Roger Kimball on the Perils and Promises of Populism

Roger Kimball, editor of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books, joined Seth Leibsohn to discuss an important new book of essays, “Vox Populi: The Perils and Promises of Populism.”  Listen to the interview and read the transcript below.

Seth Leibsohn: Welcome back to The Seth and Chris Show. I am Seth Leibsohn. Folks, in a world short on too many public intellectuals, it is a delight to welcome back to the show one of the great public intellectuals of our age, Roger Kimball. He is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and author of a brand new book, which you can have for Christmas. You can order it if you want. It will be there by then. The name of the book, “Vox Populi: The Perils and Promises of Populism.” One of the great things about this book is that it has chapters written by several other great public intellectuals, many of them having been guests on this show, but Mr. Kimball, welcome back to the airwaves of Phoenix. Congratulations on your book.

Roger Kimball: Thank you very much. Thank you. I feel a little bit bad vibes about claiming authorship of a book I merely edited and contributed to. I sort of [crosstalk 00:01:06]

Seth Leibsohn: You are an author. How about this? Among the things you are … What’s the old Monty Python, right?

Roger Kimball: Yeah, yeah.

Seth Leibsohn: We’ll try again. Among the things you are is an author of this book. Right, the Spanish Inquisition?

Roger Kimball: Yes, exactly. Like Tom Sawyer painting his fence. I got nine other chaps to paint parts of it for me, but it is true that my name is on the cover.

Seth Leibsohn: Your name is on the cover. You wrote some of it. You look at some of these people. My gosh, it’s the greatest collection of intelligence in one place since Thomas Jefferson or you dined alone. George Nash. Gosh, he wrote that great book on American conservatism. Fred Siegel. Jim Piereson. Andy McCarthy, Scruton, Hanson. It’s a great compilation.

Roger Kimball: It’s a good lineup.

Seth Leibsohn: It’s a great lineup. Talk to me a little bit about this. I was reading through it. I’m glad you wrote what you did. I’ll butcher it a little bit but this term “populism.” It seems to be clay in whoever’s hands it’s molding. It’s a very misunderstood phrase, and yet it’s the phrase that trips off the lips of most people describing the kinds of politics and elections we’ve been going through lately, yes?

Roger Kimball: Yes. I think I first became aware that “populism” was not an intellectual term that described a political reality so much as it was a negative epithet, much like the term “fascist” has become, or the term “racist.” They’re content-free epithets that people who don’t like you or don’t like what you have to say brand you with.

Seth Leibsohn: Right. “Ideologue” might fit that too maybe in a way.

Roger Kimball: Exactly. Exactly. Hoping thereby not to continue the conversation, but to shut it down. I first became aware of this—I think I mentioned this in my essay for the volume—when I was in London covering the Brexit vote and everywhere one went, or everywhere that I went anyway, one encountered passionate remainers who were happy to brand those who advocated Britain’s leaving the EU as xenophobic and racist, and a long list of negative things, including populist. It was then I think I began to ponder what all this meant.

Then of course we had the phenomenon of the spectacular, rapid rise of Donald Trump and he of course was branded as a populist, but I began to think about it and I realized that what these people really meant by populist, apart from the negative existential sign that it placed before the person they wanted to castigate, was that it really meant “popular.” I mean people will say, “Oh, a populist is a demagogue,” but if you look into that word it turns out that the Greek word “demagogos” simply meant popular. Pericles for example, he was described as “demagogos,” a popular leader.

What it seemed to me to mean was that it described a situation in which people felt that their essential desire to run their own lives had been taken away from them, and in Britain of course the seat of sovereignty had been Parliament for centuries but what has happened with the evolution of the European Union is that that sovereignty was leached away from Parliament slowly but inexorably, and vested where? Well, these unaccountable, unelected, tax-free living bureaucrats in Brussels who—

Seth Leibsohn: Knew better for Great Britain than Britain knew for itself.

Roger Kimball: Absolutely, and about the most minute aspects of your life. A friend of mine has a farm in Wales, and some EU commissioner told him that he was no longer allowed to plant a certain kind of potato that his family’s been planting there for generations. Why?

Seth Leibsohn: Oh, this reminds me of nothing so much as that old line of Bill Buckley’s about the guy who wants to reach into your shower and adjust the temperature, right?

