How does a Conservative differ from a Populist? – Part 2
Updated: Jun 13
Original artwork by Marisa Draeger
In Part 1 I defined a populist as one who believes 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. I concluded populism isn’t wrong so much as it is insufficient. Populism is like the cover of a book. It may look enticing enough from the outside to earn you approving nods by holding it in front of your face at Starbucks, but unless it’s filled with actual content of a more comprehensive worldview, it hasn’t much to say.
Show me a man who is only a populist and I will show you a book with blank pages. We can only truly understand a populist by examining the flavor of the worldview that’s infused with their populism. That’s why two populists can end up supporting radically different causes from communism to fascism to protectionism to socialism to capitalism.
We might assume then that a conservative wouldn’t find much fault with populism so long as it’s infused with conservatism. That would be a faulty assumption, though some conservatives today put much effort in defending president Trump’s rather void political philosophy on these grounds. Trumpism, lacking a set of coherent, consistent policies of its own, has—for the moment—adopted conservative policies. Why fuse over a book cover entitled The Political Rantings of an Uninformed Narcissist if the pages inside plagiarize excerpts from The Conscience of a Conservative? Why judge a book by its cover?
Laying aside the argument that the words we use actually do matter, this view wrongly assumes conservatism can be reduced to a systematic list of policies. Conservatism is rooted in circumstance, not abstract principles. Conservative policies are important, but not nearly as important as the attitudes and convictions and persuasions that led us to those policies. From a distance a conservative and a populist advocating conservative policies may look very much alike. But look past the flashy cover, past the index, the preface, the introduction by that celebrity on the Right who spoke at last year’s CPAC, and delve into the actual meat of the book and the differences begin to emerge in a powerful way.
Conservatism stands against radical ideologies; in fact, it considers them dangerous. And, ultimately, populism is among the most dangerous. That is because populism 1) has no discernable end-game, 2) tends to radicalize over time, 3) tends to explain reality through conspiracy theories, 4) doesn’t place limits on political power, and 4) ultimately seeks to divide. I will elaborate on 1) and 2) below and save the remaining points for Part 3:
Populists Have no Discernible End-Game
Populism is not a solutions-oriented venture, but an attempt to justify one’s biases. Populism has no discernible end-game, no place in which victory has been achieved in any meaningful sense. There’s never a moment in which the populist is satisfied enough of the “right people” or “right policies” have been tried. Elect a populist candidate to office and they become the new establishment the moment an opponent begins to denounce them as such. Consider for a moment that everyone who won an election was—at some point in time—viewed as more a solution to a problem than the problem itself. But soon those who hold power become the new elites. Overthrow the elites and a new class of villains emerges, such as The Directory replacing the monarch in the French Revolution or the Leninists seizing control after the fall of the Russian Czar.
It’s easier to complain about problems when you’re on the outside than when you’re on the inside. An employee can complain about his stagnant wages, but an entrepreneur sees ten thousand reasons why it would be unrealistic to give their employees a raise. An arm-chair-general has never lost a battle. Actual generals who achieve that notoriety become household names. Give a populist candidate a chance to turn things around and they may succeed. What is more likely is they’ll come to realize their rhetoric was far too narrow and their promises far too broad once the reality of holding political power sets in. Thus, they can no longer be a champion to their populist base of supporters, many of whom will look for the next champion.
Populism can have no end game because it’s focused on the wrong end of the problem. You don’t solve problems by electing enough of the “right people.” As economist Milton Friedman brilliantly noted, “the way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing.” To the conservative we’re all the “wrong people” and trying to solve society’s ills primarily through the ballot box is like putting your nest egg in a slot machine: the odds of it working in your favor aren’t promising. To the populist—who sees the world as groups of “right” and “wrong” people—there’s no end to the disappointment as each successive election fails to bring about the solutions the populist was promised. There is no end-game because the populist is playing Whac-A-Mole.
Populists Tend to Radicalize Over Time
Just because populism has no natural end doesn’t mean it remains stagnant. But populism tends to regress, not progress. When the French Revolution failed to produce a stable, liberal society, France degenerated into a chaotic bloodbath that led to military dictatorship. However wasteful King Louis XVI may have been, his execution by guillotine did nothing to raise French peasants out of poverty. When the coalminers of Western Virginia slowly discover that electing a protectionist president doesn’t bring their jobs back, populism may persuade them to embrace even more radical protectionist positions. Radicalism begets radicalism; The populist will become increasingly radicalized as the “right people” win elections and their utopic vision doesn’t come to pass.
Some ideologies simply claim to provide for a more utilitarian society—the greatest good for the greatest number. But the populist believes themselves to be engaged in some moral prerogative. It’s not a matter of what’s beneficial and what’s inauspicious, but a struggle of good versus evil. Few are likely to die over a debate on whether Main Street should be widened to four lanes; many have died in the name of some righteous cause. Communist regimes are infamous for exterminating whole people groups to benefit “the people.”
What crimes against humanity may never enter in to the mind of a tyrant becomes agenda item number seven for some radicalized populist ideology. The tyrant seeks only their own welfare; the populist insists they seek the welfare of others, and others are the worse off for it. Some of the kindest people I know—those grandmotherly types who’d never harm a fly—hold some of the vilest political positions simply because they never left the path of populism as it radicalized beneath their feet.
This is the very danger our Founding Fathers sought to counter in devising our system of government. The Federal system makes it challenging for any one group or individual to seize control, most of all mobs of populists hellbent on enforcing their righteous cause by whatever means necessary. And we are not yet finished describing the ways in which populism festers. Those other attributes—the tendency to explain reality through conspiracy theories, the lack of limits on political power, and the ultimate division of society—are attributes we’ll explore in Part 3.
This post originally appeared in The Millennial Review.