Populists: doing us all a favour

Don’t sneer at those who challenge the vested interests of the elite


This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Populism has entered our language as a byword for a certain style of twenty-first  century politics, but it’s one of those journalistic terms that has massive utility and communicates vast ambiguity. What on earth do we mean by it? First of all it has become associated with right-wing and nationalistic rhetoric — left-wing populism is always preceded by the qualifier. But what does it actually entail in terms of policy? Nobody knows. There are very few political philosophers calling themselves “populists”, and even media commentators are usually recipients of the label, not standard-bearers of it.

For those labelled “populists” it’s something of a slur — an elitist sneer at those irrational rabble rousers — and for their opponents it’s regarded as a media gloss on grubby far-right movements that are not authentic representatives of popular opinion. But political actors and thinkers of both Left and Right ought to be willing to bear the label proudly — if only they really understood it. 

The term first began to appear more frequently in the 2000s when the anti-globalisation movement was still led by the Left, who were comfortably ignored by the neoliberal/neoconservative consensus. Usage in the press increased considerably after the 2008 financial crisis, but truly spiked with the nomination of Donald Trump as leader of the Republican Party in 2016, and became a byword for aggressive right-wing anti-elitist rhetoric. 

The word itself derives from the Latin word popularis — those who inflamed the ancient Roman mob with promises of radical change. Opposed to them were the elitists, the “best men” or optimates. This division was famously outlined by Cicero in de Sestio, where he described those who upheld the Roman Republic:

And of this easy dignity these are the foundations, these are the component parts, which ought to he upheld by the chief men, and to be defended even at the hazard of their lives: religious observances, the auspices, the civil power of magistrates, the authority of the senate, the laws, the usages of one’s ancestors, the courts of justice, the jurisdiction of the judges, good faith, the provinces, the allies, the glory of the empire, the whole affairs of the army, the treasury.

This effort was threatened, so Cicero claimed, by dangerous opportunists, the populists: 

There is a great multitude of those men, who either, from fear of punishment, because they are conscious of their own misdeeds, are anxious for fresh changes and revolutions in the republic; or who, on account of some innate insanity of mind, feed upon the discords and seditions of the citizens; or else who, on account of the embarrassment of their estates and circumstances, had rather burn in one vast common conflagration, than in one which consumed only themselves.

I’m pretty sure I read that in a 2016 op-ed in the Washington Post in 2016. 

The present elites are defenders of procedural norms, who seek to maintain the proper running of courts, the authority of the legislature, responsibly uphold  international treaties and support allies, and look after the budget. But opportunistic demagogues, often themselves members of the elite, but with struggling fortunes and in need of a quick fix, seize upon irrational hostility to the aforementioned virtuous citizens and the constitution they protect. 

It’s not that Cicero, any less than modern day Democratic politicians, doesn’t have a fair case. Populists do tend to trample over procedural norms, and left unfettered risk tearing down the systems they inhabit. But closed elites are no less subject to corruption or decay. If procedural norms are subtly warped and shaped to serve the interests of those who adjudicate them, ordinary citizens are faced with elites who refuse to give them even the basic justice of owning their self-serving policies. If you expect people to play by the rules, you have to give them a reason to honour them. 

In other words, elitists and populists need each other if they’re to share an effective and stable government. And despite Cicero’s rhetoric, part of the genius of the Roman system was to integrate populism and elitism. This was best articulated by Polybius, who described the Roman regime as unique, even relative to the best mixed regimes of his Greek homeland. 

For whenever any danger from without compels them to unite and work together, the strength which is developed by the State is so extraordinary, that everything required is unfailingly carried out by the eager rivalry shown by all classes to devote their whole minds to the need of the hour, and to secure that any determination come to should not fail for want of promptitude; while each individual works, privately and publicly alike, for the accomplishment of the business in hand.

For when any one of the three classes becomes puffed up, and manifests an inclination to be contentious and unduly encroaching, the mutual interdependency of all the three, and the possibility of the pretensions of any one being checked and thwarted by the others, must plainly check this tendency: and so the proper equilibrium is maintained by the impulsiveness of the one part being checked by its fear of the other.

Many have seen this as the inspiration for the US constitution’s balance of powers between judicial, legislative and executive. But something deeper is at work — political dignity. In our technocratic and legalistic politics this is easily overlooked, but it is the strongest driving force of insurgent political movements. The desire for political representation is easily seen as about decision-making for those — lawyers, doctors, think-tankers, journalists, bankers and so on — who make decisions for a living. But for ordinary people representation is about respect as much (or more) as it is a question of policy. 

Listened to and respected

Liberal establishment figures certainly felt very disrespected (perhaps for the first time) by Donald Trump, but this only heightened the sense amongst his core supporters that they were finally, at last, being listened to and respected. Some were caught in terrible intergenerational poverty, some were well-off businessmen — but they shared a sense of having been slighted, ignored and neglected by mainstream politics and reporting. 

Progressives don’t always get what they want in policy terms, but they’re used to having a cultural and institutional cachet by being recognised as good and virtuous. They’re happy to be called fools or dreamers, but they’re not used to being dismissed as liars, frauds and tyrants. Or, perhaps worse, being accounted the unfit and unjust beneficiaries of the system. Progressive self-esteem is a hugely powerful and corrosive force: tweak it at your peril.

America has long shared an imaginative and institutional affinity with the Roman Republic — you can see it in the neoclassical architecture of America’s courts and schools, the still-elevated status of formal rhetoric, the familiarity of elite American students with Greco-Roman literature and myth, even before one considers the nation’s constitution and history. 

