. She makes you want to stuff Pete Buttigieg, “and the other special flowers who get tracked onto the smart-kid path,” into a locker. A Democratic Party loyalist might cringe at some of her jabs: Why does she hate Pelosi so much? Doesn’t she realize that the Republicans are in the White House? But Ball’s venom is not misplaced, even if it is misunderstood. She is a Democratic Party loyalist and hell hath no fury like a voter scorned.

Krystal, like many of her viewers, constantly wrestles with the combination of incompetence and callous class interest that explains the behavior of the Democratic establishment. Hiding behind “anti-Trumpism,” party honchos have done their best to avoid addressing the crisis unfolding under their noses, a crisis largely of their own making.

After all, Republicans aren’t alone responsible for the nearly 80 percent of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, the millions that are under- or uninsured, the tens of thousands of yearly deaths from the opioid epidemic. While the liberal media conglomerates hysterically crow about the singular threat the president poses to the preservation of the republic, Ball warns us to be wary about what happens after Trump is gone “when no one has done anything to address the rot of the system that is rigged for the wealthy and the powerful.”

Ball succeeds where many left-wing political analysts fail: she puts meat and flesh on the gross structural obstacles that working-class people face and the consequences those obstacles have. She doesn’t trot out many numbers or charts, but she paints a vivid picture of a working class in crisis. Further, she understands — better than most — that it’s not enough that workers are ground down daily by political and economic elites, but that they are then condescended to by those same people. They are expected to swallow ridiculous explanations for their predicament from media hucksters pimping what she calls “the hollow amorality of the meritocratic ideal,” the now common-sense view that whatever situation you find yourself in, you’re probably in that position because you didn’t go to the right school or earn the right credentials.

And it’s the revolt against that condescension that explains why, for so many working-class Democratic voters, the 2020 presidential race was long a battle between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden (and not between Warren and Buttigieg). Ball, of course, hates Biden but not in the same way she hates the “wine-track” candidates: “At least he doesn’t come off as a condescending elitist who looks down his nose at Middle America.” The former vice president may be detestable for his middle-class centrism, but Ball rightly recognizes that most Americans prefer that to the professional-class precociousness.

The elitism of the Democrats is a common theme. Amid the House impeachment inquiry, when many in the Democratic tent lamented the lack of grassroots enthusiasm for the trial, Ball sums up the situation nicely:

It’s not because voters are too dumb, or not paying attention, or too racist, or haven’t watched enough Rachael Maddow. It’s not because Nancy Pelosi hasn’t said “bribery” enough or because State Department official George Kent wore a bow tie during his testimony. The reason no one cares what Democrats have to say about corruption is because Democrats have zero moral authority.

She accepts that most real people — with jobs, families, and bills — simply don’t care about the things media people obsess over. Why, we’re implored to ask, has there been deafening silence on the opioid crisis, poverty, or the total capture of our politics and media by the ultrarich?

Ball also gets what many of us on the Left know to be true, but what establishment liberals won’t admit: “Democrats got lucky with Trump. They got lucky that he’s too short-sighted to take an incremental loss to solidify long-term gains.” Throughout her essays, she makes fun of the now un-reflexive Democratic pearl-clutching over the president’s tweets. These elite liberal media types need to get a grip: after all, the rest of the country is burning.

It’s this approach to politics that makes the chemistry of the show, and Ball’s unlikely friendship with her cohost, possible.

A Curious Conservative

Saagar Enjeti is a Republican. This isn’t a secret, but it’s not obvious either. On questions of corporate power and inequality, he sometimes sounds like a socialist: “These CEOs know exactly who will be their best friends in government.” On health care, he strikes notes that could be from Bernie Sanders: “Health care is the number one threat to the daily lives of the American worker.” On war, he is a staunch anti-interventionist. On corporate control of the media, he sounds almost like Noam Chomsky: “Nobody is technically paying or influencing you to exactly say or do something. Instead, the system is designed to incentivize promotion, coverage, and advancement of those that truly believe in policies that disproportionately benefit moneyed interests.” On identity politics, like Adolph Reed Jr: “Multinational corporations realized sometime in the mid-2010s that if they began to parrot and sponsor social justice seminars, that these critical race theorists would in turn not criticize them for shipping US jobs overseas and perpetuating the class divide within our society.”

Saagar does feel compelled to defend his political leanings against a skeptical viewership (“One of the funnier comments I get from people who watch Rising is, ‘are you actually conservative?’”). I would bet that most of the show’s fans are on Krystal’s side of the aisle. Even so, in an essay that promises to lay out his rock-ribbed Republican commitments, “Bernie Sanders, Cenk Uygur, and the Eventual Downfall of the American Left,” he doesn’t expound his conservative philosophy at all. Instead, he pleads with progressives to abandon their “woke identitarian” weakness which “spells electoral doom for any progressive candidate in the United States, especially in the swing states that were lost to Donald Trump.”

