It’s all the rage today on both the Right and the Left to attempt to define “populism” during the Trump presidency and beyond. Some frame the question as one pitting populism against globalism; others try to reconcile the two. To those musing upon the matter, I offer the following: you’re overthinking it.
As I’ve stated ad infinitum—probably ad nauseam—we are living in the midst of a communications revolution, wherein individuals are empowered to make their own decisions and direct their pursuits of happiness, to an extent never dreamt, not only in America but throughout the family of free nations. Per Andrew Breitbart, since politics is downstream from culture, this empowerment of the individual is an existential threat, not only to totalitarian and tyrannical regimes but also to elitists of all stripes. After all, if individuals can make their own decisions, there is no need for an elite to make them for us by fiat and force.
The conflict between a culture of individual empowerment and political elitists spurred the rise of populism—more exactly, the conservative populism of Ronald Reagan. Regrettably, this conservative populism has been mislabeled and mischaracterized both by its opponents and its proponents as “nationalism”—though each has its own reasons for using the label.
When viewed in the proper context, this rise in populism constitutes an ineluctable conflict between individuals’ exponentially rising personal empowerment and the injurious, antiquated collectivism advocated by elitists.
Still, this must not be a Manichean equation between ideologically driven cartoon characterizations of populism and globalism. All people are not angels nor Libertarians, and government is necessary. The question is how much government is necessary?
As a recovering politician, I assure you the answer is elementary: people want to be the boss. In America, sovereign citizens know they are and want to stay that way.
From Trump’s deplorable to Democrats who “feel the Bern,” the desire to bring to heel “big” institutions unaccountably treading upon people’s lives is as prevalent as its proponents are divergent in their approaches to reining them in. But despite these differences in how, the why remains the same: people want their say and their sway over governmental and any other large institutions that would attempt to instruct and control their lives. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at Twitter.
Just because populists reject big government and its incestuous, insidious alliance with big business, doesn’t mean voters are ready to repeal child labor laws.
Hence, the unexpected election of President Trump, the surge of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) presidential campaigns here at home. Abroad, we’ve also seen Brexit and other outbursts of populism on the continent; and the Hong Kong and Iran demonstrations for freedom from tyrannical regimes.
From the political right and center, such cries of the heart for control over one’s own life are not calls for simple-minded libertarianism or collectivism; and from the left—most acutely among the young—collectivism is the consequence, not the aim, of the deeper yearning impelling their populist angst.
For their part, Sanders populists mistakenly believe only a highly centralized government can protect them from predatory private institutions. To them, unfortunately, this is not a choice of the lesser of two evils, as their progressive ideology renders them purblind to how such centralized, socialistic governments have the capacity and track record of wreaking more death and destruction upon individuals than any private entity, however big.
Striking the Right Balance
Similarly, libertarians remain unable to define and delimit what government should be in their own understanding, let alone fashion it into an electable agenda for a new governing paradigm. Just because populists reject big government and its incestuous, insidious alliance with big business, doesn’t mean voters are ready to repeal the child labor laws and send their kids back into the salt mines to augment the family budget.
Fortunately, America’s founders had the perspicacious genius to create a constitutional republic. The U.S. Constitution was born of the failure of too little government under the Articles of Confederation. The solution then was to strengthen the federal government.
Yet, given that the American Revolution was fought to get rid of a tyrant and his oppressive government, the Framers of the Constitution necessarily endeavored simultaneously to empower and to limit the federal government to do only those things the federal government could and must do better than a state or collection of states.
As a practical matter, this approach was born of the fact that the Constitution had to be ratified. As a philosophical matter, federalism protected those who had the status of sovereign citizens by allowing them the most control possible over their servant government. By attempting to preclude a federal leviathan and allowing small units of governance to thrive under the citizenry’s increasing guidance as the layers descended to the individual level, federalism allowed what Alexis de Tocqueville observed as a foundational strength of our free republic: voluntary community organizations.
Tragically, as Robert Nisbet and others have documented, in time the federal government increased its powers over individual citizens and over their voluntary community organizations, the latter having been targeted for obsolescence and eradication by the prehensile, consolidating administrative state.
It is important that we understand that today’s burst of populism, like the first burst that ended the elitism of the Era of Good Feelings and ushered in Jacksonian democracy, is a call for individual control and for community.
Yet, how can populists reconcile these seemingly antithetical objectives of individual control and community; and reconcile populism and globalism for the 21st century?
Find out next week. Same Bat-time; same Bat-channel.