Acton Institute Powerblog

The dangers of political populism

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Alexander Hamilton

Reason doesn’t seem to have had a significant influence in the 2016 election thus far. Populism, on the other hand, has been having a good run. Despite Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders appealing to very different groups and offering seemingly different platforms, they’re both populists. Acton’s director of research, Samuel Gregg, has noticed a striking similarity between the populist playbook Trump and Sanders use and the rhetoric that Alexander Hamilton spoke out against in the 1780s.

Writing for The Stream, Gregg warns that “Populism endangers liberty:”

To be sure, populism is often fueled by legitimate dissatisfaction with the status quo. Americans have good reason to be furious with their political and economic leaders, especially those who rarely venture outside the New York-Washington DC axis. When Sanders shouts that the economic system is rigged and Trump thunders against an out-of-touch political class, they have — as no less than Charles Koch (who’s very critical of both men’s economic policies) has affirmed — a point.

One problem, however, with Trump-Sanders-like populist rhetoric and policies is that they undermine liberty. Why? Because populists don’t like those guarantees of freedom — such as the separation of powers, due process, and rule of law — that might obstruct realization of their goals. That’s why Sanders tweeted that “any Supreme Court nominee of mine will make overturning Citizens United one of their first decisions,” and Trump has claimed that he’ll do things which the president has no constitutional authority to do.

Criticism of populism — and a desire to resist its corroding effects on freedom — was a central theme of the life and thought of someone else who, like Sanders and Trump, spent much of his life in New York. Alexander Hamilton is perhaps best known for giving America the financial architecture that allowed the United States to transform itself into a dynamic, capital-intensive economy. But he was also deeply skeptical of populism, seeing it as a fast road to breaking the bonds that limited government power.

After the Revolutionary War, Hamilton defended Tories who were at risk of being banished or losing property to the whims of politicians in New York. While the English had not exactly acted as saints during their occupation of New York, Hamilton feared the precedent that would be set by punishing an entire group of people without fair legal proceedings.  This position made him unpopular with the politicians of the time, who catered their platforms and promises to the fickle wishes of voters, but ultimately behooved the nation. What we want in the short term isn’t necessarily a good idea individually and almost certainly isn’t a good idea for the nation as a whole in the long term. A constitutional republic is intentionally created in order to restrain these ever changing emotions in order to keep liberty secure.

Voters today would do well to take in Hamilton’s wisdom:

Hamilton understood that human beings can be passionate, even fickle, and don’t always see what’s in their long-term interest. Hence, one of the responsibilities of politicians in constitutional democracies is to temper this state of affairs by thinking about the nation’s common good and then making the case to their fellow citizens. It isn’t easy. Even the strongest, most reasonable arguments often won’t be enough to counter the hysteria pedaled by populists. In an age, however, in which populism increasingly prevails in the American public square, we desperately need many more Alexander Hamiltons and far fewer Donald Trumps and Bernie Sanders.

Read “Alexander Hamilton’s Warning to Fans of Trump and Sanders: Populism Endangers Liberty” in its entirety at The Stream.

Sarah Stanley


  • So which candidates are not populists? They’re all trying to be popular with the voters and none seem to stand on principles.

    • Marc Vander Maas

      What about Cruz rejecting ethanol in Iowa?

      • One exception doesn’t negate the principle. Every candidate is a populist in the sense that they address what most people are concerned with. I’m sure if someone tried they could find exceptions with Trump.

        • Marc Vander Maas

          Well, that’s true if you’re taking the broadest possible definition of populism. But that’s not what Hamilton was talking about, and I don’t think it’s what Gregg was referring to in this article.

  • Joel Bennett

    The point that to some degree every politician is a populist it’s true. However, no longer considering myself a Republican because how they speak represent us only to be no different in office as the Democrats, essentially being the opposite side of the same coin. With the exception of Reagan, the popular vote has been creating havoc slowly in this country over the last 40 years and has done nothing but create more problems. Catering to the supposed plight of the minority while telling the majority to sit down and shut up while labeling and vilifying those who speak out as being homophobic, anti woman, racist, or a religious zelots and bigots in an attempt to intimidate and put down anything that those who think differently say before it has a chance to be heard and take any kind of hold in the publics eye. But that sort of thing only reveals that these people only have weak points which that cannot stand on their own merit and therefore such bullying tattoos. Needless to say, Trump and Sanders were created out of people’s disgust with the current populist candidate in office. I think it’s incorrect to say that only Bernie Sanders and Trump are populist while ignoring people like Hillary Clinton and Obama as being voted in by heavily populist minded people. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the Roman Empire. It was ruled by a true democracy run by populist minded thinking and how over time it became corrupt due to the populist ideas becoming more and more radical.
    Overtime the catering to the populist ideas, and becoming politically corrupt, ended up underming the National Security of the Empire due to the populous whims of the minority.