It is curious how certain words accumulate a nimbus of positive associations while others, semantically just as innocuous, wind up shouldering a portfolio of bad feelings.
Consider the different careers of the terms “democracy” and “populism.”
Do you know any responsible person who would admit to being opposed to democracy? No one who does not enjoy a large private income would risk it. But lots of people are willing to declare themselves anti-populist. The discrepancy is curious for several reasons.
It was not at all clear, Madison thought, that democracy was a reliable custodian of liberty.
For one thing, it is a testament to the almost Darwinian hardiness of the word “democracy.” In the fierce struggle among ideas for survival, “democracy” has not only survived but thrived. This is despite the fact that political thinkers from Plato and Aristotle through Cicero and down to modern times have been deeply suspicious of democracy. Aristotle thought democracy the worst form of government, all but inevitably leading to ochlocracy or mob rule, which is no rule.
In Federalist 10, James Madison famously warned that history had shown that democratic regimes have “in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” “Theoretic politicians,” he wrote—and it would be hard to find a more contemptuous deployment of the word “theoretic”—such politicians may have advocated democracy, but that is only because of their dangerous and utopian ignorance of human nature. It was not at all clear, Madison thought, that democracy was a reliable custodian of liberty.
Nevertheless, nearly everyone wants to associate himself with the word “democracy.” Totalitarian regimes like to describe themselves as the “Democratic Republic” of wherever. Conservatives champion the advantages of “democratic capitalism.” Central planners of all stripes eagerly deploy programs advertised as enhancing or extending “democracy.” Even James Madison came down on the side of a subspecies of democracy, one filtered through the modulating influence of a large, diverse population and an elaborate scheme of representation that softened (Madison said “excluded”) the influence of “the people in their collective capacity.”
“Democracy,” in short, is a eulogistic word, what the practical philosopher Stephen Potter in another context apostrophized as an “OK word.” And it is worth noting, as Potter would have been quick to remind us, that the people pronouncing those eulogies delight in advertising themselves as, and are generally accepted as, “OK people.” Indeed, the class element and the element of moral approbation—of what some genius has summarized as “virtue signaling”—are key.
It is quite otherwise with “populism.” At first blush, this seems odd because the word “populism” occupies a semantic space closely adjacent to “democracy.” “Democracy” means “rule by the demos,” the people. “Populism,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary, describes “A political philosophy directed to the needs of the common people and advancing a more equitable distribution of wealth and power”— that is, just the sorts of things that the people, were they to rule, would seek.
Read the rest at The New Criterion.
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