January 25, 2010 8:51AM

Populism: Good and Bad

Today, Politico Arena asks:

What is it about the word "populist"? (these days)

My response:

"Populist" (or "populism"), in its American usage, invokes the "common man," yet the idea's origins -- in "the people" or "the polis" -- can be traced to ancient Greek democracy and, in particular, to political demagoguery.  Both Plato and Aristotle had reservations about democracy as a system of government precisely because it was susceptible to corruption by populist appeals to superstition and error.  In America, populism has had a long and varied history, but it is most often associated with the Populist Party that was formed in 1891 and, in particular, with the fiery speeches of the Democratic Party candidate for president in 1896 and 1900, William Jennings Bryan, and his famous "cross of gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention.

Thus, in a fundamental way, populism stands opposed to elitism, yet it's more complicated than that.  On one hand, the populism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries contrasted with the Progressivism of the era, which held that society should be organized and run by "professionals" trained at the best schools.  (Thus, the emergence of political "science," as distinct from the older tradition of political philosophy.)  But on the other hand, Progressives themselves purported to speak for "the people," even if in practice they were often contemptuous of the people's capacity to govern themselves, susceptible as the people were to the appeals of demagogues.

At the end of the day, therefore, populism is a double-edged sword.  Used pejoratively, it stands for the idea that politicians, to obtain or preserve political power, will appeal to base popular sentiments or mistaken (often economic or legal) ideas.  A good example is Obama's reaction last week to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, rooted in the First Amendment's guarantee of political speech:  He called it “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”  There is an element of truth to that sentiment, of course, because the system of government that has evolved in America under the influence of Progressive "professionals" has endowed those professionals (read: the governing class, in all its reaches) with unprecedented power over "the people," who often feel powerless as a result.  But demagogic appeals like that or like others we've heard lately from Obama will only exacerbate that problem.  By contrast, a "populist" appeal that seeks to return power to people (N.B.: I did not say, as in the '60s, "power to the people") -- power to run their own lives, free from unwarranted government regulation or dependency -- is a side of the idea we hear too seldom.  Yet it's what our founding documents are about.  They established not simply popular government but limited popular government -- ensuring the right of the people to govern themselves, not mainly through government but individually or in voluntary association with others.  It is that liberty that Progressive elitists who "knew better" -- the folks in Cambridge who voted 84 to 15 against Scott Brown -- have gradually extinguished.

January 20, 2010 11:22AM

The Tea Party Comes Home

Today, Politico Arena asks:

The message from Massachusetts

What now for the Democratic agenda?

My response:

Listening to Scott Brown’s long, barely scripted acceptance speech last night, you had the refreshing sense that you were listening to an ordinary American, not to some political cut-out.  Here’s a guy who campaigned in a pick-up truck with over 200,000 miles on the odometer, who listened to the voters and understood that they wanted not simply to block tax hikes but to lower taxes (and the last thing they wanted was for their taxes to pay terrorists’ lawyers bills!), who understood that even worse than the health care bill now before Congress were the back-room deals that brought it about, who’s served proudly for 30 years in the National Guard -- in short, here’s guy you’d be comfortable having a beer with because, as he said, “I know who I am and I know who I serve.”

Which brings to mind the famous Rose Garden beer the president and vice president shared with Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley -- speaking of (dis)comfort.  And that brings to mind Cambridge, which stayed true blue, 84-15, Walter Russell Mead informs us this morning in his delightfully tongue-in-cheek Arena post.  (“First, some good news for Democrats: the base is secure.”)  As goes Harvard, so goes Berkeley.

But to today’s Arena question.  The Democratic left is predictably outraged that “the people” they so love in the abstract have so disappointed them in the concrete.  Exhibit A is last night’s Arena post by The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel.  Railing against "the Tea Party’s inchoate right-wing populism" (if it's infested Massachusetts, shudder to think of it in Idaho!), Katrina tells Obama to "get tough, get bold, kiss ‘post-partisanship’ goodbye," and “put yourself squarely back on the side of working people” by “passing the strongest possible healthcare bill as quickly as is feasible.”  And there’s the cliff, Katrina.

Lanny Davis has more sober advice for Obama in this morning’s Wall Street Journal.  To those who are pointing fingers at Martha Coakley, Lanny says, “This was a defeat not of the messenger but of the message” -- the unrelenting leftism that has come from this White House and this Congress.  And he points, by way of instruction, to Bill Clinton’s response to the disastrous elections of 1994, though he doesn’t mention Clinton’s ringing, albeit inaccurate, description of his course-change -- “The era of big government is over.”  Is it in Obama’s DNA to make such a course correction?  Does he have a reset button?

On health care, Obama and his party are in an almost impossible situation.  If they press ahead, as Nancy Pelosi and others are urging, the cliff awaits them in November.  But if they abandon their project, what will they run on in November?  It’s a mess of their own making, of course, so completely did they misread the election of 2008.  What better evidence of the endurance of principles of sound, limited government that some two centuries later, The Tea Party has come home to Boston.

November 23, 2009 9:27AM

Reforming the GOP

This morning, Politico Arena asks:

Do you take Glenn Beck's "new national movement" seriously? Is the GOP establishment letting itinerant celebrities and talk show stars set the party's agenda?

As Winston Churchill understood, democracy is messy (and, as in his case, sometimes ungrateful).  Glenn Beck is no William F. Buckley Jr.  But then, "Joe the Plumber" probably never read National Review, which like most other journals of "high opinion" was never self-sustaining.  Liberals today, their noses in the air Obama style, look across America from the vantage of the famous New Yorker cover and see pitchfork brigades, forgetting that those who fill the brigades generally love America, which is more than can be said of some of the baggage that has surrounded Obama.

There is a problem in the Republican Party, to be sure.  Nominally the party of limited constitutional government, it recently gave us two presidents from the same family -- one standing for a "kinder and gentler" government, the other for "compassionate conservatism" -- plus a career Senate nominee for president, none of whom ever really understood the party's core principles, much less nourished them as they must be nourished from generation to generation.  As a result, the party has been hollowed out intellectually and spiritually, and into that vacuum, which nature abhors, has poured an assortment of people, most from outside the party.

The struggle in democracies between intellectual rigor and populism is as old as that between Socrates and the sophists.  We all know the dangers of populist demagoguery.  But there is also great danger in rule by elites, which are hardly immune from demagogy and outright fraud (witness the "accounting" in the current health care debate).  Achieving that balance is often difficult and messy.  But I for one am encouraged by this populist movement to reform the Republican Party.  I know, for example, that at the Orlando rally The New York Times referenced this past Saturday, people passed out copies of the Cato Institute's pocket Constitution, which includes the Declaration of Independence and my preface relating the two documents with respect to their underlying principles.  The people who attended the April 15 tea parties and the September 12 march on Washington were ordinary Americans who understand that something is fundamentally wrong, constitutionally, with the direction the country has taken over the past two decades, at least.  They see the Republican Party, in our two-party system, as the more likely institution for changing that, but not as the party is presently constituted.  Still, there are people within the party who give hope and are ready to take over.  Populists working outside the party, together with those of us who do "politics" (broadly understood) for a living, may just be the spark that enables that to happen.