Roger Kimball: Exactly right. I don’t know that line actually.

Seth Leibsohn: Oh, I’ll get it for you by the time we’re done.

Roger Kimball: And speaking of Buckley, one of his most famous lines of course is that he said he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than the 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty, and quite right. I think that’s what we saw in Britain in one sense, but also in a more focused way in this country with the rise of Donald Trump. The Tea Party happened a few years ago and nothing changed, therefore we got Donald Trump.

Seth Leibsohn: Right. You’re so right about this. We’re talking to Roger Kimball about his new book, “Vox Populi: The Perils and Promises of Populism.” You’re quite right about this, and you can attach any word you want to what explains the Trump phenomenon, the Brexit phenomenon. “Populist” has been thrown around as you write to describe it. Why can’t we just call it an affirmation of sovereignty and a passion for freedom? Right? That would be equally accurate and less pejorative.

Roger Kimball: Yes, exactly. But of course the fact that “populist” can have the pejorative connotation is part of why—

Seth Leibsohn: That’s the answer to it. Of course.

Roger Kimball: People like it so much of course, because they can not further the discussion but end the discussion.

Seth Leibsohn: Right, but it doesn’t—

Roger Kimball: It’s used as an epithet.

Seth Leibsohn: And I think one of the points you’ve explained well is that it doesn’t get you very far, because Donald Trump may very well be a populist to some, but he’s no less a populist to those than Barack Obama would be to others, or Bernie Sanders for that matter.

Roger Kimball: Quite right. Quite right. That’s exactly right. So we can strike through the term “populism” in this sense because it tells us basically nothing. On the other hand, I can imagine someone saying, “Well if that’s the case why did you edit this volume commission ten essays on the subject?” Well, the reason is because-

Seth Leibsohn: Well because there is something about this quest for freedom and sovereignty that is going on in the world.

Roger Kimball: Exactly.

Seth Leibsohn: There is this thing going on.

Roger Kimball: Exactly. Exactly. A rose smells as sweet by any other [crosstalk 00:08:09]

Seth Leibsohn: There you go.

Roger Kimball: So we really are facing an existential moment you might say where what has been thrown into the air is a very deep question about who is going to rule us. The framers of our Constitution said that it should be the people, through their representatives, and that the legislative function of our government should be vested entirely in Congress, but what we have seen for the past, well, many decades now but rapidly accelerating in the last couple of decades and especially in the last eight years, is just as sovereignty was taken away gradually from Parliament in England, so we have seen the legislative function of Congress being taken away from it and vested in this alphabet soup of government agencies, whether it’s the IRS-

Seth Leibsohn: Over 400 government agencies. I don’t know that people understand that. I don’t know that most people could name … Maybe most people could name the 15 departments that constitute the Cabinet of the United States, but there are some 400 agencies and I don’t know that people could get to 20.

Roger Kimball: Exactly.

Seth Leibsohn: That’s not government. It’s not representative government.

Roger Kimball: No, that is an abdication of the fundamental responsibility, and it is a textbook case I think.

Seth Leibsohn: I’m going to a break, Mr. Kimball. Do you have time for another segment?

Roger Kimball: I can be with you until 6:30. [crosstalk 00:09:50]

Seth Leibsohn: You’re calling in from the East Coast. Great. Yeah, we’ll keep you another 15 minutes. That would be wonderful.

Roger Kimball: Terrific. Terrific.

Seth Leibsohn: We’re talking to Roger Kimball, editor if you will of the brand new book, “Vox Populi: The Perils and Promises of Populism.” Here’s the Buckley quote. “Resist kindly but no less firmly the ministrations of those who would reach into your very shower to adjust the temperature of the water according to their most recent afflatus,” which is a word I can say on radio by the way.

Roger Kimball: Yeah, very good. [crosstalk 00:10:21]

Seth Leibsohn: We’ll be right back with more from Roger Kimball. I’m Seth Leibsohn. Stay tuned.

Welcome back to The Seth and Chris Show. I’m Seth Leibsohn. Delighted to have with us one of the great writers and thinkers of our time, Roger Kimball. He edits and publishes a tremendously important and influential journal called The New Criterion, but here speaking about the topic of a book he just edited, just out. “Vox Populi: The Perils and Promises of Populism.” Vox Populi means the voice of the people, yes Roger?

