Sir John Harington, the poet and court aide to Elizabeth I, wrote: “Treason does never prosper, what’s the reason? Why if it does, none dare call it treason.” Something similar might be said about modern-day populism: “Populism never prospers, what’s the reason? For if it does, none dare call it populism.” Somewhat like treason, populism rarely succeeds (at least in modern constitutional systems), though, when it does, the impulse usually recedes as it is absorbed into one or another of the mainstream parties. That, in any case, is the historical pattern. Whether or not it will hold true in the future is an open question.
In an age of hyper-democracy when every party or candidate claims to represent “the people,” it is not obvious why populism should bear a mark of opprobrium as threatening to established institutions or patterns of politics. After all, both democracy and populism are forms of popular rule. If democracy is good, then a purer or more direct form of it should be even better. There can be little doubt that populism, however we choose to define it, represents an unalloyed expression of popular feelings. Nevertheless, the view persists: populism is a negative version of democracy. More than that, as many now say, it is a threat to the liberal order itself.
The view persists: populism is a negative version of democracy.
Until relatively recently, philosophers viewed democracy as the perverted form of popular rule, an organized version of mob rule leading first to anarchy and thereafter to tyranny. That was the view of Plato and Aristotle, of Cicero and the Roman theorists, of James Madison and the American founders, of Locke, Burke, Tocqueville, and others, all of whom judged republicanism to be the legitimate version of popular rule, and democracy the disorderly and unstable expression of popular will. Republican institutions were set up to translate popular opinion into governing institutions via elections but also to temper popular feelings through representation, deliberation, and constitutional and legal rules. Through a declension of terminology, republicanism has at length given way to democracy, and democracy in turn to populism. Many observers today speak of populism in much the same way as traditional theorists used to describe democracy (that is, as a threat to orderly government), albeit without the old-time skepticism about popular rule and without an appreciation of how the American founders in particular designed a system to tame popular impulses.
For these reasons, there is a tendency now to exaggerate the threat posed by populism to the constitutional order and to regard the populist impulse as something new when in fact it is embedded in any system of popular government. Modern liberal systems were designed or have evolved to check populist movements and to redirect them into established political channels where they are unlikely to do lasting damage. By and large, they have been successful in doing so in the past, and are likely to succeed again in the current era of populist resurgence. Nor is it the case that populism is always and everywhere a bad thing or a dangerous impulse. There are times and circumstances when populism is the only avenue through which voters can express discontent or raise issues that established parties and leaders have failed to address or do not wish to address.
That is most certainly the case today, since it is obvious that populism arises in protest against various establishment tendencies in the United States and across Europe: multiculturalism, multilingualism, group rights, free trade, immigration and open borders, and the erosion of national sovereignty. These are an interlocking series of doctrines and policies promulgated by elites in all countries and generally promoted or tolerated by all major political parties, at least up until recently. Donald Trump, the Brexit leaders, and populist leaders in France, Germany, and elsewhere have seized upon these issues because large numbers of middle-class voters view those doctrines as threats to their way of life. These concerns should not be dismissed, for over the long run multiculturalism, immigration, and supra-nationalism will pose a greater threat to the liberal order than populism. The institutional antibodies that will check the populist impulse appear to be lacking when it comes to elite- generated doctrines and practices that have insulated themselves within governing institutions.
In the last two years, the term “populism” has been thrown about in the United States and Europe with greater frequency than at any time in recent memory. The vote in Great Britain last year to leave the European Union was deemed a populist revolt against a trans-national establishment. In the United States, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were called populists—and in Trump’s case the label was proudly advertised.
Trump’s victory in the presidential election ensures that populism will not soon go away either as a political movement or a topic of analysis and conversation. Insurgent populist parties have challenged established parties in both France and Germany in elections in 2017, with a fair amount of success. Geert Wilders leads a populist-type party in the Dutch House of Representatives. Wilders collaborated with Marine Le Pen in France to form a multi-national populist party in the European Parliament. Viktor Orbán leads a populist party in Hungary. The list of so-called populist movements and populist leaders in the West could go on, and will probably be added to in the years ahead.
