The Perils of Populism

Take the news that John Kasich is being funded by George Soros, a billionaire notorious for bankrolling far-left institutions, and combine that with the fact that it was Bill Clinton who encouraged Donald Trump to run for president, plus the way Trump has dominated the race with billions of dollars of free media donated by the press corps. It’s looking like this is the year when the left—sensing that Republicans had a dangerously strong roster of candidates—decided they were going to take over the Republican nominating process.

Then again, the real story isn’t that lefties decided to derail our primaries. The story is that we let them do it. It’s no use trying to shift the blame to others, because there’s plenty to go around. The Trump phenomenon is too big and has snared too many right-leaning figures, particularly in the broadcast media, that we have to take responsibility for it ourselves.

How did we make this possible?

One of the lessons to be learned is about the perils of conservative populism. Over the past fifty years, the political right has invested heavily in a kind of anti-elitist populism. We see ourselves as representing the “silent majority” and the salt-of-the-earth regular folks out in the heartland, as opposed to those corrupt coastal elites in New York, Hollywood, and DC.

But now a lot of us are experiencing the whiplash of discovering that this sort of populism can be used against us—coupled with disappointment that the salt-of-the-earth heartland types, whom we counted on to be our allies, can sometimes be talked into voting on the basis of their fears and resentment instead of heeding the better angels of their nature.

If part of the story is that the right’s intellectuals became disconnected from the concerns of some of the blue-collar Reagan Democrat types who supported the Republican agenda in recent decades, the flipside is that some of the rank-and-file of the right has begun to ignore the basic ideas they supposedly stood for. They’ve stopped listening to the intellectuals, even when we’re right, and they’ve suspended their powers of critical examination just as they are confronted with a politician who deserves more than the normal dose of skepticism.

Trumpism is a warning about what happens when you make a big show of being the party of the regular guy against the eggheads. We need the eggheads, too. The right needs to start depending a bit less on rabble-rousing populism and a bit more on the strength and influence of its thinkers and intellectual institutions. The left has a vast intellectual base in the universities and in generations of students indoctrinated in the universities. (Which does not prevent them from falling for a great deal of flim-flam and nonsense; more about that in a moment.) The right needs a similar base.

What we need is not just intellectuals on the right but rather a dose of intellectualism, a greater regard for ideas and thoughtfulness and rational argumentation, as a corrective to the anti-intellectuality and irrational boosterism so evident in the Trump movement.

Trump’s rise is about anger and lashing out, about “burning down the establishment,” without much regard for the consistency or logic of Trump’s actual positions. That’s what’s makes it so unnerving. It’s not just that Trump might do something crazy or irresponsible once he gets into office, though that’s certainly likely. It’s the fact that his supporters seem to be closed off to reason and arguments and are willing to support him no matter what he says or does.

In a healthy movement, the emotional, populist element is balanced by an intellectual and ideological element, and normal politicians try to appeal to both. They give stirring stump speeches about how dad was a bartender or about how they’re going to abolish the IRS (Rubio and Cruz, respectively), then they go give detailed policy speeches at the Heritage Foundation. What’s disturbing about Trump is that he ignores that second part and says, in effect: I’m going to win without ever having to explain anything in a way that makes any sense. He is ignoring and disparaging the vote of the thinking man.

And that raises the question: why is the thinking man vote not stronger in the GOP?

Obviously, part of the problem is that America’s intellectuals have spent the past century or more earning themselves a pretty bad reputation. They long ago abandoned any role as an effective defense against patent nonsense. Instead, they’re too busy trying to convince us that we can all have a free lunch or that Bruce Jenner is a woman. So I understand how they’ve used up their credibility.

But 50 years of saying “we’re for the regular guy against those crazy intellectuals” has undermined the ability of intellectuals on the right to expose a flim-flam artist like Trump—or to get anyone to listen to them when they do. We’ve pandered too much to the populist desire to tell all those damned intellectuals to stuff it.

On this issue, I should declare my own bias: I’m an opera-loving atheist with a degree in philosophy, the kind of person who reads Ayn Rand novels and looks forward to the speeches. So the highbrow intellectuals are My People. But that also means that I know all about their vices and biases, which even the best of them can fall into.

The basic occupational hazard of the intellectuals is Platonism. The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato taught that ideas and abstractions are more real and important than facts and observation, and that’s an attitude that still has a lot of influence today. When reality fails to match their pet abstractions, the intellectuals have a tendency to think reality has to give way, and this tends to produce a lot of “don’t believe your lying eyes” types of arguments.

But knowing the history of ideas, I also know the profound, indispensable good that intellectuals can do. As I pointed out recently when Marco Rubio was throwing shade at philosophers, we wouldn’t have gotten where we are without an English philosopher named John Locke, from whom we learned our ideas about individual rights and the consent of the governed. As Margaret Thatcher put it, “Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy.”

And let me introduce you to another group of intellectuals. These were guys who all knew Latin and pored over volumes on Greek history. They followed the latest scientific discoveries of the day (and even contributed to them), and they were familiar with the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers. They collected rare books and frequently wrote to each other discussing theories of politics and economics. What a bunch of highbrow pansy elites. Sad!

I am talking about the Founding Fathers. Not all of the Founders were full-fledged intellectuals, but a very influential core of them were, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Ben Franklin. They set the tone for the Founding by writing things like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.

While they were champions of a popular cause, and some of them (Franklin and Hamilton) were true self-made men who came from modest circumstances, they were also insiders and “elites” by the standards of the current Trump era.

