Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Populism and Conservatism: A Case for Detente

The sudden surge of populist presidential candidates has occasioned a renewed debate on the right about the relationship between populism and conservatism.  Some pundits seem to take for granted that populism is essentially antithetical to conservatism.  It’s true that particular populist efforts certainly can run afoul of limited-government principles. With its government control of income, the “Share Our Wealth” program of Huey Long, for instance, radically breaks with the principles of the free market and limited government.

However, a bit of political imagination can suggest potentially a partial harmony between populist principles and conservative ones. Conservatives have at least three reasons for taking the current populist insurgency, which goes far beyond Donald Trump, seriously. As a matter of principle, thinking about how to respond to these populist energies can reinvigorate conservatism as a political approach by forcing it to think more creatively about how to respond to concrete political circumstances. As a matter of political calculation, harnessing these populist energies could help conservatives secure a stronger national governing coalition. As a matter of political circumspection, conservatives might be right to fear that, if the forces driving the populist insurgency are not addressed by any coalition, the popular anger might grow more and more intense and thereby make the ultimate populist reckoning a nuclear meltdown.

What follows below is a—perhaps overly optimistic—survey of potential theoretical areas for a conservative and populist detente.

Diffusion of power: One of the central motifs of populism is the idea of returning “power to the people.” The diffusion of power is certainly an idea that conservatives can get behind. After all, the tenets of localism to which many conservatives subscribe emphasize decentralizing power in order to get it back into the hands of local communities rather than federal bureaucrats. Where populists often go wrong is in hoping that this return of power can take place through a virtuous despot or through some centralized bureaucracy. Once power is concentrated in the hands of a supreme leader, it rarely leaves his living grasp, and massive bureaucracies can often be manipulated to reward those in power rather than the people that they were originally intended to help.

Conservatives can channel this popular energy for diffuse empowerment into an emphasis on strengthening local government and kicking off a broad-based prosperity. They might stress tax reform that prioritizes working families and regulatory reform that ensure that government regulations are less cumbersome and less in thrall to special interests.

The national: Populism in general is often derided as a “nationalist” movement. Interestingly, some on the left and the right accuse both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump of subscribing to a retrograde nationalism.  Trump’s rhetoric in particular is often aggressively nationalistic. At times, he portrays the world economy as a competition between nations, with clear “winners” and “losers” (and these days he often portrays the U.S. as a “loser” betrayed by its feckless elites).

Conservatives should not cheer a braggadocious jingoism, but they should also recognize that plenty of sober people within the American tradition (from Alexander Hamilton to Henry Clay to George Shultz) believed that nations do have interests and that American statesmen should advance those interests. Advancing those interests doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to enter a war of all against all, just like the practice of companies advancing their interests in the free market doesn’t necessarily lead to economic devastation.

Calls to strengthen the United States as a nation should not necessarily be seen as a dead-end tribalism; throughout history, the cause of liberty has often been assisted by the strength of the American republic (as the Civil War, World War II, and the Cold War demonstrate).  Like any other political arrangement, the nation-state has its shortcomings. However, it is (so far) perhaps one of the best ways we have of securing basic rights and liberties. The idea of a republic demands having a limited body-politic with the power of self-governance, so dissolving a republic in the name of transnational utopianism would likely also mean the dissolution of self-government and the evisceration of many of our civil rights.

Competence: Populists are often associated with a kind of know-nothing insouciance to competence; the fact that something is popular—it feels right—overcomes all practical objections. Ironically, then, one of Donald Trump’s biggest applause lines on the stump is his suggestion that current governing elites are, as he puts it, “very, very stupid.” Many sympathetic to the rising populist wave believe not just that our nation has been badly governed but also that it has been ineptly managed.

Conservatives can and should take a measured approach to the topic of competence. They should note that human fallibility means that efforts to run the nation’s local affairs through Washington, DC will often lead to increased misery. No technocratic savant can, alas, save us from human limitations. But even if the federal government cannot do everything well, it can do some things well (or at least can try to do some things well). What the government can do within appropriate Constitutional bounds, it should try to do efficiently and justly. A competence reconciled with a recognition of the limits of central planning can lead to gains for limited government and human happiness. Conversely, a government that proves too inept at fulfilling its responsibilities can result in calls for an even bigger and more intrusive government; the financial crisis of 2008, for instance, was central for the expansion of government power during the first two years of the Obama administration.

