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  • Josh Lewis

How does a Conservative differ from a Populist? – Part 1

Updated: Jun 13, 2020

Original artwork by Marisa Draeger

Have you ever heard someone refer to the results of an election as a win for “the people?” In any election there are people on both the winning and losing sides, so what exactly does it mean for “the people” to win? Does it mean that the results of the election will benefit the majority or that it will expand liberties or that it will encourage a certain cultural revival or economic stimulus?


But I think there is something lurking behind this expression—the idea that a win for “the people” means the “right people” have won and the “wrong people” have lost. Couched in those terms the obvious question arises what makes someone the right or wrong person? And it is here we immediately run into difficulty for there is little agreement on the matter. In fact, often those who consider themselves to be the “right people” are the same individuals some other group calls the “wrong people” and vice versa.

Thus, enters the populist: a populist is one who claims to be able to divide individuals into these broad categories. They believe there exists a common set of core concerns—a moral cause, if you will—held by a large, unaddressed, and marginalized part of the population. These “common people” must assert their moral cause against those who would deprive them of what is rightfully theirs. To the populist, the “common people” are the “right people” and a small but powerful group of elitists are the “wrong people.”

And to some extent this idea is compatible with a conservative impulse: the desire to halt the expanding reach of government, to carefully balance competing interests against one another, to ensure fair and equitable treatment for all citizens, and so on. The conservative does not deny that there is some truth to the populist’s rhetoric of the elite few—be they entrenched bureaucrats, the mainstream media, big corporations, too-big-to-fail banks, wall street executives, elected officials, or the like. Those in positions of authority often fail to act in the best interest of the people they are supposed to serve or represent or—worse yet—use their position to exploit the “right people.”

What’s more, the conservative and populist often agree that those in positions of authority seem to be increasingly losing touch with the reality of the average American. President Trump—channeling populist rhetoric—is fond of talking about the Deep State and a need to “drain the swamps.” We have only to look to the fact that the four richest counties in the United States are suburbs of Washington D.C. or that the 2008 financial crisis perpetrated by an atomic bomb of fraud and stupidity led to only one banker going to jail to know that something has gone terribly awry.

It’s easy to see what has populists from Trumplicans to Occupy Wall Street so upset: our elected officials have let us down. They have grown unaccountable to the people they claim to serve and years of elections at the Federal, state, and local levels aimed at dismantling this entrenched “establishment” has yielded unsatisfactory results in the minds of conservatives and populists alike.

Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse described one definition of populism that’s compatible with conservatism: “If populism is anti-elitism—and we live in a time where five of the seven richest counties in America are the suburbs of Washington DC where the political class and the lobbyists live; if Washington is currently existing to serve Washington and national elites—not to provide a framework for ordered liberty for 50 states, then populism has something to recommend it as a reaction against that elitist consolidation of political power.” It is here that populists and conservatives stand side by side. Both desire to eliminate corruption that prevents the “little guy” from getting ahead and the cronyism that has taken hold of many of our institutions and infiltrated our daily lives.

But it is also here that conservatism and populism begin to depart. For the conservative, in an effort to do something about the situation at hand must first endeavor to understand the problem through a lens far more complex than identifying the “right people” and the “wrong people.” It’s one thing to talk about draining the swamp; it’s quite another to begin to unravel how to do so. Doing so requires answers to questions such as what exactly IS the swamp? Is it a specific group of people or a mindset? How did we get here? What are the underlying reasons behind why the problem persists? What would it take to drain it? What are the unintended consequences of draining the swamp?

The populist grows uncomfortable with each layer of complexity. For populism only survives in the mythical world of rhetoric and outrage. It thrives on the notion the powerful elites are to blame and begins to whither at the idea the populist himself may bear some responsibility in the matter. It may be easy enough to stand outside Wall Street railing against the 1% but it’s not so easy to study the complexities of the financial sector enough to learn what reforms would be most beneficial. It doesn’t take as much effort to vote for a candidate promising to bring manufacturing jobs back by whatever means necessary as it does to learn a new set of skills in a more marketable industry.

I don’t at all mean that populists never get around to doing something, but that those who go on to do something depart from conservatism in two ways: 1) they assign blame for the perceived problem to those “wrong people” and, 2) they must, out of necessity, embrace some additional political philosophy the moment they do something. That populist complaining about the wealthiest 1% sounds an awful lot like socialist. And that populist who supports candidates promising to bring manufacturing jobs back probably embraces protectionism.

Conservatism is an all-inclusive worldview; it’s like a telescope—a mechanism for looking at things from a certain perspective. Populism is like a lens from a telescope without the actual telescope. It doesn’t do much until you add parts to it, and those parts may just as likely form a telescope as they are to form a pair of binoculars or a microscope. Why? Populism involves supporting the “right people” in their moral cause and there’s never complete agreement on what that means. The populists can walk away with radically different understandings of what it means to do something. That is, they may all have the same populist “lens” but they may each build their own apparatus that provides radically different perspectives.

The populist who perceives problems with Wall Street may be just as likely to advocate socialism as he is to advocate capitalism. The populist that is concerned with the economic security of the middle class may argue for protectionism or free trade. There are populist traditionalists, socialists, progressives, feminists, moderates, authoritarians—populism gets you through the door, something else has to guide you on which way to turn once you’re on the other side.

The problem with populism then isn’t that it is wrong so much as it is insufficient. The rhetoric and outrage populism thrives on are not vices necessarily; but when they become the cornerstone of your political worldview—when they don’t allow for the possibility of an informed framework of human nature and instead pin all the blame on those “wrong people”—you inevitably end up with a radicalized worldview very much opposed to conservatism. A simplistic populist mindset can easily be corrupted into supporting all kinds of folly from protectionism to genocide. Take a populist charged with venomous rhetoric and outrage, tell him the “right people” are being exploited by some powerful group of elites, offer him a radicalized ideology, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Senator Sasse defines for us another kind of populism: “What populism usually means is majoritarianism. And the America and Constitution that I’m in love with and that all of our Founders would know is a world where everybody is supposed to think of themselves as [individuals], and we want to create a Madisonian-majority of people who all think of ourselves as [individuals], protecting each other’s right to be wrong. Majoritarianism scares me…I don’t want more culture wars and then try to settle them by whose mob is 51% popular at the moment.”

The framing of our Constitution by our Founding Fathers was designed to thwart populist-majoritarianism. Our government was designed to operate slowly, with deliberation to prevent waves of populist sentiment from realizing their radical aims. The Federalist Papers had a great deal more to say about the dangers of this radical majority rule than the dangers of authoritarianism. Just how dangerous is populism? That is something we’ll explore in Part 2.

This post originally appeared in The Millennial Review.

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