Politics has a math of its own. Whereas a scientifically minded person might see things this way: One person who says 2+2=5 is an idiot; two people who think 2+2=5 are two idiots; and a million people who think 2+2=5 are a whole lot of idiots–political math works differently. Let’s work backwards: if a million people think 2+2=5, then they are not a million idiots, but a “constituency.” If they are growing in number, they are also a “movement.” And, if you were not only the first person to proclaim 2+2=5, but you were the first to persuade others, then you, my friend, are not an idiot, but a visionary.
Of course, idiocy and its distribution in the population isn’t the point. You can build a movement out of true observations–i.e. 2+2=4–as well. The point is that political power flows from numbers and, more importantly, that such power becomes self-justifying for those who enjoy its effects. Passion becomes more “legitimate” as more people share it, no matter what the content or object of that passion is. Any unified field theory of politics would have to include this basic law of the political universe. It is true in democracies and dictatorships alike. Like the laws of gravity or thermodynamics, it can be exploited or minimized. But it cannot be repealed. It is a constant of the human condition.
A QUALIFIED GOOD
I bring this up so you know where I’m coming from on the issue of populism. All political programs and movements derive some of their legitimacy from the fact that some number of people are behind them. Even kings depended on popular support to some extent. But only populism in its purist form derives its entire agenda from “people power.” Indeed, the word basically means “people-ism.” It does not pretend to privilege objective truth or the best arguments or even justice–if by justice you mean an objective system of judgment which might rule against “the people.” For populists, “justice” is defined by the giant baby getting its bottle.
It is for this reason that populism is inherently anti-intellectual. William Jennings Bryan, that towering figure of American history beloved by the American Left right up to the point where he argued against evolution in the Scopes Trial, was a man with little tolerance for arguments. A champion of free silver, he unapologetically admitted that he didn’t know much about economics. “The people of Nebraska are for free silver and I am for free silver,” he proclaimed. “I will look up the arguments later.” This is not to say that Populists can’t be smart or have good arguments on their side. But Bryan’s formulation has the causation exactly right. What “the people” want comes first, period.
Well, as small d-democrats in good standing, you might ask, “What’s wrong with that? Does not the Constitution begin with ‘We the People…’?”
Well, sure, but don’t fall for word game three card monte. If “democracy” meant “populism” and vice versa we wouldn’t have different encyclopedia entries for the two words. As I’ve written many times, in its purest form democracy allows for 51 percent of the people to pee in the cornflakes of 49 percent of the people whenever they so choose. The American constitutional order, on the other hand, recognizes democracy as a qualified good, necessarily tempered by republican and constitutional safeguards. As the heirs to classical liberalism, American conservatives in particular have long emphasized the importance of individual rights even when they come at the expense of what “the people” want.
Historically, populism greets such arguments, and those who make them, and smashes both with a rock, sometimes rhetorically, sometimes quite literally. Most populist movements have contempt for mechanisms which dilute or delay people power. Perhaps the most benign populist “reform” in American history was their successful campaign to amend the constitution in favor of the direct election of senators. And even there, we have some good reasons to grumble.
It should be no surprise by now that populism has always been a fundamentally left-wing phenomenon. Indeed, just looking around the world to see which countries call themselves “people’s republics” should be evidence enough of that. Throughout history, populist movements, no matter what their ideological origins, ineluctably devolve into socialist enterprises–and most of them start out that way. Right now, we’re witnessing the growth of classically populist movements across Latin America. The president of Bolivia just last week essentially appropriated the nation’s oil and gas reserves. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez has been posing as the voice-of-the-people-made-flesh for years now as he systematically dismantles the market economy in explicit homage to Fidel Castro. In America, Populists have invariably championed socialistic policies. The Populist Party–also called the People’s Party–pushed for the nationalization of railroads and other industries, and demanded “popular” control over natural resources. (You can peruse the U.S. Populist Party’s 1892 platform here. Note its call for mandatory unionization, the seizure of lands from corporations and “aliens,” and the nationalization of the telephone companies.) Father Charles Coughlin and Huey Long were explicitly socialist (though they didn’t always use the word) in their economic policies. Patrick Buchanan’s move toward populism coincided with–indeed, required–a steady rejection of free market principles (see Ramesh’s “A Conservative No More”).