Roger Kimball: It does indeed.

Seth Leibsohn: And before the break we were talking about if there’s a central thesis here, a central theme to the pudding here. It’s trying to explain, what is this thing going on? Both in Europe, perhaps other places, certainly in the United States of America explained by a lot of our candidates, a lot of our elections of late. Some have tried to use the word “populist” or “populism” as a pejorative, as a negative in describing it. You and I and I think a lot of our listeners would just as quickly call it an affirmation of sovereignty and a passion for freedom that we are waking up to after so much constraint of it, constriction of it. Yes?

Roger Kimball: Yes. Right before the break Seth I was just about to describe one of my favorite passages from Alexis de Tocqueville’s great book, Democracy in America, where a couple of paragraphs he devotes to what he calls democratic despotism, and probably some of your readers and listeners know about that passage where he says in a modern democracy, despotism doesn’t come to tyrannize people. It comes to infantilize them.

Seth Leibsohn: Right.

Roger Kimball: And how does it do this? It does it through the promulgation of an evermore intricate network of rules and regulation that reach into the interstices of everyday life and make any kind of innovation or entrepreneurship or indeed everyday freedom almost impossible. It transformed us, the people, into a flock of sheep with government as the shepherd. And the people who do this are often very well-meaning, but they want to run your lives. They don’t want you to run your lives. And I would contend that that is a profoundly anti-American idea.

Seth Leibsohn: Right. Yes. I’m with you on this.

Roger Kimball: This is what the Tea Party is about. It’s what Donald Trump is about. If people sometimes talk about “Trumpism,” and I wrote a column for your cohost Chris Buskirk a while back saying that I didn’t believe in Trumpism, and what I meant by that, I was thinking about a press conference that John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, gave where he said, Donald Trump’s agenda is to do what’s good for the country. That is it. We often will say, “Oh, somebody has an agenda.” It means he has an ulterior motive.

Seth Leibsohn: Yeah, we all have agendas, don’t we?

Roger Kimball: Yes.

Seth Leibsohn: I have one anyway.

Roger Kimball: But you see, I don’t think that Donald Trump in a way does. His agenda is a pragmatic desire to do what’s best for the country. [crosstalk 00:14:16]

Seth Leibsohn: Well you don’t have to look too hard for it. I mean, you just don’t have to look that hard for it. He put it on the front door of his campaign. His agenda was to make America great again.

Roger Kimball: Exactly. Exactly.

Seth Leibsohn: And he campaigned on about five things to do so, as opposed to a candidate who put on her front door, “I’m with her.” Meanwhile, he was seen as the arrogant one. He’s talking about the country. She’s talking about herself.

Roger Kimball: I know. It was quite extraordinary. I’ve met Donald Trump but I don’t know him, but I’ve been astonished at what he’s been able to accomplish in just a year. It’s just amazing.

Seth Leibsohn: Given what he’s up against too, Roger. Don’t you think?

Roger Kimball: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

Seth Leibsohn: Given what he’s up against.

Roger Kimball: Absolutely. It’s this unremitting, and I would say insane, literally insane reaction against him. It’s like a kind of allergic reaction. People talk about, “We’re a part of the resistance.” Well what are they . . . arrogating to themselves—

Seth Leibsohn: They don’t even know the origin of that phrase, which is scary to me quite frankly. Talk about fascism, you know?

Roger Kimball: Yeah. If they were French freedom fighters or something in the Second World War. It’s preposterous. So what are they resisting? They’re resisting the result of a free, open democratic election.

Seth Leibsohn: Which is giving us public policy somewhere between Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Richard Nixon. That’s basically what—

Roger Kimball: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.

Seth Leibsohn: A perfectly reasonable 50 percent difference of opinion about public policy in America that we kind of thought democracy was about. Roger, can I go back? You’re a man of letters. Can I go back to something you said about infantilization?

Roger Kimball: Absolutely.

Seth Leibsohn: This consumes me. It’s not just the government doing it to us. It’s so much of our culture now. As I say, you’re a man of letters. This is what’s transpiring on college campuses every single day right now.

Roger Kimball: Big time.

Seth Leibsohn: A reinfantilization, not just of an in loco parentis and age and decision making thing, but about what we can think.

