The Perils of Populism


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Perils of Populism

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Perils & Promises of Populism | The New Criterion

In future you will have to cough up R just to receive a fine. B L Premium This article is reserved for our subscribers. Already subscribed? Simply sign in below. Clarke said tour guides accompanied them at every stop on the trip, which had many compelling moments that left an indelible mark.


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Starting in Berlin, he said, a stop at the Wannsee Conference House was very powerful. The minutes of the actual meetings were displayed in a case in the room. The irony of it all, he said, was that those evil plans were schemed in a beautiful home set on a picturesque lake. Some 30, women were murdered there. That was the first camp they visited.

One day, Max said, he saw his father on that pathway. All three camps the group visited worked in a similar fashion, like a well-oiled destructive machine, he said. Those who weren't sent to their death in the gas chambe spent their days doing hard labour.

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That condition, alone, led to many, many deaths. Trump is only the most notable example of this. But we can expect this sort of populist demagoguery when the institutions that once balanced against it now reinforce it. Curiously, if America suffers from too much democracy in the primary process and in the rhetoric of elections, it may suffer from too little in terms of actual governance. As Steven Teles has argued in these pages see " Kludgeocracy in America " in the Fall issue , the defining feature of American governance in the early years of the 21st century is complexity.

While critics of America's constitutional system argue that too many "veto points" hinder effective government, giving multiple players a chance to "stymie action," this is only a part of the story. As Teles argues, we can see "veto points" as tollbooths: The gatekeeper gets to "extract a price in exchange for his willingness to allow legislation to keep moving. The result is that lawmaking can turn on access, which gives preference to interest groups and other elites who are connected to various policy networks where legislation is created, negotiated, and protected.

The Madisonian separation of powers is designed to resist populist tendencies by fostering deliberation and providing for effective government. The proliferation of money in politics, and its connection with interest groups and businesses, only compounds this problem.

In some policy areas, as Michael Lind recently pointed out, the power of "electoral majorities really has ebbed away.

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This rise in the prominence of interest groups complements the tendency toward more populist democracy. And this is because, as Achen and Bartels demonstrate in pointing to the limits of the "folk theory" of democracy, such innovations overestimate the capacity of citizens to make informed judgments about complex issues while also disparaging the importance of intermediary institutions in educating the public mind and ensuring that it is capable of making informed judgments. Paradoxically, the longing for "authentic" democracy can actually lead to less democracy. It also opens democracy to demagoguery.

As Madison put it in criticizing ancient forms of democracy, the larger the group deciding an issue, the larger the share of people who are "of limited information and of weak capacities. Precisely because the passions of the people could be openly played upon, it was often the case that a "single orator" was "seen to rule with as complete a sway as if a scepter had been placed in his single hand. This craving for strong leadership also indicates a frustration with democratic politics, which requires persuasion.

So Trump insists he will build a wall and have Mexico pay for it, replace the Affordable Care Act with something "terrific," and save Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security without cutting benefits or raising taxes.

The difficult business of politics is also suspect for those who insist on the "purity" of their principles, with little recognition that many others do not share their understanding of the public good. We see this tendency at times from Sanders and his supporters and from the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. Insistence on political principle is an important feature of democratic politics, but it must be coupled with a recognition that persuading others and building coalitions is a crucial part of politics and essential to the creation of viable public policy. Sanders, for instance, barely acknowledged that Hillary Clinton in fact won more votes to secure the Democratic nomination and was not just the overwhelming choice of the party's superdelegates.

Sanders and his supporters want influence within the party, which is understandable. Yet they also threaten to harm the Democratic Party if their interests and ideas are not adopted. Progressive populism can too readily presume that the public interest is not a matter of debate and contention, but a simple matter of reason. In this, progressives are perhaps too eager to overcome partisanship and politics; they are too willing to assume that reasoned principles alone can settle things, that rational thought can do the difficult work of politics.

