Against Populism

Conservatives have watched as many of their own have warned of revolution and denounced public servants as little better than Nazi thugs. And political leaders have un-ironically taken up the same mantle and called for us to stand up to Washington and #makeDClisten. They’ve even danced along the edge of default as willing martyrs to conservative ends. Many in the conservative base have publicly dreamed of a grassroots government—that is, after dynamiting the old one and deposing its crony leaders. To be fair, much of America would rather forget about the mud-slinging bonobos of Capitol Hill.

The traditional establishment (an ever-shifting group, often described as donorist and corporatist) has now been deemed the enemy. Populist thinking has elevated the activists in their place. The result has been a celebration of “main street Americans” and of action over deliberation.

But as angry as we might be about the state our country is in, we cannot lose perspective of what’s true and good in being conservative.

Conservatives don’t trust government. But we also don’t trust the people or ourselves. We need institutional restraints on those in government as well as on the popular will. That’s why we have a government of laws, not of men. That’s why we have both democratic principles and constitutional principles elevated in our system of government. Leaders take into account the popular will, but also their own good judgment. They are in turn restrained by law and by election. Same for each of the institutions in which they reside.

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s grassroots establishment is far too eager to think that freedom grows as the people grow in power, just as liberals see it in government’s burgeoning authority. Instead, we ought look to Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism. Much of Burke’s life was spent opposing the exact sentiment articulated by today’s conservatives, which in his time came out of the mouths of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. For Burke, authority stems from the weight of society and history, from institutions and laws—not from a belief in the masses. Burkean conservatives uphold both civic virtue and the place of leaders, with even greater responsibilities resting on the latter statesmen to maintain social order, elitist as that may sound.

Jesse Norman, a Conservative member of parliament, distilled from Burke seven core principles of conservative reform. Burke believed that statesmen should act:

  1. Early, forestalling problems before they are fully felt;
  2. Proportionately, in order to mitigate unintended consequences;
  3. Successively, building on the work and lessons of what’s come before;
  4. Steadily, allowing for those affected by change to adjust;
  5. Consensually, avoiding wasteful conflict that hinders a lasting impact;
  6. Coolly, aiming for a rapport with other leaders; and,
  7. Practically, making sure that each step is achievable.

Too many of today’s more populist conservatives bear little resemblance to this. Rather, they seem to fashion a conservatism that exists more in libertarian fantasies. They call for “pointless brinksmanship” and radical dispositions without the practical modesty that should inform conservative leaders. All the while inquisitors are drafted to purify the ranks.

Yet to deem one side “squishy” in order to elevate your own is a fool’s errand. There have always been various gradations of conservatism. There’s a value in going beyond name-calling and rabble-rousing and actually engaging in a proper debate (even an elitist debate) about what the conservative movement should get behind. We debate like this because a governing agenda within our movement will come from both the bottom-up and the top-down, and in between will ultimately reside a messy coalition marching to victory under the broad banner of conservatism.

This is not the time for radicals. This is the time for statesmen.

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  • Kullervo

    Extremely well-said.

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  • Kyle

    I think it’s worth pointing out that populism, either as a political style or as a historical movement (if such a thing is possible to trace), does not necessarily have a political valence. It can be radical or reactionary. Another qualification that may be raised is that the professional activists and identity politics organizations do not necessarily represent a populist politics. The political realignment of the 1970s, I think, bears this out.

  • Harry

    “The traditional establishment (an ever-shifting group, often described as … corporatist) has now been deemed the enemy.”

    And if you don’t believe they *are* an enemy, watch the documentary “Death by China.”

    “Much of Burke’s life was spent opposing the exact sentiment articulated by today’s conservatives, which in his time came out of the mouths of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. … Jesse Norman, a Conservative member of parliament, distilled from Burke seven core principles of conservative reform. Burke believed that statesmen should act: [insert Burke’s prudent rules listed above here] Too many of today’s more populist conservatives bear little resemblance to this.”

    And than God for that, as such “prudence” resulted in another century of “legal” slavery in the United States, and eventually resulted in a bloody civil war the carnage of which was unprecedented.

    I believe the American Founders were principled men who never intended on slavery lasting as long as it did. In fact, they were convinced that enforcement of international law banning the slave trade, which was to go into effect in the not-to-distant future, would bring American slavery to an end. Their Declaration of Independence honestly asserted their core values, and it is facile to label them hypocrites (as is often done) because the American Constitution allowed for slavery in spite of slavery being in blatant contradiction to the principles espoused in the Declaration. Nonetheless, as good and wise as the Founders were, putting Burkean “prudence” above principle proved to be a disaster for generations of human beings who lived and died as slaves, and ultimately an immense disaster for the country as a whole.