None of them was a political outsider. They had all come up through the ranks of Colonial politics. From 1776, for example, Thomas Jefferson had served in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, as governor of Virginia, as a delegate to Congress under the Articles of Confederation, as Secretary of State, and as Vice-President. So before he became president, he had been a fixture in Virginia and national politics for 25 years. This also means that the Founders all knew each other very well, having worked together for many years before and after the revolution. That was a very new thing, for men from Massachusetts and New York to have extensive political dealings with a bunch of Virginians. So they were definitely a connected elite in that sense.

But above all else, they created a system of government that was explicitly intended to discourage populism. They spoke disparagingly of “pure democracy” and “mob rule,” and of the “passions” stirred up by demagogues. If you had tried to explain this year’s politics to them by telling them how angry the voters are, they would have regarded that as the problem: that people were acting out of anger or revenge, rather than from reason and principle.

If the Founding Fathers had anticipated a man like Donald Trump—and they did—they would have written a Constitution designed to thwart him. And they did.

They built a whole system of checks and balances that functions to slow down political change, to counterbalance factions against each other, and to prevent the momentary passions of one group of voters from steering the policies of the federal government. The Constitution is an anti-populist document designed to thwart “the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”

That phrase is from The Federalist No. 10, in which James Madison defended the Constitution by explaining how it could make liberty more secure in a large republic than in a small one. The advocates of small republics were the Anti-Federalists, who wanted to keep virtually all government power on the state level. Madison argued, however, that the larger scope of the federal government would encompass a greater diversity of interests and passions, which would cause any one faction to be counterbalanced and opposed by other factions.

The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party…. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.

Think how easily, for example, we would have higher taxes, more government regulations, and probably comprehensive global warming controls—basically, all the trappings of a European welfare state—if such policies were determined only by the votes of the big cities or the Northeastern states, without being counterbalanced by suburban and rural districts or by the Southern and Western states.

“Extending the sphere” to include a diverse republic with diverse interests serves a specifically intellectual function. It is relatively easy to sell a nonsensical policy to other people who share your own biases. It’s easy to make the case to people like me that the government should adopt policies that benefit people like me—at the expense of people who are not like me. But when I have to make the case to those unfortunate individuals who are not like me—well, then it gets a lot harder. That requires making an argument that goes beyond my personal biases or immediate interests. I can’t just stir up people’s emotions, because they might not share my emotional reactions. Instead, I have to argue on the basis of principles, appealing to universal ideas about logic, justice, and rights. It requires a more rational, intellectual argument, rather than just an appeal to emotion.

It was easy to defend slavery, for example, to slave owners who were already predisposed by prejudice, habit, social conformity, and direct economic interests to make excuses for it. But extend the sphere and force them to make the case for their “peculiar institution” to people in non-slave-owning states, and it becomes indefensible. Which is why defending slavery eventually required the Southern states to try to withdraw from the extended sphere of the Union and form their own slave-state confederation.

Now consider two factions in contemporary American politics: the Bernie Sanders faction and the Donald Trump faction. They command a similar share of the vote: Sanders has gotten about a third of the vote in the Democratic primaries, Trump a little more than a third in the Republican primaries—which translates in each case to somewhere around 10% of the voting public. Both want radical policies. Sanders wants a massive increase in taxes and the welfare state; Trump wants a draconian crackdown on immigration (depending on his latest statements) and on international trade. Both are forced to make that case to the wider public. In Sanders’s case, selling people on the fairy tale of a socialist free lunch has proven to be a tall order even among Democrats. In Trump’s case, the moment he is forced to describe the actual details of any of his plans or how they’re actually going to help anyone, it becomes clear all he has is bluster.

It’s interesting that the Founders viewed this kind of demagoguery as the problem of “faction.” The basic contradiction of populism is that it pretends to represent the clear will of the overwhelming majority of the people—when it actually represents a minority faction who are projecting their own agenda onto the majority. The demagogue tries to cover up this contradiction by claiming that the majority really does back his agenda, but the will of the majority is being blocked by some nefarious secret cabal. If you’re Bernie Sanders, you say it’s the “billionaires.” If you’re Donald Trump, you say it’s “political correctness,” or “the establishment.” (Push hard enough on some of Donald Trump’s supporters, and they’ll tell you it’s the Jews.) Hence the paradoxical connection between populism and authoritarianism. The populist claims to represent the “real” majority whose will is being thwarted, so they need a strongman to beat down the nefarious resistance of the “elites.” In reality, the “elites” or the “establishment” or the “billionaires” or whoever it is turn out just to be fellow citizens who disagree with you.

In the case of the Trump phenomenon, the main hotbed of resistance to “the people” turns out to be right-leaning intellectuals, those annoying trouble-makers who keep asking questions about how Trump is going to deport 11 million people, whether putting a 45% tariff on China is actually going to hurt the economy, whether he actually knows anything about national defense or foreign policy, or how his current statements compare to a long history of saying completely opposite things.

In doing so, we are just doing what the Constitution and the American system asks us to do: demanding that a demagogue do more than preach to his own faction. We’re asking all voters to ascend to a higher level and make their case in terms of logic and principles.

We should embrace that role and insist that politics should be about subordinating emotion and anger, even justified anger, in favor of rational debate and established principles. This may be harder and less lucrative than dabbling in an easy populism, but it’s what our highbrow intellectual Founders intended.

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