There is surprisingly little agreement among observers as to what these movements have in common such that all may be said to march under the banner of populism. What is populism anyway? There seem to be as many definitions of populism as there are populist movements around the world. To complicate matters, some smuggle political biases into their definitions of populism as a means of discrediting those movements and rendering them illegitimate by definition.
Populism will not soon go away either as a political movement or as a topic of conversation.
Some definitions in use today are so broad as to fail to distinguish between populist movements and other democratic causes. This is true of the claim that populists appeal to the people against the establishment—a claim that is true with regard to populist movements but also true in regard to many other movements as well. Macron in France and Obama in the United States, two leaders not generally thought to be populists, claimed to represent the people against out-of-step establishments in their respective countries. This kind of language is in common use in electoral contests in the United States. The left-wing protesters in the 1960s railed against “the establishment” as do many on the right today. The “people versus the elite” or “the people versus the establishment”—these are the common currency of debate and opposition in democratic polities. Populists use this terminology, to be sure, but so do others.
Other definitions are too narrow, or mostly wrong in relation to existing evidence. This is so with regard to claims that populists are bigots, racists, or xenophobes. While some undoubtedly are, survey evidence does not confirm that such views characterize supporters as a whole or animate them into political action. The claim that populist movements are fueled by “anger” or “frustration” implies that voters and supporters are merely throwing a tantrum—which in turn merely serves to confirm the view that the establishment figures making the claim are out of touch. Such definitions seem more designed as instruments to discredit populism than to understand it.
There is also the common-sense claim that populism is a movement that draws support from those who are down on their luck from an economic point of view. The actual evidence supporting this claim is surprisingly thin. In the United States presidential election, Donald Trump did much better than Hillary Clinton among white voters with a high school education or less, a statistic that has been cited to support the idea that Trump’s voters were generally downwardly mobile in economic or financial terms. Yet post-election surveys did not show that Trump’s voters were more likely than Clinton’s to be unemployed or out of the work force. Clinton ran well ahead of Trump among voters who rated the economy as the most important issue. Trump won the bulk of his support both in the primaries and in the general election among very conservative voters and among those who judged terrorism and immigration to be the most important issues facing the nation. Many of Trump’s voters, perhaps like Clinton’s voters, too, were concerned about the economy, as they said to pollsters, but they did not appear to vote on the basis of personal circumstances but rather out of worries about the direction of the nation as a whole. If populism is a movement born out of economic dislocation and anger, then the statistics from last year’s election do not bear out the claim.
Then there is the claim that populist movements appeal to anti-democratic or authoritarian elements in the electorate—another of those efforts to discredit populism by definition. This kind of argument has been made in regard to Trump’s voters in the United States and “Brexit” voters in Great Britain. Yet, once again, it is a claim with little evidence to back it up. Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa published an article in the Journal of Democracy (January 2017) demonstrating that public support for democratic institutions is declining in all Western democracies, including the United States and Great Britain. Surprisingly, the decline in support for democracy is sharpest among the youngest cohorts born during the 1980s—precisely those in the United States most inclined to vote for Clinton and in Great Britain to oppose the exit from the European Union. If there is any erosion in support for democracy, it is not found among Trump and Brexit voters.
Jan-Werner Müller, in a recent book titled What Is Populism? (2016), argues that the distinguishing feature of populist movements is their opposition to pluralism and diversity. This is so (in his view) because populist leaders claim to represent “the people” as a whole against various interests that divide the polity and turn the government into a brokerage for special interests. Populist campaigns tend to reject coalitional politics as one of the vices of modern politics that should be overcome rather than accommodated. As Müller argues, populist movements are not interested in narrow political or policy arguments but are more concerned with broad moral claims about the character of the national regime and which groups legitimately deserve representation in government. It is in this sense, he argues, that populism is a threat to democratic norms. If one movement or party represents “the people,” then those outside that circle may be denied participation in the public square.
