Eric Cantor’s defeat by a Randian economics professor is hardly the stuff revolutions are made of. A National Journal piece, however, claims the barricades are coming, and the New Republic heralds the ascendancy of right-wing populism. But regardless of Dave Brat’s rout of Eric Cantor, corporate tool, populism’s place in American politics remains that of the dog chasing its tail in the corner while others dine at the table.
As Robert Merry points out in the Washington Times, populism is an ever-present political sentiment in American history, divided between what can be called liberal and conservative expressions. Ironically, populist movements hinder the very liberal and conservative aspirations they claim. A populist movement is not just a popular movement; it is a deliberate attempt to disperse political power. Moreover, populism, like any form of mob politics, falls prey to demagogues and hijacking by the very elite it opposes.
The populist conception of liberty is not that which is championed in the Declaration of Independence or sealed in the Constitution. Rather than the freedom found in Micah 4:4, where, “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid”—the life of productivity and leisure found in a republic under the law—populist freedom is only found in the exercise of political will. Benjamin Constant advocated in 1816 for representative government, and set forth the distinction between the liberty of acting within law and that of political participation, joining history in rejecting democracy as merely a mob and the worst of all tyrannies. Populist liberty is not one of self-determination, but of political expression, evidence of the pedestal on which it places power.
Liberal populists like the Occupiers are pale shadows of revolutionaries who sought the reordering of society and violent redistribution of wealth. With Rousseau urging them on, they seek to throw off the chains of inequality, level the playing field, and embrace the “freedom” of a radical self-expression subsumed by mass conformity. The problem is, historically, that those who may capitalize on its unified power manipulate the mob. Robespierre and the Jacobins instigated the Reign of Terror. The mob was as much a victim as those it hated.
Liberal populism expresses its advocacy of one kind of liberty by crushing the fruit of the other. Productive individuals produce wealth in a free and lawed society. Justice says a man is entitled to what he labors for; the populist says politics will reorder things and that it is just.
Conservatives can be populists too. Behold much of the Tea Party. Claiming Edmund Burke, but channeling Andrew Jackson, the conservative populist hunts everything that is big—government, business, banks—but forgets to embrace his “little platoon” and cultivate community where he is. Like the liberal populist, he wishes to exercise political power rather than his own free individualism. Conservative populism just changes who is cronies with whom, failing to fill the cultural vacuum it creates with something substantive, standing against things but not for things.
One could argue that the greatest populist victory in American history was the Seventeenth Amendment. One would be wrong. While the Seventeenth Amendment sacrificed yet another part of the republic on the altar of democracy, giving the general populace a little more political prerogative, it was ultimately a victory for Progressives who subjected more of the American system to demagoguery.
Populists today are chasing their tails. Liberal populists wish to create equality through political means rather than protecting equal opportunity. Conservative populists forget that conservatism needs something to conserve, not just something to react against. And while both are targeting genuinely abusive parts of modern society, both kinds of populism have profoundly un-American conceptions of liberty, forgetting domestic tranquility in a mass pursuit of political power.