But the Tea Party has been very unusual for an American populist movement. It has not been focused on soaking the rich, as left-wing populists always have been. It has not even been primarily focused on reducing the tax burden on the middle class, as right-wing populists usually are. Rather, the Tea Party has focused on restraining government. It originated in outrage about federal bailouts, and has directed its energies toward pulling back the cost and reach of the state. It has asked for fewer government giveaways, not more. It has even given voice to a tight-money populism, criticizing the Federal Reserve for inviting inflation — a far cry from populists of old. And the Tea Party has also been intensely focused on recovering the U.S. Constitution, and especially its limits on government power (and therefore on the public’s power) — another very unusual goal for a populist movement.
These substantive demands of the Tea Party have been at least as important as its populist form. But that form, and the energy it has brought to the effort to resist Obamaism, risks causing us to draw the wrong lesson from the past few years. Populism as such does not define the proper response to the rise of technocratic administration, and cannot be the essence of the defense of our constitutional order against a resurging progressivism.
In fact, a look at the progressives themselves would help us to see that. The original progressives of the early 20th century, just like today’s seemingly incoherent liberals, were populist and
technocratic — they argued both for direct democracy and for expert rule. Even as they called for enlarging the scope of the federal government and putting a class of educated specialists in charge of it, they also called for radical democratic reforms of our constitutional system. In the 1912 election, the Progressive-party platform proposed not only the direct election of senators but also the enactment of federal laws by public initiative, and even advocated allowing the public to overturn some court decisions by referendum.
And the progressives generally did not see a contradiction between their technocracy and their populism. They expected their technocratic ideas to be popular, and so they expected populism to lead to more expert government. Technocracy and populism would together undermine the power of the moneyed interests, freeing our government from corruption by the wealthy and thereby making it both more democratic and more rational. Those moneyed interests, the progressives argued, were protected by our constitutional system, which, with its slow-moving mechanisms and counterbalanced institutions, made any kind of change very difficult to bring about. As the progressive theorist Herbert Croly put it in 1914, the desire of the American people for a government that serves them rather than the rich and powerful was constantly thwarted “not by disconnected abuses, but by a perverted system.”
The simultaneous populist and technocratic appeals of the progressives’ successors in today’s politics seem to echo this premise. They at least implicitly suggest that technocracy and populism are two sides of the same coin.
And the framers of our Constitution seemed to think so too. But whereas the progressives championed both technocratic government and direct democracy, the Constitution stands opposed to both. As the framers saw it, both populist and technocratic politics were expressions of a modern hubris about the capacity of human beings — be it of the experts or of the people as a whole — to make just the right governing decisions. The Constitution is built upon a profound skepticism about the ability of any political arrangement to overcome the limitations of human reason and human nature, and so establishes a system of checks to prevent sudden large mistakes while enabling gradual changes supported by a broad and longstanding consensus. Experts should not govern, nor should the people do so directly, but rather the people’s representatives should govern in a system filled with mediating institutions and opposing interests — a system designed to force us to see problems and proposed solutions from a variety of angles simultaneously and, as Alexander Hamilton puts it in Federalist 73, “to increase the chances in favor of the community against the passing of bad laws through haste, inadvertence, or design.”