Repeatedly, he warns us that the “electoral failure of the American left will be economic progressives kowtowing to woke identitarians.” I agree with him — but what’s maybe more important is that I agree because (like Saagar, I suspect) I want the Left to win. Is Enjeti a secret Bernie-bro receiving late-night directives from Jeff Weaver in undisclosed DC parking garages?

Perhaps one way to view Enjeti is as following in the footsteps of Christopher Lasch, the social critic who saw many New Left radicals as hopelessly out of touch with ordinary working people and indifferent to their economic plight. Like Enjeti, Lasch called himself a populist. Lasch, however, considered himself a man of the Left, and not without reason: he favored the major redistribution of power, he valorized the worker and the farmer, and he advocated for radical reforms to the political system. But in many ways, he was a far more forthright conservative than Enjeti.

The author of The Culture of Narcissism feared a centralized democratic state, and saw the family unit as the major site of social reform. He advocated “traditional” gender roles and was openly contemptuous of divorce. He praised the church, duty, responsibility, and even indulged in a little chest-thumping patriotism. Saagar certainly takes some inspiration from the late historian (he has sometimes referred to our contemporary moment as one of “malaise” on the show), but interestingly, Enjeti almost never talks about the role of the family, nor does he seem to yearn for an idealized gendered division of labor. He doesn’t even really wave the flag that much.

When it comes to his positive program, although somewhat vague, Enjeti is consistently in favor of Big Government intervention in economic affairs and reforms of the political system meant to benefit the worker — not the “citizen,” nor “the nation,” nor in the name or glory of God. Yet he insists he is bona fide because of his “tolerance and support for family values and explicit rejection of intersectionality.” Perhaps Enjeti is being coy here, but if “tolerance” for “family values” and a rejection of a silly pseudo-theory is all it takes to be a conservative, there must be quite a few writing for this magazine.

Truth is, I’m not sure what to make of Enjeti’s conservatism. It shouldn’t be surprising that entrepreneurial and ambitious millennial right-wingers are rejecting 1980s Reaganite orthodoxy in the same way that young workers on the other side of the aisle are rejecting 1990s Clintonite orthodoxy. Concerns about inequality and the nature of the class structure are now predominant among that generation.

A small but dedicated cadre of right-wingers recognize this and are adjusting their rhetoric accordingly. From Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, to Missouri state senator Josh Hawley, to dilettantes like Julius Krein and Michael Lind, these “populists” mimic the language of the Old Left but offer a cheap imitation. Despite their crocodile tears for the hollowed out heartland, they seem perfectly content with crushing the only institution that has ever enabled workers to speak for themselves and to organize for their own interests: the labor movement.

It’s striking, for instance, that for all his ginned-up flattering of the American worker, Saagar never once mentions the word “union” in his manifesto.

The paradox for Enjeti — and others playing prep-school populist — is that the only thing making populism “right-wing” is the scapegoating necessary to displace the class narrative. So, instead of villainizing billionaires or bosses, the right-wing populist demonizes immigrants (or women or racial minorities or Jews). Conversely, the things making conservatism traditionalist are fundamentally anti-populist: bans on vices, state-sponsored religion, the preservation of elite hierarchies, and the reassertion of arcane customs.

Now it is possible that Enjeti quietly holds reactionary views on marriage, or of the “role of women,” or that he is a genuine xenophobe, or maybe he nurses some odious ethnic prejudice; and any of these attitudes would qualify him as a real-deal conservative. But frankly, I doubt it. It seems more likely that Saagar Enjeti is a conservative because he’s paid to be one on TV.

“We Are Both Pro–Working Class.”

Putting aside the question of Enjeti’s conservatism, we’re still left puzzling over the populism part of the equation. The word refers to a rhetorical style more than any stable programmatic or ideological position. The populist creates a narrative built around “the people” and their fight against powerful political-economic elites and insidious institutions that stand above them.

So far, so good. However, populists construct a “people” as a substitute for the “working class.” For theorists like Chantal Mouffe, and for parties as varied as the Five Star Movement in Italy and Podemos in Spain, populism is painted as a successor to the stale politics of workers and bosses, and to socialism in the wake of the latter’s failure.

Yet Ball and Enjeti’s populism doesn’t represent a departure from class politics at all. In fact, it is defined by its commitment to the absolute primacy of the working class:

We’ve called this book “The Populist’s Guide to 2020” because that’s how we both identify — as populists. We both believe in putting the massive working class at the center of politics and advocate for candidates and policies which we believe will help accomplish that goal.

