We can’t seem to get away from populism in today’s political discussions. People disagree about what the term means, but R.R. Reno put it concisely: “populism . . . is by definition anti-elite.”
The problem is there are two ways to see populism. One can be anti-elite in the sense that one thinks the elites who rule now are bad and need to be replaced either by new elites or non-elites. This view presupposes there are, in fact, elite and non-elite people in politics. On the other hand, one can be anti-elite in the sense that one thinks in politics no one should be considered elite, no matter how smart or successful that person is. Most of us, especially those who presume to be elites, tend to think of populism in the first sense. But some, especially those of us who know we are not elite, are populist in the second sense.
Understanding populism in the first sense should be expected. Almost everyone today accepts that there are elites and all societies essentially have three political layers. This is the dominant view in academia and government as far as I can tell. Some call them the “uninformed public,” the “informed public,” and the “effective public.” Others call them “parochials,” “subjects,” and “participants.” To most educated people, there are those who should rule and those who should not.
The view that men are not actually equal in politics is not new. Politics long has been understood to have something that has to do with divisions between horizontal layers of people. From the ancient Greeks to Machiavelli to Marx, people have argued people come in groups, be they the one, the few, and the many; the common and the great; or the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Today’s progressives believe there are class distinctions based on expertise, race, or gender. Conservatives believe men are divided by merit or virtue. Whether the separations are based on merit, expertise, or virtue is unimportant; the result is the same.
Distinctions With a Difference
Today’s ruling class, both Left and Right, believe there is an “us” and a “them,” the two always struggle over who will rule, and the political elites should rule. This might sound aristocratic or Marxist for conservatives, but replace economic class, wealth, race, or gender with virtue and they will accept it. Dressing up political inequality in the clothes of merit or virtue makes it all seem so noble.
Conservative members of the ruling class think of themselves as the “natural aristoi,” and because they think they are virtuous, they think their rule is just and the status quo is good (you might notice that many conservative elites make the case that things really weren’t so bad before Trump, and anyway, if it was bad it is because people lacked virtue). It follows that they see any challenge to their rule as ugly, vicious, anti-elitist populism and any disagreement about policy as a crime.
But some of us don’t think there are any political elites at all, and thus anyone claiming to be one is a fraud.
For all of the elite’s credentials, merit, and supposed virtue, Trump says regular Americans are their equals and have equal claim to the title of elite. In one of his greatest moments, he called the elites “stone cold losers,” and he said of himself “I hate it, I meet these people, they call it the elite, we got more money, we got more brains, we got better houses and apartments, we got nicer boats, we’re smarter than they are and they say they’re the elite. You’re the elite, we’re the elite!” And have you heard Trump talk about experts?
Populists like Trump and Tucker Carlson believe the wisdom of the people, the whole people, the young, the old, the highly educated, and “the poorly educated,” should replace the fraudulent rule of supposed elites. This was Trump’s entire argument for America. He argues against those who presume to be elite, but his fundamental claim is that only government of the people, by the people, and for the people is just.
The Primacy of Consent
This type of populism—that there are no elites in politics—is not distinctly American, but it is has been most honored here. The principle of equality is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: all men are equal in that no man has a right to rule another without consent. It might seem strange to us in our modern meritocracy, but authors of the Declaration actually believed this. As Thomas Jefferson boldly stated, there is a “palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”
The genius of the American Founders is that they understood politics has less to do with political classes and more to do with economic interests. All men being politically equal and economically diverse, the purpose of government was to protect political equality under the rule of law and economic opportunity and diversity. The latter could be used in the new science of politics to protect the former. The founders denied a ruling class existed, be they democrats, aristocrats, oligarchs or a monarch, and our government was designed to keep it that way.
Here “the people govern.” We have no titles of nobility or other claims to rule other than consent. We are not a mixed regime, but a democratic republic. None of our branches of government are democratic or aristocratic in that they come from one class of people or another, though each branch is designed to have a different character. We want virtuous people in government, but virtue isn’t required; consent of the governed is. Every branch is republican, coming from and responsible to the whole, undivided people.
Equality Properly Understood
Perhaps some conservatives will read this and think of the dangers of radical egalitarianism. But not every revolution meant to bring forth “a nation conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” is following the philosophy of the French Revolution. As Tocqueville observed in the 19th century, America actually can be and (until recently) was for all political intents and purposes a classless society.
Likewise, to deny that there are political elites is not to say that some men are not more virtuous than others. Nor is it to reject the hope that virtuous people might rule some of the time. Some men are obviously more virtuous than others. But just as obviously, many who presume to be the natural aristoi are really aristocratic in the worst sense of the word—ignoble, presumptuous, and stupid. As Jefferson said, and those who quote his use of “natural aristoi” often forget, “the artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendancy.”
If you claim, as many conservatives do, to believe that all men are created equal, and therefore governments derive their just powers by the consent of the governed, then any claim that the elite must rule is unjust. Even to claim there is a political elite is unjust. We are all the elite here. The only legitimate claim to rule is the consent of the governed. It is likely that we have all forgotten this to some degree, but our supposed elites have forgotten it more than most.
In another time, people might have noted that the constant use of populism as an insult smacks of an aristocratic elitism, and people used to think a belief in aristocracy was a contemptible rejection of the American principle of human equality. Thankfully, some today are reminding men everywhere that the supposed elites are frauds, and government should be founded on the principle that all men are created equal.
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