Müller makes a strong case, yet he ignores the fact that contemporary democracies—the United States especially—are awash in movements (mostly on the Left) that seek to shut down pluralistic debate or declare that some groups are more deserving of representation than others. Liberals, progressives, and leftists of various stripes have been especially active in recent years in shouting down dissenting speakers on college campuses or in the public square in order to create an enforced uniformity of views. Trump’s supporters and Brexit voters, at least, have not tried to do anything like that—and few in any case are in positions of authority where they might have the power to suppress opposing views. Trump, much to his credit, attacked political correctness in his presidential campaign as a threat to democracy, pluralism, and open discussion. Clinton, for her part, described his voters as “deplorables” as a way of questioning the legitimacy of their views—hardly an endorsement of pluralism. Trump and his voters—like those who voted for Brexit in Great Britain—seem to have been worried less about pluralism and more about a constellation of other issues: national identity, national sovereignty, group rights, multiculturalism, and the feared consequences of unfettered immigration.
There is also the fact that Trump’s vote in the United States corresponded closely with Mitt Romney’s national vote in 2012 and John McCain’s vote in 2008, and with the vote of previous Republican candidates going all the way back to 1980. All three recent candidates—Trump, Romney, and McCain—claimed between 46 and 48 percent of the national vote, with a great deal of overlap among them. If Trump’s voters were “deplorables,” then so also were Romney’s and McCain’s, a claim that few have ever tried to make. Trump thus managed to consolidate the traditional Republican vote, while adding to that a small share of the Democratic vote in the northern states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. A small but possibly decisive share of Trump voters had previously voted for Barack Obama, a fact that discredits the claim that Trump won the election by appealing to racial anxieties. After eight years of a Democratic administration, those voters yearned for a change in national direction—precisely the kind of thing that has been the norm in national elections throughout the post-war period.
In these ways, then, the facts cut against the more extreme claims that Trump’s election heralds the victory of the dark forces of bigotry and xenophobia in American life, and thus a radical departure from past electoral trends. There was more continuity in the election of 2016 than was apparent in the press coverage and official narratives, due to an obsession in the press with some of Trump’s more extreme comments and an unexamined belief in Clinton’s inevitable victory. When the expected victory did not materialize, there was a tendency to emphasize the disruptive aspects of Trump’s candidacy. She was supposed to win—and thus it was reasonable for some to think that some kind of unprecedented cataclysm had occurred.
If these claims about populism are wrong or incomplete, what then can we say in a general way to describe populist-type movements active in the world today and in the past? Donald Trump did run a populist-style campaign in the United States in 2016, as have several candidates in other countries, though Trump is rare in being one of the very few who has actually succeeded in winning national office. There is nothing wrong in describing these campaigns as “populist” in nature, as long as one is careful in the use of that term.
What, then, characterizes populist movements today and in the past? The following set of generalizations is a tentative effort to answer that question.
Populism is an authentic aspect of democratic politics that has surged and receded.
First: populism is an authentic aspect of democratic politics that has surged and receded in response to circumstances since the creation of modern representative systems in the eighteenth century. Populism is typically a movement that seeks to organize “the people” against an “elite” or an “establishment” said to be manipulating the system in its own interests. This kind of impulse seems to be built into representative systems because of the clear line drawn between government and the people it is said to represent, and the general suspicion of government that was a historical foundation for these systems. The contest between the court and country parties in Britain in the eighteenth century had some of these elements, as did Jefferson’s campaign against Hamilton and the Federalists in the United States in the 1790s. Populist movements that developed thereafter in the United States replicated Jefferson’s imagery—among them, the Jacksonian Democrats of the 1820s, the abolitionists of the 1850s, the original Populist Party in the 1890s, the Coughlinites and Huey Long’s followers in the 1930s, Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade in the 1950s, George Wallace’s campaigns in the 1960s, Ross Perot’s campaign in 1992, Pat Buchanan’s in 1996, and now Donald Trump’s in 2016.