Roger Kimball: Well, you’re absolutely right. The idea that students would ask the college dean to police their sex lives is so bizarre it’s barely comprehensible, but they do. But of course it goes much deeper than that. It really does have to do with the effort to impose upon the student body a series of beliefs and emotions that constitute a new orthodoxy. You’re allowed to say this and think this and feel this, but you’re not allowed to say these other things. And you could give a long litany of such things, but what it essentially has done is transformed these institutions which we have endowed with great social prestige and many special privileges. They’re tax exempt and so on. Why? Because we thought that colleges and universities where institutions that would preserve and transmit the vibrant values of our civilization.

Seth Leibsohn: Yeah, that’s right. It’s not a Disney cruise.

Roger Kimball: [crosstalk 00:17:31] They don’t. They don’t. They don’t.

Seth Leibsohn: It’s not a Disney cruise. My friend Jon Rausch has a … Do you know Jon at all? Jonathan Rausch?

Roger Kimball: I do. I do. Yes I do. Well I know of him. [crosstalk 00:17:41]

Seth Leibsohn: Well I love it. He has this proposal that every college, the presidents probably wouldn’t agree with this, the presidents of the colleges, but every president should mail an incoming freshman a card. “Warning: Although this university values and encourages civil expression and respectful personal behavior, you may at any moment and without further notice encounter ideas, expressions, and images that are mistaken, upsetting, dangerous, prejudiced, insulting, or offensive, and we call this education.”

Roger Kimball: Yeah, exactly. That’s very well put. The president of the University of Chicago did something not quite as amusing as that but basically said, “If you want a safe space, don’t come here.” The idea that they have little rooms with puppies and Play-Doh and so on. Because people can’t bear—

Seth Leibsohn: That’s infantilization.

Roger Kimball: They can’t bear the fact that Donald Trump was elected president, or that Charles Murray, one of the greatest social scientists of our age actually is coming to campus and he’s going to say these things that are going to make us feel so bad. It really is unbelievable.

Seth Leibsohn: They’re coming after you next, Roger. They’re coming after you next. There’s the music. We promised we’d let you go. You’ve been generous with your time and your brain. The book is “Vox Populi: The Perils and Promises of Populism.” Roger Kimball is the editor. He’s also a contributor to it, and if you don’t want to be smarter, don’t buy this book. Roger, God bless you. Merry Christmas.

Roger Kimball: Thank you, Seth. Merry Christmas. Bye bye.

Seth Leibsohn: 602-508-0960. We will be right back.

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2 responses to “Roger Kimball on the Perils and Promises of Populism

  • The “great public intellectuals” don’t have a great track record. Here are the thoughts of an anonymous internet commenter – a breed who have proven to be correct at least as often as the great public intellectuals.

    The Republican party has always been a businessman’s party, all the way back to the nineteenth century. That has not changed. What has changed are the ideas and attitudes of businessmen themselves. Up until the fall of the Soviet Union they were generally “conservative” and “nationalistic”, perhaps out of a sense of self-preservation as much as anything else. And the GOP was generally nationalistic and conservative along with them.

    The global collapse of communism and Bush’s “New world order” speech ushered in a dramatic transformation in the ideas of the American business community. The new ideal was of a world built along globalist capitalist business principles, hostile towards all nation states and in favor of trans-national bodies like the European Union, NAFTA, the propose North American Union, the Trans Pacific Partnership and so on. That did not mean a rejection of identity politics – corporate America is at least as obsessed with identity politics as any progressive university. But it meant that identity of the national sort was to be phased out and replaced with sub-national identities. Instead of thinking of yourself as ‘American”, you’re supposed to think of yourself as “Latino” or “Black” or “Jewish’ or “gay”. Those are all approved identity categories in American corporations.

    The left-wing shift in the Republican Party is simply a reflection of their continuing to champion the aspirations and desires of corporate America – aspirations and desires which have taken on a pronounced anti-American (and anti-nation state) tilt in the last thirty years.

    • Would it be OK if I converted this comment into a stand-alone article for Writer Beat? There is no fee; I’m simply trying to add more content diversity for our community and liked whgat you wrote. I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. You can learn more about Writer Beat by checking out my profile or just say “sure” and I’ll handle the rest.

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