Politics & Policy

How to Defeat Populism

Trump supporters argue with protesters outside Trump Tower in Manhattan, November 20, 2016. (Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)
Liberals and technocrats have four options with which they can confront the populist challenge.

The hot fault line in Western politics — between technocracy and populism — doesn’t fall neatly along the old lines of conservative and liberal. I tend to be more sympathetic to the populist and nationalist impulses than some other conservatives. But I also recognize that, over the long term, every political movement is destined to end in failure and disillusionment. The open question is whether populism has any success and does any good before that inevitable reckoning. And then, if it has success, whether it gets to indulge its worst impulses and do damage on the way down.

In the meantime, however, there are a few ways liberals and technocrats can handle the populist challenge. It’s worth exploring them in broad terms.

Passive resistance: Wait for populism to fall on its face.

You may not wait long. Because technocratic liberalism did such a thorough job progressively stigmatizing populist ideas as low-status, marginal, and cretinous, the ranks of populist political movements are overstuffed with marginal, low-status cretins. Even if the voters empower them in protest of, say, a Hillary Clinton, surely the charlatans and jerks in the populist movement will immediately reveal their rank incompetence and be swiftly removed from office.

To change the metaphors, it’s altogether possible that a little bit of populism will have the effect of inoculating the whole system. Perhaps the Trump years will be so obviously a disaster that no one will want to try anything like it again.

Triangulation: Take the criticism to heart and take some of populists’ issues on board.

This is the strategy of adjusting liberalism in order to save it. You can compromise with populism to a degree, in the name of preserving democracy. Perhaps you find trade barriers economically inefficient, but you can at least accept them as being the result of the democratic process. Perhaps you can enthusiastically accept the populist demand for Britain to regain its political sovereignty, and by doing so guide it to maintain the closest possible trading relations with Europe. Perhaps you can protect your broadly tolerant society, and maintain the racial and religious diversity your policies have created, by slowing down the rate of future immigration and strengthening a core national culture until it has assimilative power.

Brinksmanship: Assimilate the worst features of populism in order to defeat it.

Finally, you could determine that the stakes are existential and dig in for a ferocious battle. If you believe that populism and nationalism will, if unimpeded, vitiate your democracy, destroy your freedom to express your views, fill your society with an irrational fear of foreigners, and make your country an authoritarian nightmare, you could . . . opt to do all those nasty things on behalf of liberalism. Don’t like the democratic verdict? Ignore it. Or delegitimize it as the product of nefarious Russian interference. Think the populists are leveraging digital platforms to advance their agenda? Make legal-sounding threats until Silicon Valley transforms itself into the de facto speech police and ministry of propaganda for the liberal order. Encourage your most unstable people in utter hysteria and accept that a few of them may try to shoot congressman or assault people in the streets on behalf of the liberal world order. Make memes celebrating them.

There are risks to each of these strategies and each is not always applicable. Some say Brexit is falling on its face. But that cause is now led by Theresa May, a prime minister who campaigned for remaining in the European Union, and the difficulties she has run into can be attributed to her half-heartedness or her willingness to compromise with figures such as Philip Hammond, her chancellor of the Exchequer. May certainly isn’t the leader the Brexiteers would have chosen. You could put your faith in the boorish incompetence of populists and yet still see them preside over periods of economic growth and increased popularity. That’s been the result in Poland so far.

I always like to bet on human fallibility, so I think the strategy I take to be the wisest in this instance — democratic triangulation — will be left mostly untried. Emmanuel Macron seems to be the only leader even sniffing in this direction.

You could put your faith in the boorish incompetence of populists and yet still see them preside over periods of economic growth and increased popularity.

American society has lately taken to believing that you can only prove you are authentic to yourself and the world by indulging your worst impulses. And so it’s hard not to conclude that we’re headed for the worst of all worlds. Populist incompetence will exacerbate technocratic brinksmanship: The entitled and lawless liberals versus the ungovernable and unqualified democrats.

If you read a long, colorful, and accurate description of Western societies as you’ve known them over the last three decades, would you conclude that we deserved a better fate?


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