Episode 48 - The Problem with Populism
Updated: Apr 11
Much has been said of the rise of populism on the Right today. But what is populism? Is it a coherent ideology with discernable objectives and ideas or a reactionary movement against an entrenched government and The Establishment?
Saving Elephants host Josh Lewis parses through the meaning of populism, how it’s applied to politics, what it gets right, what it gets wrong, and how populism can disguise itself as other more rigorous worldviews, not the least of which is conservatism itself. While a certain dosage of populism is important in a free society, there are many ways in which too much populism can go very, very wrong. In this episode, Josh expands on the five reasons why populism is ultimately a dangerous ideological game.
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.
Josh explains that conservatism can never truly align with populism because conservatism stands against radical ideologies; in fact, it considers them dangerous. And, ultimately, populism is among the most dangerous, as Josh explains in this episode.