How does a Conservative differ from a Populist? – Part 3
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, like the cover of a book without the actual content of a more comprehensive worldview.
While populism can be infused with other worldviews—conservatism among them—ultimately, conservatives are opposed to populism for five reasons: 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 elaborated on 1) and 2) in Part 2, I will now turn our attention to the remaining points:
Populists Often Explain Events Through Conspiracy Theories
Although anyone can fall prey to conspiracy theories, populists are particularly susceptible. Why? Because the populist and the conspiracy theorist share an essential ingredient: the belief that the “right people” are being exploited in some way by a small but powerful group of elites. The populist and the conspiracy theorist are often battling the same cast of characters—the “Man,” the Illuminati, unidentified government officials, the uber wealthy, oil executives, etc. At every turn some powerful group is conspiring to “cover up” the “facts,” to keep the “truth” from “getting out,” to continue their dastardly machinations while laughing maniacally.
Conspiracy theories are seductive because they allow you to hold both a hero and a victim mentality simultaneously. Conspiracy theorists are heroes in that they have been enlightened. The rest of the world may be duped into believing the attacks on 911 were perpetrated by Al-Qaeda, but conspiracy theorists know it was an inside job! Now these caped crusaders are set to expose THE TRUTH to a blind world! And yet, that same conspiracy theorist is a victim in that they are part of the “system” in which powerful government forces murdered their fellow citizens all to declare war on oil-rich Middle Eastern countries. They don’t have to waste time on the nuances of, say, monetary policy when the government is out there killing innocent people.
This powerful appeal to be both a hero and a victim can override an individual’s capacity for reasoning. For reasonable beliefs are falsifiable, yet every conspiracy theory rests on a foundation of unfalsifiable faith. (As a short aside, I’m not against all unfalsifiable beliefs; but I don’t support their use in the applied sciences because they are not “testable.” And politics is very much an applied science, so that an unfalsifiable political doctrine is useless at best and dangerous at worst.)
The point is, no evidence can be presented to discredit a conspiracy theory because all evidence is adapted to strengthen the theory. Play for some 911 Truther the tapes from Americans who died on Flight 93 and they’ll shake their heads in bewilderment at how deep the conspiracy must run if the government went so far as to even produce fake audio tapes. Show some Birther evidence that Barack Obama is a natural born citizen and they’ll chide you for being so naïve as to believe just anything you find on the internet or—worse yet—accuse you of being part of the cover up.
A conspiracy theory isn’t a belief system that’s refined by rigorous scrutiny and critical thinking, but a belief system that exists to provide emotional support for those who are seduced by the hero/victim complex. To the populist steeped in conspiracies there is little difference between arguing against their beliefs and attacking the belief system that allows them to view themselves as the hero and the victim. This makes civil political disagreements all but impossible. Not only is the populist dividing the world into the “right” and “wrong” people—they are insulating themselves from any arguments to the contrary.
What might this look like in practice? There is a curious tendency among Trump’s most aggressive supporters to simultaneously declare that Trump has accomplished more than anyone since FDR and yet has been unable to advance his agenda because of everyone standing in his way. What seems like a startlingly contradictory idea makes perfect sense in the mind of the populist shrouded in conspiracy theories—for the aim is to find an explanation that fits the premise of the conspiracy theory, not to find an explanation that fits reality. The problem is not that the idea is wrong—indeed there is an element of truth there—but that any evidence that has the tiniest potential to suggest it’s not 100% true is vigorously rejected. This view affords us a one-size-fits-all explanation for every accomplishment and every setback.
Populists Don’t Value Limits on Political Power
I described in Part 1 how the conservative and the populist agree on the need to prevent powerful elites from exploiting the little guy. The fact that populism is given to conspiratorial views of a big, intrusive, overbearing, growing government does not mean the government isn’t big, intrusive, overbearing, and growing. Conservatives have long stood against big government and the so-called Deep State.
But here too there is a stark difference between the conservative and the populist. The populist seeks power to the people, the conservative seeks ordered liberty in which power is carefully disbursed across interest groups. The latter protects the natural rights of the citizen, the former redefines those rights based on what happens to be fashionable in the moment. The latter preserves civil society, the former incites mobocracy. The latter seeks to engage in persuasive debate and defeat or convert the opposition, the former seeks to end or obscure debate and the complete elimination of all opposition.
As I described in Part 1, the populist views their cause as a moral struggle. Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia and author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction, explained, “You can’t compromise in a moral struggle. If the pure compromises with the corrupt, the pure is corrupted…You’re not dealing with an opponent. An opponent has legitimacy. Often in the populist mind and rhetoric, it is an enemy. And you don’t make deals with enemies and you don’t bend to illegitimate pressure.” As Representative John Bennett from my home state of Oklahoma said during debates on whether to raise taxes to continue funding for state agencies, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists”!
If it’s true we’ve elected a political Messiah—the only man who can fix America—and if it’s true those who oppose Trump seek only to destroy this country, then elimination of the enemy seems an appropriate response. Those opposed to the president are not to be negotiated with or persuaded, they are to be destroyed. This explains, in part, talks of dismantling the Senate’s filibuster and running candidates against Republicans who don’t support the president completely.
Some Trump supporters pit Trump and his opponents as a modern-day David versus Goliath. Indeed, the president has powerful opponents—just like every other president had. But few presidents in American history have been in a more enviable political position. Republicans control EVERYTHING. The GOP controls the White House, has majorities in both the House and Senate, enjoys a favorable Supreme Court majority, controls the highest level of state legislatures since Abraham Lincoln, and can claim two out of every three governors as their own.
I’m reminded of when my alma mater, College of the Ozarks, conducted a straw poll and found that nearly 80% of students and faculty favored Republican candidates in the upcoming elections—unsurprising for a college that touts its Christian, conservative mission. And yet the president of our College Republicans at the time was fully convinced C of O was a bastion of leftist propaganda. He even ran for student body senate that year on a platform he’d end the indoctrination in the only place he could find it—two Democrat history professors. He attributed his loss to—wait for it—campus leftists.
What happens when the GOP controls everything and still it’s not enough? What happens if Trumplicans are successful at rooting out all members of the party who don’t support Trump—or don’t support Trump enough? The same thing that happened in the Salem Witch Trials or the McCarthy hearings. When the populist finally succeeds in vanquishing the opposition, new opposition must be created to be destroyed. Populism is partially defined by the enemies it stands against. It can’t survive with them.
Populists are Dividers
Perhaps this is the most obvious problem with populism, but it should not be overlooked for it is the root cause of how populism can ripen into the various problems described above. In an article in The Atlantic entitled What Is a Populist?, staff writer Uri Friedman explains, “The mark of a populist isn’t which specific groups of people he or she includes in ‘the people’ or ‘the establishment.’ It’s the fact that he or she is separating the world into those warring camps in the first place.”
When the world is divided into warring camps—separated by the forces of those pursuing their righteous cause and those who stand in their way—unity can only be achieved through absolute defeat of the other side. As much as populists may call for unity, unity can only mean the other side must shut up and fall in line.
Populism is identity politics at its worse, for it places one’s identity not in the arbitrary criteria of race, gender, or sexual orientation, but in some moral prerogative, which enables the populist to justify behavior they may otherwise find unthinkable. Identity politics is, fundamentally, anti-identity, for it doesn’t recognize the individual for who he or she is as an individual, but for what sub-group he or she supposedly belongs to. In claiming to stand for “the people” the populist invariably destroys what it means to be human.
This post originally appeared in The Millennial Review.