We live in the days of pitchfork populism. Populists are always saying they are against the élites, but don’t believe them. They might think they are, but in reality, populism couldn’t exist without its own form of elitism. Populism is supposed to be antithetical to and at war with elitism, but actually populism necessitates a very peculiar and dangerous kind of elitism. In our present political climate, general wisdom has it that populism is represented by the likes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and elitism by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan. Actually, all are élites. Given the wide differences and distribition of gifts and talents inherent in the human condition, elitism is inescapable. The only question is whether they’ll be good or bad élites. These days, usually they’re bad.
Populism is defined as “political ideas and activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want.” Elitism is “[t]he belief that certain persons or members of certain groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their superiority, as in intelligence, social standing, or wealth.” A little consideration will show how symbiotic these ideas are.
Élites, giving populists what they want
Chronicles magazine has long been a mainstay of conservative populism. It supports protectionism, nativism, localism — and Donald Trump — because, presumably, this is what “ordinary people” want. In his recent manifesto, Aaron D. Wolf calls for a populist conservatism that bypasses transcendent, timeless truths, which he derisively identifies as “ideology” (truths like those found in the U.S. Declaration of Independence) and proposes instead family and community truths, and the more local, the better. The “establishment” conservatives, by contrast — the élites, that is — champion universal truths, global free trade, a muscular military, a timelessly revealed right and wrong way about believing and doing things not tied to a particular locale. Populism, in its alleged anti-elitism, is not especially compatible with the U.S. Founders (élites to a man), who, rightly or wrongly, took their stand against England on the “self-evident” truths “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” truths anchored in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” These are not exactly the sentiments of localists, just wanting to protect their unique ways from meddling outsiders, from the dreaded élites. Alternatively, the Chronicles populists “get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want.”
But who influences what ordinary people want, and who gets to decide who will represent them? The answer is: élites. For instance, populists support protectionism, which means levying tariffs on imported foreign goods so as to “protect” American workers from cheap imports in their particular industry that Americans would purchase rather than their U.S.-made counterparts. But who gets to decide which industries get protected? Last summer, President Obama signed two bills that would “protect” steelworkers from cheap steel imports. It also, by the way, “protected” American consumers from lower costs on products made from steel, in effect levying a tax on them. Obama protected the jobs of one class of citizens by raiding the wallets of another, much larger, class. But why “protect” just steelworkers? Who gets to decide that the steelworkers get to keep their jobs but many of the autoworkers in Pontiac, Michigan, who must compete for wages with lower-paid employees around the world, do not get to keep their jobs? Élites, of course. And if Donald Trump were elected, he too, the élite one, teamed with fellow élites, would decide which industries get “protection” and which do not. The same is true of immigration (who is forbidden to immigrate and who is not?). Populist elitism is not less a reality than economic elitism (Wall Street) or educational elitism (Ivy League). It’s simply manifested in a different, and more dangerous, way. Why more dangerous?
The Dictatorship of the Populariat
Populists are often impatient with mediating institutions like legislatures (have you checked Congress’ favorability rating lately?) and pin their hopes on a single individual that can vent their frustrations and grievances and actually change political policies to incorporate those frustrations and grievances. This individual usually has nothing but contempt and vitriol for “the establishment,” which stands in the way of “the people’s” wishes. Yet the populist portal is himself more than an echo — he himself helps to shape the views and attitudes of his followers. He voices their anger and provides content and context for it. He is, in other words, an élite.
This nearly universal pact between populists and their élite is the hallmark of democracies, and the more direct the democracy, the more obvious. It is not a coincidence that some of the most evil regimes of the last 100 years have included the term “People’s” or “Democratic” in their name — for instance, “The People’s Republic of China” and “Democratic Kampuchea” (Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge). These democracies are presided over by one or a few super-privileged leaders, élites, in whose name they dictatorially rule. This is what Lenin and Stalin did in the Soviet Union, Ho Chi Min in Vietnam, and Castro in Cuba. The “will of the people” becomes the nomenclature justifying tyrannical elitist authority. We might term it the Dictatorship of the Populariat. Legislatures, however, properly acting, prevent, or at least seriously impede, that elitist tyranny. This is why both populists and their élites deplore legislatures.
The Founders and populism
James Madison, in Federalist 10, famously wrote: “[D]emocracies [he denotes direct democracies] have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have, in general, been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” This entire document by Madison is most instructive in its refutation of populism, which he considers poisonous. He writes that “a republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens up a different prospect, and promises the cure [for democracy or populism] for which we are seeking.” Legislatures, though imperfect, tend to represent, when taken altogether, the interest of the wider citizenry, not just the voice of “the people” and, more importantly, they tend to offer a more cool, deliberate verdict than the recently distempered masses on the issues that confront them. Ironically, when populists attack Congress as élites, they are assaulting the very government branch that the Founders inserted to keep a single élite or a cabal of élites, deputized by populists, from tyrannizing society.
In the case of Trump, he channels and propels populist rage, promises unilateral changes only his machismo can deliver, exhibits no interest in (or even knowledge of) Constitutional limitations, and dangerously tolerates violence against his opponents. In other words, he is an aspiring populist dictator.
Claiming virtuously to speak on behalf “of the people” while deriding all opponents as venal, incompetent, corrupt, lying élites is the mark of an aspiring tyrant.
Whatever your view of democracy, of the supposed purity of the desires and aspirations of “the common man,” be assured of this: populism is not an antidote to elitism. It is both a magnet to and fuel for the most power-hungry élites in any society.