Conservatives can also evince a suspicion of politics in the name of pure political principles. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party in particular can seem intent on obstruction in the name of principle. Tea Party populists in Virginia helped to oust Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader, in a party primary because he was perceived to be too willing to compromise.

Despite Cantor's seemingly sterling conservative credentials, he was acutely aware that conservative Republicans did not comprise a majority of House Republicans. Given this, they would have to work with more moderate Republicans, and perhaps even Democrats, to get things accomplished in Congress.

But this was deemed treasonous by the Tea Party voters who helped defeat him. In our polarized moment, no group is going to get everything it wants, which means that, in a divided government, compromise is inescapable if anything is going to be accomplished. Yet within populist elements of both parties, there is a disdain for building political coalitions among groups who are certain to disagree.

This mindset is also blind to the fact that government is trying to achieve multiple ends, which are often in tension with one another. Achieving numerous ends requires a recognition that the difficult business of politics is often about finding the right balance between competing goals, given limited resources. The Madisonian vision sought to force this recognition, partly by requiring give-and-take, to achieve lasting policies within a system of separated powers. An anti-compromise insistence on pure political principles clashes with this framework, dispensing with the sort of political leadership essential to democracy.

It also reinforces popular frustrations: Promises to deliver on the narrow vision of particular constituents inevitably fail because they lack majority support. Tom Cole, a Republican representative from Oklahoma, captured this in criticizing the Freedom Caucus's unrealistic goals: "You're not going to repeal Obamacare while a guy named Obama is President of the United States.


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Precisely because it opens itself to a variety of interests and ideas, democracy is particularly in need of a moderating politics. It not only requires attempts to reason with and persuade one's fellow citizens, but it also requires that one be open to being persuaded by others. But it is not all deliberation and reason, as much as Madison hoped to elevate those.

It is also about bargaining and compromise, knowing the limits of what politics can achieve.

What the rise of Sarah Palin and populism means for the conservative intellectual tradition.

Politics is about making difficult choices and requires public leadership and a citizenry capable of general judgments. The populist temptation is understandable in our deeply polarized time, particularly when the government often does seem paralyzed and dysfunctional. All the more so when the evidence points to a growing class divide, a shrinking middle class, and a lack of upward mobility for those at the bottom. Increasingly, we live in separate Americas economically and culturally.

Much of the populist anger that Trump and Sanders have tapped into is legitimate. And our political parties have not done a good job of addressing it. The so-called establishment is under strain for good reason. Yet a full-blown turn to populism is not the answer; it threatens to undo liberal democracy in America and abroad. Populist frustrations could be a healthy wake-up call, pushing us to consider political and constitutional reforms that address our current situation.

A Madisonian mindset will help in this effort. Madison treated our political institutions as a means to achieve certain ends. We are increasingly confronted with the question of whether our political institutions currently achieve the sort of ends laid out in the Constitution. Certainly, critics of our Madisonian system, with its various "veto points," abound. Francis Fukuyama has gone so far as to dub America a "vetocracy," referring to our government's many checks and balances that allow collective decision-making to be thwarted at numerous points in the political process.

Within the separation of powers and checks and balances, various minority positions consistently thwart public policy favored by a majority.

The Perils of Populism

Our political institutions make effective and functional government difficult to achieve. Not only is the government unable to act on pressing public-policy concerns, but when it fails to act, we the people have a difficult time holding our representatives accountable, because our institutions disperse power and responsibility. It is not always clear just who is at fault. According to Fukuyama, Howell, and Moe, frustrations with our political institutions have helped fuel democratic discontent. Given this, we should not be surprised that the people have such low levels of trust in our political institutions.


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Worse, Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk point to recent opinion polls that suggest Americans' support for democratic government is in decline.

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The Perils of Populism The Perils of Populism
The Perils of Populism The Perils of Populism
The Perils of Populism The Perils of Populism
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