Published April 23, 2018
Review: Vox Populi: The Perils & Promises of Populism
Since the 2009 Tea Party movement, America has been in a populist mood. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s surprise loss in the 2014 Virginia Republican primary at the hands of upstart candidate Dave Brat signaled populism’s staying power; President Trump’s 2016 victory, first over a crowded field of Republican aspirants in the primaries, and then over former lifelong political animal Hilary Clinton, showed its transformative possibilities.
That’s only on the right―the left has experienced its own populism, mostly targeting Wall Street, but also including Barack Obama’s 2008 electoral victory, wherein frustration at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac played a key role in his debates with Senator John McCain; the Occupy Movement, which channeled the frustrations of middle-class workers; and, most recently, Senator Bernie Sanders’ unexpected success in the 2016 Democratic primaries, when his rallying cry, “Enough is enough,” was taken up by large swaths of Democratic voters.
But despite its aggressive march forward, populism’s nature and place within American politics has been opaque. Is our current “populist surge” damaging to the American republic or a healthy assertion of sovereignty? Why has the populist response occurred precisely at this moment? What are the factors that have led to it? Will the populist moment continue?
Vox Populi: The Perils and Promises of Populism, edited by Roger Kimball, examines these questions. The volume contains essays on the history and breadth of populist activity throughout the West―including an excellent essay on Brexit by Daniel Hannan, and an arresting primer on the populares of the late Roman republic by Barry Strauss―but the bulk of the essays focus on American populism, historical and current.
The essays show that the protections against populism relied on by the founders―the sheer size of America, and the separation of powers―have been temporarily eroded by social media and the administrative state. These corrosive forces differ―one constantly invites participants’ political opinions while the other restricts regular Americans from political participation. But both effectively shut out the possibility of deliberation and the slowing-down of political decision-making, an exclusion made possible by the lack of accountability those who share their opinions on social media have to their fellow citizens, and those who make, execute, and judge administrative law have to American voters. Today’s populism is fueled by and a response to this lack of accountability.
In “A Bulwark Against Tyranny” James Piereson argues that the Constitution slows the workings of government in order to foster deliberation and check hot-headed decision-making. By separating government’s powers, the Constitution forces majorities to win all three branches to impose their vision―a relatively infrequent occurrence. Even when one party controls all branches, each branch, defending its institutional interests, will act as a check on the others.
The sheer size of the country also slows government and encourages deliberation. Simply by containing many different groups with many different interests the “extended sphere” prevents a majority from taking hold. “[E]ven if such a common motive could be found,” Piereson adds, “the faction would have difficulty communicating it to like-minded citizens across a large system.”
The important role the country’s large size plays in preserving the republic has been somewhat compromised by the advent of social media. The slowing effect of the size of the country on political deliberation has suffered as a result, argues Roger Scruton, my colleague at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. In “Representation and the People,” Scruton observes that this is in marked contrast to the media of yesteryear: “The old-fashioned media of communication, like the old-fashioned congressional committees and hearings, were filters through which popular feeling had to pass, in order to achieve overt and public expression. Now there are no filters, and thanks to social media every kind of person, and every kind of opinion, has an equal chance to be heard.”
The effect of the fast pace of the “instant plebiscite”―what Scruton names the “webiscite”―“is therefore far more important than has yet been recognized.” The casting off of traditional media’s filter has opened opportunities for people to share their opinions, but it has also meant that political decision-making happens faster and more publicly than ever before. News from California at 9 A.M. travels to New York at―well, 9 A.M. (that is, noon NYC time). As a result, political decisions are made hastily and opinions arrived at on a moment’s notice.
Such quickly-formed opinions are only tenuously related to our true interests. In our republic, the identification of those interests is left to our representatives, who are not bound to do what voters want but what is good for all constituents. Our current populism, writes Scruton is “part of a wider failure to appreciate the virtue and the necessity of representation.”
That representatives are accountable to those who voted for them and those who didn’t gives America’s form of government “an insuperable advantage over all others so far devised,” for it relies on the pre-political notion that “the electorate is bound together as a ‘we.’” Social trust is co-extensive with the existence of this “collective we.” Indeed, “accountable politics depends on mutual trust.”
Trust itself requires recognition of authenticity. This makes the administrative state―or “the deep state” or “the federal bureaucracy”―highly suspect. The thought that an unelected bureaucracy of Ivy League whiz kids makes political decisions without being accountable to the average American is simply detestable to much of Middle America.
The administrative state makes possible a form of direct political action that eschews representation, opting instead to make, enforce, and judge infractions against law without consulting voters. Deliberation requires slow decision-making; the administrative state speeds up political decision-making by avoiding disagreements and legislative processes. But to the dismay of the administrative state’s adherents, its avoidance of the ugly democratic stuff told Middle America that there’s something wrong in Washington, and that the candidate who wants to drain the swamp is the right man for the highest office in the land. Kimball and this volume’s contributors show us that populism was not created ex nihilo. Even populism’s opponents and critics will have to wrestle with the fast, cheap thrills of direct political action which are eroding the foundation of our messy, slow, and often dull, representative republican politics.
Ian Lindquist is a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.