Populism has made great strides in the West. But it is misguided, and I greatly hope it fails.
There’s no standard definition for populism, but it always includes some degree of denigrating the rich and powerful while praising the virtuous and innocent common folk. Populists ascribe obscene self-serving motives to the greedy, privileged and exploitative elite. Were only the country class to mobilize, they argue, it could expel the ruling class, replace it and claim its righteous share.
Populism has left and right versions, led in the United States by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Leftists usually focus on money (Occupy Wall Street’s 1 percent, Sen. Sanders’ billionaires), while Rightists attack insider influence (the Tea Party’s Swamp, Steve Bannon’s Deep State). Very occasionally, they agree on a common enemy, such as Globalists.
Populism need not rely on conspiracy theories, but it often does, as these neatly explain how so tiny a minority can enjoy such wealth and influence. Likewise, it need not turn to anti-Semitism, but the temptation permanently exists to single out Jews as rich, connected or both.
I am not a populist. I do not blame the rich or bureaucrats for our problems; rather, I blame the left.
For two-and-a half centuries, the left has been a font of terrible ideas, socialism foremost but so many others too, including: The noble savage, emphasizing equality over freedom, progressivism, the administrative state, the personal is political, anthropogenic climate change, white guilt, marriage for all, and the “childfree” movement.
Some billionaires and senators, to be sure, espouse these bad ideas; but plenty do not. George Soros and Elizabeth Warren do, Sheldon Adelson and Ted Cruz do not. The problem is not someone having wealth or power but his point of view. So, it’s a mistake to go indiscriminately after the elite.
Further, the elite has necessary roles: Most rich earned their money by creating wealth and the government must rely on bureaucrats to function. Destroying it does irreparable damage; just look at Venezuela for an example and imagine what damage Jeremy Corbyn’s left-populism would do in the United Kingdom. (“Super-rich prepare to leave UK ‘within minutes’ if Labour wins election,” reads one headline.)
The U.S. Supreme Court also shows the limitations of populist rage. Almost by definition, nominees to the court come from erudite and elite circles. (G. Harrold Carswell settled that in 1970.) A justice’s privilege and brokerage account matter infinitely less than his good sense and his ability to express ideas.
I recently had some fun in a letter to the editor. It concerned an article I read by Christopher DeMuth in the Claremont Review of Books edited by Charles Kesler. In it, Mr. DeMuth introduces two ideal-types, Anywheres (“cosmopolitan, educated, mobile, and networked”) and Somewheres (“rooted in … their families, neighborhoods, clubs, and religions”). It was all very convincing except that Mr. DeMuth the author, Mr. Kesler the editor and I the reader are card-carrying Anywheres (all three of us have degrees from Harvard) who espouse Somewhere views. Again, stereotypes mislead.
Donald Trump (Penn ‘68, NBC, Forbes #275) rates as a partial populist. That’s why Steve Bannon, frustrated by this partiality, quickly flamed out of his administration. Mr. Trump attacks the elite media and the intelligence agencies but not the rich (well, of course not, as he is one of them) nor Jews (though it’s easy to imagine his latent stereotypes bursting forth).
Populism is a simple response to a complex problem. Like racism, it incorrectly attributes one characteristic to a diverse population. Like racism, it is an ignorant, mischievous impulse that, based on a falsehood, satisfies base instincts. It cannot solve problems but only creates new ones.
Are you discontented with the direction of the United States? Then focus your attention on the real problem: The leftist elite — politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, intellectuals, teachers, artists, et al. The left brought us the Soviet Union, Communist China, and calamities in Cuba, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Today, it is actively ruining Europe. Elizabeth Warren wants to impose a wealth tax, ban fracking, create a government monopoly on health care, and abolish the Electoral College.
So, be smart and oppose the left, not the elite.
• Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org, @DanielPipes) worked for the State and Defense departments, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.