It’s especially marked, however, in the curious synthesis of unity and division that underwrites America’s greatness. On the one hand the US is capable of extraordinary moments of continent-wide mobilisation — the vast national effort of the Second World War brought about not only Allied victory but built the foundations of America’s ongoing global hegemony. The scale of mobilisation reflects not a deadening uniformity, but rather, like Ancient Rome, a coalition of furiously proud tribes.

As de Toqueville remarked, “In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used, or more unsparingly applied to a multitude of different objects, than in America.” 

And as in Ancient Rome, one of the chief points of division is between the elites and the masses: “The wealthy members of the community entertain a hearty distaste to the democratic institutions of their country. The populace is at once the object of their scorn and of their fears.”

But in a democratic society, there is often a deep ambiguity about just who constitutes “the people”. Among the great sources of populist politics in America are the many agrarian movements which gave rise to the very-named People’s Party, who represented a multiracial coalition dominated by Midwestern and Southern farmers revolting against the financial and corporate influence of cities. They called for the abandonment of the gold standard, the introduction of tariffs and other measures designed to limit the power of unfettered commerce. 

Rural voters remain the backbone of populist movements today, forming a key part of Trump’s voter base, not to mention a powerful part of the identity of the US Right — city-dwelling Republicans often embrace the rural ideal of the rugged individualist with his pick-up truck, guns and old-time religion. 

But this rural politics is in large part inspired by Jeffersonian democracy — and Jefferson’s federal vision very consciously gave power to the Senate and to land over the weight of urban populations as a check against mob rule, as well as to preserve the privileges of a planter elite. 

Is an appeal to the native virtues of rustic voters (a very Roman bit of rhetoric) a populist or elitist message? Many Democratic commentators complain the US constitution undermines the voting power of diverse urban populations and leaves the Republic at the mercy of backwards religious fanatics, rich suburbanites and corrupt swing states while millions see their voice nullified by courts and congress. 

Who’s correct? In a sense they’re both right. Claims of geography and tradition do not nullify nor can they be themselves nullified by the claims of number and population. Movements that seek to recapture political dignity can never be humiliated or bludgeoned out of existence, at least not absent political violence or repression on a scale that few in the modern world would realistically countenance. Even the victory of the North in the bloodiest war in US history did not resolve the inherent tensions of US politics.

The common good

But populist movements are far from being always and everywhere movements of division and vituperation. Far from it. The People’s Party itself was a multiracial coalition often at odds with the Democratic establishment. And the populism of farmers would give way to a more urban populism, but aimed against the same targets, in the form of the Progressive Party under Roosevelt. The powerful trust-busting and pro-social insurance messages of the new movement were linked, like the old People’s Party, with a strong nationalistic identity — protectionism and America First, as with Trump, were all part of the package. 

The anti-elite focus of populist politics should not be misunderstood. Implicit in good populism is a vision of the virtuous elite against which the current incumbents are judged and found wanting. That populism is generally more conceptually pro-elite but practically anti-elite, while bourgeois revolutionaries of the Marxist and Jacobin stripe are more conceptually egalitarian but practically elitist, should not surprise us at all. Genuine populism is rooted in the intuitions and desire for the dignity of working people, whilst revolutionary movements tend to involve the frustrated desires of ousted or marginalised elites and middle-rankers. It’s a subtle but crucial difference. 

The populist insight is essentially realist (and thus in a non-doctrinaire sense conservative). It realises that the elites will always exist, always form, always be necessary, but assumes a position of mistrust towards them. They must be tested, questioned and interrogated when things go wrong, and a populist movement will form. The standard that they are most commonly held to is not constitutional nicety, but rather patriotism. 

Although populists will support (and often be grifted by) rogues willing to spout nationalistic blather, they’re onto something fundamental with their appreciation of human nature. 

If you’re going to get fooled (and contrary to what some may think, the average “populist” voter is a canny animal that pretty much assumes they are going to get fooled), it’s far, far better to get fooled by someone claiming to uphold the public good and collective tradition, than to be honestly (or at any rate, conventionally) governed by someone who holds these things in contempt. A just politics will survive and outlast any number of bad actors, but it can’t survive the destruction of the common good. 

There’s a popular meme which depicts a bell curve describing IQ distribution. On the far extremes a very stupid, and very intelligent figure express the same view, whilst a weeping cartoon sits in the middle in ignorant despair. The “midwit” in the centre is the typical well-meaning person with a little learning, but no understanding. 

Uneducated voters share an insight with those schooled in classical philosophy: politics is not just a matter of technocratic adjustments and well-crafted policies. Questions of power, dignity, and rhetoric, dismissed as performative or superficial by many commentators, actually matter. 

And this is one area where the suspicion comes in. Despite claiming norms don’t matter, the guardians of our current politics suddenly show they do (at some level) realise they matter when their own discursive norms and dignity are threatened. After years of deadly dry rhetoric from the Clintons and Obamas of this world, suddenly it turns out that democracy is under threat and liberty must be preserved by the virtuous citizens (better late than never, one supposes). 

By kicking in the door of the norms which conceal the increasingly ugly forms of globalisation, deracinated capitalism and technocratic managerialism, twenty-first century populists have done us all a tremendous favour. 

But if they are to live up to the populists of old, they must start the hard work of shaping a new, more virtuous elite, and of policies that can actually fight the powers that assail the dignity and dreams of ordinary people. 


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