From the mobs storming Versailles to the Banana Republic dictators seizing the oil fields, populist programs have been based as much upon grasping envy and narcissistic resentment of those who “think they’re better than us” as on any sort of principle. It’s not just that populist arguments are most often arguments in name only. They are sharp rhetorical sticks poked in the eye of those with little to lose and much to gain by overturning the board when the rules work against them. Individual responsibility gets lost in a swamp of whininess about what others “owe” the people. When Homer Simpson ran for sanitation commissioner, he captured the populist pose perfectly: “Animals are crapping in our houses and we’re picking it up! Did we lose a war? That’s not America! That’s not even Mexico!”
In the last decade or so, leading intellectuals within the Democratic party have been desperate to revive “economic populism” in order to get “the people” back on their side (see, for example, “Why Democrats Must Be Populists: And what populist-phobes don’t understand about America”). Bill Clinton’s manifesto “Putting People First” was just one small example of this ongoing project. Al Gore’s attempt to frame the 2000 campaign as the “people versus the powerful” was another. John Edwards’ podium thumping about “two Americas” was relentlessly cheered by self-described progressives as the best articulation of their cause in 2004.
GETTING THE BOGEYMEN
Inherent to all of these visions, extreme and moderate alike, is that politics is a good-versus-evil war between haves and have-nots. But even more significantly, the populist vision is inherently conspiratorial. Because politics is irreducibly about class interests, populists and populist sympathizers see evil motives behind “the other.” The 1892 Populist Party platform proclaimed “A vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two continents, and it is rapidly taking over the world.” The enemies were “the gold bugs,” financiers, and all the usual villains depicted in Thomas Nast cartoons as pigs dressed like the Monopoly guy. These secretive forces were arrayed against the exploited “little guy” and “the people.”
Big Oil, Big Tobacco, and Big Pharma are merely new labels for the same old bogeyman behind the curtain. In the past, the bogeyman was Wall Street, or “international capital,” or the plain old “ruling classes.” It should be no surprise that populism is a conducive medium for anti-Semitism. America’s 19th-century populists were always quick to blame “the Jews” for their troubles. Ignatius Donnelly, a founding father of American populism (who still gets good press from liberal historians), was a nutty anti-Semite with batty theories about just about everything, including the role of the Jews as the ultimate string-pullers. He shared with many populist spokesmen a heartfelt belief that “the Jews”–AKA “the shylocks”–were aligned with the British in a secret conspiracy to control America through the manipulation of gold. A typical cartoon in a Populist publication depicted the world grasped in the tentacles of an octopus sitting atop the British Isles. The octopus was labeled “Rothschild.” An Associated Press reporter noted of the 1896 Populist convention “the extraordinary hatred of the Jewish race” on display.
This Manichean view of the world divided between controlling all-powerful and scary forces aligned against the people can be traced back to the French Revolution (cue cat shriek). With the Revolution, the old sentiment of “long live the King” was replaced with “long live the nation”–with “the nation” and “the people” being synonymous. This is not to say that overthrowing monarchies is necessarily bad. But what the French Revolutionaries did not–or would not–recognize is that there must be limits on the will of the people. The reason they didn’t recognize this is that the leaders of the revolution got drunk on the power conferred on them by “the people.” Quickly, these leaders became more savage and cruel than the king they replaced. Robespierre summed up the totalitarian logic underneath this worldview when he proclaimed: “There are only two parties in France: the people and its enemies. We must exterminate those miserable villains who are eternally conspiring against the rights of man. . . . [W]e must exterminate all our enemies.”
