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Do the Populists Have a Point?
Populism may be a reaction to real problems, but the solutions will come from the very liberal institutions populists criticize
The case for populism is that it is a reaction to the failures and corruption of “the elites.”
The people who have the impressive credentials and run our institutions, the “so-called experts,” have gotten everything wrong, have credulously fallen for ridiculous fads, and are corrupt and self-dealing. So they need to be pushed aside in favor of someone who represents the views of the common man. More to the point, they need to be reined in by someone with a strong hand who has the power and combativeness to override the experts and tell them all to go to hell.
There is a long history of left-wing populism, as represented most recently by the likes of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, where the targeted elites are Wall Street and billionaires, and the solution, ironically, is to hand over a lot of unaccountable power to bureaucrats. But currently the dominant form of populism is coming from the right, where the villain is an imagined “deep state” and the solution is to create a “deep state” of their own.
But before we can dismiss today’s populists out of hand, we have to ask: Do they have a point?
I’m From the Government, and I’m Here To Help
Let’s start by acknowledging that claims about the failures of the elites are somewhat exaggerated, and much of the time the experts really do know what they are talking about. Who else is going to develop, in record time, a vaccine that is highly effective in preventing deaths from COVID—at least, for those who are not so distrustful of the experts that they refuse to take it. Or consider U.S. intelligence agencies and the U.S. military, which have taken a lot of heat (fairly and unfairly) for previous failures, but who were correct in warning about Russia’s impending invasion of Ukraine and have helped provide that country with the weapons and supplies it needs to beat back the Russians.
But yes, the elites can fail and often do fail. They are prone to groupthink, blind spots and partisanship.
During the pandemic, their messaging was sometimes confused and contradictory, often portraying a false confidence in the face of real uncertainty, which caused some policies, such as school closings, to continue way too long. Ridiculous fads like pretending there is no difference between men and women, or launching every event with a toothless “land acknowledgement”—never accompanied, of course, by a decision to actually give back the land to Indigenous people—sweep through elite institutions like fads through a middle school.
In fact, I often find the complaints of the populists to be disappointingly penny-ante. I just had someone try to convince me that the non-event of Ashley Biden’s diary was a big deal. But that’s a triviality compared to the long history of the student loan disaster. For decades, the federal government has created vast federal programs and subsidies to make it easier for students to take out loans for college. Instead of making higher education more affordable, most of the extra money has been absorbed by high tuition costs that are used, not to hire more professors, but to bring on more administrators.
To feed this “administrative bloat,” a generation of young people has been encouraged to go into debt, even for degrees with little commercial value. And now instead of facing a reckoning, the whole corrupt system is going to be bailed out by taxpayers so it can keep going for another generation. If you want an example of how elite institutions pursue their own narrow interests at the expense of everyone else, despite repeated warnings that are borne out by obvious results—this is it.
But bear in mind that this, too, was a populist program in its own day. I remember Bill Clinton campaigning for president in 1992 by promising increased access to student loans—and getting rapturous responses from audiences on college campuses. There is an odd symbiosis between populism and elitism because it is always easiest to sell special favors for insiders if you package them as a generous giveaway to the common man.
The New Populist Elites
If the elites are prone to groupthink, blind spots and partisanship—so, dear reader, are you.
The folly of the populists is that they rebel against the real and imagined corruption of “the elites” and “the Establishment”—and then seek to replace them with a new elite that is usually worse. They dismiss the “so-called experts,” but lacking any genuine expertise of their own, they fill the vacuum by embracing crackpot notions and conspiracy theories.
After all, a belief in conspiracies is implicit in the populist worldview. The experts are not merely fallible, not merely self-dealing or even sometimes dishonest, they are actively and constantly lying to you. It’s all a big cover-up, and everyone is in on it. In this view, the universal rejection of an idea by the mainstream—by experts, by fact-checkers, by the media—is the greatest recommendation for it.
It reminds me of the intro to “The X-Files,” a television show devoted to the premise that all of the conspiracy theories are true. In the opening credits, we see a headline assuring us that “Government Denies Knowledge” of some particular claim, and we’re supposed to think: A-ha! The authorities have denied all knowledge of it, so therefore it must be true.
Hence the populist appeal of the insane Q-Anon conspiracy theory, which stops just shy of claiming that the elites are secretly lizard people and merely claims that they are secretly pedophiles. This evidence-free theory simulates a form of skepticism, urging you to distrust the mainstream narratives, while actually inculcating a habit of credulity: a willingness to believe whatever fanciful notion some random person on YouTube has pieced together from cryptic, anonymous clues.
It is no surprise that this specific conspiracy theory—and the conspiracy theory mindset in general—has been taken up by the current figurehead of anti-“elite” populism. It helps him to connect with a segment of voters so ready to believe in him that they will accept that he can declassify top secret documents in his mind.