Second: populist movements are protest movements identified more by what they are against than by what they are for. In this way populist movements differ from party or candidate campaigns with their lists of policy proposals drawn up by experts and interest groups. For the same reason, populist movements are built around identifiable leaders rather than around teams of politicians and policy experts. Populist movements thus tend to be stronger in elections than they are in the governmental or policy-making phase of politics.
Third: populist movements typically arise outside the established party system in the form of third or fourth parties, or seek to capture one or another of the established parties if the outside path is not possible or practical. In Europe, populism is typically expressed through new parties. In the United States, Jefferson and Jackson created new parties to carry their messages. The primary system in the United States allows populist candidates to capture the established parties, at least on a temporary basis. William Jennings Bryan captured the Democratic Party in 1896, but failed to win the presidential election. George Wallace and Ross Perot tried but failed to capture the Democratic and Republican parties (respectively). Donald Trump captured the Republican Party through primary elections and then (improbably) won the presidential election, the first real populist since Jackson to have achieved that objective.
Fourth: far from posing a threat to democratic institutions, populist movements often serve the important purpose of bringing issues to the fore that major parties fail to address or are incapable of addressing. Though populist candidates may not succeed in winning office, the voters they mobilize are often absorbed into one of the major parties where they force a reckoning with their issues or complaints. George Wallace raised the issues of crime and urban disorder in the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972, and succeeded in part when Richard Nixon addressed those issues and absorbed his into the Republican Party. Ross Perot raised the issues of debt and deficit spending that forced both parties to address those issues in the 1990s—most notably when President Clinton announced in 1997 that “the era of big government is over.”
Fifth: populist movements in the current era, and especially in the United States, arise from the Right and not the Left, an indication that voters view “the establishment” as being liberal or leftist in character. All of the populist movements in America dating back to the 1930s have come from the right: Coughlin, McCarthy, Wallace, Perot, Buchanan, and Trump—all of them prominent figures outside the established parties and all of them attacking the parties from the right. Most of them focused on “national” issues related to trade, immigration, national identity, patriotism, and the American role abroad and within international institutions. George McGovern and Bernie Sanders ran insurgent campaigns from the left within the Democratic Party (in 1972 and 2016), but both were well-known office holders who appealed to established groups within the Party. In that sense they ran insurgent campaigns, but not populist campaigns.
Sixth: populist movements for reasons relating to their internal character usually fail or come up short in capturing office or sustaining their campaigns over the long haul. This was the case with all of the movements mentioned above, though as noted several succeeded in raising their issues to the point where the major parties could no longer ignore them. What are the reasons for their failure? Populist leaders do not build complex coalitions, a skill required to sustain movements and to accomplish policy breakthroughs in government. The public tends to view populist insurgencies as protest movements, not as governing campaigns, mainly because they fail to set forth practical policies to deal with the issues they raise. They do not have teams of loyal allies to act as surrogates or spokesmen, or to represent them with voting groups. They do not have teams of experts to formulate policies or to take positions in government. Their campaigns are haphazard and disorganized, revolving as they do around particular leaders who are usually inexperienced in national politics. They lack experience in raising funds, dealing with the press, and formulating campaign strategies. To make matters worse, they typically deal with an adversarial press and political establishment that see them as a threat to orderly government and that thus work daily to bring them down or to expose them as frauds.