It was against this backdrop that modern conservatism was born. Burke and others shared the enlightenment’s skepticism toward the arbitrary authority of the throne. They, too, believed that the people deserved a say in how their lives were run. Where they differed was that where the continental radicals saw “the people” as the irreducible force in politics, the conservatives (then called liberals) saw the individual as the irreducible moral agent. John Locke speaks of how we are captains of ourselves. The revolutionaries worshipped at the altar of the General Will. Conservatives respected the mystic chords of the nation too, but they understood that man is not the source of meaning or morality. The Jacobins rejected this division between the transcendent and earthly. Man is the source of all meaning, and men in large numbers defined the legitimacy of all political power.
BEWARE THE POPULIST TEMPTATION
So why am I bringing any of this up in the first place? Well, a couple weeks ago I spoke skeptically about conservative populism amidst the furor over immigration and, before that, during the brouhaha over the Dubai ports deal. Things got a little testy in the Corner and amongst some readers, so I said that I would explain my seemingly mystifying skepticism toward populism in a G-File. I finally got around to writing it and–assuming you made it this far–you’re reading it.
I’d like to note a few things rapidly, since time and space are in short supply (though some physicists would disagree). First, I find it interesting that I’ve been disparaging or criticizing populism for several years now here and elsewhere and rarely have I heard a peep of disagreement from conservative readers in response (though my opposition to Gray Davis’s recall generated a lot of anger from California). It was only when my skepticism ran afoul of the hot tempers stoked by the immigration and ports controversies that many normally simpatico readers wheeled on me in high dudgeon. All of a sudden, the accusations of pointy-headed elitism (I don’t mind the elitism charge too much, but my enormous gourd is anything but pointy) to outright un-Americanness tumbled into my mail box.
I think this is a useful illustration of the problem with populism. Being on the wrong side of “the people” is automatically seen as betrayal, rather than mere disagreement. I’d been bee-bopping and scatting against liberal populism and no one cared; when I was skeptical about an issue conservative populists treasure, I was inundated with pronouncements about the glories of people power.
Second, I’m not trying to say that conservatives who resort to populist arguments are crypto-left-wingers or anything like that. But I do believe that the logic of populism can be corrosive if not held in check. One need only look at Pat Buchanan to see how completely it can eat away classically liberal views.
That said, I think populist rhetoric and passion can be healthy in small doses. After all, sometimes elites and their institutions are arrayed against the people; 2+2=4 when people say it does and when people say it doesn’t, and it isn’t any less true when it’s being frantically chanted by a mass of people. I understand that political protagonists must sometimes show they have an authentic connection with the people they represent; I have an abiding faith in the goodness of the American people, and I think William F. Buckley’s populist flirtation, encapsulated in his observation that he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phonebook than by the faculty of Harvard University, was absolutely right and proper. But you will note that he believed in the concept of governing per se; he implicitly (and explicitly elsewhere) accepted the Burkean view that our representatives owe us their judgment, even at the occasional expense of popular will and, often, in defiance of popular passion.
And it is in this gray area where I think conservatives should maintain a healthy, rather than absolute, skepticism toward populism. It is the first duty of conservatives to say “that’s not a good idea” and “calm down.” It is the first duty of liberals to come up with some whacky idea about how every child should be born with an air hockey table and a lifetime supply of Ho-Hos. When life is unfair to some, we can expect the liberal to blame dark and unseen forces rigging the system against the little guy. It is the conservative’s obligation–when the truth is on his side–to say “lighten up Francis” and “life isn’t fair.” And when would-be voices of the people claim that 2+2 is whatever-the-hell-we-say-it-is or that “the man” should be cleaning up our pets’ messes, it’s the job of the conservative to calmly say–no matter how unpopular or “unenlightened” it may be–no, 2+2=4, now and forever, and pick up your own damn crap.