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The populist scourge

The election of Donald Trump is said to represent the latest explosion of American populism: a rebellion of the salt of the earth against those snooty east and west coast "elites" who view them with contempt.

There are reasons to doubt whether this is true, or at least true to the extent claimed. And also reasons to be alarmed if it is.

Americans might indeed be disgusted by their politics, but then most Americans, thankfully, probably don't spend all that much time thinking about politics either. The number of people who actually voted for Trump or Bernie Sanders in the primaries was a tiny chunk of the nation's eligible voters; numbers hardly suggestive of a "throw the rascals out" groundswell.

More to the point, it is difficult to argue that an election in which Hillary Clinton, that most "establishment" of establishment figures, won the popular vote by a margin of nearly three million represents any kind of populist explosion.

Had 80,000 or so votes switched in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin nobody would now be talking about "Trump voters" or "drain the swamp" populism; to the contrary, Republicans would still be wondering how they let Trump carry out a hostile takeover of their party and lead it to disaster in a year when everything else pointed in their favor.

But even if the populist wave were as powerful as some analysts suggest, there are also sound reasons for resisting it, whether it comes wrapped in "make America great again" bravado or "soak the rich" socialism.

The American system wasn't designed to accommodate populism; rather our form of representative democracy (otherwise known as a "republic") is intended to blunt it, to translate often ill-informed popular opinion through deliberation into prudent public policy.

The American system of checks and balances was put in place to preserve liberty by diffusing power. But it was also designed to blunt the passions of ephemeral, incoherent "populist" majorities.

The system was, in other words, intended to protect us from both the tyrant and the mindless mob.

Lest we forget, in the founders' original formulation, the presidency would be chosen by electors, to be chosen by state legislatures. The federal courts would, then as now, be filled through the Constitution's "advise and consent" clause, with the president doing the advising (nominating) and the Senate the consenting (confirming). The Senate itself would also be chosen indirectly by state legislatures.

Indeed, the only truly "democratic" part of the original architecture, at least by today's standards, was the House of Representatives, members of which would be chosen by popular vote in congressional districts.

Embedded in such structures were several crucial assumptions: that concentrated power is dangerous, that power must be checked by countervailing power, that government should be kept scrupulously limited lest it interfere with the people's liberty, and that notions of "direct democracy" were dangerous because they were equivalent to mob rule.

Much of what has gone wrong with our politics over time can be attributed to our forgetting those pivotal assumptions, and thus straying from them in practice.

As the founders fully understood, democracy (and government more generally) works best when applied to a limited sphere of life, and then only when filtered through various institutional structures. Any system of self-government must ultimately have the support of the people, but Rousseau's notion of an amorphous "general will" that should always be obeyed is dangerous because it's ready-made for exploitation by the demagogue.

In the founders' conception, elected officials should not so much follow public opinion as lead and shape it; their function is to deliberate and use their presumably greater experience and judgment to educate the people rather than reflexively enact their incoherent, fluctuating wishes.

Sometimes the people are right, sometimes wrong, but anyone who has spent any time studying politics knows that more often than not they are simply clueless.

Thus, even if it's too late to repeal the 17th Amendment (which enacted popular election of senators) or to restore the original conception of the electoral college, we should at a minimum begin to rethink the idea that more democracy is the solution to every problem.

An especially useful place to start might be for our political parties to reconsider the use of primaries and caucuses to choose their presidential candidates. This was an innovation designed to "open up" and democratize the process but only ended up taking power away from experienced party leaders and leaving it lying in the street to be picked up by whomever (most recently, for the GOP, by Trump).

Along these lines, in giving two cheers for Democratic Party attempts to "rig" their process for Hillary, Kevin Williamson notes that "The difference between a republic and a democracy is that republics put up more roadblocks between fools and their desires."

The sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, made much the same point when he defined democracy as "the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

Contrary to the populist impulse, American politics isn't broken because it is ignoring the people's wishes; it is broken, if it truly is, because craven politicians (lacking what the founders called "virtue") too often pander to them.

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 12/04/2017

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