If economic frustration is the shared experience that catalyzes populist movements, and if questions of identity form the underlying concern, then questions of rule provide the context for why questions about identity are so powerful.
In response to the question, “Who should rule?” populism provides a clear answer: “The people.” On the face of it, this is not a bad answer, especially considering our national aspirations to produce and protect a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” However, when pressed as to who constitutes this “people,” the populist answer is often an unprincipled, and ultimately undemocratic answer: “We, the populists, should rule—or at the very least, one of our populist number should lead on our behalf.”
How should we evaluate populist aspirations to power?
On the one hand, the populists’ ambition to rule can foster positive change in a democratic republic. America’s regulative hierarchy and the quasi-oligarchic rule of its cultural elite are antithetical to the health of our representative democracy. In loosening the iron grip of bureaucrats and functional oligarchs, populism can help return rule to the people, by reorienting political parties and representatives to the views and needs of their constituents. Only the most naïve analyst would look at our current power structures—formal as well as functional—and declare that we are truly a nation in which the people are given the lion’s share of power.
On the other hand, and unsurprisingly, the populist ambition to rule can cause negative and long-lasting repercussions. Populism, as I noted in a previous post, is not rooted in ideology, but rather in public perception. It is a fluid concept, which makes its aspirations to power dangerous. Add to this the populist tendency to be fueled by emotion, and the already dangerous ambition to exert influence can easily tend toward mob rule. When “we the people” rest assured in the correctness of our perceptions and allow ourselves to become overheated with emotion, we quickly become what the Bible calls “fools.” Fools are immune to correction and quick to vent their emotional baggage. They leave destruction in their wake. Most dangerous, fools do not recognize their own folly; they are convinced of their own way.
The way of the fool manifests in politics when we imbue the voice of the people with divine authority. There was a time when certain groups recognized and embraced this conflation: “Vox populi, vox dei,” they said. “The voice of the people is the voice of God.” Whether adopted intentionally or incidentally, such a perspective if toxic, giving ourselves permission to bypass not only democratic procedure but also Christian character and human decency. A quick scan of history can easily produce numerous instances—embarrassing to us now—in which the majority of people were manifestly wrong.
Populism’s aspirations to power also sometimes fall prey to another common foible of ambition: they seek their own good rather than the good of all. When everyday citizens are simmering with resentment toward those persons we perceive to have undermined our status or caused us injustice, we are less likely to seek the “common good” of our whole nation. Instead, we seek only the good of our own ilk or tribe. As Barry Strauss notes, populist leaders play off of resentment and perceived injustices to make popularity sound like justice. And since there can be no limit to our passion in the fight for justice, populist leaders tend to eschew the common good in favor of stumping for what the populists want.
The good news, however, is that the United States’ Constitutional political arrangement is custom-built to guard against the excesses of populism. Unlike many democracies, our nation’s Constitution does not allow for direct democracy or national referenda, vesting political power instead in representative government which must work to enact its agenda over the course of multiple election cycles. That makes the pace of political change plodding and slow. While frustrating, that is actually very good news for everybody, including the populists, because the populists who are so irritated by the checks and balances that impede the wholesale and immediate implementation of their political vision will find that those same checks and balances act as reciprocal impediments for their political adversaries.
We all have moments when we wish our government was structured for more swift change. But we should be thankful for the intentionally plodding pace of representative government. It undermines populist leaders who wish to set aside democratic procedures and legal norms when public opinion—that most capricious national resource—is momentarily on their side. Representational politics may not be the most efficient process, but it appears to be the most trustworthy process for taking care of the public interest. As Roger Scruton writes, it “injects hesitation, circumspection, and accountability into the heart of government—qualities that play no part in the emotions of the crowd.” Indeed, representative government neutralizes dark passions that threaten to upend democracy, choosing open deliberation, political process, and consistent representation over the rule of social media flash mobs and professional agitators.