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Thailand played a major role in my own philosophical and personal development; beyond that, I just love the place. So I’ve been very sad to hear of the recent political crisis in Thailand, which has seen so many places I love rocked with violence. I deeply hope that violence does not break out again, that some peaceful resolution can be found.

But I think the conflict may be very difficult to resolve, for reasons that are philosophically interesting – they get to the heart of important questions in political theory. What follows are my layman’s reflections on the issue, not the views of an expert on Thai politics, and I may have some details wrong; but the issues seem big enough to merit posting on here regardless.

What is fundamentally at stake in Thailand, it seems to me, is the question of populism vs. technocracy – a debate that animates almost every modern democratic system in some respect, though it’s often unacknowledged as such, lost between the more common oppositions of “left” and “right” (or even “libertarian” and “communitarian”).

The Red Shirts, whose protests were the occasion for the most recent round of protest, are fundamentally populist. To them what matters is that the people be represented, that their choices be respected, that the system be genuinely democratic. (No doubt some of them are just in it for the money – Thaksin is using his riches to fund much of the support for him – but it seems highly implausible to me The Yellow Shirts, who set off the previous round, are technocrats – their concern is that government govern well. The two sides have come to an impasse over one man: Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister elected in a landslide and then ousted in a military coup.

As I understand it, it’s hard to dispute that Thaksin’s government was corrupt to the core, enriching Thaksin’s own pockets at the country’s expense, in a way that could have brought the country to ruin. Reaction of the Bangkok businesspeople went beyond anger to panic: if Thaksin kept up, would Thailand start looking like Laos, as impoverished as it was 50 years ago? And yet Thaksin was elected, never lost an election, and would very likely win another one if it was actually held. Nobody, as far as I know, suspects that Thaksin’s corruption went as far as systematic vote-rigging. He is the people’s choice. Why? He put in many reforms that benefitted the poor north and northeast of the country; those might not have been economically sustainable in the long term (as the yellow shirts fear), but in the short term they worked wonders, and the Thais love him for them.

The Yellow Shirt movement against Thaksin seems to me, at its heart, utilitarian: the idea is to bring about the best overall consequences for the greatest number in the long run. If to accomplish this you need a military coup to topple a democratically elected leader, more power to you. (There is a very strong historical connection between philosophical utilitarianism and economics, the technocratic discipline par excellence.) The Red Shirts, on the other hand, are fighting for popular sovereignty: for the right of the people to collectively decide their own fate, even if it turns out it’s a bad one.

The Yellow Shirts embody the ideal of technocracy, the Red Shirts of populism. And this is a battle that plays out elsewhere as well, cutting across left-right lines. Hugo Chávez and Pat Buchanan are both populists, Manmohan Singh and Angela Merkel both technocrats. Technocrats set what appears to be the “centre,” and yet the populists on either “fringe” can sometimes find more to agree on with each other than with those centrists.

In the United States, Sarah Palin and Ralph Nader share the same populist appeal as the Red Shirts: the idea of speaking up for a silenced people. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, was a consummate technocrat, leaving no grand plans or inspiring visions, staking his legitimacy only on the great prosperity for which his later years are remembered. George W. Bush succeeded because he talked like a populist and acted like a technocrat. The grassroots Christian conservative populist movement, without whom Bush could never have been elected, got very little of what it wanted from him; but the big businesses who depended on him for their profitable functioning got everything.

In Canada the Bloc Québécois embodies a populist spirit, speaking out for French Québécois who feel alienated from the larger system, against the consummately technocratic Liberals. The old Reform Party tried to be populist, but as it moved toward power it got absorbed into the much more technocratic Conservatives.

Genuine populists, then, rarely get very close to power; as they do, they become more technocratic. To the populist, that transition is a matter of selling out; the populists in power get bought off by big business, big government and big labour, they need to strike too many deals on the way up. To the technocrat, on the other hand, it’s a matter of seeing the reasons why the world is as it is: radical at 20, pragmatic at 40. I used to have very strong populist sensibilities. These took a hit after I moved to the US where direct democracy and referenda – key tools in ensuring the people’s wishes are followed – are politically prominent. Since I moved to Massachusetts ten years ago, the state has seen ballot measures both to establish universal health care and to repeal the income tax. It would have been easy for voters to establish both – but that would have required draconian sales taxes, drastic cuts to everything but health care (education, transportation, law enforcement) and probably a giant deficit to boot, none of which voters would have voted for. Policy is much more effective when it’s made as a package; but ordinary voters think piecemeal about particular initiatives, not about the package. That’s a basic argument for technocracy. And yet, when that argument is followed, government is genuinely taken out of the hands of the people; it becomes significantly less democratic. I have seen no way to resolve the problem yet. So I suspect that the conflict between Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts will persist – and not only in Thailand.