Integration: A common accusation against populists is that they are xenophobic troglodytes, who blame “the Other” for tainting an otherwise pure society. Xenophobia is an ugly trait, and sensible conservatives would be wise to oppose it. But some of what motivates populists is not xenophobia but the desire for a sense of common fellowship in a nation. When that desire for social integration crosses the line into demonizing groups of people, it of course loses its moral force.

But a more benign, non-xenophobic desire for fellowship and integration can unite both conservatives and populists. As political scientist Robert D. Putnam has argued, balkanization and the breakdown of social trust come with numerous costs, including alienation from the political process, diminished interest in private cooperative endeavors, and increased personal isolation. These costs should obviously concern defenders of limited government. Where there is a vacuum of civil society, the Leviathan gains new opportunities for expansion. Now, the sense of common fellowship is not the same thing as national homogeneity. One of the great enterprises of e pluribus unum is the simultaneous courting of individual uniqueness and a reconciliation of these countless different individuals into a singular republic.

Our current elites’ embrace of identity politics and the new intolerance has taken a flamethrower to the organic bonds of social trust. By pushing back against shame politics and defending social tolerance and free expression, conservatives can help promote a common but diverse public square. They could also help by rigorously challenging the slice-and-dice identity politics that is foundational for so much contemporary public discord. But these efforts to promote integration need not be confined to the social. Efforts to promote the middle class and economic opportunity also have a role to play.

Other areas where populists and conservatives could ally include support for economic growth, a vigorous and responsible foreign policy, and a respect for law and order.  We have now experienced an economic stagnation that has gone on for over a decade. This stagnation not only inflames populist anxieties, but it also weakens the ability of the United States to influence international affairs and worsens government finances.  Populist anger at elite mismanagement applies to foreign affairs, where the U.S. has too often lurched from debacle to debacle.  A more effective foreign policy could ward off the risk of isolationism as well as advance American interests and the cause of expanding liberty and justice.  Americans increasingly fear the politicization of the justice system, which in turn damages their faith in the foundational laws of the country.  The fact that the present administration has played so cavalierly with Constitutional norms no doubt exacerbates this anxiety.  Defending, and reforming when necessary, the institutions of law and order could speak to enduring conservative principles and a popular worry about the loss of stability.

Joining conservative and populist sentiments is hardly novel. Calvin Coolidge’s 1924 Labor Day address, “The High Place of Labor,” reveals the potential for joining populism and conservatism. Throughout this speech, Coolidge emphasized the dignity of labor. He did not argue for an opening of the national borders in order to correct a supposed “skills shortage.” Instead of “men hunting for jobs,” he called for “jobs hunting for men.” A tight labor market, Coolidge argued, would lead to national prosperity as well as enrich the middle class. He did not view workers’ wages as a negative on a corporate balance sheet but as a source of national growth.

Silent Cal, perhaps one of our least demagogic presidents, offered a conception of government that could align with both populist and conservative worldviews. A similar point could be made about William F. Buckley, who had a conflicted relationship to populism but who also shared many of its disruptive impulses, Ronald Reagan, and others. While there are tensions between certain populist policy proposals and certain conservative ones, the two political approaches can also find possible alliances.

At the outset of his speech, Coolidge addressed what he took to be a central problem, one that both populists and conservatives might agree upon: 

To my mind America has but one main problem, the character of the men and women it shall produce. It is not fundamentally a Government problem, although the Government can be of a great influence in its solution. It is the real problem of the people themselves. They control its property, they have determined its government, they manage its business. In all things they are the masters of their own destiny. What they are, their intelligence, their fidelity, their courage, their faith, will determine our material prosperity, our successes and happiness at home, and our place in the world abroad.
If anything is to be done then, by the Government, for the people who toil, for the cause of labor, which is the sum of all other causes, it will be by continuing its efforts to provide healthful surroundings, education, reasonable conditions of employment, fair wages for fair work, stable business prosperity, and the encouragement of religious worship.

Coolidge did not offer the state as the magical solver of all problems. Indeed, he did not believe that the state could be a perfect substitute for the richer textures of civil society. But he did think that the state could help advance the interests of civil society through its efforts at public safety, education, a vibrant economy, and a defense of religious freedom.


The health of a republican government ultimately depends upon the principles to which it subscribes and to the conditions of the people who constitute that government. An economic recovery that reignites growth and opportunity for the middle class combined with a reinforcement of civil society could go a long way toward improving those conditions. Much of what drives the current populist insurgency is very likely the desire for renewed economic energy an­d a reinvigorated faith in the strength of the foundations of the American republic. We can deliver on both of those things in a way that is in essential accord with the principles of limited government.

No comments:

Post a Comment