Half of all Shakespeare’s lines about “popular” opinion are from Coriolanus. The play is a retelling of the rise and fall of its eponymous anti-hero, the warrior who returns from battle and parlays his fame into a political career. Neither Coriolanus nor his fellow senators have a high opinion of the will of the people they presume to represent. At one point the populace is a many-headed hydra, at another it is a hungry belly that consumes what the republic produces but gives nothing back. Critics have often dismissed the play as anti-democratic. It’s no accident that Coriolanus is not a favorite in America, where it’s rarely included in the mini-canon of plays each generation tends to play and re-play (such as King Lear today or Romeo and Juliet in the 1990’s). And yet, with the Trump campaign and Brexit getting credit for drawing on populist angst, Coriolanus deserves a second look.The play can help us reconsider what populism is and the ways a “populist” movement can be fostered by, yet not necessarily conducive to, democracy.
As the British essayist William Hazlitt wrote in 1817, Coriolanus “is a storehouse of political commonplaces. Anyone who studies it may save himself the trouble of reading Burke’s reflections of Paine’s Rights of Man”. American critic and poet Mark Van Doren suggests that “the political meaning of the play is considerably less simple than it may seem. If it has to do with the difference between the many and the one, that difference is viewed from both directions.” In Shakespeare’s play both the “many-headed” populace and the elite (Coriolanus and his fellow statesman) come off badly. The play is not anti-democratic but it is uncomfortable, particularly in America, because it reveals ugly truths about the implementation of a representative democracy. Or as Leo McGarry puts it in The West Wing, “there are two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make ‘em — laws and sausages.”
Coriolanus criticizes the people he claims to want to represent not simply because they are a mob (in Julius Caesar the mob kills poor “Cinna the poet” simply because he has the wrong name), but because as a single body they are too easily swayed in their opinion, too easily flattered.
Coriolanus: I will, sir, flatter my sworn brother, the people, to earn a dearer estimation of them; ‘tis a condition they account gentle: and since the wisdom of their choice is rather to have my hat than my heart I will practice the insinuating nod and be off to them most counterfeitly; that is, sir, I will counterfeit the bewitchment of some popular man and give it bountiful to the desirers.
Here, Coriolanus argues that he deserves to lead not because of his wisdom or virtue but because he can win. He promises to flatter the people by pretending to be one of them. He doesn’t consider this lying because the people themselves would rather have a good showman who makes them feel all warm and fuzzy about themselves than know his true feeling (“rather to have my hat than my heart”). Coriolanus believes fame is its own justification.
The problem this raises in a democracy is that we want our leaders to represent us, not faithfully but flatteringly, showing us a vision of ourselves heavily filtered and posed to show off our best angles. The echo chamber reifies and reinforces ugly impulses we would otherwise have to own.
The term populism has appeal that reaches across the aisle, evoking as it does the idea of a united people, a coherent national identity. It’s just that we can’t agree on what that identity is. Here populism is not an orthodoxy, but rather a fashion statement. It stands in for a myth of American collectivism that, as Robert Putnam argues in “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” has been in steep decline since it’s heyday in the 1960’s.
Mythmaking is an American tradition, but where these myths serve to inspire and provoke action without generating a coherent vision of what that action might lead to, they open us up to demagogues and worse.
In his book, Rehearsing for Fascism, Historian Peter Fritzche tracks the development of the populist movement that preceded the rise of the Nazi party in Weimar Germany, pointing out that “the struggle for political voice does not necessarily serve progressive ends.” The problem with the politician or movement that labels itself populist is that the label has its own rhetorical power: it conflates popularity and democracy. Coriolanus has been seen as an antidemocratic play, but it’s better read as a warning against treating democracy as a popularity contest, and the people themselves as a mob who can be bought with flattery. We need to question that impulse we all have to react to powerlessness by hiding behind the powerful, whose very power comes in part by reassuring us of our good judgement in picking a winner.