Discussion in the comments section of my post on Brooks and Palin got me thinking a bit more about the issue of “populism.” That term keeps getting tossed about, and I think it’s important to define it more accurate in order to understand just what it is we’re talking about. I think there are (at least) three distinct types of populism.
1. Populism can refer to a specifc political platform. Indeed the latter half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the Populist Party in the United States, led by the three-time presidential loser William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was a Democrat, but he headed the populist wing of his party. Populism was particularly popular in the Midwest, though it was not exclusive to this part of the country. It could be described simply as the polar opposite of libertarianism. Populists tended to be social conservatives who favored extensive government involvement in economic affairs. This type of populism is still important, and could be used to describe the religious left in this country.
2. There is also a type of populism that can be either leftist or conservative in orientation, though I believe it tends towards leftist policy. It is the type of populism that can best be summarized by the expression Vox populi, vox Dei. This is the brand of populism that most bothers me. It is essentially a blind reverence for the opinions of the masses. It is the sort of populism that seeks to decide all issues by referrenda. It derides all those pesky institutional mechanisms created by the Framers that were designed to limit democratic exuberance. In short, it is a mass-democratic form of populism that pays little heed to constitutional limits on democracy.
3. The third form of populism is the mildest form, and this is the type that most aptly describes Sarah Palin. Unlike the brand mentioned in the paragraph above, it does not blindly place all confidence in the people. Rather, it at least acknowledges the opinions and wants of the citizenry. To me, it is little more than the essence of republican government. The people actually matter. Their voices should be heeded – but, instead of handing over all power and control of the government to the people, it still respects the constitutional boundaries created by the Framers. It recognizes that elites, especially today, do not even remotely consider popular opinion, and in fact often act in complete defiance of the people.
The most potentially troubling aspect of this type of populism is that populist politicians of this sort may pander. It is one thing to respect popular opinion, it is another to completely tailor your message so that it appeases most of the people. Admittedly, both McCain and Palin, in decrying “Wall Street greed” and talking about oil those nasty oil company executives, have been guilty of pandering. They’re telling people what they want to hear. This is where populism can quickly turn into demagoguery, though I don’t think we’ve reached that point with either Palin or McCain.
So when people like David Brooks accuse Sarah Palin of being a populist, he’s correct up to a point. But Brooks himself has been promoting the first kind of populism described above, though Brooks is not as concerned about social issues as were the original nineteenth century Bryan populists. And, to be honest, I think that the entire “Sam’s Club Republican” mantra put forth by Douthat and promoted by Brooks is a form of pandering. In fact, it’s a rather cynical form of pandering. Their platform is essentially to provide a pat on the head to middle class conservatives just to keep them in line long enough to vote Republican. They won’t go whole-hog socialist, but they’ll promote just the “right amount” of social welfare to keep people happy.
Maybe this qualifies as a fourth type of populism. Call it “elite” populism, wherein a cadre of elite pundits, whose only knowledge of real Americans stems from their reading of other elite journalists, promote a cynical social welfare program designed to keep “Joe Six Pack” happy. They don’t really know anything about Joe Six Pack, but they think they somehow have an understanding of Joe Six Pack’s political desires.
So, if we’re going to be governed by populists, let it be the sort who aren’t faking it.