It would be easier to find this sentiment among Marx and Engels than in the programs of any contemporary European populist party. The Populist’s Guide to 2020 celebrates the working class in glowing heroic terms, and refers to the professional class elite with either contempt or pity. And unlike the Reaganite “populism” of the 1980s which was designed to let the elite off the hook by pitting the “makers” — blue-collar workers and their employers against the “takers,” welfare recipients, and high-income liberals — Ball and Enjeti have no qualms about taking on the ruling class and in surprisingly orthodox terms. They complain about “woke corporatists,” remind us about the power of the alliance of the “media elite and accumulated capital” and warn of the “grinding down of the multiracial working class and continued fattening of the ruling class.” But all this talk raises a question: Why do these class warriors find so much good in “populism” and not socialism?

This is especially important for Krystal. She supports a self-described democratic socialist candidate, she believes in the power of the government to curtail the power of the ruling class — I would guess that a healthy chunk of her viewers are, like me, card-carrying DSA members. In fact, she would be the perfect spokesperson for today’s energetic democratic-socialist movement — dynamic, telegenic, and charismatic — yet she seems reluctant to embrace the label.

I don’t think she’s afraid of appearing too “radical”; after all she has called for the complete decriminalization of drugs. Nor do I think this is just a case of mistaken identity. Ball’s arms-length relationship with “socialism” might have something to do with one area where she and Saagar agree most — not on markets nor the role of government, but on the invidiousness of identity politics.

Unlike many millennial left-wingers, Ball is completely uninterested in identitarian pandering. She loathes it. And part of Rising’s successful formula is that the hosts reject the “woke” culture-war approach to politics that so many on the young, hip Brooklyn-by-Oakland left mistake for politics. The authors harbor “nothing but disgust for those who would use identity as a wedge.” But it takes particular courage for a woman of the Left to declare that “an embrace of woke virtue signaling” is designed to do nothing more than “keep working-class minorities in the tent while providing nothing of substance in terms of their economic well-being.”

You would be hard-pressed to find any such statements by DSA, and only rarely in this magazine. And that is to their detriment and to Krystal’s benefit. Her rapid rise as the Left’s voice of reason in the 2020 election cycle mimics the 2016 rise of the “Dirtbag Left and the podcast Chapo Trap House. While stylistically very different — the former was infamous for its low-production value while the latter looks so good you sometimes can’t believe what you’re hearing — what they have in common is, as Enjeti is fond of saying, they both “said the quiet part out loud.”

Bashing the hypocrisy of establishment liberals who bemoaned the lack of diversity when Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Julian Castro dropped out of the race, even as most couldn’t name a single thing the candidates stood for. Krystal wonders: “If you’re an immigrant getting deported, does it matter to you that the deporter-in-chief is the first African-American president? If you’re in jail for marijuana possession, does it make a difference that it’s Kamala Harris who gleefully prosecuted you?” After all, “in an oppression Olympics, everyone loses.”

Krystal’s populism isn’t a rejection of class politics, or even a rejection of a radical program. Instead, it represents a recognition that the contemporary left is, unfortunately, not much different from establishment liberals in their embrace of identity at the expense of the working class.

Out of the Bubble

What makes The Populist’s Guide so enjoyable, and so dangerous, is that it is fundamentally geared toward appealing to a popular audience (the book has already broken the Amazon top-ten bestseller list). Ball and Enjeti aren’t unique in their ability to air the ruling class’s dirty laundry — left-wing newspapers and their online equivalents have been doing this for decades — but what’s special about these two is their knack for doing it in the vernacular. They have tapped into a sense of impending revolt without all the corny phrasemongering that the sectarian left has long used as a crutch.

A friend used to lament that the Left didn’t need any more pamphlets and broadsheets with words like “vanguard” and “proletariat” plastered across them in bold sans serifs but instead a populist version of The View, that working moms in DelCo could tune in before their morning Wawa run. Krystal and Saagar have clearly heeded the call.

The success of their project, both the book and the broadcast, is kind of shocking. Just think, in four short years the Left has managed to build an audience of millions reading magazines like this one, listening to podcasts like Chapo Trap House, and now watching morning talk shows like Rising. It is now, oddly, normal to talk about politics in terms of bosses and workers, the rich and the rest, the millionaires and billionaires . . . the working class. It’s routine for members of either party to openly ridicule dynastic families like the Clintons and the Bushes. And the observation that Washington is a cesspool infested by wealthy war hawks, politically connected pedophiles, and dystopian tech titans is largely met with quiet head-nodding recognition.

The rot has been here long enough, “the only question is how long before a new order is born.”