Vox Populi

The Perils and Promises of Populism

[Amazon Link]

This book came out last year mostly in response to the election of Donald Trump and the success in the UK of "Brexit", both events surprising conventional wisdom, and deemed by some to be a rejuvenation of "populism". It's a collection of ten "trenchant" (it says here) essays on that topic in response, all originally published in the New Criterion. Most of the writers are familiar to those of us who bathe in conservative journalism: George H. Nash, Barry Strauss, Daniel Hannan, Fred Siegel, James Piereson, Andrew C. McCarthy, Roger Scruton, Victor Davis Hanson, Conrad Black, and Roger Kimball (who also edited). There's a small component of blind-men-describing-an-elephant here, each describing different, sometimes contradictory, populist features. And considerable overlap too: more than one writer cites the famous anti-populist quotes from Obama ("bitter clingers!") and Hillary ("deplorables"!). But each essay is worthwhile reading. Most deal with modern-day American and British politics. But one goes back to H.L. Mencken (not a populist by any measure). And another delves into the ancient origins of the movement, in the Roman efforts of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (and his gory end).

For better or worse, "populism" is nowhere near as well-defined as (say) libertarianism. Trump is arguably a populist, but so is Bernie Sanders. Sharrod Brown (I'm told) wears the label proudly, while deriding "phony populism" in others, e.g., Trump.

But (as near as I can tell), populism has its good stuff and bad.

Good: after all, democracies are inherently populist: the "people" rule, at least in theory, and indirectly. Lincoln's memorable Gettysburg phrasing about "government of the people, by the people, for the people" is inherently populist. To the extent that populists object to being dictated to by a small elite, they're not wrong to do so. (The Brexit vote was, at least in part, a reaction against being ruled by unelected European Union commissioners, who meet in secret, and can't be unseated by voters.)

But also bad: populist sentiment has no limiting principles. Actually, it doesn't seem to have any concrete guiding principles at all. So its cloak is easily taken on by demagogues who love to seduce the masses with tales of the system being "rigged against them". It's us-versus-them, pal, and if you're not with us, you're probably in the employ of the Koch brothers.

Among other things, I learned I am definitely not a populist.