The Corner

Elitism V. Populism

Okay, okay, one more post, then off to column-finishing and other chores.

Derb- I think you nail it on the head. I agree with you entirely that populism invariably yields a kind of elitism. The left has tried for centuries to obscure this point. Because populists claim to be speaking for “the people” and because they pursue redistributionist economics, the left eagerly ignores the elitist nature of the regime. One need only look at Castro’s Cuba and its fawning, sweaty-palmed sycophants in the west to see this phenomenon on full display. Castro is on the side of “the people” and therefore his police state is entirely justified. Meanwhile, someone like Pinochet — who was hardly without sin — allowed a civil society to develop while avoiding redistributionist policies and is therefor one of the all-time villains according to the left.

Fascism addressed this contradiction honestly. It was objectively and proudly populist while at the same time fascists openly argued for an elite cadre of superior, if not super, men who would run the country. The Leninists had a similar argument with all that avant-garde of the proletariat and whatnot.

In America, I think a big, big, big part of the problem is the permanent civil service bureaucracy which is naturally sympathetic to big government and parties that champion big government. These governmental elites, in collusion with academia and the “helping professions,” take it upon themselves to find new ways to “run” the society (These groups, as John O’Sullivan has ably demonstrated are rapidly migrating to the global stage — he calls them transnational elites — where they are trying to turn the UN and various NGOs into post-democratic institutions). Whenever a political movement arises — like American conservatism — which challenges the elite-bureaucracy’s authority they are accused of working against “the people” and the “downtrodden.” Just look at all of the silly things people say about John Bolton. Journalists are key to this process because they share the bureaucratic elite’s vision of both government and the masses.

I think in this sense our biggest disagreement is semantic, if that. I think the best way to look at this elite is as a secular priesthood. But that’s a conversation for later.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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