The Spectacle Blog

Populism and Pejoratives

By on 8.23.13 | 11:28AM

Two sincere question for Ross, who’s written a thoughtful discussion that's sure to generate great discussion here at TAS and around the ‘nets.

First, am I correct to understand your definition of populism is, necessarily, pejorative? I quote:

I have always understood “populist” to mean “demagogue” or to be a synonym for various adjectives modifying the word it’s connected to. Adjectives such as “ersatz” or “-lite” or “but not fully adhering to its principles” or “shrill.” In short, it describes someone who wants to claim membership in a group, being part of which he or she thinks would offer advantage, while simultaneously pandering to the most ignorant or parochial instincts of other members.

I think I see where you’re coming from, but I’d respectfully disagree. In fact, I’d argue argue that “populism,” as a political project, simply pits the people against the elites.

Ross asks “So how can a libertarian truly be a populist, since almost any definition of populist must be anathema to freedom (as well as to reason)?"

His rhetorical question probably answers my first question. But I’m curious if Ross would describe the tea party as populist?

From my perspective, it was…that was its beauty. It ignited a grassroots movement that toppled entrenched incumbents and discredited the GOP’s consultant industrial complex. Even now, it continues to rattle the folks who thought they owned Washington. And it has a distinctly libertarian streak.

Of course, the modern tea party is not the first movement to lay claim to familiar principles that guided it. Politically, the movement was pure constitutional conservatism. Its economic emphases were grounded in Austrian Economics and Public Choice Theory. Familiar themes of monetarism, individual responsibility and supply-side economics defined the Reagan and Thatcher years in the United States and Britain. He was before my time, but I’d argue Barry Goldwater was on-board.

Now, the works of Hayek, Von Mises, and Buchanan are regarded as the contemporary manifestation of classical liberalism—so why not libertarian populism? This political philosophy has emphasized individual liberty, limited government, free-markets, and strident criticism of the Federal Reserve and crony corporatism. This is hardly the stuff of pitchforks and torches. It’s neither anti-intellectual, anti-pluralist, nor anti-freedom. It’s simply an organic response to an unacceptable state of affairs.

Moving forward, it’s not just about dismantling ObamaCare and beating back the “bigger is better” social engineering of the progressive left. As my boss likes to say, “sometimes you have to beat the Republicans before you beat the Democrats.”

Gloomy memories of the last election cycle still swirl around a Republican Party that spent the better part of 2012 preaching fidelity to small government principles. Then, weeks after the election, Americans were startled to learn that hundreds of Republicans in the House and dozens in the Senate voted to pass a “clean” extension of unsustainable spending during a midnight vote in the early hours of the New Year. Shortly thereafter, 21 Republicans in the Senate voted to pass the Marketplace Fairness Act—a constitutionally questionable Internet sales tax that violates all tax precedent by allowing states to levy online sales across state borders.

So much for devotion to principle. Of course, politicians—like the rest of us—respond to incentives, and a populist response is often the only thing that reminds these guys that they’re still on the clock.

With that said, well-tread clichés about putting “Wall Street before Main Street” apply to both parties. Big business and big government are so thornily entwined, their interests are habitually one in the same. Tim Carney and Ben Domenech are both infinitely more fluent in these matters than I am, but suffice to say, this is the stuff of libertarian populism.

I’d sworn off writing about libertarian populism, but what they heck? I'll go on record, and state there's no better prescription for an ailing Republican Party than an immediate injection of populism cross-pollinated with libertarian ideals.

That’s the sort of movement that could grow into something much larger—a movement comprised of tea partiers, fiscal hawks, libertarians, Ron Paul disciples, Randian Objectivists, and all the other free-marketeers.

That’s the sort of movement that could shock the establishment.

That’s the sort of movement that could change the country. And there’s nothing pejorative about that.

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