The problem with populism

Samuel Gregg

If there’s one word that’s entered into widespread circulation thanks to 2016 presidential politics, it’s “populism.”

For some, it’s another way of saying “democracy” or “the popular will.” But populism, strictly speaking, is more complicated than that. In fact, it can threaten freedom.

Populism isn’t new in America or Western societies. It often manifests itself whenever enough people conclude — sometimes correctly — that the political system is rigged in favor of insider-elites who pursue their own interests rather than the common good.

At this point, someone might enter the fray who says he understands people’s frustration with the status quo. Portraying himself as the leader who can change everything by sheer force of will, he gives voice to people’s resentments, perhaps through extravagant rhetoric. A cult of personality develops in which people start investing their hopes, convinced that once this man is in office, he will fix all their problems.

Over time, the actual content of the populist leader’s words starts to matter less and less. They ignore obvious contradictions in the leader’s statements and policy positions. These are never especially clear and regularly “evolve,” depending on the need or audience.

Nor do populist leaders seriously engage criticism of their positions. Instead they respond by either trying to attach nasty labels to their critics or by just repeating — endlessly — various mantras which, on closer inspection, are content-free.

Populism appears on the left and the right. Italy’s former prime minister, the media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, is a contemporary center-right example. Until recently, much of Latin America was dominated by left-wing populists like the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and the Kirchners of Argentina.

In America, populism has manifested itself in politicians such as George Wallace in the 1960s and 70s, who channeled white working-class resentment. Another was Louisiana’s Huey Long, a strong advocate of massive wealth-redistribution in the 1920s and 30s. Today, there is more than a populist edge to Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

As a rule, populists aren’t interested in details like due process of law. They have little regard for constitutionally limited government. After all, such things can — and are designed to — inhibit the ability of politicians to “get things done,” no matter how much one tramples on freedom and the rule of law.

Plenty of America’s founders understood that a constitutional republic could be threatened by populist impulses. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton both sought to establish strong protections for individual rights against over-mighty government officials and angry mass movements.

Hamilton and Madison were well aware of the potential for corruption by insider-elites. In today’s America, crony capitalism is perhaps the most obvious form of such corruption. But, as Hamilton noted, the sovereign will of the people, expressed in a constitution, is different from the people’s momentary will. The latter is constantly changing and is expressed periodically through elections. It’s entirely possible, Hamilton knew, for that momentary will to become disinterested at times in maintaining liberty as well as rule of law.

Similarly, Madison was very explicit about the popular will requiring constitutional restraint. Just because large numbers of people want something doesn’t mean it is the right or prudent thing to do.

Pointing out these truths isn’t an exercise in elitism. It’s simply to underscore that populism, whether from left or right, can seriously compromise liberty. Yes, populism often feeds off quite valid concerns. And Americans today have every right to be furious with our political class.

Populism, however, is no solution. It’s likely to make matters worse.

Samuel Gregg, author of For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good, is Research Director at the Acton Institute.