If you can get people to believe in conspiracy theories without any real evidence, you can also get them to dismiss real evidence of wrongdoing when they encounter it. The best example of this is Donald Trump’s first impeachment, over his attempt to shake down the president of Ukraine for political favors. In return for releasing congressionally mandated military aid, Trump demanded that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky launch investigations based on conspiracy theories about Joe Biden’s son (picking only the completely debunked claims, and none of the other sleazy stuff Hunter Biden was up to) and an imaginary server that allegedly contained dirt on the Democratic Party.
If you believe those conspiracy theories, which are entirely based on demonstrably, factually false claims, then you are willing to overlook the actual conspiracy: a president holding U.S. national security interests hostage to his re-election campaign.
To the extent populists have a legitimate complaint against those with power and influence, they have no solution. Their one-sided obsession with the supposed corruption of the elites leads to the toleration of even worse corruption by new, “populist” elites.
Liberalism Is the Answer to Corruption
Worse, by using these claims as an attack against liberal institutions, the populists are actively insulating their own champions from scrutiny and accountability.
According to the populist, the only way to confront the bogeyman of “the Establishment” is to fight fire with fire, abusing government power on the behalf of one’s own side in order to counter abuses of power by the elites. This was proclaimed from the stage at a recent conference of nationalist conservatives, where the message, according to Rod Dreher, was that “we on the right have got to get comfortable using state power to achieve conservative ends.”
In reality, liberal institutions were and are the actual means for reining in foolishness and corruption among the elites.
None of these problems are new. Before the founding of America, a characteristic feature of aristocratic and monarchical governments was the formation of cabals of court insiders who exploited special privileges. Rather than being something the liberal political system failed to anticipate, this was in fact precisely what it was designed to protect against by the Founders of the American republic.
The liberal institution of the free market works to prevent businessmen from enriching themselves by gaining the favor of corrupt politicians, as they did in the notorious case of the South Sea Bubble, a business-government partnership in early 18th century Britain that never did much actual business but managed to set off a massive speculative bubble among credulous shareholders. Free markets are also meant to prevent politicians from coercing the support of private businesses by making them fear disapproval from their political masters—whether that takes the form of Democratic politicians “jawboning” social media companies about whom to eject from their platforms, or Republican governors threatening to use their regulatory powers against companies that oppose their favored legislation.
To say that we need more government coercion as the answer to previous government interference—the argument offered by nationalist conservatives—is merely an attempt to swap out one of these sets of would-be political masters for another.
The liberal institution of a free press serves to subject political leaders to scrutiny and require them to justify their views in answer to their critics. Much of the crying about “free speech” among the populists, however, is a demand that they be shielded from criticism. Take the complaint about Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, asking about a “quick and devastating” rejoinder to the Great Barrington Declaration, a manifesto by COVID skeptics demanding that we adopt a strategy of “herd immunity” (which amounts to just doing nothing and letting everyone get the disease). This request was touted as “collusion” in government censorship, but the real story is the exact opposite.
Collins’ request was answered by Anthony Fauci—who did what? Did he send a government agency to censor wrong ideas? No, Fauci replied by sending links to several articles already published independently—in Wired, The Nation and elsewhere—challenging the premises behind the herd immunity claims. (And they were right. More than a million deaths later, we still have not achieved this supposed herd immunity.)
One of the authors of the declaration went on to complain that he was “the subject of a propaganda attack by my own government,” as opposed to “discussion and engagement.” But what he got was discussion and engagement—in the form of criticism in the media. That is what the populists, experts at playing the victim, find to be unacceptable. Government scientific officials, particularly in public health, must not merely refrain from censorship. They must refrain from holding or expressing their own views.
Another liberal institution is the rule of law in the courts, which has proven to be Kryptonite for former President Trump’s fabrications about stolen elections, FBI misconduct and the declassification of documents. In court, these claims evaporate one by one when they are required to meet well-established rules of evidence and when—unlike in the media—there are distinct penalties for flagrant lying.
Or consider the dueling FBI investigation headed by Robert Mueller and John Durham—the first to look into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election, the second to investigate the origins and conduct of the first. Mueller’s investigation wound up with a report that disappointed a lot of people on the left, who were hoping it would be the new Watergate that would show the corruption goes all the way to the top. Durham’s investigation seems destined to disappoint a lot of people on the right, wrapping up with a few minor charges (and an acquittal), and no evidence of a vast “deep state” conspiracy. Again, this is what happens in liberal institutions that are bound by rules of evidence and cannot bring a prosecution only because a howling mob of partisans really want it.
Free elections—the cornerstone of liberal institutions—play an obvious role in keeping politicians accountable, on the principle that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. There is a history of Democrats denying election results. But it is the populists on the right who are currently working hardest to create a presumption that any election they lose must have been rigged and can be thrown out.
At every stage, it is liberal institutions that serve to challenge the views of the elites on either side, sometime overturning them, sometimes confirming them—and it is the populists who seek special exemption from the working of those institutions.
Do the populists have a point about the corruption of the elites? Of course they do. But it is only the defenders of liberalism who have the solution.