Along with “democratic socialism,” “protectionism,” and “Berning,” the word “populism” has become part of 2016 America’s vernacular thanks to the circus that is the presidential election. Like it sounds, “populism” deals with popularity, in this case among American voters. In a new op/ed for the Detroit News, Samuel Gregg explains why populism will absolutely not make America great again.
This isn’t the first time populism has appeared in American or world history. “It often manifests itself,” Gregg argues, “whenever enough people conclude — sometimes correctly — that the political system is rigged in favor of insider-elites who pursue their own interests rather than the common good.” An individual capitilizes on disgust with “insider-elites” and the “establishment” for his or her own benefits. This person sees the opportunity to utilize “frustration with the status quo” and he or she then promises the people real and serious change. Voters are lulled into trusting that once this charismatic leader is elected, he or she will fix everything and make the world a better place for the voters who felt overlooked by previous leaders.
Gregg explains some characteristics of the “populist leader:”
Over time, the actual content of the populist leader’s words starts to matter less and less. [Voters] ignore obvious contradictions in the leader’s statements and policy positions. These are never especially clear and regularly “evolve,” depending on the need or audience.
Nor do populist leaders seriously engage criticism of their positions. Instead they respond by either trying to attach nasty labels to their critics or by just repeating — endlessly — various mantras which, on closer inspection, are content-free.
This cult of personality can appear in any political camp. For example, the 2016 election’s populists, Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders, are trying to secure nominations from two different parties.
The founders predicted that the new American government, a constitutional republic, could easily be threatened by populists:
James Madison and Alexander Hamilton both sought to establish strong protections for individual rights against over-mighty government officials and angry mass movements.
Hamilton and Madison were well aware of the potential for corruption by insider-elites. In today’s America, crony capitalism is perhaps the most obvious form of such corruption. But, as Hamilton noted, the sovereign will of the people, expressed in a constitution, is different from the people’s momentary will. The latter is constantly changing and is expressed periodically through elections. It’s entirely possible, Hamilton knew, for that momentary will to become disinterested at times in maintaining liberty as well as rule of law.
Similarly, Madison was very explicit about the popular will requiring constitutional restraint. Just because large numbers of people want something doesn’t mean it is the right or prudent thing to do.
Populist leaders are usually the result of very real problems and are elected to power by men and women with genuine grievances and concerns. While voters have every right to get fed up with their current representatives and leaders, turning to populism is a cure worse than the disease.
Read Gregg’s “The problem with populism” at the Detroit News.