Is Populism Good for American Democracy?

Throughout the 2016 election cycle, a common talking point between both the far Left and the far Right was that establishment politicians are, on the whole, corrupt and out-of-touch with their constituents. On the Right, even before the rise of Donald Trump as the ultimate outsider candidate, candidates like Senator Ted Cruz of Tea Party fame were using anti-establishment rhetoric to differentiate themselves from established Republican candidates. On the Left, no one tapped into the anti-establishment ethos more than Senator Bernie Sanders who thereby differentiated himself from Secretary Hillary Clinton. The following article features two different perspectives on whether or not populism is good for America.

Anthony Barr (’19): A Qualified Good

Opposition to “the establishment” may be a particularly salient feature of contemporary populism, but the populist impulse is as old as the nation itself. In a letter to Gideon Granger dated August 13, 1800, Thomas Jefferson voiced his concerns that broadened centralized federal power would lead to defective or shady governance. Jefferson wrote: “Our country is too large to have all its affairs directed by a single government. Public servants at such a distance, & from under the eye of their constituents, must, from the circumstance of distance, be unable to administer & overlook all the details necessary for the good government of the citizens, and the same circumstance, by rendering detection impossible to their constituents, will invite the public agents to corruption, plunder & waste.”

One can easily think of recent examples that illustrate the soundness of Jefferson’s warning. For example, consider Secretary Clinton’s dubious intermixing of State Department and Clinton Foundation work or, on the other side of the aisle, the GOP-controlled House going against the judgment of Speaker Paul Ryan in an attempt to eviscerate the influence and authority of the independent bipartisan ethics office which holds politicians accountable. And as far as inefficiency, I’m confident every reader of this article has a favorite “government red-tape” story that illustrates ineffective governance, or at the very least, inefficiencies.

Populist movements often function with a prophetic voice, offering the kind of warnings that Jefferson voices in his letter. In this regard populism can be of benefit for American democracy as a diagnostic tool, calling leaders to accountability by identifying corruption or inefficiency wherever it is found. There are, of course, limiting qualifiers: populism does not of itself lead constituents to know what it is they actually need nor does it prepare voters to know who is actually more qualified as a leader to implement policy that will meet their needs. Still, I reject the misguided idea that the average American is incapable of discerning whether their representatives actually care about their needs or whether they are simply in bed with powerful lobbyists. I conclude that populism is good for American democracy, in the qualified sense that it is able to diagnose brokenness in establishment politics, offering a call for corrective action.

Wayne Brown (’18): A Dangerous Evil

To be a populist is to betray the Republic. That is not a light charge, and I do not believe that any populists today believe that this is what they are doing.  But it is reality.  The people of the United States do not govern, have not governed, and they must not be allowed to govern.  This is, by its very definition, an unpopular opinion.  But it must be said.

None of us want to address the elephant (and donkey) in the room.  That the world naturally works as a meritocracy, and richly rewards the ability to make connections, and make use of them.  That the way things are accomplished in Washington was never intended to be rosy, and never will be.  No one will notice that the swamp is a swamp for a reason.  

It’s not political insiders who make radical moves and endanger the country and its citizens recklessly.  They know the game far too well.  They’re far too invested in the interests of the politicians around them, which are connected to their respective constituencies.  They have far too much to lose, and they know how it can be lost.

Perhaps that’s why in 1824, a conspiracy to keep a popular-vote-winning candidate out of the Oval Office took place.  The candidate was Andrew Jackson, the populist and instigator of the ever-popular spoils system currently in place, and America put off 4 years of disastrous genocidal insanity.  It’s said that when Jackson was eventually elected years later, the inaugural party at the White House became so full of his gung-ho constituency drinking, brawling, and carrying on, muddying the carpets and floors, that Jackson himself had slipped quietly out the window while the symbol of his office was being befouled and trampled.  His legacy would be years of grievous error performed before an adoring circus audience.  How fitting that it began with the trampling of the office at the feet of the populace.

The government is, indeed, obligated to serve the best interest of its citizens.  It cannot take each and every individual’s interests into account.  It is not a precise utilitarian calculator rendering solemn digital readouts.  It must, for the sake of its continued existence and the existence of order in this country, take into account the fact that we, the people, are often incapable of seeing the greater picture.

Edmund Burke understood this and foresaw the coming of the French reign of terror and the power vacuum that nearly consumed Europe in the decades after.  Jefferson and his populists did not.  They did not see that the pathogen of populism and its idealistic utopian naiveté would create a living hell out of a dead heaven.

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