In this vein, one might compare the relative influence of two movements active in the United States between 1890 and 1917: the Populist Party of the 1890s and the Progressive movement of the 1900–1917 period. The populists promoted the free coinage of silver as a means of increasing agricultural prices, and managed to capture the Democratic Party in 1896 behind William Jennings Bryan. He lost that election to William McKinley, who reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the gold standard. The populists achieved few of their political or policy goals, and disintegrated as a movement after 1896. The progressives were not a popular movement at all, but a movement built around elites, experts, and ideas about reforming government. Progressives were well placed in journalism, academia, and government, but not particularly strong among “the people.” Yet they succeeded in bringing about large reforms in government: primary elections, civil service reforms, the direct election of senators, women’s suffrage, new regulatory bodies, and the Federal Reserve System, to mention a few of their successes. Populism failed; progressivism succeeded.
Donald Trump is the first populist in the modern era to have overcome these obstacles to win national office. In winning the election, he not only beat the odds and surprised the pollsters, he accomplished something most expert observers thought was impossible. How could a populist candidate with no experience in politics and no influential allies or policy experts to help him defeat an experienced candidate well armed with money, allies, experts, and a friendly press? Many (including Clinton) are still trying to answer that question, and have come up with a series of improbable answers: Russian collusion, the eleventh-hour intervention of the fbi, perhaps a bias among voters against a female candidate, and others too lame to identify. The short answer is that Trump raised the “national issue,” a powerful message that unified enough voters to win the election and allowed him to dispense with the traditional tactics of coalitional politics. Trump’s capture of the Republican nomination and victory in the general election came about through a revolt of the voters, not through a top-down campaign in which well-placed leaders selected the candidate and guided him through the campaign. Trump and the voters did it on their own—really the clearest sign that his campaign was an example of a populist insurgency.
Having won the office, he faces large challenges not only in governing and addressing the issues he raised in the campaign, but also in simply keeping his position against a hostile press and governing establishment that wishes to nullify the election and drive him out.
The separation of powers may function to block any movement.
Having won election as a “loner,” Donald Trump lacks loyal allies in the Congress, a circumstance that will make it difficult for him to pass major legislation. There will be Republicans in the Congress who will vote against his policies simply to make them fail—then to use that result to criticize him as a failure. He must deal with a hostile government establishment (the permanent government or the “deep state”) that will search for ways to embarrass him, ensnare him in legal troubles, and leak confidential information to the press. Unlike traditional party nominees, Trump did not bring a team of loyalists with him into the government, as Ronald Reagan did when he was elected in 1980 and as Clinton would have done had she been elected in 2016. The separation of powers under the Constitution is designed to slow down policy making under the best of circumstances, but in current circumstances it may function to block any movement, and thus to frustrate both the President and his base of voters.
Many conservatives opposed Donald Trump during the general election campaign because they said he is not a conservative and that in any case he is unfit temperamentally for the presidency. They were thus willing to roll the dice with Clinton in the hope that a conservative to their liking might replace her in four years and also on the assumption that not much fundamentally would be changed in the nation during her tenure in office. That was a risk other conservatives and many voters were not willing to take, and rightly so in view of the changes Clinton would have made in the courts and the advances she would have brought about in the direction of those illiberal doctrines mentioned above. Fortunately, the voters did not listen to the conservative critics or to the press, and as a result we have a Trump presidency, with all of its warts, imperfections, and opportunities.
But in truth, leaving aside all the valid objections about free markets, trade, and “big government,” Donald Trump does in fact stand for one of the great conservative causes of the present era—namely the preservation of the traditional nation state as the framework for our security, prosperity, and liberties. Judging by the statements and the actions of leading progressive figures, including President Obama and Clinton, they envision some kind of universal state in America with open borders, multiple languages and cultures, citizenship open to anyone who can find a way here, and a military and economic system designed to protect human rights around the globe rather than American citizens. That is a direction in which we may still be headed, though with the election of President Trump it has hit a bump in the road, and perhaps even a fundamental detour that will sustain a sense of national energy and belief in America. That sounds like a conservative agenda, and one that dwarfs in importance the alternatives that critics have raised.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 5, on page 17
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