Acton Institute Powerblog

PBR: Politics and Populism

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Last week Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, made the case for “ethical” populism. Speaking of the Tea Party phenomenon, he writes,

the tea parties are not based on the cold wonkery of budget data. They are based on an “ethical populism.” The protesters are homeowners who didn’t walk away from their mortgages, small business owners who don’t want corporate welfare and bankers who kept their heads during the frenzy and don’t need bailouts. They were the people who were doing the important things right — and who are now watching elected politicians reward those who did the important things wrong.

There are of course many variations on a theme, ranging from Brooks’ “ethical” populism, to Dreher’s “crunchy” conservatism, to blatant political pandering.

But the challenge for conservatism, so often understood to be an elitist political philosophy focused on privilege, is to properly deal with populist phenomena. So this week’s PBR question is: “What is wrong with populism?”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Ken

    Mr. Brook’s article in WSJ last week also addressed the “real culture war” which he declared correctly was pitting capitalism against socialism. I’d like to suggest that there’s populism in both camps; that is a ranting driven by frustration. The tea parties gave vent to those who see in various ways their freedom being chomped at by collectivist’s thinking and now DOING by the Obama administration. The other populist rage is from the left itself who want to dissolve our traditional institutions or at least make them over in their — the left’s — image; and are not willing to do it legally. They are bullies and thugs and need to be properly identified as such.

    Lost in this is any adherence to abiding things — permanent things — on both sides. The left willingly goes unanchored so as to not be held back from whims, but with the conservatives the loss is due to their cumulative ignorance and neglect of tradition, reason and faith.

    Few are sitting in the teepee and listening to the tales of our culture as written, preferring to catch a snippet from a talk show, Oprah or blog.

    Remember the last “debate” where McCain gave us hope for an instant when he seemed to want to have Obama define the words he was using. But no, it didn’t happen. It seldom happens when the crowd is cheering dribble and followup questions from professionals focus on stuff like “enchanting” moments of the first 100 days of a presidency. Conservatives need to slow it all down, demand definitions and discussion. That’s step one.

    Populism is problematic because it moves too quickly in uncharted lands; it is not informed by experience or facts; and like “fast food” fills you up but loads you down; not with trans-fats and calories — with mistakes that are hard to fix and slow to mend. The snap shot of our culture is people wherever you look with cell phones to their ears constantly monitoring the chatter of their day, yet in astonishing numbers willing to let a Congress vote for a tax bill on employee’s bonuses that is clearly un-Constitutional — Article 1, Section 9, “Limitations on Legislative Power” NO Ex Post Facto laws — and not demand that everyone of the idiots who voted “Aye” resign.

    Daniel Mahoney in a recent Intercollegiate Review article titled “1968 and the Meaning of Democracy” cites France’s upheaval and how DeGaulle managed to slap their society into a temporary sobriety with a televised speech. No conservative on the American scene comes to mind with the kind of credentials of DeGaulle in post WWII France. In recent times in the U.S. it was Reagan at the 1966 Republican Convention.

    So do we watch the male version of Oprah and bide our time?

    Because if we take to the streets, we’d better know what we’re talking about. We’d better at least know about Article 1, Section 9.