The Conservative Reckoning Doesn’t Have to End Badly

Detail of James Madison portrait by John Vanderlyn, 1816. (The White House Historical Association/Wikimedia)
Between elitism and populism is a middle ground that could renew a uniquely American strain of conservatism.

As calls grow for Republicans to escape the supposed clutches of corporate villains and become the party of the working class, conservatism is due for a reckoning not just with Trumpism but ultimately with populism. Those making these calls have a point: A retro Reaganism is not necessarily the answer. But neither is a nouveau populism.

The political thought of the American founding provides a middle ground between the alleged terrors of the swampland elite and the condescension of a populism whereby professors, pundits, and politicians cloak the unwashed in a kindly blanket of protection. That middle ground is republicanism. It balances the authoritative voice of the people with the requirement that they behave deliberately and accept accountability.

Republicanism has the advantage of rejecting false extremes in favor of a virtuous moderation. It does not pine for a bygone Burkeanism that has never, at its core, been fully at home in America. Nor does it surrender conservative principle. In recurring to the principles of the American regime to address contemporary needs, it is conservatism defined.

The high conservative view is most famously expressed in Edmund Burke’s belief that a representative is ultimately bound to his own judgment. Burke’s representative owes “great weight” and “high opinion” to the wishes of his constituents. But in the end, his decisions must be governed by “his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience,” which he has received from — and for whose use he is accountable to — God.

The essence of populism is the belief that the vocation of a representative is to mirror the people he represents. This view was espoused by many of the 18th-century opponents of ratification of the Constitution, together known as the Anti-Federalists. The most sophisticated of their essayists, Brutus, wrote that representatives of the people “should possess their sentiments and feelings, and be governed by their interests, or, in other words, should bear the strongest resemblance of those in whose room they are substituted.”

Enter James Madison, one of the Constitution’s primary designers and defenders. Where Brutus says a representative should reflect popular views, Madison explains in Federalist No. 10 that the representative should refract them. By this, he means that the effect of representation, as opposed to direct democracy, is “to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”

There is a line of commentary on the American founding that sees Madison’s republicanism as aristocratic. But the comparison with Burke’s conservatism is instructive. The two approaches to representation fashion the same end — the public good — from different raw materials. Burke’s representative uses his own judgment, informed by public opinion. Madison’s begins with the people’s views but “refines” them into something more deliberate and reasonable and “enlarges” them to reflect the public as opposed to parochial good.

Today’s populists are fond of invoking Madison. But populism and republicanism are different things. Populism is either directed by the public views, in which case it is prone to passion, or it protects them from on high, in which case it is patronizing. Each of these views characterized Madison’s political opponents, not the Framers.

Brutus viewed the legislature as a convenience. Not everyone could convene in the agora to transact public business personally, so the representative should vote as his constituents would if they were able to do so. There is a problem with this approach, however. As Madison warned in Federalist No. 55, passions are contagious and invariably spread through gathered mobs, no matter their composition. “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates,” he wrote, “every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” So envisioning the legislator as merely a proxy for a large group, and nothing more, is a similarly flawed approach.

Another strain of Anti-Federalism, more akin to today’s populism, called for representatives to be immediately and frequently accountable to the people. A system that depended on elites would too easily dupe the masses. The Anti-Federalist Centinel expressed this sentiment:

The science of government is so abstruse, that few are able to judge for themselves; without such assistance the people are too apt to yield an implicit assent to the opinions of those characters, whose abilities are held in the highest esteem, and to those in whose integrity and patriotism they can confide . . .

Today’s “conservative” populism partakes of both ends of the Anti-Federalist spectrum. Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, both fond of brandishing their credentials as constitutional lawyers, felt, or at least claimed they felt, that the bare fact that some of their constituents believed in widespread electoral fraud was sufficient reason to parrot those views on the Senate floor. That is Brutus. But Cruz and Hawley also rail against vague but sinister sources of power and influence — the elite swamp creatures whose specific names they dare not speak — leading the people astray. Thus Hawley’s warning that “mega corporations” had interfered in the 2020 election. How? By tricking the people for whom he claims to speak?

Madisonian republicanism’s middle way says this: In forming a government, the people place themselves in the position of Odysseus lashing himself to the mast, lest he be tempted by the sirens’ deadly call. That is, they know they may be seduced by momentary passions, so they exercise their freedom to promote their interests. Madison explained this in a speech to the Constitutional Convention:

A people deliberating in a temperate moment, and with the experience of other nations before them, on the plan of Govt. most likely to secure their happiness … [would realize] that they themselves were liable to temporary errors, thro’ want of information as to their true interest, and that men chosen for a short term, & employed but a small portion of that in public affairs, might err from the same cause. A necessary fence agst. this danger would be to select a portion of enlightened citizens, whose limited number, and firmness might seasonably interpose agst. impetuous councils.

Having set this system in motion, the people elect representatives of their choosing. These representatives serve terms of sufficient duration to provide some distance from the immediacy of public opinion but of sufficient brevity to keep them accountable. In the interval, they are guided by public views. They guide these views in a direction that serves the durable interests of the people as a whole. Those with whom the people disagree can be replaced at the next election.

It bears emphasis that, unlike populism, this republicanism actually asks something of the people: namely, that, as Madison told the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788, they display the “virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom.” By directing public “intelligence” toward the identification of elite “wisdom,” it does not shy from the conservative belief in human difference, including differences in capabilities. By using the people’s views as the raw material, it assumes they are morally accountable for their choices.

That accountability, a feature of dignity, is notably absent from many of the populist calls to protect the working classes, who are cast as living at the mercy of forces beyond their control. This is a strange populism: We somehow need good elites to shield the masses from bad elites.

To the extent populism means concern with the needs of working-class Americans, it should be uncontroversial. To the extent it means condescending to them, it is less appealing and more ironic. Madisonian republicanism enables the concern without the condescension. Its renewal would also renew a uniquely American strain of conservatism.

Greg Weiner — Mr. Weiner is a political scientist at Assumption University and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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