Spurred by the communications revolution empowering people to control their own lives, today’s American populist movement seeks to expand individual liberty and strengthen the bonds of community. Yet the danger now, as ever, is that populism could succumb to the temptation of collectivism—a degeneration enabled by the conflation and prioritization of virtual community over traditional community.
Well versed in the communications revolution’s empowering tools and entrepreneurial opportunities, millennials yearn for traditional community and are susceptible to the fallacies and pitfalls of virtual community. How can millennials—and the entire populist movement—avoid these pitfalls and achieve their goals?
As during the Jacksonian populist movement that ended America’s ironically named “Era of Good Feelings,” sovereign citizens are chafing under the weight of the foibles of a failed elite. Across the political spectrum, from MAGA supporters to Bernie Bros, populism seeks to end the control of self-anointed elites in public and/or private institutions. While both seek the goals of individual empowerment and stronger bonds of traditional community, there is a critical distinction within the populist movement.
The leftist variant of populism seeks to further empower one elite—the public sector—to control another elite—the private sector. The abhorrent result of that development would be collectivism, with an omnipotent governmental elite ruling over a powerless herd of serfs. Center-right populism seeks to curtail the power of both private and public sector elites. This is the only way to avoid collectivism; and to attain an expanding and protecting of individual liberty within the embrace of traditional community. What explains these diametrically opposed results?
There is a patent morality in subsidiarity. It is wrong to limit a person’s ability to fulfill his potential. You can’t empower a person by making him dependent.
Leftist populism’s ideology is socialism and, in some cases, Communism—19th-century collectivist ideologies that famously and murderously have failed everywhere they’ve been imposed upon a people. The center-right’s populist ideology is founded upon subsidiarity—a principle discerned in America’s founding as a constitutional republic.
The principle of subsidiarity “holds that human affairs are best handled at the lowest possible level, closest to the affected persons.” Consider America’s founding: unalienable rights, the consent of the governed, federalism, checks and balances—all are rooted in the sovereign power of the citizen, from which all legitimate power flows. In short, the core instance of American governance is self-governance; ergo, the primary governmental unit is you, tiger. Instructed by subsidiarity, citizens can then determine what level of personal control, community participation, and/or governmental action is required to address an issue or problem.
The clearest benefit to governance is the preservation and promotion of the citizen’s liberty free from intrusive and oppressive government. This doesn’t mean the citizenry won’t err in consenting to delegate its power to a larger entity than is required to perform a task. Indeed, the entirety of the Left’s messaging is designed to tempt citizens to become dependent upon a centralized national government to perform even the most menial of actions. Yet, when considered in light of subsidiarity, the citizens can recognize and rectify such mistaken delegations. This promotes another salubrious aspect of subsidiarity: it encourages the kind of informed and involved citizenry required by our free republic.
(In fact, it is the inability to rectify errors in the delegation of power to higher organizations that has led to populist movements abroad. Subsidiarity is the basis of European Union Law, but it is decidedly not operating according to this principle. At its root, the EU exists to curb the power of its member nation-states. Regardless of what is touted as the principle upon which its laws are based, in reality, the EU is an intrinsically centralizing organization. Hence, the battle over whether the EU or a nation-state, say Britain, will be responsible for immigration policy—the dispute which provided the most significant impetus for Brexit.)
Equally and obviously, subsidiarity strengthens the bonds of traditional community. Unlike the Left, where centralizing power in the federal government (and, increasingly, in global governance) is the first option, for center-right populists it is the last option. Beyond the citizen, the first options are family and community to attain a social good. When the Left praises “community,” they actually mean a collective where participation is mandatory subject to sanction by the voracious administrative state. For center-right populism “community” is voluntary, inherently strengthening the bonds of traditional community.
There is a patent morality in subsidiarity. It is wrong to limit a person’s ability to fulfill his potential. The more another individual or institution performs a task that a person can perform for himself, the less that person will grow toward his full potential. As the truism instructs, “if you give a hungry man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” You can’t empower a person by making him dependent.
Ironically, subsidiarity was the basis of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s scathing criticism of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” While Johnson was centralizing the control of federal programs in the hands of Washington, D.C. bureaucrats, RFK argued the programs should be controlled by recipients and community organizations. RFK understood the difference between dependence and empowerment—eating fish for a day versus fishing for life. Tragically, his voice was stilled before he could prove his case and carry the day.
Importantly, subsidiarity is also applicable to the private sector—and it has been an operating principle since the rise of the internet. This is what Thomas Friedman meant when he said “the world is flat.” Large, vertically integrated business is being flattened into horizontal, customer-driven enterprises within our consumer economy. The communications revolution empowers individual consumers to control their financial decisions. Long gone are the days when America’s “Big Three” automakers could dictate to consumers. Now consumers may dictate to them.
What center-right populism seeks in the public sector, then, is to match our consumer-driven economy with a citizen-driven government, one based upon the founders’ principle of subsidiarity that increases individual liberty and strengthens the bonds of traditional community.
If the movement succeeds, one would expect the results to be, shall we say, popular?